What you get out of the gym depends on what you do outside of it. The work you do in the gym is just a small fraction of the picture. You may put the work in the gym for four hours a week, but what are you doing with the remaining 164 hours in your week? You spend more time eating and sleeping than at the gym, so it’s important to prioritize rest, recovery, and food. In other words, gains come from recovery.
Sleep: It’s Non-Negotiable
Sleep is an essential pillar of your holistic health, as it drives your biological processes, as well as your ability to recover and rejuvenate physically, mentally, and emotionally. Without adequate sleep, your health, performance, and even body composition are negatively impacted. Try holding yourself accountable by logging when you go to bed, when you wake up, and your energy levels upon waking. If you’re sleeping enough but still feel restless, take note of habits that may directly impact your quality of sleep (i.e. caffeinating late in the evening, eating too late, or scrolling on your phone in bed).
Personalize your Eating and Keep it Fresh
What you put in your body directly fuels your performance and ability to do the things you want to do.
We need a paradigm shift in the way we typically approach “diets.” The current mindset on diets is a recipe for failure. First, diets insinuate a starting point and an endpoint until you reach, or give-up on, an intended goal. Thereafter, you become complicit and return to your original habits. “Diets” are predicated on restrictive behaviors about what kind of foods you can and cannot consume (ex: “fad” diets that frame carbs as the enemy). This can set a negative internal dialogue related to your food and health. Depriving yourself of certain foods will only make you crave them more and make you feel guilty when you do indulge.
Instead, prioritize your health and happiness by reframing eating to focus on inclusion rather than exclusion. The idea is to include more fruits, vegetables, and varied lean protein sources instead of following these “fad” diets which exclude items like meat, carbs, and sweets from your eating. Recognizing that a diet is not a short term fix, but rather a lifestyle, helps you create a pattern of eating (and enjoying!) food that is sustainable: one that will not bore you, and one that gives your body all that it needs. And yes, for me, that means enjoying the heck out of some Cronuts.
Your nutrition should be personalized. What works for one person does not work for everyone because food, and its timing, causes people to feel and react differently. The goal should be to individualize your eating to your unique needs. I suggest starting a food journal to help delve deeper into your habits, what you eat, when you eat it, and how it makes you feel. Also, take note of your emotional state while eating. For example, notice if you are eating because you’re hungry or eating when you’re anxious, angry, sad, etc. You’ll start to notice links between what you put in your body and what your body subsequently tells you.
Your consumption needs change daily in reaction to your body’s needs, too. For instance, the intensity of your workout has a direct impact on your body’s energy needs. After a grueling workout, the energy demand to refuel and drive recovery is higher. This, however, is not to be confused with the tendency to reward a workout with poor eating habits.
If you notice your body feels bloated or sluggish after eating a particular type of food, keep track of it in your food journal. If the problem persists, seek out a dietitian or nutritionist.
The marketing behind food places a lot of emphasis on the right supplements and “superfoods” to take pre, during, and post-workout, but in reality, most of us aren’t even getting the basics down. No need to over-complicate things here: eat simple, fresh, whole foods. Avoid food products that have large, unfamiliar, and unpronounceable ingredient lists. This is usually a reliable indicator of a product that has been heavily processed and refined. Packaged kale chips have an ingredient list; fresh kale does not.
More Plants, More Life
In the US, only 1 out of 10 adults get enough fruits and vegetables. However, the Western diet puts animal proteins as the focal point of meals. I prefer to view meat as a side dish on a loaded plate of veggies and other plant-based options. Varying your protein sources with beans, lentils, fish, and eggs (roasted curried chickpeas is one of my favorite go-to's) is also a good way to get foods with different nutrient make-ups. It is important for recovery that you’re getting enough protein but everyone’s needs are different. You may want to consult with a dietitian or nutritionist for your exact needs.
Foods from plants tend to be more nutrient-dense and lower in calories than animal-based ones. The quality of 500 calories of processed foods is much different than 500 calories of dark leafy greens, colorful vegetables, grains, and lean protein. Eating with this focus will help you consume fewer calories, yet feel fuller, offering the most bang for your buck. Limiting processed foods leads to less inflammation, better sleep and recovery, improved overall health, and will better fuel your workouts. Don’t be fooled though by plant-based meat substitutes because they are heavily processed and often just as calorically-dense.
Game Plans > Meal Plans
Follow your game plan but recognize that balance is key to health and happiness. We all fall off our plan at some point. It’s easier to stay on track if you know what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat it, and who you will eat it with. Have food prepared for planned meals, or some ready-to-cook options handy because unhealthy foods and snacks are readily accessible at every turn. Settling for these options promotes meal irregularity, dysregulation of energy balance, and distracts you from your plan. If you know you have food in the fridge, it will be harder to go off course. Remember, if you do the right things 80% of the time, the rest will fall in place. Go out with friends, have pizza or ice cream; it’s ok!
Drink More Water
It’s so simple but so easy to forget. When you’re not properly hydrated, your body operates on less fuel, and you feel drained. In addition, dehydration can actually make you hold onto extra water as a defense mechanism to make up for the lack of incoming water. Generally, the recommendation is to drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water each day. I have a 26oz water bottle that I carry around and it’s easy to think about drinking 3-4 full ones every day. But again, the specific quantities depend on your unique daily needs.
Food, sleep, and water are nature’s best recovery options. Stay tuned in to your body’s specific needs because what you put in determines what you get out.