You’ve probably heard of this phrase “The Simple Things Done Well” when it comes to tactics and game-play. It basically means focussing on the basic things that are going to win you the game. We know what they are; Things like good passing, accurate shooting, effective tackling, and simple tactics. These are the simple things, that if done right, will cause everything else to fall into place.
However, when it comes to nutrition, it can be difficult to figure out what the simple things are. In other words, if you’re going to focus your efforts on nutrition, what are the simple things that will cause everything else to fall into place?
Is it your pre-match meal? Is it which protein supplements you’re using? Is it how many grams of carbohydrates you’re eating each day?
I hope that this article will outline the 4 most important aspects of your nutrition.
So the 4 keys of your nutrition plan, in the order of importance are:
1. Food Quantity
Are you eating enough calories to fuel your performance, whilst also eating few enough to elicit fat-loss, or enough to facilitate muscle growth? Are you eating enough protein for muscle repair and growth, enough fats to keep you healthy, and enough carbohydrates to fuel your performance, all within your calorie allowance?
When considering the goal of weight-loss/gain, you must realise that there are a lot of factors involved. However, when it boils down to it, the main factor which will affect the outcome is eating fewer/more calories than you are expending.
There are a couple of problems with this theory though. One of them is that people tend to extend this logic to mean, “The less I eat, and the more exercise I do, the more weight I will lose.” It’s not that this logic is false, however this can lead to poor energy levels, poor quality of training, poor quality of life, and ultimately, low adherence (people don’t stick to it for an extended period of time).
Another thing that needs addressed with the initial point is that although we can track our intake of energy (or calories), it is almost impossible to track our expenditure. There are so many ways in which we expend energy, and it would be impossible to track all of them. We don’t just burn energy by exercise. We also burn it through our body’s everyday processes, our organs, digesting our food, walking, fidgeting, and a huge array of other outputs. So what are we to do?
Well all we can do is try to make the best estimate possible, and adjust from there by trial and error. There are a couple of ways to do this:
Method 1 — The “Track and Adjust” Method
This method involves tracking your caloric intake for a period of 2 weeks, during which you will track your morning weight each day.
When you’ve done this, you will take the average bodyweight of week 1 and the average bodyweight of week 2, as well as the average caloric intake for each week, and compare them.
If you’ve gained bodyweight, you know that your caloric intake is above maintenance (the amount of calories you need to stay at the same weight), and needs reduced if fat-loss is your goal. If you’ve stayed the same weight, you are eating at around maintenance calories. If you’ve lost weight, you are eating in a caloric deficit, and therefore are on track for fat-loss. However, you may still need to adjust, in order to find your sweet-spot.
Method 2 — The Calculation Method
This method involves using a formula to first calculate your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), and using a multiplier based on activity/training to calculate your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure, which is essentially your maintenance calorie level).
There are a few different formulae you can use, including the Harris-Benedict formula and the Katch-McArdle formula, among others, such as simply multiplying your bodyweight in kg by 22 to get your BMR, followed by using an activity multiplier to get your TDEE. All the various formulae have different accuracy levels and different applicability in different scenarios.
When you’ve calculated your TDEE, and subtracted or added a suitable amount of calories to produce a fat-loss of muscle gain response, you must then break that down into the three macronutrients: Protein, Fat and Carbohydrate. This breakdown will vary greatly for each individual.
I show you exactly how to calculate your own estimated calorie recommendations in this article [LINK]
As a rough recommendation, protein intake can be calculated by multiplying bodyweight in kg by 1.8–2.4. When maintaining muscle in a fat-loss phase is a big focus, edging towards the upper end is more important.
The remainder of your calories for the day will be made up of carbohydrates and fats. For straight up weight loss/gain, the breakdown of fats vs carbohydrates isn’t a big factor, as long as calories are in check.
However, when it comes to performance, especially in GAA sports, edging towards higher carbohydrates rather than fats would be recommended, whilst still including some fat (at least 20% of total calories) in the diet in order to maintain health and enjoyability. This is especially important in fat-loss cases. The individual preference for food that contain fats vs carbohydrates should also be taken into consideration.
I show you how to calculate your own recommended macronutrient breakdown in this article [LINK]
2. Food Quality
Are you eating enough fruits and vegetables to provide you with the vitamins and minerals, and fibre you need to function optimally? Are you drinking enough fluids?
You may think it strange that I’m putting food quality as less important than quantity. However, one of the reasons for this is that if you are satisfying the food quantity step, and are getting your intake from mostly whole foods, you have probably covered most basis when it comes to food quality.
For example, in order to stay within your caloric goals, whilst losing fat, you’ve probably discovered that you need to eat foods that keep you full. These food tend to contain a lot of fibre and water, with the best sources generally being vegetables and fruits!
However, we do still want to place importance on getting in plenty of micronutrition.
It seems that the main benefit of addressing micronutrients comes from simply eliminating deficiencies sot hat we remain healthy, as well as supplying enough fibre to maintain digestive health.
With that said, there are a few common deficiencies for athletes, such as vit. D, Calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron.
Some of these may be best addressed with supplements, however, in order to help make sure we are doing our best to eliminate deficiencies, we should aim to spend some time in the sun, in order to make sure our body is producing vitamin D, consume dairy, as long as lactose intolerance isn’t an issue, and eat good quality, preferably grass-fed, red meat a few times per week.
As a recommendation for vegetables and fruit, about 3 portions of each per day should be enough, but I wouldn’t advise someone to not eat more than that if they want to, as long as it allows them to stay within your calorie and macronutrient goals.
All liquids except alcohol will contribute to your daily fluid intake. Alcohol is the only fluid that makes you excrete more fluid than it provides.
There are two ways that I’ve found useful for recommending fluid intake.
Consume 1 litre per 23 kg of bodyweight.
That means that a 70kg athlete should consume roughly 3 litres of water per day. This recommendation is based on Eric Helms’ previously mentioned “Muscle and Strength Pyramid”.
2. Urinate 5 times per day, with 2 begin around training
The advantage of this method over the first one is that is takes into account your activity levels, sweat levels, and heat of their environment. The around training part insinuates that you should consume more fluids around training. This is based on the recommendations in Lyle MacDonald’s “Performance Nutrition for Mixed Sports.”
With both methods, you should also monitor urine colour, making sure it isn’t excessively dark or light in colour.
3. Food Timing
Are you eating the right foods in the right quantities, at the right times?
How Many Meals to Eat Per Day?
You can read my full article on meal timing here. [LINK]
The optimal amount of meals per day is very much based on individual preference. Although there have been claims that eating as many times per day as possible “stokes the metabolism” and therefore burns more body-fat, this is not true. There is also another side to the coin which says that fasting in the morning and only eating one or two larger meals per day is the key to losing fat and maintaining muscle, and this has pretty much been shown to be not true either. People who do this often end up seeing results, but that is more to do with the fact that they end up eating in a caloric deficit as a result.
So, as a recommendation, eating anywhere from 3–6 times per day would be ideal. Problems seem to only occur when we go below or above that.
For example, someone eating only twice per day may end up developing a relationship with food where they’re training themselves to only eat massive meals, and are hungry all day. They are also potentially missing out on the small benefit of activating muscle protein synthesis, when muscle growth is somewhat stimulated as a results of eating protein.
Someone who eats 7 times per day may end up feeling like they have to schedule their life around eating, and ends up having to take tupperware everywhere they go, and develop a relationship where they feel like if they miss a meal, they’ve messed up.
However, some people are quite happy doing an intermittent fasting protocol, where they don’t eat until the afternoon, and get all of their calories and macros in in two meals. They may simply not be hungry in the morning, and therefore take advantage of this, and are able to have 2 large meals.
Some people find that they can’t get enough food in in 6 meals, and need to have 7, but this is almost exclusively people who have a high energy output, and maybe need to consume 4000–5000 kcal per day.
Again, the amount of meals per day is dependant on what eating habit ensure that you meet the requirements from the 3 lower tiers of the pyramid. Remember, all of this is trumped by total caloric intake, macronutrient intake, and food quality.
Obviously eating in and around training/matches is very important also, but I’ve covered some of that in previous articles and will be also addressing these things in more detail in further articles!
There are other aspects of food timing that can be optimised, including carb-loading protocols, eating around training and matches, protein distribution, but in order to keep this article short enough, I'll go into these in seperate artciles.
Are you making use of the few supplements that work, in order to get that last few percent of progress?
Finally, onto the last, and therefore least important (regardless of what the supplement companies will tell you) aspect of nutrition.
You can read my full article on supplements for GAA athlete by clicking here. [LINK]
Does this mean that supplements are useless? Of course not. However, it means that if you aren’t eating enough (or are eating too much), you aren’t eating the correct ratio of protein/fat/carbohydrate, you aren’t getting enough veggies, or aren’t eating at the correct times, then you may be focussing on the wrong thing by looking towards supplements.
Some supplements are inter-linked with some of these areas, for example, whey protein may help you to hit your correct macronutrient targets, or a multivitamin may help with your micronutrient intake etc, but overall, getting the big things in check first is going to serve you best.
So let’s say you’ve gotten all of the other stuff in place, and you feel you’re ready to pursue the last 5% of progress (after all, who wants to be leaving any progress of the table?).
I’ve covered my views on supplements along with recommendations in this article, so go read it if you’re interested!
Not only does this give us a great framework for setting up our nutrition, but also allows us to ask ourselves, “How important is this?” when considering and nutritional concept. For example, when we’re trying to decide what the best protein shake is, if we look at the four key aspects, we can see that, being in the supplement section, it is unlikely to be very important. If we are trying to decide what is the best pre-match meal, that is a ‘food timing’ issue, and therefore won’t be a priority to address, unless we’ve already addressed the levels below it.
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