The Fundamentals of Sports Nutrition: How to Use Intuition to Improve Fueling

Data has its benefits, but only when we learn to apply an intuitive approach to our fueling can we unlock the most efficient and healthy sports nutrition habits.

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In part 1 of our series on the fundamental principles of sports nutrition, Introductory Concepts for Fueling the Engine, we reviewed the basics: Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are the fuels that power human performance and recovery—and water is a critical piece of the puzzle.

In part 2, Optimizing Fuel Supplies, we reviewed how to identify gaps in our fueling station and knowledge, and thereby improve fueling habits to support our sports nutrition needs.

Now, we want to shift our mindset from a data-driven or numbers-based approach (e.g., food logging) to a more intuitive approach. This will help us get to a place where we simply “know” what we need, and we can put aside the time spent logging or digging into data to move efficiently through our nutrition process.

Many of the athletes I’ve worked with, of various ages and abilities, frequently want to continue food logging. Athletes are often data driven, so it makes sense that this drive would carry over to nutrition monitoring and planning.

Data can play a significant role in our ability to attain goals and reach a high level of performance, but there comes a time when we must balance a focus on numbers with a certain level of intuition. Yes, we should regularly come back to the numbers, but at some point, the primary focus should shift away from the numbers.

Eventually, that data should become less critical to making healthy choices—instead we want to have an innate sense of the direction to go, and the data can serve to support that notion (or to suggest changes).

So, how do we move toward this intuitive approach? At the bottom of this page, you will find an abbreviated example timeline that I use with my athletes. Realize that this is not the only way to move through this process—it must be specific to each person based on their starting point, goals, and readiness for change.

First, let’s go into more detail about how this timeline tends to play out.

How data informs intuition 

Initially, athletes are often focused on the numbers. But with so much data available, it can be overwhelming to review it all and know what to do next. In some cases, it is easy to look at calories in/calories out and, all at once, try to fully control that on a day-to-day basis.

I call this process, or instinct, nutritional micromanagement. I’ve never seen this work. If it does work, it is only a short-term change at best.

Starting at this point is okay; it gives you the chance to use the objective data to easily enact changes and track progress. It is analogous to going from training without data to getting your first heartrate monitor. (Suddenly, you have an easy method to track intensity and see improvements in fitness.) Here, we are doing the same thing with our nutrition.

In the first couple weeks, I establish some short and long-term goals with athletes, using easily trackable objective data to guide the process. There are two main avenues we may go down at this point:

  • Improving day-to-day nutrition
  • Improving sport-specific nutrition

While working on these areas, we will again use the objective data to relate our habits to accepted healthy eating patterns. This would include main topics such as:

  • Energy balance compared to energy needs
  • Macronutrient breakdown and relevance to health and exercise
  • Micronutrients as compared to recommended amounts for health and activity

This process usually takes between two to four weeks of practice, during which we check progress before establishing next steps. When it comes to logging data (either in written form, using an app, or otherwise), I recommend a minimum of one day per week and never recommend more than three days per week to start.

In addition to logging some fueling data, I like to include the following information to round out the data and move us toward understanding the factors that affect our fueling:

  • Timing
  • Hunger
  • Mood
  • Notes

We consider timing to better understand the frequency of fueling. This may have implications tied to pre/post-workout fueling or supporting energy levels.

Hunger is another key factor to analyze; we can dig into those sensations in the body that can trigger a desire (or lack thereof) for fueling throughout the day.

Mood is another important component. When we can determine not only the frequency of fueling and sensations of hunger, but also mood, we can generate a more complete picture of the factors influencing habits and begin to move toward a more intuitive approach to fueling.

Moving beyond the data

Eventually, given enough practice and consultation, an athlete will develop a good idea of what the numbers are, by intuition, based on previous weeks of data logging and interpretation. They should also have insight into the other factors that influence fueling habits. This is what we can use to move beyond the numbers.

At this point I encourage athletes to start using food logging (whatever method they prefer) to check progress. This is when we switch from interpreting the data in relation to our goals or researched recommendations, and instead start to make projections on what our data might look like—and only use food logging to confirm those intuitions or help adjust our habits.

For example, we might have a goal of increasing the number of servings of non-starchy vegetables throughout the day. We would then have an idea of what our ideal number of servings would be and be able to describe what a plate might look like with the proper arrangement of vegetables.

Then we would select a day to put this into practice—what I like to call “nutrition training” days—and complete that day. Logging would ideally take place after the fact and would be used to check and compare those results to what you thought you consumed.

As we develop a better feel for our nutrition, I rely more on the athlete to make decisions—he or she takes nearly complete control of their progress. I often have them develop their own quality scale related to their goals. This is where we would move completely away from logging and collecting data for long periods of time.

For example, if our goal is to fuel with the appropriate number of calories, I might help the athlete create his or her own scale to assess fueling habits. This is not only more satisfying because the athlete takes ownership of their progress, but he or she also experiences the changes more fully—it becomes much more than scanning numbers spit out by one of a hundred different apps. This scale allows for better discussion and interpretation of habits as the athletes progresses towards their goals.

Applying the intuitive approach

If you would like to start applying this method, think about what metrics are most important to you in your progress and write them down. How can you track these, and how will they evolve from a more data-oriented approach to a more intuitive approach? What kind of monitoring works for your situation? These are some of the questions that will help as you develop your own approach to fueling.

Below is an abbreviated example timeline that I use with my athletes. As mentioned earlier, remember that this is not the only way to move through this process—it must be specific to each athlete based on their starting point, goals, and readiness for change.

The third column contains a few terms: data-heavy, data-driven, data + subjective, intuitive + data, and intuitive. This is meant to show a brief description of the general focus and where I guide athletes.

Let’s further define these terms:

Data-heavy

Initially we are using baseline numbers and assessments to produce a plan and discuss goals for the coming weeks. We will use additional food log numbers to connect what is actually happening (in the data) with what your perception of your eating habits feels like during upcoming sessions.

Data-driven

Now we start to strengthen the connection between what you are feeling, seeing, and experiencing with the data to support or guide your progress. I will ask additional questions to clarify, and look to you for a greater explanation of how things are going with every check-in.

Data + subjective

At this stage, we hope to understand what is most meaningful for you to realize progress and track changes. This is where you step more into the driver’s seat and I move further into the passenger seat, to supply guidance. At this point, you will be able to develop your own subjective rating system that will replace data-heavy food logging and the numbers-focus of previous weeks.

Intuitive + data

Here I rely heavily on your interpretation of your experiences, feelings, and habits to decide next steps. I will suggest bringing in data as necessary to support or refute certain experiences or decisions, but this is a process where you will experience both success and failure often. You might feel like you are bouncing around with decisions as you progress. This is normal since we are working to “train” the brain to move from a less-focused approach to a more mindful approach.

Intuitive

Finally, you get to a point where you feel like you no longer need the data frequently. You can look at a plate, a meal, or a menu item and have a good sense of what you need, how much, and so on. You can write down your event/race needs, organize your plan, and feel confident about your strategy as you head toward the start line. At this point, ideally we check in less often, but still do so at regular intervals to support your ongoing needs, questions, and experiences.

Example timeline 

To continue the conversation, visit our forum to discuss this topic further.

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