Save 17% with an Annual Subscription

A Smarter Perspective on Sports Nutrition

A Smarter Perspective on Sports Nutrition

We’re overthinking sports nutrition and it might be creating more problems than it solves.

Why it matters: Following these guidelines will help you hit your performance goals faster.

Quick housekeeping:

  • Founding Members, look for an email on 6/1 regarding your founding member benefits and 2% swag. Thanks!
  • Want to be a Member? You’ll get all content + free training and nutrition plans, the HAVE FUN, DON’T DIE series, access to Q&As, and more. I’m running a special on Memberships. But it won’t last long. Join now and get the deal.

Onto today’s topic: The world of sports nutrition is filled with all sorts of complicated, research-backed eating schemes and formulas. They tell us how much and precisely what we should eat before, during, and after our workouts.

This rabbit hole of sports nutrition leads nowhere for most people.

That’s because many sports nutrition studies are conducted on high-level athletes doing intense exercise. For example, scientists might test college track and field athletes running marathons in two hours and thirty minutes. Or D-1 soccer or football players doing two-a-day practices all summer.

The lessons from those studies don’t necessarily apply to the average person. That is to say, us if we’re going for a longer hike or ruck on Sunday, a jog during the week, or lifting weights in our garage.

This post will cover practical approaches to sports nutrition:

  • How to know if you’re eating too much or too little for your workouts
  • How to eat if you’re trying to exercise and lose weight
  • How to eat for casual outdoor workouts (for example, rucking, hiking, jogging)
  • How to eat for strength training
  • How to eat for long, intense endurance workouts like a marathon
  • How to eat for ultra-endurance events

To understand these topics, I called Dr. Trevor Kashey. He founded Trevor Kashey Nutrition, and you’ll know and love him if you read my book, The Comfort Crisis. I’ve worked with him for years.

Dr. Kashey is qualified to lead us through these ideas for two reasons.

1. He has a Ph.D. in biochemistry with an emphasis on cellular energy transduction. He spent a decade in labs studying how energy moves through living things, a foundation not only for understanding human nutrition and athletic performance but also the basis of life itself.

2. He’s not just a lab dork. Dr. Kashey helped one country win 14 gold medals at the 2016 Olympic Games. He’s also helped bodybuilders and ultra-runners win championships. More importantly, he’s worked with thousands of regular, active people and seen what helps people reach their goals.

Let’s dive in.

How to know if you’re eating too much—or too little—for your workouts

In short

Tracking changes in your bodyweight across longer time scales, like a month, is more beneficial that trying to figure out how many calories your workout burns.

The details

Sports nutritionists have been trying to figure out the perfect formula that tells us exactly how many calories we burn while exercising. The idea is that by knowing exactly how many calories we burn, we’ll be able to determine exactly how many we have to replace during the workout.

For example, here’s a formula from the textbook Bicycling Science, 4th Edition:

[(Age x 0.074) — (Weight x 0.05741) + (Heart Rate x 0.4472) — 20.4022] x Time / 4.184

But, by the way, the above formula is only for women. If you’re a man, here’s the formula:

[(Age x 0.2017) — (Weight x 0.09036) + (Heart Rate x 0.6309) — 55.0969] x Time / 4.184

Got it? I don’t either!

“I’ve found these intra-workout calculators bogus for the general population because most people don’t know how much they eat outside of the workout. So for most people, trying to eat a bunch of food around a workout will only lead them to gain weight,” Dr. Kashey explained. “And with professional endurance athletes, you just give them as many calories as you can leading up to and during the race until digestion limits them. Basically, these athletes get limited by how much they can consume until their stomach goes bad or they vomit it up.”

There’s an easier way for the rest of us. It’s also the method Dr. Kashey used when working with the Olympic team.

Track your bodyweight.

Most people track their weight in 24-hour timescales. Like, weighing more today than you did yesterday means you “gained” weight. But bodyweight fluctuates daily for all sorts of reasons.

You’ll get a clearer picture if you track changes over longer time scales. Like a month.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Wake up and pee.
  2. Weigh yourself.
  3. Do this daily and write down that number.
  4. Notice if the numbers are trending upward, downward, or staying put.

If after one month …

… your weight has trended upward

You’re overeating.

If you’re counting calories, drop your calories by 1400 across a week. If you’re not counting calories, figure out a way to eat slightly less across a week. Maybe skip breakfast two days a week (just make sure not to make up for it with bigger meals later.) Conversely, if you wanted to gain weight, keep doing what you’re doing.

… your weight has trended downward

If your goal is weight loss, great. Don’t change anything.

If you want to improve your fitness or maintain your weight, eat slightly more food. Start with the equivalent of about 100 calories a day.

… your weight has stayed the same

If you wanted to lose weight, see the advice in “trended upward” above.

If you wanted to stay the same weight, keep doing what you’re doing.

If you wanted to gain weight, follow the advice in “trended downward” above.

How to eat if you’re trying to exercise and lose weight

In short

Eat fewer calories than you burn. Eating slightly more food on days you exercise and slightly less on the days you don’t exercise may give you an advantage.

The details

Eating fewer calories than you burn is how you lose weight. Exercise can help create that deficit. But your exercise performance can also suffer if you’re eating too little around when you exercise.

  • For this reason, it’s ideal to eat slightly more food before your exercise sessions. To remain in a deficit, you’ll then need to eat slightly less on the days you don’t exercise.

Practically, this might mean that you eat a smaller lunch the day you aren’t exercising and a larger lunch the day before your afternoon workout.

Here’s a more detailed example: Let’s say you were eating an average of 2,000 calories a day to lose weight. Recall what Dr. Kashey said about thinking in longer time scales. Eating an average of 2,000 calories a day equates to about 14,000 calories a week.

If you exercise four days a week, you’d eat roughly 2,200 calories on your exercise days, with those “extra” calories jammed in before your workout. Then you’d eat between 1,700 and 1,800 on your rest days. It still equates to 14,000 calories a week.

“But by doing this, you can maintain or even improve performance as you lose weight,” said Dr. Kashey. And if your fitness increases, your body weight and health will trend in a better direction.

How to eat for casual outdoor workouts

In short

You probably don’t need to eat anything.

The details

At the REI near my home by Red Rock Canyon, in Las Vegas, there’s a sort of rite of passage that tourists who’ve decided to hike or jog in the desert go through. It’s similar to how the Sherpas of Mount Everest visit a Buddhist monastery to receive a blessing before climbing the mountain, but much more American.

Tourists pilgrimage to REI and buy an arsenal of $7 hippy granola energy bars and $3 energy goo packets. On their hikes, which are typically just a few miles, they consume all of these items “for energy.”

It’s a certifiable *thing* to bring hippy snacks on hikes, no matter the distance. But you probably shouldn’t do this unless your goal is to gain weight. “For the vast majority of people, trying to replace the calories you eat in a workout usually just makes you overeat for the day,” said Dr. Kashey.

Activities like hiking, rucking, and casual runs and bike rides aren’t so intense that your body needs extra fuel. It has plenty on board, stored in your liver and muscles from your last meal and tacked onto your frame as fat.

“If someone is trying to lose or maintain weight,” said Kashey, “I ask them if they feel OK making their other meals smaller so they can drink sugar water or goo on a hike or jog. That question tends to put it into perspective for people.”

There are basically two good reasons you’d need to eat or drink calories during outdoor exercise:

  1. You’re exercising intensely have a high heart rate for more than 90 minutes. Think a trail race. (More on what to do in that situation below.)
  2. You’re spending four or more hours hiking or rucking. Then you might need food, simply because you’ll get hungry.

How to eat for strength training

In short

Weightlifting burns fewer calories than you might think. Eat enough protein.

The details

Strength training isn’t a great calorie burner. Think about it:

  • Most weight training only has you “working” for, say, 10-20 sets that last 30 seconds each. That’s just five to ten minutes of actual work.

The average person might burn 200 to 300 calories during an hour-long weightlifting session.

You may have heard about the “after burn” effect. It suggests your body burns a bunch of calories after weight lifting or interval training it recovers.

  • The research suggests the after burn effect is very small and not worth getting worked up over. It’s probably equal to only 30 to 60 calories for the average person.

But strength training is critical for health and body composition, especially as we age. It can help change your body, so you have a greater ratio of muscle to fat, which works all sorts of magic.

To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit through diet and probably exercise. But to maintain or even add muscle as you lose weight, you have to lift weights and eat enough protein.

As scientists at Harvard explained, “Physical activity causes structural damage to muscle fibers, especially when muscles are challenged with multiple repetitions of heavy weights. The body’s repair response involves fusing broken muscle fibers together to form new muscle protein strands, which in turn increases muscle size.”

This repair response requires protein. You’ll be better off eating at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound of your body weight.

This means…

  • A 125-pound person would eat at least 90-ish grams
  • A 175-pound person would eat at least 125-ish grams
  • A 225-pound person would eat at least 160-ish grams

It’s also wise to spread your roughly equal protein across meals. Basically: Don’t have just 5 grams for breakfast, 10 for lunch, and 110 for dinner.

Hitting that protein goal takes conscious effort. This is where protein shakes help. Their magic is that they’re quicker and easier than cooking. You’ll probably hit your protein number if you drink a shake. I usually drink one when I weight train (more on that below).

If you’re doing 2+ hour intense workouts

In short

For lengthy, intense exercise (going hard for more than 90 minutes, like in a marathon), sugar and electrolytes are ideal.

The details

Intense exercise requires adequate energy stored in your liver and muscle. Hence, it helps to eat before and maybe even during a workout, depending on how long the workout is. (It’s not really necessary to understand how your body uses food as fuel, but here’s a brief primer if you’re interested.)

“Eat as much of what you need to eat within two hours of the training session or race,” Dr. Kashey said.

If you’re training long enough to burn through the energy your body stores (this usually takes 90-120 minutes of hard exercise), eat or drink something during your workout.

Follow these four rules to determine what to eat before and during an intense training session,

1. It should be easy on your stomach.

2. It should have the ideal nutrients for the activity.

3. It should taste good.

4. You should eat it before you’re tired

Let’s unpack the rules:

1. It should be easy on your stomach.

This one is simple. It doesn’t matter how perfectly formulated a food is. It’s a miss if it upsets your stomach while you exercise.

Why it matters: Exercise increases the odds of GI issues (more on why below). GI problems are the number one reason runners drop out of running races, and it all tracks back to what the runner ate.

2. It should have the right nutrients for the activity

Some types of foods—or, instead, mixes of carbs, protein, and fats—fuel your workout and help you recover better. The wrong type of food can do the opposite.

At worst, the wrong foods cause problems.

3. It should taste good.

Simple: If you don’t enjoy eating or drinking it, you’re less likely to eat or drink it. And if you don’t eat or drink it, it’s useless.

4. You should eat or drink it before you’re tired

Research suggests you shouldn’t wait until you’re bonking to eat or drink. Remember that the food or drink takes a while to digest. So you should probably begin ingesting something about 45 minutes into a long, intense effort like a marathon.

What to eat

Sports nutrition researchers and the US military have studied this for decades. They’ve concluded that processed carbs like sugar paired with electrolytes are best for powering and sustaining intense cardio exercise.

Sugar has become a devil in the nutrition world. And, yeah, we probably shouldn’t pound sugar when we’re sitting around or on a casual hike or ruck.

But long, intense exercise is different. Your body demands more fuel and oftentimes can’t create it fast enough through burning your stored fat.

You can think of sugar and other highly processed carbs as a “ready-to-go” exercise fuel.

“When you exercise hard, your body prioritizes powering your muscles and puts processes like digestion on the back burner. That helps you run fast, but it also gives your gut fewer resources to extract energy from the food inside it,” Dr. Kashey explained.

More-refined carbs have been processed beforehand, so breaking them down is simpler and lower effort compared to unprocessed carbs and fats or proteins.

“If a food doesn’t require much digestion, your body can immediately start to absorb and use the nutrients from it, and that’s going to improve your performance more than anything,” said Dr. Kashey.

Eating stuff that’s processed beforehand saves your stomach from doing work, which can also prevent an upset stomach. This helps you not break that first rule.

This all explains why, for example, Tour De France riders often drink Fanta during their rides.

Also make sure to take in some electrolytes with your sugar.

A military study explained, “Sodium is the primary electrolyte lost in sweat, with potassium, calcium, and magnesium present in smaller amounts.”

Lose enough water and electrolytes, and your performance will suffer. You might even overheat or cramp.

The military researchers said you don’t need electrolyte supplements (like electrolyte tabs) for short efforts in mild temperatures.

What do eat for ultra-endurance events

All bets are off when you’re exercising for hours and hours.

Years ago, I spoke with Jose Antonio, PhD. He’s the Editor-In-Chief of the International Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. He told me:

“There is little to no science in this area. When you deal with ultra-endurance events, what you consume is 100 percent a matter of getting calories and your personal preference.”

This tracks with ultra-athletes I know. One champion ultra runner carries a Ziplock bag full of mashed potatoes on his longest runs. He bites the corner of the bag and squeezes the potatoes into his mouth. Another eats lukewarm pizza because it’s the only thing she can stomach after mile 50.

“Others rely on bananas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, whatever,” said Antonio. “But in the end, there is no science. It’s all one big individual trial and error.”

Just follow the four rules above, eat whatever works for you, and you’ll be good to go.

What I eat before and during exercise

For everyday outdoor workouts

If I’m not exercising intensely, I don’t eat anything special around training. I eat normally for the day. This applies to most of my workouts. Like rucking, casual jogs, hikes, etc.

For longer, intense runs

On my more intense Sunday runs that last longer than two hours (what I call “emptying the tank”), I usually bring along a water mixed with Momentous’ Fuel.

I don’t think it’s necessarily magical—like, it’s not shaving a minute off my mile times. “People often think the food in training makes performance better,” explained Dr. Kashey. “But really it prevents performance from dropping.” But Momentous Fuel is probably the best in a crowded field of endurance supplements.

  • It mixes easily with water, forcing me to drink water.
  • It’s convenient. Just dump the packet into a water bottle.
  • It gives me enough but not too many processed carbs and electrolytes.
  • It’s rigorously tested, so I know there’s not anything weird in it.
  • It tastes great.

When my runs get really long (for example, 4 or more hours)

I pair Momentous Fuel with “normal” food. For example, I might take a bagel that has a bit of peanut butter on it. I learned from an Alaskan hunting guide that bagels are great because they’re harder to squash when jammed into a pocket or pack.

Or a frozen Uncrustables (Dr. Kashey taught me about these). Or original PowerBars … the old school ones that are like a brick of semi-solid paste. They’re better on my stomach than other energy bars, which tend to be filled with granola and oats that aren’t as easy to process.

For strength workouts

Recall what we learned about muscle repair and protein.

I drink Momentous’ Recovery protein when I lift weights in my garage. I mix it with ice, water, and a serving of creatine (which has all sorts of benefits).

This shake makes eating enough protein easier. And it has some other vitamins and minerals that may help the muscle repair process.

I don’t think it’s magical human performance muscle juice. I do think the magic comes through getting in the habit of getting enough calories and protein, and that’s what Recovery does for me. It also gives me something more interesting to drink than water.

Have your own workout food that works for you? Please share it in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Have fun, don’t die.


Sponsored by GORUCK

When I decided to accept sponsorships for this newsletter, GORUCK was a natural fit. Not only is the company's story included in The Comfort Crisis, but I've been using GORUCK's gear since the brand was founded. Seriously. They've been around ~12 years and I still regularly use a pack of theirs that is 11 years old. Their gear is made in the USA by former Special Forces soldiers. They make my favorite rucking setup: A Rucker 4.0 and Ruck Plate. Use discount code EASTER for 10% off anything from GORUCK.

Sponsored by Momentous

Momentous made me feel good about supplements again. Over 150 professional and collegiate sports teams and the US Military trust their products, thanks to the company’s rigorous science and testing. I don’t have the time or desire to cook perfectly balanced meals that give me all the necessary nutrients and protein I need (let’s face it, few of us do!). So I use their collagen in the morning; Recovery protein during hard workouts; essential multivitamin to cover my bases; creatine because it’s associated with all sorts of great things; and Fuel on my longest endurance workouts on 100+ degree days here in the desert (because Rule 2: Don’t die). And I also love (love!) that Momentous is researching and developing women-specific performance supplements. Use discount code EASTER for 15% off.