Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sports Nutrition Part 2: Tweaking My Breakfast Situation

(I really hope it goes without saying that I am not a nutritionist or dietician or really any kind of expert at this stuff, and all of this is based on what ONE sports nutritionist explained to me about MY particular situation and needs. I'm happy to entertain questions if people have them--just know that I may not know the answer, and if I try to guess based on what I *think* I understand, I may get it wrong. But, I hope this helps provide some insight about sports nutrition to people who are interested!)

This is the follow-up post to this one (wherein I visit a sports nutritionist), so you might want to be sure & read that one first or this one won't make much sense.

Before my meeting with Dr. C, he had me fill out a giant questionnaire about what & when I eat on a typical day & why, what foods I like best/don't like or don't eat, etc. After some education on the science (see the previous post), we got to work looking at my typical day & making some changes.

As I mentioned in the last post, my major takeaway from the first meeting was that aside from getting all your vitamins & minerals, eating well as an athlete in particular is mostly about managing your blood chemistry. I felt like there were three different parts to this:

    1) Get enough protein. I don't know if there is variation based on size, activity level, etc., but my plan says I need 10 calories (2.5g) protein every hour in order to protect my existing muscle tissue. Otherwise, the body releases cortisol to break down muscle tissue in order to provide missing protein to the rest of the body.

    2) Get enough carbs. Again, I don't know what the variability is from person to person, but I need 10 calories (also 2.5g) CHO every hour in order to keep my blood sugar in the right place. Low blood sugar also triggers cortisol to break down muscle tissue, this time for amino acids which the liver can break down into glucose (blood sugar).

    3) Not TOO many carbs, and not too quickly. This is the bit I mentioned before about the rate at which the body can take glucose out of blood and transform it into glycogen to store in our muscles and liver (where we want it). 1 gram per minute or less, if you recall, and basically all of it is getting stored as glycogen. Faster than that, though, and the rest just gets stored as unneeded fat, because your body just can't keep up. (Yes, it would be GREAT if it could go back to that fat later & be like, "Okay, all caught up, turn back into carbs now, plzthnx!," but that's just not how it works. Which is why you can eat the right number of carbs and STILL end up with under-fueled muscles & extra unneeded fat.)

So, here's how we applied those three principles to my breakfast situation.


My old morning eating habits depended on whether I was going to the gym for strength work before work or not. If so, I would get up at 6 and have a big glass of milk with a big scoop of protein powder. Because, y'know, muscle stuff, so protein. But it's not like strength work is THAT intense, so it didn't seem like I needed a ton of carbs. This was usually enough to stave off the hunger pangs until I got to work around 8-8:30 & had real breakfast (PB & J).

If I wasn't going to the gym, then I'd usually get up at 7 & not bother eating until the PB & J at work, mainly because I'm rarely starving when I first wake up & mostly just saw preparing & eating food at home in the morning as a waste of time. (The later I leave, the longer my 30 mile commute takes. Thanks, Bay Area traffic.) I didn't eat anything after strength work, because again, it just didn't seem intense enough to require refueling.


1) Not drinking water first thing in the morning is apparently problematic. This is because your body basically dehydrates itself during the night while processing food/waste & stops when it inevitably runs out. Having a glass in the morning refills the tanks & gets all the digestion processes going again so they can finish up. (You know you've had enough if you have to pee again within an hour or two of getting up.)

2) My glass of milk & protein powder was all wrong for a pre-workout, first-thing-in-the-morning mini-meal. First, it contained no significant carbs. Since blood sugar is super low when we first wake up and cortisol is rising (part of what wakes you up), your body immediately goes to work tearing down muscle for glucose unless you give it something else. So basically, on gym days I was giving my body 2.5 hours on average of cannibalizing itself before eating any significant carbs (ironically, at the same time that I was trying to trying to build more muscle). Second, since milk already has a lot of protein, tripling it with protein powder basically meant I was getting ~3x as much as I needed, and since it was all liquid protein, just peeing out the extra. This wasn't harmful, just wasteful.

3) Even though strength work isn't all that intense of a workout, it still burns enough carbs to drop my blood sugar, which, again, means that by not eating some carbs immediately afterward, I was basically forcing my body to eat itself for 45 MORE minutes. Not exactly the goal after a strength-building session! Also, even though I don't burn tons & tons of carbs with these workouts, I still need to replace them while my body is processing glucose really quickly and *can* potentially replace them all, as opposed to 45 minutes later when it will only be able to process glucose slowly.

4) By 45 minutes post-gym, my glucose-processing abilities have returned to the super-slow 1g/mt baseline, which means that a good chunk of my super carb-heavy PB&J was getting stored as fat even though I'd been low blood sugar for 2.5 hours and just drained a bunch of carbs from my muscles with exercise. (Oh, also, it turns out that peanut butter is just not really enough protein in the quantities people typically eat it to really count. Thankfully I usually eat high-protein bread, so I was at least okay on that front.)

Obviously, some major changes were in order.


1) A big glass of water first thing in the morning. Easy!

2) A piece of fruit (an apple, banana, 10 strawberries, etc.) & a few ounces of milk after the water, regardless of if it's a gym day. 100 calories of CHO from the fruit shuts down the low blood sugar alarms & milk provides the protein protection. Almost zero prep, so all I have to do is remember to buy milk & fruit once a week.

3) A small granola bar RIGHT after finishing at the gym, the goal being ~120ish calories of CHO. I actually found the math involved in calculating how much to eat after different workouts really interesting (but then, mathematician/numbers geek). For example, during a typical strength workout (based on my describing to him what I do), he estimated that I'm using about 300 calories per hour, with 80% coming from carbs & 20% from fat. So a 45:00 strength workout uses ~225 calories, 180 of which come from carbs. Because I am above my best performance weight, we're shooting for replenishing ~2/3 of that rather than all. (If you're, say, Ryan Hall with 4% body fat, you probably shoot for replacing all of it.)

Sure, the math may seem a bit onerous, but the beauty of it is that you figure it out once & then you're good forever. Basically I just bought a box of reasonably non-processed granola bars that were about the right amounts of CHO & emptied it into my gym bag. BOOM. Not bad at all.

4) Re: the PB & J, I had to do something about that anyway once I found out about my nut allergy. I took Layla's suggestion & gave sunflower seed butter a try, which has been a great replacement! Now, instead of a PB & J, I have one slice of bread (~100 calories CHO) with sunflower seed butter & chia seeds (for Omega 3's), plus some fruit & a glass of milk with optional protein powder. (I've been adding the powder since it's easy and there's no real down side.)

Apparently this was before I bought the chia seeds.

I have never had chia seeds before but I am LOVING them. They're super easy to add to yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, etc. & add just a little extra texture.

It's worth mentioning that I didn't have to give up the entire PB&J sandwich. But, it's so carb-heavy that continuing to eat it would mean I'd have to add a bunch of roughage in the form of crunchy vegetables in order to slow down the digestion of the carbs to the 1g/mt my body can handle at that point. Since you need 2-4x the volume of CHO in crunchy vegetables to pull this off, though (Ryan Hall apparently does a stack of pancakes with giant plate of celery), I decided to opt for one slice & no jam. And since I've been eating first thing in the morning and also a little right after the gym as well (plus adding the fruit & the protein from the milk/powder), this has been working out pretty well.

***(Quick note about omega 3's. I used to take the fish oil capsules but HATE them because they smell/taste like fish, plus fish burps. Dr. C says this means they are probably oxidized, a common problem with the gel tabs. The liquid stuff is more reliable, and if the omega 3 in it is still good, should not smell or taste like fish. I am opposed to fish oil in general, though, so he said I can instead just add chia seeds to stuff, maybe a tablespoon or so a day. BUT, they must be kept in the freezer; otherwise the omega 3's will oxidize in a few weeks/months. There is a ton of additional info about this on the internet if you look at reliable sources.)***

SO, that's breakfast! What I love about it is that it's all either built on top of my existing routine, or involves very little extra effort, which means I'm more likely to stick with it.

Next time, I'll tell you about lunch and/or snacking.


  1. I am officially switching out my fishy pill for chia seeds because aquarium is not a good taste. All great information! I kind of instinctively eat like this anyway, but I enjoy seeing scientific validation for eating carbs.

  2. I took your last post to heart yesterday. I did my usual banana and water pre-race but instead of waiting to eat made sure I ate simple carbs within that 30 min window when glycogen is quickly replaced. That scone tasted so good. Then it was eggs later when my boys took me out for breakfast. And despite the 40k weekend, I'm actually not feeling too bad. There's really something to eating well.

  3. The waking-up-dehydrated thing is real. Thanks for the reminder to drink water first thing - I always forget and further dehydrate myself with coffee!