Whether you're hunting a new marathon PB, sculpting Instagram-ready muscle, or chasing a promotion at work, you will need the one priceless commodity most men lack: energy. This invisible power source is the accelerator of your ambitions, the motor that moves your muscles, and the nourishment that feeds your brain. Yet a wave of popular fasting trends, from the 5:2 Diet to 24-hour fasts, are encouraging us to eat less than the recommended daily calorie intake – effectively denying us this golden resource – in pursuit of a healthier body.
James Collins, an elite sports nutritionist who has worked with Arsenal football club, the England and France football teams and Team GB Olympians over the last decade, is advocating a game-changing new approach. He wants you to forget energy-sapping fasting regimes, which risk turning you into a shuffling, groaning extra from ‘The Walking Dead’, and start powering up your body for optimal daily performance. In his new book, ‘The Energy Plan’, Collins insists every meal is a golden opportunity to fuel your body's engine. RSNG caught up with him to find out how…
‘At its heart is the simple premise that food is fuel – our body and mind run on this resource’
Back To Nutrition Basics
Collins says that it’s time to stop dieting and instead think about building a reservoir of energy. ‘At its heart is the simple premise that food is fuel,’ says Collins. ‘Our body and mind run on this resource, and it is only through fuelling in a targeted and deliberate manner that we can look and feel the way we want, and enjoy the benefits of a bountiful reservoir of energy.’
Unlike spending the whole day forlornly camel-chewing on kale crisps, or gnawing at cardboard-dry crackers, this is a nutritional blueprint that’s actually sustainable. ‘I want you to think about food in a positive way. This isn't about depriving you of the food and drink you love. It's about giving you the tools to understand your intake and be able to tailor food to meet your goals.’
It's a powerful message that is easily forgotten in the quest for a leaner physique. Weightlifters can shed body fat by restricting their calories, but they can also find themselves fading at the end of sets. Endurance cyclists will benefit from higher power-to-weight ratios, but that’s not much use if they lack the stamina to finish a race. ‘It’s no good looking great if you don’t have the energy to deliver a performance,’ insists Collins.
It’s better to adopt a more tactical approach to fuelling your body, with smarter choices, habits and routines that will help energise your physical and mental performance without piling on the pounds. So, how can we get started?
Carb stores Are Your Fuel Gauge
Carbohydrates, which are stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver, are the body’s principal fuel source for exercise: during low-intensity exercise, your muscles burn more fat, but during high-intensity training, you switch to using carbs as your primary fuel. The key to healthily managing your carb intake isn’t extreme restriction, but clever manipulation. ‘It's not about having a high- or low-carb diet, it's about matching your intake to your activity levels,’ reveals Collins.
Imagine your energy stores as your ‘fuel gauge’, then simply crank up the carbs before heavy or high-intensity training, and back off on quieter, rest days. Aim for neither an excess nor a deficit in your daily ‘fuel budget’. Collins says low-glycaemic foods like porridge oats, rye bread, buckwheat, wild rice or lentils provide the best slow-release carbs for sustained energy.
Healthy Fats Will Boost Energy
Fats have a dirty reputation but they are an excellent fuel source. ‘Fat is the body's most concentrated store of energy,’ explains Collins. ‘A gram of fat releases 9 kcal of energy, compared to just 4 kcal per gram of carbohydrate.’ Fat is also our muscles’ preferred fuel for lower-intensity activity, like steady jogs or long and slow bike rides. But that’s not a grease-soaked invitation to chow down pizzas and cookies every day.
‘The focus within your daily intake should be on healthier monounsaturated fats like olive or groundnut oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, and the polyunsaturated Omega 3 fats in salmon, walnuts and flaxseed, which will boost your energy stores and your mental focus,’ advises Collins.
‘Demands you place on your body each day are different so you must fuel your body differently every day’
Become An Iron Man For Endurance
‘Iron is an important component of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around your body during exercise,’ says Collins. Endurance athletes require it to maximise their energy and stamina during long periods of exercise, so get stuck into some unprocessed red meats, pulses, beans, nuts and fruit and always aim for more than the minimum recommendation of 8mg per day for men.
Learn To Build A Performance Plate
Collins recommends you learn to build different 'performance plates’ to meet your daily needs. ‘The demands you place upon your body each day are different and so you must fuel your body differently every day. For a harder training day, more ‘fuelling’ meals and snacks are required pre- and post-training, but for a non-training day you should stick to ‘maintenance’ plates, where the fuel demands are reduced.’
A 'fuelling' plate should be made up of carb-rich ‘fuel’ food (one portion would be a cupped-hand of basmati rice, freekeh or lentils), protein-dense 'maintenance' food (a standard serving is a palm-sized portion of chicken, turkey or prawns) and nutrient-rich 'protection' foods (such as two handfuls of broccoli or green beans, one handful of blackberries or cherries, or a thumb-sized serving of healthy fats such as extra-virgin olive oil or chia seeds). A 'maintenance' plate should remove the carb portion for a 1.5 serving of 'maintenance' foods, a 1.5 portion of mixed vegetables and one portion of healthy fats. For a ‘competition’ plate before a big performance, aim for a double portion of fuel foods, along with a single portion of maintenance and protection foods.
Smooth Out Those Energy Peaks And Troughs
Sugary or high-fat snacks will play havoc with your metabolism. ‘The outcome of this is typically erratic energy levels and mood created by the constant blood glucose rollercoaster,’ explains Collins. Stick to healthier snacking options which guarantee slow-release energy and again tailor your choices to the scenario: low-fat Greek yoghurt and nuts works well as a mid-afternoon maintenance snack or after training; home-made oat flapjacks are perfect for an in-ride cycling or mid-workout snack; and a smoked salmon open sandwich will replenish your energy stores, and muscles after exercise. But don't forget to include snacks as part of your overall 'fuel budget'.
Build Winning Behaviours
A good routine is the secret to everyday energy so Collins suggests you build small 'winning behaviours’ to stay on track. ‘With some management of your own environment – both at home and at work – you can build your own performance infrastructure and create your own winning behaviours,’ he explains. Suggestions include drawing up a weekly meal planner to match your training schedule, batch-cooking meals at weekends to take in to work, and doing ‘performance shopping’ to ensure you have key ingredients like fruit, oils and seeds at home.
WHAT NEXT? Watch James Collins explain how his sports nutrition philosophy applied to Arsenal football club’s athletes.
For more ideas, insights, recipes and advice, check out The Energy Plan: Eat Smart, Feel Strong, Perform at Your Peak, by James Collins (www.amazon.co.uk/Energy-Plan-Smart-Strong-Perform/dp/1785042297)
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.