Imogen Cross is a Spartan Pro Team member, a Spartan SGX Coach, and a professional trainer. Her approach to health-and-performance nutrition hinges on simplicity and respecting the energy demands of the sport.
“I like to follow a ‘see food diet,’” she says with a laugh. “I see food and I eat it. But seriously, I don’t follow any particular diet. As cliché as it may sound, I believe in everything in moderation.”
Keeping Your Energy Account In Balance
The one area that she has prioritized is calibrating her caloric intake.
“I coach people for general fitness as well as OCR prep,” Cross says. “For OCR, we focus on pre- and post-race nutrition. We help people to understand that their body cannot work at a high level without adequate fuel.”
Cross says that in her work as a trainer, she has seen a certain pattern emerge that indicates a clear redirect.
“It can be very hard for some of our female clients to get their heads around the under-eating problem, but the results don't lie,” she says. “When an athlete is saying that they don't have any energy, answering a simple, ‘What have you eaten today?’ will usually get to the bottom of it.”
Listening to the body: It’s a key fundamental that Cross has come to embrace through her own training and racing.
“I have become aware of what the demands of the training and the sport itself do to your appetite and energy level,” she says.
Cross offers a recent example.
“I saw a quote that stuck out to me a while back," Cross says. "It contained the message: ‘An athlete doesn't diet and workout, they eat and train.’ When racing at an elite level, all aspects of your lifestyle must be on point. You cannot expect a high level of performance out of an undernourished body. In fact, just this past weekend I forgot to take a Gu on my run. I got to six miles and hit a wall. I didn't have much left to give, and really had to push to get my last mile.”
Stay Tuned: An Overarching Approach
Although it again sounds like a cliché, Cross says that it is crucial to listen to what your body is trying to tell you and to consciously avoid trying to block pertinent information out.
“Being in tune with your body is very important,” she says. “I have a couple of clients who, in their quest to lose weight, have under-eaten to the point where they no longer have natural hunger signals. This is a bad spot to be in.”
Cross isn’t saying you should thoughtlessly give in to every craving. Rather, listen to the cravings and strive to understand the full message.
“If the body needs something, it should give you a signal,” she says. “So if you want chocolate chip cookies all the time, perhaps the underlying message is that you are under-eating.”
That said, Cross mentions that if the signal is infrequent, don’t overstress about it.
“If you want something you feel you ‘shouldn't’ be eating, then you should probably just have one,” she says.
Experiment Before the Race, Not During
Another basic principle that, in Cross’s view, may be under-appreciated (and ultimately ignored) is the maxim of pre-race testing of foods and drinks (during appropriate training sessions) that you might use during a competition.
When it comes to sports drinks or any foods or supplements that you might ingest during a race — and the longer the race the more critical this principle becomes — you want the essential questions thoroughly answered well before the gun goes off.
The Essential Questions
Questions like, can I ingest this drink or food while exercising at race intensity? In other words, will I keep it down or will it throw my digestive system into chaos?
And is the food or drink palatable? Knowing the importance of fueling the effort with adequate energy, how is it going to taste to you when you drive yourself for extended periods of time tapping both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems?
“The principle of not using any new food or supplements on race day actually came from a friend of mine who ran a half marathon and was given a gel to eat part way through the race,” Cross recalls.
Her friend had not tried out the gel in her training beforehand, and the consequences were vivid.
“It upset her stomach so badly that she had to go and knock on some random person's front door and ask to use their bathroom," she says. "What a mistake to make!”
Recovery: Another Piece of the Nutrition Puzzle
“I would say that the thing I am still trying to improve on is post-race-weekend recovery. After my last race weekend, a Trifecta, I was absolutely exhausted both mentally and physically. I was in a brain fog — tired and actually a little depressed — for three days.”
Cross has since committed herself to improving her post-event recovery game.
“I have two more Trifecta weekends this year," she says. "I'm not planning on repeating the experience again.”
A Typical Day of Imogen Cross Nutrition
— Flavored oatmeal
— Handful of blueberries
— Greek yogurt (vanilla)
Cross calls this "Granoatmeal." Nothing esoteric, but both tasty and packed with energy and nutrients.
Morning Snack: Simple and Fast
Again, nothing fancy with all macronutrients addressed — tasty and easy to digest.
— Ground turkey
Cross opts for foods that she likes and that she knows cover the bases of her nutritional approach. Building a lunch staple built on dinner leftovers also saves time. Recipe plans that require daily cooking of lunches don’t usually appreciate the time demands of a working athlete.
Afternoon Snack: Simple Energy
— Two (or so) pieces of cinnamon bread with butter
Dinner: Checking the Boxes
That's it: protein, carbs, and nutrients.
Dessert: A Hard-Won Treat
“I LOVE chocolate!” Cross says.