MACROS 101 Spartan Challenge: Week #2 — Why (+ When) Athletes Need Healthy Fats
We're primed to hack it on the race course after a helluva long year. Are you? Sure, true to your unstoppable grit, determination, and perseverance, you've done your best to stay OCR-ready while sheltering at home. But with Spartan races back in full swing, it's time to clean up your nutrition program and ditch poor pandemic habits once and for all. In partnership with Renaissance Periodization, we created this four-part MACROS 101 series to optimize your nutrition so you can get faster, stronger, and prevent injury. Download the free nutrition plan and keep an eye out for healthy recipes rolling out all month. We've got you covered for your most EPIC return to racing ever. AROO!
When it comes to fats, know this: if any nutrition book, website, YouTube channel or app tells you to cut out this macro completely, do not listen. That’s garbage advice.
This lesser-known (but performance-inhibiting and dangerous!) concept of fad dieting can drastically set you back from achieving your fitness goals when “good” and “bad” fats are grouped, then eliminated altogether. In other words, cutting “good” fat from an endurance athlete’s nutrition plan in most cases is a huge mistake.
To be clear, when we say “bad” fat, we mean the processed crap you can barely pronounce on a nutrition label—versions of “trans” or “saturated” ingredients. Yes, you should ditch those foods ASAP. And you know that already.
But for the purpose of optimizing fat intake on week #2 of our Macros 101 series with Renaissance Periodization, we’re talking about the healthy, unsaturated fats—mono (i.e. oil from avocados) and poly (i.e. omega-3s from fish)—that not only lower disease risk long term but also help your body metabolize carbs and protein, lower blood pressure, regulate hormones, support brain function and much more.
“The truth is, you actually can cut fats quite low for a long time and have great training performance,” says Dr. Alex Harrison, CSCS, USATF-3, USAW-1, USAT-1 and RP coach. But, that’s an illusion to creating a sustainable, risk-free long game, he says. “Once you’ve noticed that you may have cut fats too low and you’re having hormonally-related issues as a result, you’re probably months from recovering from that. It’s not worth flirting with those thresholds.”
Our advice? Don’t mess with your fat intake too much. Here’s what you need to know about healthy fats—how to get ‘em and why they matter with regard to your overall performance.
Related: MACROS 101 Spartan Challenge: Week #1 — Protein Primer + Calorie Balance
Why Endurance Athletes (Especially You Super Fit Runners!) Need a LOT of Fat
If you don’t have extra body fat to pull from, missing fat servings in your meals can cause both long- and short-term setbacks. “Acute absence of fat in a single meal or couple of meals can cause problems, and all of these problems tend to be most pronounced in fitter folks,” says Harrison. “If you’re a runner with plenty of muscle [and less fat intake], you’re a prime target for rebound hypoglycemia [i.e. sugar crash], increased hunger, changes to your hormone regulation and vitamin absorption issues.”
Healthy fat is a necessary component of any well-rounded nutrition regimen. When consumed with carbohydrates, it stabilizes your blood sugar, and slows digestion for better absorption and a smoother metabolic response. Skip it, and you’re likely to hit a sugar-fatigue wall spurring symptoms like nausea, stomach discomfort, shakiness, lightheadedness, weakness, irritability, sweating and tingling sensations. “If you skip fat for a meal entirely, while you might be lucky and avoid these hypoglycemia symptoms, you’ll still experience hunger much earlier [60-150 minutes] after that meal,” says Harrison.
Additionally, “the chronic absence of fat causes much more serious and long-lasting problems,” Harrison says. Athletes who cut out healthy fats and stick to exclusively low-fat foods may experience sex hormone disturbances that drastically reduce athletic performance, and vitamin imbalances leading to hair and nail changes over time, among other issues, he says.
Related: MACROS 101 Spartan Challenge: Week #3 — Carb Intake + Intra-Workout Fueling
Week #2 Goal: Mindfully Consume Healthy Fats At Each Meal, Ditch the Trans/Saturated Crap
The good news? It doesn’t take much to hit your dietary need for fat, in general, according to Harrison. By combining small amounts of oils (olive, avocado, sunflower) with a high monounsaturated fat to saturated fat ratio (more “good” than “bad”), and prioritizing plant-based fats, you’ll meet your daily needs. “Unless you’re specifically looking for very-low-fat and nonfat foods for everything you eat, you’ll have no trouble reaching your daily total fat needs for hormone health,” says Harrison.
The most important component to quality fat consumption is avoiding trans fats completely, and aggressively limiting saturated fats. “Depending on who you ask, saturated fat is either moderately bad for you, or it’s the worst thing ever,” Harrison says. “Regardless, it’s not something to eat much of if you’d like to have low morbidity as you age.”
Week Two To-Do:
So, in addition to increased protein consumption from last week, all you have to do for week two is to read labels dodging saturated/trans fats like the plague, and mindfully eating small amounts of healthy fats with each meal.
Related: MACROS 101 Spartan Challenge: Week #4 — Fruits, Veggies & Micros Decoded
When Should I Be Eating Fats During the Day?
More good news here: it doesn’t really matter, as long as you get enough of this macro. “Timing of nutrient consumption is usually of tertiary importance,” says Harrison. “Fats are the least important to have specific timing with, so folks should feel free to consume fats when they see fit.”
That said, it’s best to avoid fats 60 minutes pre workout and during exercise, and keep your post-workout meal relatively low fat so your body can absorb enough carbs and attain optimal glycogen repletion, he says. If you’re only training once per day, this doesn’t matter as much, but if you’re pulling two-a-day workouts, it’s wise to keep the fat content of meals between workouts to nearly zero.
Related: Need More Fat In Your Diet? Add This Basil Oil To Just About Anything
Quick Healthy-Fat Hacks to Better Balance Your Diet
In addition to the health benefits above, it’s important to note fats are an essential nutrient. This means your body can’t produce them on its own, so you must get them from your diet, according to Nick Shaw, RP co-founder and nutrition coach to OCR elites, CrossFit champions, UFC fighters, Navy SEALs, Olympians and more. To add more healthy fats into your diet, Shaw recommends sticking to nuts, nut butter (“just be careful that one serving doesn’t turn into four or five on accident,” he says), olive oil, coconut oil and other animal sources like grass fed beef, fish or organic butter.
Related: The Best Nutrient-Rich Guacamole Recipe to Fuel Up Your OCR Training Plan
Harrison says he personally chooses higher-fiber fat sources, like flax or chia seeds, because they tend to be more filling than straight oils. “Flax and chia seeds go into my NutriBullet in small quantities any time I make a smoothie,” he says. “I also really like avocado, but they’re so tasty and not a super high-satiety food, so sometimes it’s hard to turn down eating the rest of the avocado even if I don’t need a ridiculous 30 grams of fat with any given meal.” Bottom line: a little healthy fat goes a long way.
BONUS PRO TIP: Avoid snacking on fat sources. “It’s just too easy to mindlessly erase a desired calorie deficit [for target weight management] in the blink of an eye,” says Harrison. “It’s much better to choose fiber-rich carb sources or mixed carb and protein sources for snacks, especially as an endurance athlete. It’s pretty challenging to erase a kcal deficit by eating apples, you know?”
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