We see it all the time. Either in incoming clients, our fellow gym-goers, or even on social media…most active individuals that we’re interacting with on a day-to-day basis are missing out on being the best athletes they can be because they’re under-recovered, under-fueled, and/or over-trained.
Maybe it’s because they have busy schedules or their habits don’t support their lifestyles or maybe they’re simply unaware that they’re missing out on getting fitter, stronger, and happier, by neglecting the four areas we’re going to dive into today.
And if you don’t feel like you’re an “athlete” because you attend an hour long CrossFit class 3-5x/week, you hit a lifting session every other day, or you run recreationally, we're here to tell you that you’re still considered an active individual! Regardless of your athletic purists, anyone who is working to better themselves in the gym could benefit from implementing some of the strategies we’re about to dive into.
Although these area might seem simple and like no brainers to some of you, it’s not uncommon for us to see active individuals….
1) Not eating enough overall calories
2) Not eating enough carbohydrates
3) Not eating enough protein
4) Not sleeping enough or experiencing broken sleep
Believe it or not, all of these factors, when combined, impact your performance inside and out the gym, your progression towards any fitness goals you might have as well as your overall health and longevity.
So let’s dive into our discussion by talking about one of the biggest pieces of the pie most athletic individuals are neglecting…
Not eating enough overall calories
Whether you come from a place of chronically dieting, only eating “clean,” or simply not being aware of how much you’re currently eating, a common trend we see in athletes is that they don’t consume enough calories to support their needs.
We like to over complicate things as a society when it comes to health, performance, and nutrition, but ensuring you’re providing your body with an adequate amount of calories is a game changer for most active humans. We simply cannot stress enough the importance of fueling yourself appropriately. Consuming enough calories to support the level of activity you’re putting your body under is SO vital. Low energy availability in athletes is a major issue for those who, not only want to improve their performance in the gym, but for anyone who wants to perform more optimally in all other life endeavors. Not eating enough overall calories can negatively impact your recovery, your stress levels, your body’s ability to put on muscle, your metabolism, and so much more.
When you’re under-eating the last thing your body wants to do with the food you are providing it with is build muscle or give you energy to crush your workouts. It’s going to use the energy you are providing it with to simply keep you alive before dedicating those calories towards your gym performance. It doesn’t matter what your macro breakdown looks like, what your training program looks like, or what supplements you’re taking; without proper energy availability, your body will not perform at its most optimal level in the gym and in life.
A simple equation to guesstimate roughly how many calories your body needs on a daily basis at it's maintenance level is to take your bodyweight in lbs and multiply that by 13-15.
Example: 160lbs X 13-15 = 2080-2400 calories. This equation is just a guesstimate and will not replace the value of a coach, but can provide you with a jumping-off point based on your calorie needs.
We see low energy availability in athletes specifically since they can be notoriously health conscious. Because they work hard in the gym and want to look like they workout, they often get the idea that they have to eat “clean” 24/7 in order to get their desired results. Although food quality is still very important for athletes to consider, eating only “clean” foods has some inherent flaws. One of those flaws is that it's not uncommon to see our avid "clean eaters" simply not eating enough. Fruits and veggies, although very nutrient-dense, are low in calories. Lower calorie, high-volume foods are great for those trying to create a calorie deficit from a satiety standpoint, BUT shouldn't be the ONLY foods that make up your intake as an athlete or if you’re chasing athletic performance.
Also, from a digestion standpoint, eating foods that would be traditionally labeled as “clean” (i.e. sweet potatoes, veggies, other complex carbs) pre- and post-workout probably isn’t the best idea. High-fiber foods slowwww down digestion and can lead to GI distress in the middle of your high-intensity CF workout, lifting session, or run. So although fiber and whole food are great from a health standpoint, getting in easier-to-digest foods pre- and post-workout is highly encouraged for athletes.
Which segues nicely into our next factor most athletes are neglecting…
Not eating enough carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred fuel source. When you consume carbohydrates, your body breaks those carbohydrates down into glucose which your body stores as glycogen in your liver and in your muscles. These glycogen stores are what your body will pull from when it needs energy in the middle of your workout.
If your body doesn’t have enough glycogen stores because you’re under-eating carbohydrates, it will start to pull energy from the muscle and break down muscle that already exists. Your body can pull energy from body fat stores when it’s glycogen stores are depleted, BUT your body doesn’t naturally want to do this as it takes much longer for that energy to hit your bloodstream. All that to say, if you’re an active individual and you’re under-eating carbohydrates, you run the risk of not being able to build new muscle tissue, go hard in the gym, and could also be breaking down your muscle tissue that already exists.
Eating carbohydrates around your workouts not only fills those glycogen stores and provides your body with fuel to support your performance, but also gives you a blood sugar boost. We want this blood glucose spike pre-workout as this will fill your glycogen stores quickly and give your body the readily available energy it requires intra-wwrkout.
Back to the conversation we started above about what kind of carbohydrates to prioritize around your workouts to increase your performance. Consuming grains, starches, and simple sugars pre- and post-workout are where we see the most performance benefits. It requires a lot more time and energy for your body to break down more complex carbohydrate sources and fiber than it does grains, starches, and simple sugars. Again, we’re not hatin’ on the veggies, but consuming carbs higher on the glycemic index (think: breads, pastas, bagels, cereal, rice, etc.) around your workouts is extremely beneficial from a performance, recovery, and energy replenishment standpoint.
The amount or carbohydrates you should be consuming varies person to person, but on average, we’re looking to ensure around 45-65% of your total daily calories are coming from carbohydrates. If you’re less active or prefer fats, you might can get away with 45% of your total daily calories coming from carbs. However, if you’re performance driven and want to improve your strength and capacity in the gym, you might be better off pushing that 60-65% range.
Not eating enough protein
Up next we have our friend protein. Low protein intake isn’t something that we see just in athletes, but also most everyone, active or inactive, within the general population. Consuming enough protein from our food is important because your body can’t make protein on its own. Everything in your body is comprised of protein; your skin, your hair, your muscles, the lining around your organs are all comprised of protein.
And if you’re not eating enough protein for basic survival, your body isn’t going to want to utilize the protein you’re bringing in for building new muscle. Having muscle mass and building muscle is something that many active individuals are striving for, but lean muscle mass is important for a variety of factors beyond getting stronger in the gym.
One being that lean mass has the ability to increase our BMR (basal metabolic rate) and increase our metabolic function. Having muscle is very “energy costly” which means it requires a lot of extra grunt work for your body to maintain and build. Moreover, the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll “burn” at rest than someone who doesn't lift weights with little to no muscle mass.
Secondly, studies have shown that having muscle mass is a critical component as it relates to overall health and morbidity especially as we age. With that said, the more muscle mass we have as we age, the better off we’re going to be from a metabolic, mobility, and deep health standpoint.
The basic process of building new proteins within muscle fibers is referred to as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is altered by insulin, eating, and training (specifically, resistance training). Conversely, muscle protein breakdown (MPB) is the act of fibers being broken within the muscle which is stimulated by insulin, fasting, and inactivity.
Interestingly enough, we want SOME MPB to occur alongside MPS. MPB is going to occur when we exercise and in metabolism and inflammation. The process of MPB recycles damaged proteins out of the tissue so that new proteins can come in. This, in the long-term, allows for better muscle function. It’s similar to the process of building a brick wall. Brick by brick your body builds new muscle when you're doing what is required to stimulate MPS. The key here is to add more bricks than you take away.
To induce MPS through our nutrition, we need to consume enough protein (and calories in general) to ensure our body has enough protein coming in to create those building blocks within the muscle. Based on most studies, the “ideal” amount of protein we should be taking in daily to generate MPS is 0.8-1g/lb of bodyweight in protein daily (fun fact: anything more than that is just oxidized in your body/turned into energy & not put towards MPS). Ideally, this is spread throughout 4-5 servings during the day so that your body has a more consistent stream of amino acids following into muscle. Specifically, post-workout somewhere in the 20-25g of protein range is generally a good “sweet spot” for stimulating MPS. Anything more than that doesn’t really do much for us from a MPS standpoint.
However, what’s more important than the amount of protein you’re consuming post-workout is how fast digesting the protein is as well as the amino acid composition. There are 20 essential amino acids that our body cannot create on its own. All 20 EAAs are crucial for MPS to occur. This is why consuming complete proteins with all 20 EAAs is important for those looking to maximize MPS. One of the EAAs, leucine, is “most” important for maximizing MPS since it activates the mTORC1 pathway which is responsible for stimulating MPS.
So when we’re looking at what kind of protein to consume in order to build muscle, fast-digesting animal protein is thought to be better than plant protein due to its amino acid profile. Now this isn’t to say you can’t stimulate MPS using plant protein, BUT plant protein typically lacks the amount of leucine needed to stimulate MPS. However, you can increase your amount of plant protein to normalize the amount of leucine you have coming in from your protein sources BUT note this means you will simply have to eat MORE food than you would if you were consuming animal products.
At the end of the day, what’s more important than protein timing and if you're eating animal vs. plant protein is the total amount of protein you’re consuming daily. As long as you’re consuming enough protein dispersed throughout the day, you’re good to go!
Not sleeping enough or experiencing broken sleep
The last piece of the pie that we feel most athletes or active individuals are neglecting is sleep. Sleep is one of the most undervalued forms of recovery and ways to improve performance inside and outside the gym.
Not only essential for improving recovery and performance, getting enough quality sleep is essential for fat loss, gaining muscle, regulating hormones and blood sugar, improving cognitive function as well as regulating hunger, appetite and satiety. Not getting enough sleep can lead to brain fog, energy crashes, a decrease in gym performance, hormone imbalances, constantly elevated cortisol, and so much more. Thus, making the time you spend awake less productive and less enjoyable.
Sleep is also a master metabolic regulator meaning sleep impacts your body composition as well as your body’s ability to tolerate glucose. Not only that, but people who achieve 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night have been shown to manage stress better, have an increased metabolism, have a higher life expectancy, and even increased cardiovascular health. However, in 2014, the CDC reported 35% of all adults in the U.S. get less than seven hours of sleep and 50-70 million Americans have a sleep disorder.
Because it’s not just sleep that’s important! Quality, uninterrupted sleep is more so important. Unfortunately, the amount of people that suffer from broken sleep is more common place than it should be. Our bodies are meant to be able to sleep throughout the night without waking up multiple times whether that be to use the restroom, with our minds racing, or just being unable to go back to sleep.
And even if you’ve heard us say it 1000 times, we’ll say it again…just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s “normal.” If you’re waking up in the middle of the night, no matter the reason, something is happening on a physiological level that’s preventing you from staying asleep.
If you experience broken sleep, here are some of our favorite ways to promote improved sleep quality…
1. Create an optimal sleep environment
Our bodies prefer a cool and dark environment for sleeping, so set the room temperature below 70 degrees and invest in blackout curtains to ensure no light can peak through windows in your bedroom.
Some people prefer silence when they sleep and others prefer soothing sounds. Sound machines that produce soothing sounds like waves crashing on the beach, light rain, etc., are also an option to block out disturbances.
2. Have a pre-sleep ritual
We discuss the importance of having a pre-sleep ritual alllllll the time with our own clients. Your pre-sleep ritual is a bedtime routine you create to help you wind down at night before bed.
Ideally, your pre-sleep ritual doesn’t involve a screen. Blue light increases cortisol (stress) production in your body thus, making it harder for you to fall asleep. If you will be looking at a screen after dark, some people find it helpful to invest in blue light-blocking glasses.
If you can, read a book, do a “brain dump” on paper, journal, stretch, or meditate, about 30 mins to 1 hour before bed to help promote better sleep quality.
Your pre-sleep ritual will be unique to you, so play around with different activities you can do before bed to create YOUR most optimal pre-sleep ritual to repair your sleep.
3. Eat a balanced meal before bed
If you’ve been following us for a while, we hope you know that eating past a certain time will not inherently make you gain weight. In fact, eating before bed (especially carbs) is very effective way repair your sleep.
CarboHYDRATES are responsible for transporting water to your cells. This means that if you’re not eating a sufficient amount of carbs before bed, you’ll be more inclined to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom because the water you drank has nowhere to go.
Carbs also help blunt your cortisol (stress) response. You want lower cortisol levels prior to going to sleep to help promote better sleep quality. Therefore, eating a balanced meal at least two hours before bed, especially with carbohydrates, is going to help promote sleep quality by bringing melatonin (sleepy hormone) up and blunting cortisol.
4. Stress management
One of the most important ways to repair your sleep is stress management. Being able to manage your stress, especially before bed, is essential for getting in enough quality sleep.
Again, lack of sleep is going to lead to hunger, cravings, decreased performance and recovery as well as moodiness at times, thus, increasing stress levels. In order to combat stress the best you can, find ways that work for you to destress.
Stress management is going to look different for everybody, but make a list of things you enjoy doing in your free time to destress and a list of things you can do when you get home from work/the gym to destress and wind down (aka pre-sleep ritual).
Your list can be as long or as short as you want and the things on your list can take as little as 5 minutes, or as long as 2 hours, but finding balance and ways to manage your stress will be a crucial part in navigating your physical, mental, and sleep health.
If you’re an active individual and struggle with any or all of the above, know you’re not alone! We could go on and on about the various factors that play a role in increasing our performance in the gym and in life, however, proper energy intake is the foundation of athletic performance and recovery.
Improving your metabolic health, performance in the gym, and even your body composition, starts with eating enough food, eating enough carbohydrates, eating enough protein, and adequate sleep.
If you need specific guidance on what that might look like for you, apply to work with a Clar-e-ty coach using the link below!
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.