Note: Since i first released this post i have received a discount code for you all to use when purchasing any SFNutrition products mentioned below. Just click on the hyperlink and enter FUELMEED at checkout.
Right, before I get into this let me get a few things straight. I am not a nutritionist, I am merely an interested observer who occasionally manages to go a week without crisps or chocolate. Now that’s cleared up please read on but do take anything I say with a pinch of salt, or sugar…. or anything really as long as its in moderation.
Ten years in professional sport equates to quite a lot of hours being ‘advised’ on nutrition… The way this ‘advice’ was administered usually came down to how urgent the strength and conditioning staff deemed you needed advising. The bulk of the squad would have information drip fed through passing comments and the odd enlightening article from the nutritionist, however the more ‘nutritionally challenged’ of the group could come under a bombardment of forced learning, one to one lectures and daily weigh ins. Whatever the method (and I’ve experienced both) you can’t help but absorb a fair amount of knowledge along the way.
The truth is that over the years I’ve seen so many fads and diets come and go that its hard to hang your hat on any in particular. To be honest my main challenge during my playing career was to reach and maintain a weight that was deemed ‘competitive’ for my position. Naturally I’m not a big guy; I’m tall yes, but big, not really. I was born with fitness not strength, strength and size I have to fight for. I used to do at least three extra weights sessions a week just to keep up with the rest of the forwards, I had to, I wasn’t quick enough to play in the backs…. It didn’t take me long to realise that all of this training was pointless without getting enough calories on board. I could spend loads of time trying to recall exactly what I was eating back then but basically it was just a lot, of everything. I knew the principles and tried to be healthy six days a week but to be honest with the amount of training I was doing I didn’t need to be careful about what I ate. Not to say I never tipped over into full fridge mode, it has happened… 🐷
Telling people to train twice a day and eat as much as you can isn’t going to help anyone other than Sumo wrestlers and Olympic swimmers. So I want to talk about where i am now with my diet and nutrition, and the changes I have made and are continuing to make as my recovery progresses.
So the obvious dilemma initially was going from burning between 4000 – 5000 calories a day to almost 0. Staying completely still for a week would be a pretty efficient way to put on some pounds, if, and its an important if, you could eat normally. The operation had left me feeding through a tube in my nose, which has a tendency to stifle the appetite somewhat. Eventually when I did manage to return to eating I had to think carefully about how I was going to get the nutrients on board considering the sea of beige that the hospital canteen was producing. Apart from the occasional M&S delivery, back then the simple answer was supplements. I chopped and changed a bit initially but if I was to advise someone in a similar situation (living on hospital food for months), I would suggest:
(I have put links to the products that i now use after a lot of trial and error. If you are considering different products bare in mind that when it comes to supplements you usually get what you pay for.)
- A decent Probiotic (Maintain a healthy gut)… Probiotics 180 Capsules
- A good multivitamin (Replace the vitamins and minerals missing in hospital food)… Solgar Formula VM-2000Â
- High grade Omega 3 (essential fatty acids DHA and EPA, reduce inflammation and promote brain and heart health)… Nordic Oil High Strength 500ml
- Vitamin D3 (Its difficult to get natural sunlight when you’re stuck on a ward, and vitamin D deficiency poses some serious health risks so its important to supplement it)…. Vitamin D3 1,000 IU
- Super greens powder (i would battle the beige with greens, a great source of alkaline)… SF Supergreens Powder 250g
Ok so that’s a run down of what ‘I’ would see as essential micronutrient additions for an extended stay in hospital. Having said that, apart from the multivitamin which i try and cover through my diet, i continue to take all of these supplements daily. Most of it is self explanatory but vitamin D is often overlooked. The NHS have actually now changed their guidelines due to the level of sunlight in the UK and recommend that children and babies should supplement 10 mcg a day all year round. The adults need the same but should only need to supplement it during the winter months as from March -September the necessary dose should be available through natural sunlight (unless you’re inside all the time)…
In the first 6 -8 weeks i could hardly move and my body had turned highly catabolic. My body was using my muscles as fuel. The proteins are much easier to break down in muscles than fat, and seeing as they were inactive my brain considered them fair game. The result was a loss of 20kg (over 3 stone) in 3 weeks. It was a tough one to take, seeing years worth of gym time go down the toilet. Thankfully i had bigger things to worry about so i didn’t dwell on it to long. The challenge i faced was to give my body the necessary nutrients and calories needed for recovery without putting on too much ‘bad’ weight. By ‘bad weight’ i mean fat. I was now the weakest i had been in 28 years so every extra kilo that i had to lug around counted. My inactivity in the early days meant that i just limited my calories and made sure i got the nutrients i needed from the M&S care packages my mum was bringing in and the supplements listed above. As i progressed however so did my output. As i was able to do more i would spend an increasing amount of my day in the gym or in a standing frame, not to mention trying to set lap records around the garden in my wheelchair.
This increasing output meant that i had to give my body the necessary fuel to work with. At this point i introduced two more members to the squad:
- Whey Protein (needed to make sure that the building blocks were there for recovery so i started supplementing some protein after tough physio sessions) Whey Protein (Dark Chocolate, 909g)
- Electrolytes (replace essential salts and minerals lost during sweat) Electrolytes + BCAA powder
I had become increasingly paranoid about what was going into my body and was fully aware of the amount of crap that can often be found in most of these supplement powders. The constant flavour battle usually leads to brands adding large amounts of sugar and sweeteners to their products, and we all know about sugar don’t we kids…
Well i found a company through one of my friends who guarantee 100% all natural ingredients in its supplements, its made in the UK and it tastes good. Believe me when i say that that combination is quite a rare find, so SF Nutrition are now my go to.
Its common knowledge that hydration is important for general health and as a sportsman we have to be particularly diligent about not getting dehydrated as it can seriously hinder performance. On the ward the doctors would hammer home the importance of hydration and when you’re carrying around a bag full of your urine everywhere with you it’s easy for them to check if you are staying hydrated simply based on colour. It was mid summer on the spinal ward, well it was mid summer for the whole northern hemisphere to be fair but that’s not the point. The point is that it was hot. It was hot and i was doing important things like trying to break lap records around Horatios garden. In the summer when we were on pre season training camps we would always be given electrolytes and salts to replace what we were losing through sweat. I decided to apply the same principles in hospital and felt the benefits straight away. I felt less lethargic and it seemed to help me sleep better. Since then i have found an electrolyte powder which is combined with branch chain amino acids so i can effectively kill two birds with one stone when recovering.
One of the biggest issues that people with spinal cord injuries have to manage is their bowels. An SCI will generally affect the process of eliminating waste from the intestines and this can affect people in different ways. A common effect and one that i experience is a slow moving bowel. It takes a lot longer for my body to process food and constipation is a real risk. Gut and bowel health is so important and trying to make sure you are as clear as possible is a daily challenge. For three months in hospital this was achieved with laxatives before bed, suppositories in the morning and then a ‘manual evacuation’. I’m not going to go into too much detail however lets just say that you are always happier to see nurses with small hands come and say hello in the morning.
I have been keen to move away from all medications and in fact anything that isn’t made up of natural ingredients so finding a more sustainable way to keep the bowels efficient has been important. Hydration is key as you can imagine however that alone is often not enough to keep things rolling. Finally i have settled on an effective combination that works wonders for me and it comes in the form of a daily smoothie… I use a NUTRiBULLET , but any good blender will do the job as long as its got at least 900 watts behind it.
Ok so it looks like quite a lot of admin for a smoothie but it literally only takes me 2 minutes now that i’m used to it. I have toyed with loads of different combinations but this one seems to work an absolute dream, and i’ll tell you for why:
- Its full of antioxidants that help to delay cell damage.
- Lots of natural proteins and unsaturated fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated) help lower cholesterol levels and provide building blocks for recovery.
- Plenty of essential vitamins and minerals.
- As well as being a good source of Omega 3 much of the fibre in Chia seeds is soluble and they can absorb a huge volume of water. This leads to them taking on a gel like consistency in the gut which seems to help clear the system and form some picture perfect poos…. 💩
- The turmeric powder has strong anti inflammatory properties which helps ease niggling injuries and joint pain amongst other things.
- Looks leave something to be desired but it tastes great which is all that matters.
A few tips:
- Frozen greens and berries actually retain more of their vitamins and minerals, it also means you don’t need to chuck a load of ice in.
- I use a big 32 Ounce Cup which allows me to make more of the stuff and drink it throughout the day. (Also you need the volume so that the consistency is not too thick).
- The Chia seeds can be a bit grainy so if you don’t like bits blend it once then leave it to stand for a couple of minutes, then blend again.
- Almond milk can be replaced by water.
- Go easy on the turmeric, it can be quite overpowering….
- Put the chia seeds in last otherwise they can stick to the bottom of the Cup.
Ok that’s the supplements covered…. but where i am now with my eating?
So my goals are probably similar to most peoples although the motivation behind it might be slightly different. I am facing the classic challenge of trying to get stronger and leaner at the same time. Stronger because as well as confused neural pathways, localised muscular weakness is having the biggest effect on my gait. Leaner because the less weight i am carrying around the easier it is to move… and climb up mountains…. Those are the functional reasons, however if anyone tries to tell you that they don’t care how their diet and training makes them look then they’re lying. Whatever the balance of your motivation, being healthy is the most important thing and i have found by following some simple guidelines i am able to not only feel good but also facilitate all of the training i am doing.
Sugar and Carbs
This is about as simple as it gets… try and limit refined/processed carbohydrate and added sugars… they’re bad for you kids. As well as being associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes, these refined carbs tend to cause major spikes in blood sugar levels, which leads to a subsequent crash that can trigger hunger and cravings for more high-carb foods. This is the “blood sugar roller coaster” that many people are familiar with.
Refined carbohydrate foods are usually also lacking in essential nutrients. In other words, they are “empty” calories. Added sugars are another story altogether, they are the absolute worst carbohydrates and linked to all sorts of chronic diseases (cardiovascular disease & sugar).
I try and get most of the carbohydrates in my diet from whole foods…. Fruit, veg, legumes and whole grains are loaded with nutrients and fiber, and don’t cause the same spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. Hundreds of studies on high-fiber carbohydrates, including vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains show that eating them is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of disease. That being said i still get through my fair share of ‘fun’ carbs, but i try and save them for the weekend or when i go out..
Over the last eighteen months or so i would say that this has become my most influential tool in the fight against fat. There’s a number of reasons for this but primarily it’s because its easy. Oh and it works.
So firstly intermittent fasting isn’t a diet as such it’s more of an eating schedule. The fact that you don’t have to radically change your diet, in fact you can keep it exactly the same, makes this method far easier to implement and sustain than many other fat loss techniques.
The simple science behind it goes like so:
Your body is in the fed state when it is digesting and absorbing food. Typically, the fed state starts when you begin eating and lasts for three to five hours as your body digests and absorbs the food you just ate. When you are in the fed state, it’s very hard for your body to burn fat because your insulin levels are high.
After that timespan, your body goes into what is known as the post–absorptive state, which is just a fancy way of saying that your body isn’t processing a meal. The post–absorptive state lasts until 8 to 12 hours after your last meal, which is when you enter the fasted state. It is much easier for you body to burn fat in the fasted state because your insulin levels are low. When you’re in the fasted state your body can burn fat that has been inaccessible during the fed state.
Because we don’t enter the fasted state until 12 hours after our last meal, it’s rare that our bodies are in this fat burning state. This is one of the reasons why many people who start intermittent fasting will lose fat without changing what they eat, how much they eat, or how often they exercise. Fasting puts your body in a fat burning state that you rarely make it to during a normal eating schedule.
Generally i try to do all of my days eating in an 8-10 hour window, leaving me with a 14 – 16 hour fasting period. I find that the easiest way to do this is to skip breakfast, sticking to black coffee and water before having a meal or smoothie (mentioned above) at 11 or 12 (usually after my first physio session). I then enjoy the process of getting a days worth of calories in before 8 or 9pm.
My initial concern was that alongside dropping fat i would also find it difficult to maintain muscle mass, however that hasn’t been the case. In fact on top of its fat burning credentials it has been proven to maintain and even increase lean muscle mass when combined with resistance training (Journal of Translational Medicine 2016). Ok the easiest (and most fun) way to get stronger is to combine resistance training with stuffing in as many calories as you can, whenever you can. You will get stronger however you will also get obese, which isn’t useful for me, or infact anyone; unless, as mentioned before, you are a sumo wrestler or about to be stranded on a desert island. The fact is that by implementing this simple change i have been able to make genuine ‘lean gains’, a phrase that i previously thought was a myth made up by Arnie to piss all of us mere mortals off.
Another reason why i like to use intermittent fasting is because you can implement it anywhere, anytime and you can also drift in and out. Its true that if you want change then you need consistency, and although i eat ‘well’ 90% of the week, i still love to have a few drinks and eat dominos from time to time. With something like a ketogenic diet, you have to commit 100% to it otherwise you won’t reap the rewards. Well in all honesty i haven’t got that in me. I have a few lifestyle faux pas’ that i am not willing to sacrifice for the sake of a quick six pack. Besides having washboard abs wont help me walk better but a few glasses of wine seems to… that last bit was a joke… kind of. What i’m trying to say is that you can get yourself healthy and in good shape without cutting out all of the fun, it’s just about moderation.
About a couple of months ago i thought i was looking a bit lighter than usual so i stepped on the scales and was surprised to see i had lost about a stone since my previous weigh in. What was going on? My diet hadn’t changed, i was still doing the same amount of physiotherapy and gym sessions, I had however started doing a lot more hill walking in preparation for Snowdon, but surely not enough to drop a stone in a month… I started using a heart rate monitor and GPS watch to calculate the calories i was burning during these hill walking sessions and was shocked by the results. A single hour could see me burn up to 1000 calories! I checked this across a few walks and even with different devices but the results were the same. An average heart rate of 140bpm + highlighted the extra effort it takes me to move around now that my gait is so inefficient. The human body when walking in a ‘healthy’ gait utilises a lot of stored elastic energy from tendons to make moving more effortless. My quasimodo style approach means that effortless is out and slogging away is in. I spoke to Pistol Pete and he estimated it took me roughly double the energy to walk anywhere now and all of this extra slogging about had clearly put me in a big calorie deficit. As a result i have temporarily put the intermittent fasting to one side in order to get the calories i need in and can safely say i am now eating just as much as when i was training full time as a professional rugby player, and thats alot…. good job i love food!
So that’s what works for me in a nutshell. I’m certainly no guru and none of these principles are revolutionary but myself and others i know have used these simple principles successfully to get results without feeling like we’re stuck in a famine or have turned into a rabbit. Like all good things it takes time but for those of you who like to keep fit and healthy but aren’t ready to give up your social life, move into a gym and live off quinoa, i think this is a good place to start.
See below links to a couple of good podcasts i would recommend listening too if you’re interested in getting a bit more technical…