The Endurance Diet with Matt Fitzgerald | EP#153

​​The Endurance Diet with Matt Fitzgerald | EP#153

Author, coach, and nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald wrote the book "The Endurance Diet" after doing extensive investigations into what elite endurance athletes all over the world really eat. He discovered that even though their plates look very different, there are 5 core habit that they all adhere to to perform at the top of their game in performance, recovery, and overall health.

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In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The 5 Core Habits: eat everything, eat quality, eat carb-centered, eat enough, eat individually. 
  • Does elite athletes' eating habits really apply to normal age-group triathletes?
  • More advanced concepts beyond the 5 core habits: nutrition periodisation, fuelling workouts, fasted workouts/training low, supplements.
  • Matt's thoughts on "trendy diets". 

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Shownotes

About Matt's book: The Endurance Diet

1:00  -

  • Similar to the research done for 80/20 Triathlon, The Endurance Diet is about the principles that elite athletes across the world generally follow. 
  • Matt completed a lot of investigations both formally and informally to discover the nutrition habits of elite athletes. 
  • The athletes involved were across both different disciplines and different continents.
  • Age-group athletes should ideally follow the same approach to improve their performance. 

About The Endurance Diet

6:19 -

  • I've been paying attention to how elite athletes eat since the 90's. 
  • Eventually I became a certified sports nutritionist, and as an athlete myself I paid attention to what I was eating. 

    I've always tended to model how I eat as an athlete, and how I recommended others eat, based on common patterns of elite athletes. 
  • For this book, I got to travel across the world and eat with elite athletes from different disciplines. 

    I also utilised a survey to contact athletes in areas I couldn't visit. 

    I gathered a large amount of data and that was what made up The Endurance Diet book.
  • The five principal habits from the book are: eat everything, eat quality, eat carb-centred, eat enough and eat individually. 

Eat everything

9:06 -

  • There are a lot of popular diets that are based on forbidding certain food types - e.g. the Paleo diet which excludes grains and dairy. 
  • I have found that elite endurance athletes eat everything - they tend to go out of their way to ensure they're including all natural food types.

    I think it helps them perform better because each food type is nutritionally distinct.

    If you have a well rounded diet that includes everything, your health and fitness are less likely to be compromised by gaps in nutrition.  

Eat quality

10:33 - 

  • Eat everything doesn't mean eat equal amounts of everything. 
  • Everything does encompass sweets and alcohol! It tends to be more unhealthy to eliminate these because they're enjoyable.

    It's about not eating too much of them. 
  • Most people find they are happier with a healthy diet if it's not all healthy. 
  • Eat quality means most of what you're eating should be high quality, naturally unprocessed food types. 

    Whereas in the mainstream discourse it is all about carbs, fats and protein, which doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

The Diet Quality Score

12:01 - 

  • When scientists do work in the field of nutritional epidemiology they use large populations to answer questions such as: do people who eat more fruit have lower rates of cancer. 
  • Through this work, scientists have been able to identify foods that are generally associated with positive health outcomes. 
  • To do this type of work they need ways of exploring diet quality. 
  • Every natural food type is good for you in a certain amount. 

    Fruits, vegetables, fish, dairy (but not all types).
  • Things like sweets, excessive alcohol, fried food and refined grains tend to be associated with negative health outcomes. 
  • These scoring tools for assessing diet quality already exist for this type of work, but they are a little complex for everyday use. 
  • I created my own: the diet quality score. 

    It's more user friendly and is intended to be a simple way of putting a number on the overall quality of your diet. 
  • There are tables in the book that show you how many points your second serving of fruit in a day would get. 
  • I also have a smart phone app that's easy to use: DQS
  • It takes a bit of effort, but the point is to pay more attention to what you eat. 

    This makes it easier to systematically improve the quality of your diet.
  • From this, I have identified ten food groups which can be ranked from highest to lowest quality:
    1. Vegetables 
    2. Fruit
    3. Nuts, seeds and healthy oils
    4. Whole grains
    5. Dairy 
    6. Unprocessed meat and seafood
    7. Refined grains
    8. Sweets
    9. Processed meat
    10. Fried foods 

Eat carb-centred 

16:24 - 

  • All I care about is what works, I don't come at it from an idealogical perspective. 

    What I have observed is that very nearly all elite endurance athletes across disciplines eat a carbohydrate centred diet

    It doesn't mean it's high carb all the time, but high quality carbohydrate foods are included in most meals and snacks. 
  • Low carb diets are very popular these days, both in the general population and amongst recreational endurance athletes. 

    You see athletes go from an 'anything goes' diet to a low carb diet and they'll lose weight and maybe have a good race.
  • However, I would suggest just getting rid of the carbs that elite athletes don't eat (e.g. refined carbs), but retain the healthy carbs (e.g. starchy vegetables & fruit, dairy).

    Then you have the best of both worlds, you get the benefit or carbs without the drawback of low quality food types. 

Eat enough

18:69 - 

  • It's not only what you eat, but how much, that matters. 
  • I've found that elite endurance athletes do very little calorie counting.
  • If you eat a diet based on high quality food types, they tend to be more satiating than low quality foods. 

    From shifting to this type of diet you'll probably eat fewer calories without counting calories, just by listening to your appetite.  
  • In general, elite athletes tend to be very tuned into their bodies, which includes listening to their appetite. 
  • We can all do this! But we're trained to ignore these signals, particularly in some societies such as the US. 

    We have too easy access to cheap and unhealthy food which makes us eat when we're not hungry. 
  • The best way to eat the right amount is to eat by feel, and build habits around eating enough. 
  • Calorie counters tend to eat too little, which is very detrimental as an endurance athlete. 

    As a consequence they also tend to snap and then eat too much on a binge. 
  • If you don't eat enough, you're in a state of low energy availability, which can be detrimental to performance. 

    It's more harmful to eat too little than to eat too much as an endurance athlete. 
  • If you routinely eat too little, you probably won't make it to the start line. 

    You'll be under-fuelled for workouts, you won't perform well or recover as well, you'll be more likely to get ill or develop over training symptoms, and more likely to get injured. 
  • You need to be smart about regulating your food intake if you're considering performance weight management. 

Eat individually

25:04

  • The first four habits are universals - they establish a framework that you want your diet to follow as an endurance athlete. 
  • However, we're not all the same, so there's plenty of room within these parameters to eat in different ways. 
  • I spent a few days in Spain with the Lotto-Jumbo cycling team from the Netherlands.

    16 cyclists were all eating together, but no two plates had exactly the same food choices on them. 

    They all had the same options but they chose slightly different options, which they all had reasons for. 
  • Popular diets are often 'one size fits all', which I don't agree with. 
  • I think you should change your diet as little as necessary in order to achieve the results you want. 

    You eat the way you do for a reason. It's okay to stick to your preferences.
  • It's all about building habits, and you're more likely to stick to the habits you come up with if it feels easy. 

    It needs to be enjoyable, culturally relevant, etc. 

Should age-groupers be eating like the elites?

27:33

  • Yes - we are all human!

    Some people think that elite endurance athletes are a different species, but they're not. 
  • Genetic research has found that a very small number of genes make elite athletes different from the rest of us.

    As a cohort, elite athletes are as genetically different from each other as cohort of recreational athletes are.

    The 'must have' genes for elite performance have nothing to do with how food is digested and metabolised. 
  • There's also the training volume side, but that is just a matter of scale. 
  • For example, the 80/20 ratio applies whether you're elite or age-group, but you apply it individually to your training.
  • Training like the pros doesn't mean also doing 30 hours a week - you emulate their patterns but with appropriate scaling. 

    You do the same with diet. The way the elites eat is also optimal for you but with proper scaling

Nutrition periodisation

29:41 - 

  • Most athletes are familiar with periodisation in training where you break the training process into phases. 
  • The same can be done with nutrition.
  • I don't like to see athletes overthink diet too much because it's usually just stressful and unhelpful. 
  • Once you've started to practice these five habits, there are refinements you can make to get even better results.

    This includes making changes to what and how you eat based on where you are in the training cycle.

    It can also be about how you eat on easier days compared to harder workout days.
  • For example, if you're coming off an off-season break and you've gained a little weight, you might want to do a short weight-loss focus phase as you begin the next training cycle. 

    The best way to do this is not the same as the endurance diet, so you might set aside a few weeks to shed the weight, and then shift back to the endurance diet habits and focus on building fitness. 

Fuelling workouts 

32:42 - 

  • If you're doing a race, you want a very precise plan so you can do what works best. 
  • A workout is not a race, and they can be varied depending on their purpose. 
  • For longer harder sessions, nutrition consumed during them start to matter. 
  • The big ones are fluid for hydration and carbohydrate for fuel. 
  • It's best to know what the rules are for races for you, and then you can understand what you might want to do during workouts. 
  • However, there are some workouts where you may want to intentional withhold supplemental energy such as carbohydrates, as this withholding is an added stress to your body and it may help improve fitness. 
  • The studies in the area of fasted workouts are interesting and compelling, but some of them are protocols you'd never want to do in the real world (e.g. hard intervals 4 days in a row).
  • If you want to do a depleted training session, it makes sense to do it first thing in the morning as you've essentially fasted through the night. 
  • You can also do them in the afternoon if you've done a hard workout in the morning and not utilised carbs for refuelling after the first workout. 
  • Mikael: I have utilised this with athletes, for example an athlete who was doing a particularly long bike race, and it was very successful. 

Supplements

38:41 - 

  • There tends to be two camps on supplements, either all good or all bad, but I think they need to be evaluated individually. 
  • I have found there doesn't seem to be any 'must have' supplement for endurance athletes as a performance enhancer.

    However, the supplements that are close to necessary are ones for health rather than performance enhancement. 
  • The big three would be:
    1. Omega-3 essential fats - it can be difficult to get enough of these through diet alone. 
    2. Iron - it's not universally necessary but often can be conditionally needed. Runners and triathletes are often Iron deficient. It's important to track your levels and consider low Iron as a culprit if you're regularly fatigued. 
    3. Vitamin D - it's a common deficiency and the symptoms can look similar to Iron deficiency. In the winter, people with darker skin are very commonly deficient so it's good to track this and supplement as necessary. 

Listener question

42:02 - 

  • Andrew: What is your view on 'trendy diets'?​​​​
    • My book title makes it sound like a trendy diet, but it's really just a collection of habits that evolved naturally in the real world.

      As it has built in flexibility, it's not really a 'diet'.
    • I think it's the way to go as it evolved in the real world through trial and error, similar to how 80/20 evolved. 
    • Most fad diets weren't created for endurance athletes (e.g. Ketogenic), and I don't think it's a sensible starting point. 
    • I have another book about that called Diet Cults

Key takeaway

  • There are 5 core habits: eat everything, eat quality, eat carb-centred, eat enough and eat individually. It's flexible and allows you to eat very different things, while still following the principles. 
  • This is not a trendy diet, it's a flexible system around some cornerstone habits. It doesn't tell you what to eat or exclude. 
  • We should eat like an elite because we're all human! Eating this way is optimising for health primarily, and then also optimising for performance. 
    • Once you've done this, there are more advanced areas to optimise to try and fine-tune your nutrition and achieve marginal gains in performance (e.g. nutrition periodisation and train low strategies). 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

    Connect with Matt Fitzgerald

    Connect with host Mikael Eriksson

    triathlon_coach_mikael_eriksson

    Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

    I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

    I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

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