When we look at our performance there is a range of areas that we need to analyse, pull apart, test and improve so that our performance improves. So we can jump higher, run further, sprint faster, race better, recover quicker, and feel better.

One thing that can unravel our quest for improved performance (however performance may look to us) is getting caught up focusing on the 20% that we don’t think about the remaining 80%. If we think about it like an iceberg, people only see our performance; the 20%. But what they don’t see is the hard work behind the scenes; the 80%. Making subtle tweaks to how we approach our 80% behind the scenes is often where the majority of improvements can be made. Focusing on our 80% is important because this is where we teach our body and mind the important foundations that we need.

One important focus for our 80% is our nutrition. We all need to eat, but, we also need to work in a way which is smart and effective so that we are able to eat around the timings of training, our families, within a budget, for our tastebuds and our energy requirements.

Let’s focus on our energy requirements as this is a huge factor. Our total energy expenditure is determined, in majority, by our basal metabolic rate, or simply, the amount of energy required for our body and organs to function and survive. There is also thermogenesis of food where food is digested, absorbed and converted. Finally, the most variable factor, the energy expenditure from physical activity. For our performance, it is important that we meet (or more often, exceed) our energy needs so that we provide enough energy to our body. Sufficient energy helps to build and repair muscle and replace muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate).

It’s important to note that there are particular sports in which there may be strategic reduction of energy intake. Such as meeting weight targets to maximise power to weight ratio. However, if not appropriately managed can cause issues for Low Energy Availability (LEA), and put the athlete at risk of issues such as malnourishment, injury and eating disorders. There tends to be a larger focus on female athletes with the extensive research and establishment of relative energy deficiencies in sport (RED-S) and the female triad (low energy availability, low bone mineral density and menstrual disturbance). A good tell point for the female athletes is through their ovulation. For females to ovulate it requires a lot of dietary factors such as iron, fat and overall intake. But the same can be true for males. For males, it might not be as obvious to spot, but it is still an issue which affects them. A big part of perfecting our energy intake comes from experimenting, but because there are a lot of factors that influence our performance it can be hugely beneficial to get advice from a BSc qualified or registered nutritionist, or dietitian.

It is true that the current research is limited in that it doesn’t cover all sports, athlete types/genders and environmental settings in-depth. But the foundations for our understanding are well known and proven by research. We know that under most levels of intensity the body prefers carbohydrate as a main source of fuel, due to the quick release and efficiency at which it can be used by the body. The quality of carbohydrate is important to restore muscle glycogen and to meet energy levels.

Although nutrition isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, here are three easy tips you can take away to start improving your eating habits within your 80% and ultimately your performance.

Prepare:

If we prepare and plan our meals we are already a step ahead of the game. Preparation could include:
-Writing down the meals you will have each day of the week and then writing your shopping list to suit (this has the added benefit of reducing food waste and reducing your food bill).
-If you have a day of training and work, prepare your meals for the day the night before, making sure you have a snack before and after each training session to help meet energy needs, and then plan what time you are going to have your bigger meals.
-If you know you won’t have time to make dinner, either include it with your preparation for your meals the night before, opt for a meal in the slow cooker, make extra the night before or opt for some fast options like frozen vegetables, instant brown rice and a can of salmon as an example of minimal effort with a balance of nutrients.

Preparation is particularly important for whole day events, races or travelling games. Events like athletic meets require multiple events over the whole day and coming unprepared could throw your performance off as the day drags on. If you are able to know how many events you can maximally have (visualise getting a final) then you can organise what you will have over the day regarding, pre-meal (3-4 hours before, 2 hours 1 hour) quick and easy digested carbohydrates post-race/prep for your next race, then as well planning what your meal will be when travelling back to home or accommodation and then recovery meal at night.

Preparation is also particularly important when travelling or competing at unknown venues. Travelling incorporates so many issues such as the access, availability and quality of food (especially in other countries) as well as added time to your day of competition. Having food prepared makes you more likely to be able to maximise recovery with the right food and correct quantity, versus having to scope out what takeaway or restaurants around and settling for something that may not be as beneficial and cost extra money.

Being prepared also allows us the opportunity to worry less about food. It frees up our time to be with family, rest or spend more time on leisure activities that we enjoy.

Practice:

When we start to understand what foods work well for us around our training schedule and what refuels us nutritionally, we can start to practise what eating is like for an event, race or competition. If we practice what food works best for us then come races, competitions or long days of adventure there’s less risk of gastro upset, increased fatigue from not insufficient energy intake, or inappropriate refuelling.

Perfect:

Finally, when you have a routine that is prepared and practiced, you can begin to perfect.

Perfecting is focusing more on the specifics of the food you eat before training/performance. Change in terms of weight, variety, distribution of macronutrients, timing and consistencies to name a few, can be perfected to maximise power output, recovery, reduce fatigue and hydration. It will take time to switch from practice to perfecting to get it right. But it is important to focus on what works for you as it may not be the same for others. As they say, the proof is in the pudding…just make sure you don’t eat only pudding.

Overall, you must remember that food is the fuel that helps the bodies engine run. Just like a car if we don’t provide the right fuel, service it and look after it, the car will not be performing at its best. Let’s take the time to evaluate our nutrition as part of our 80%, as see what this does to boost our 20% performance.

Eliot Fenton

Eliot Fenton is a Sports Lab nutritionist who is passionate about food as fuel and food as enjoyment. He is currently completing his Master’s in dietetics. Eliot is the newest addition to the Sports Lab team who is making his presence known with his singing in the office.