Lessons from a pro’s eating habits.
Ever wonder how much a professional triathlete eats? Me too. So for the first time in my triathlon career, I logged all my food for a week. Then I busted out some spreadsheet action and summed up the results here, booyah! What I discovered was more than just a number of calories consumed. I realized how my approach toward eating for performance has evolved since my college running days. »
To start, here’s a summary of the week’s data:
Timeline: Seven days in April, three weeks prior to Wildflower
Stats: 32 years old, 6 feet 1 inch tall, 178 pounds, married, hairy chest
Training: 6 swims, 5 rides, 6 runs for 26 hours total. Note: Not typical, an XL week for me.
41,400 calories total, 5,900 per day. Get in my belly!
Smallest day: 5,400, Monday
Biggest day: 6,500, Friday (including a 3,300 calorie Friday Night Binge, see below)
7,600 calories, almost 1,100 per day of just peanut butter and jelly—OH MY GOD I HAVE A PROBLEM.
19 Picky Bars. It pays to be CEO.
(It literally pays only in bars.)
13 bowls of cereal: Panda Puffs and Gorilla Munch. Yes, I’m 32 years old.
3,600 calories of First Endurance EFS and Liquid Shot and 2,800 calories of Ultragen. Thank god for sponsorship.
The “typical” day
No two days were the same, but this is what I’d call average.
Breakfast: Two peanut butter and jelly rice cakes, bowl of cereal, two eggs, First Endurance MultiVitamin and Optygen HP
Workout: First Endurance EFS and/or Liquid Shot, if low intensity, supplement with Picky Bar(s), aim for 200–400 calories per hour,
lots of water
Recovery: First Endurance Ultragen, banana or Picky Bar
Lunch: Chicken sandwich, goat cheese and guacamole, Pop Chips with more guacamole, apple
Snack: Picky Bar or peanut butter and jelly rice cakes or both
Workout & Recovery: Same as above
Dinner: Pad Thai or sushi or gluten-free pizza or hamburger and fries, etc., salad or some cooked veggies
Dessert: Two peanut butter and jelly rice cakes, bowl of frozen berries, usually another bowl of cereal, honestly
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The Friday Night Binge (approximately 3,300 calories)
Just to show you that it happens to all of us, regardless of competitive level, here’s my “pro” binge:
Bacon/avocado hamburger, fries and onion rings with lots of ketchup
One strong craft beer (9.5 percent alcohol) that, thanks to my prodding younger brother, turned into four strong craft beers.
3 bowls of cereal, each with a generous portion of chocolate chips on top—when you’re out of ice cream, you’ve got to be creative.
So that’s the summary. But what’s the method behind this madness? Well, after hours of staring at spreadsheets like Neo at the Matrix, I eventually came to the following conclusions:
What I don’t think about:
Calories: Believe it or not, I haven’t counted calories in years. Back in my Stanford track days, I felt a lot of pressure to maintain a low weight, so I tracked my calories, aiming for a near-perfect diet. It worked in spurts. But when I failed, I beat myself up, which led to more unhealthy eating and weight fluctuations. It was a vicious cycle.
I’m no dietitian or doctor, but as an ex-engineer I understand that my body is an energy system with like a billion variables at play: calories, hours of exercise, age, weight, body type, protein, fat, candy corn, the list goes on. Consuming the “right” number of calories is extremely difficult, and more importantly, requires significant emotional and mental energy. It doesn’t allow for flexibility, and teaches me to not listen to my body. All of these things are bad news. In my experience, it’s not worth it.
My weight: I used to think that when I reached a magical weight, I’d suddenly be in shape and ready to race. This is not the case, and it took me a long time to believe that. Years of racing both fast and slow in various levels of fitness and fatness eventually taught me that my performance has little to do with what the scale says. I race my best when I eat mostly healthy and let my body weigh what it wants to weigh. I’m stronger, happier, more consistent and less prone to injury. Fitness and performance is a result of consistent training, not how heavy or light I am. Training should be the confidence builder, not what the scale says.
What I do think about:
Fuel during and post-exercise: Fueling is a concept I picked up from my coach Matt Dixon. This is the only calorie counting I do. I aim for 200–400 calories per hour of primarily carbohydrate every workout and 200–400 calories of protein and carb immediately after exercise. I’m not always that “hungry,” but it’s important to teach your body to process food while exercising. Fueling keeps you from bonking, dramatically aids your recovery and decreases cravings post-exercise.
Is my stomach hungry, or just my brain?: My body sends me two hungry signals: one from my stomach (physical) and one from my brain (emotional). When my stomach is hungry, I’m actually hungry. When my brain is hungry, I usually just want lots of candy because it tastes like happiness. So I use my stomach to regulate how much I eat. If it says I’m hungry, I eat. If it doesn’t, I mostly don’t (see below).
Aim for a B+: This is basically my nutritional motto. Inspiring, right? Seriously, I’ve found I just can’t maintain an A or A+ diet and be happy and healthy. So I don’t focus on a number on the scale or a specific amount of calories/carbs/protein/chocolate chips. Instead, I aim for sustainable, mostly healthy eating habits. Consistency is king, so I put healthy routines in place to help me: fairly regular breakfasts, lunches, snacks, exercise nutrition, etc. But I also realize that pizza, ice cream, brain hunger and Friday Night Binges are part of an emotionally and socially normal—and healthy—life. A plan that doesn’t allow for them is unsustainable, and ultimately flawed. Ironically, when I took the focus off the scale and the numbers and instead on being consistently healthy, but flexible when needed, I became a happier, more confident and better athlete.
Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a second-year pro and the 2011 and 2012 Wildflower Long Course champion. He lives in Springfield, Ore., with his wife, American 5K champion Lauren Fleshman, and is the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).