Is diet sabotaging our workouts?

As we continue to shine a spotlight on hustle--celebrating its virtues and shunning its vices--we know that that fueling properly is important. But beyond acknowledging that garbage in equals garbage out, how do we ensure that what we’re putting into our bodies isn’t sabotaging our hard work?

Good news, Heather Larson, (MBA, RD, LD) who’s  a certified dietitian, nutritionist, and run coach, has agreed to demystify this question.

Janel Broderick: Heather, many of us would agree that nutrition plays some role in energy levels and athletic performance. But, beyond that it gets a bit more confusing as we actually try to apply that knowledge. Can you shed some light on whether what we put into our bodies is really significant? Does our diet really impact our training, performance, and ability to recover?

Heather Larson: The short and sweet answer: YES, it matters!

If you aren’t eating enough, your body isn’t going to have enough energy to perform the way you want it to; it won’t recover as quickly and can become injury prone. If you’re eating enough total calories, but not enough carbohydrates, for example, you forcing your body to do extra work to turn protein or fat into blood glucose to fuel your work. We can also take that down to the micronutrient level. For example, maybe you’re consuming enough total energy, but within that consumption you’re lacking bioavailable iron, you can see huge declines in performance as an athlete if anemia develops.

The long answer is everything I said above plus the note that you have to find a balance between focusing on nutrition and knowing how to enjoy life. Food is a part of nearly everything we do, so finding that middle ground between eating well, fueling our goals and still enjoying what we eat is really important to me.

JB: Can you talk a little more about the difference between eating with a deliberate focus on fueling the body versus a mindset that is fixated on weight loss?

HL: The goal for athletes is to give their body the best fuel we can to help it perform at its peak, and for us to feel the best we can. Every body is going to have a slightly different ‘set point’ where it is most comfortable and performing at its best. For me, I tend to be more on the muscular side of the scale, versus someone who is a very lean runner. I could focus on trying to be leaner, and cutting out calories, but I won’t perform as well as I would if I let my body and my hunger guide me in how much energy it needs to feel its best.

Once you figure out your set point, you can really start to be deliberate with the things you are choosing and maximizing the nutrient density of the foods you are eating. I will feel stronger and my body will react more positively to 2,000 calories of whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies and lean protein than it will if I consume 2,000 calories of processed sugar. Both may provide enough energy, but the other ‘stuff’ that comes along with that energy can make a huge difference in how you feel and perform.

JB: What about the timing of when we eat? There are probably a lot of competing views, but in your opinion, how does when we eat impact our bodies? And how do we make sure our fuel is properly timed for when we need it most?

HL: Once you’ve nailed down question one (how much to consume) and question two (how to optimize what you’re consuming) we can take fueling for performance one step further. By carefully timing when we provide our body with fuel throughout the day, and around our runs, we can give it the energy it needs to workout, recover, and feel energetic throughout the entire day.

For any run over 45 minutes, for example, I encourage runners to have a carbohydrate rich snack 30-90 minutes prior. Each person is going to vary in how soon they can eat prior to their workout, and based on the duration and intensity of the activity, you may need more on some days than others, but this provides readily available glucose for the run. After your run, your body is looking to recover, which is done by providing carbohydrates and protein within 45 minutes of activity.

If you remember the old ads that showed athletes drinking chocolate milk after their workouts, this is why! The blend of carbohydrates and protein is perfect for a quick refuel while your muscles are primed and ready to absorb the nutrients. Other things related to timing and quantity of nutrients come into play when you consider that most bodies can absorb 40-50 grams of protein at any given time. If you consume 100 grams at breakfast, and none throughout the day, you’re likely not absorbing everything that you consume.

JB: As a coach (running and nutrition), you spend a lot of time with female go-getters; what are some of the most common mistakes you see us making when it comes to fueling properly?

HL:  One of the big things I see is a fear of eating enough and being tied to a scale. We’ve spent so long living in a diet-culture world that when I tell someone “I don’t think you’re eating enough. Let’s work on slowly increasing your intake,” they panic. For so long we’ve seen a food label that is based on 2,000 calories a day, and we assume that we need to eat less than that to be a certain number on a scale, and that if we are that number on the scale, we will be happy. But, I have yet to see someone who hits a target on the scale and instantly feels fulfilled as a result.

I also see so many people fall prey to an all-or-nothing mindset. We think that we either have to cook homemade dinners with all organic ingredients every night, or we’re failing at eating well. I wish I could help everyone have a little grace with themselves and encourage them to step away from black and white thinking when it comes to eating.  

JB: Good point. In the spirit of tiptoeing away from an all-or-nothing mindset, can you give us some general advice as to where we should start if we’re trying to up our nutrition game? Like, Nutrition 101 or Diet for Dummies? Understanding, of course, that every body is different and that we’re all pursuing different goals. I’d imagine there are still some basic rules that we could all apply?

HL: Absolutely! The general science of nutrition is where I start with every single person who comes to me. I like to have the first week I spend working with someone be what I call ‘Baseline Week.’ I will have you complete a one week food log to get an idea of what your current normal is. From there, we start to use the science to tweak until we find what fits you.

I use the Mifflin St. Jeor calculation to get a general idea of baseline energy needs. Within that energy need, I will then look at the macronutrient spread based on what the athletes goals are, aiming for 40-65% of their intake from carbohydrates, 15-25% protein and 20-30% of energy from fat. Once you have a baseline for yourself, you can compare to these ranges, and start tweaking based on your training goals and personal preferences.

JB: Heather, I can’t thank you enough; you’ve inspired me to pay more attention to the role nutrition plays in my own training. And p.s. tracking what you’re eating for the purpose of understanding your “baseline,” it really works. I’m still a work in progress. :)

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To learn more from Heather, you can find her at: or on Instagram via @dietitiangoesrunning

Have an idea for a topic you’d like to see explored? Email me!

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