Guest Post – My Journey by Michael Black

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Michael Black is a Sports Coach and Personal Trainer based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. He runs his own gym and training facility called Optimal Fitness www.optimalfitness.ie . He competes at duathlon and long distance running. He is also development coach for Triathlon Ireland. This is his own personal story below:

My 1st attempt at really taking a critical look at my nutritional habits was Spring 2012. I had always been fascinated at how changes in nutrition could determine whether you performed well or had a slightly off day. At that time I was your typical endurance athlete, overeating on large amounts of carbs to supposedly get me though my 10 mile runs. Consuming copious amounts of bread, pasta, cereals and anything that shouted CARBS!!! Now as I later discovered carbohydrates were not always a bad thing but knowing when to use them and what types was the key to making sure they worked for me.

Eating used to be easy when you were young.  You get up in the morning and you have a bowl or cereal, slice of toast and a cup of tea. Head to school, work or college and have your lovely sandwich and maybe a sneaky bag of crisps before heading for training. To top it all off you came home to Mammy’s dinner of spuds and mince with brown sauce. MMMMHHHHH!!! Before you all start shouting at the page, I’m in no way advocating this as a balanced nutritional plan for sports performance or for general health and fitness. My point is that over the past few years we the general public and more so athletes, have been bombarded with information on how best to optimise our performance through a wide array of diets, plans and nutritional advice.

In a world full of social media where access to information once kept only for the elites, is as easy as boiling the kettle is it any wonder we have a confused society of athletes and sports people who one week feel they are on the path of greatness with their training and then BOOM… SUGAR IS EVIL!!! DON’T EAT FAT …BUT FAT IS YOUR FRIEND!!!! NO NEED FOR CARBS!!!…WELL MAYBE SOME BUT NOT THOSE ONES!!!!! I have seen numerous amounts of athletes including myself, go through emotional turmoil trying to perfect their nutritional habits based on what the latest research suggests. The psychological torment I have experienced from people who just get so transfixed on their eating habits and appearance is unbelievable and it’s this, that sometimes has more of detrimental effect on their performance and general health than any carb filled sugary piece of bread would ever do. I must admit I have done this myself. Measured it, weighed it, read every packet and travelled silly distances just to get the “RIGHT” product. If I had have just gone to bed an hour earlier and didn’t stress so much about it then I would have been a lot better set up to take on the day to follow.

On the 21st April 2012 I invited Barry Murray from Optimum Nutrition 4 Sport to my gym where he would give us an insight into how modern performance nutrition could really revolutionise the common practices that most endurance athletes adopted. I had been looking for a new way to max out whatever small bit of talent I had in me and was prepared to look at every possible gain I could get to achieve this. What I wasn’t prepared for was the psychological transformation and the positive relationship with how I eat today that this type of understanding has provided me with. I did a little research on Barry and to be honest thought some of his beliefs and claims were totally off the wall. Mad stuff. Sure this couldn’t be right. Then I looked at what he did in terms of sport, covering distances of over 100km on nothing but water and berries. Ok then maybe there might be something to this. On that evening a small group of people turned up to hear what this “crazy man” (in the nicest possible context) was talking about. From this one talk, the large brown penny finally dropped and smashed against the floor.

This was just the beginning of what was and still is an adventure, an everyday learning experience, a greater understanding of my own being and ways in which food, the environment and my own mental state immensely impact how I live and perform in my sport. Was this to change how I ran? Do I get faster overnight and start running PB’s, unfortunately no but that doesn’t means it wasn’t a success.

 

So what has changed in the last 3 years in terms of my eating habits? Everything. Typical breakfast three years ago would have been a bowl of cornflakes and two slices of brown toast with syrup. No butter because that’s bad for you…..right? Today eggs and salmon with some veggies. Lunch would have been brown bap with some chicken and a bit of salad and a cereal bar, today large salad with turkey or roast beef, cheese and some nuts. Dinner 3 years ago, a mountain of pasta and sauce with a small bit of not so great chicken. Now my plate is full of broccoli, peppers, kale, spinach topped with couple of slices or mozzarella and either Tuna steak or Beef.

In 2015 I revisited how I ate again as I wanted to run the Frankfurt Marathon in late October. The aim was to get as close to 2:30 as possible and again I needed to check back on my nutrition from a performance point of view. Ok lets torture Barry again to see if he can squeeze things even further. But to my surprise things didn’t need to change that much I just needed to ensure I was recovering properly and being as fat adapted as possible. The build-up began in early January and but changes and tweaks began straight after the Dublin marathon 2014, which was a disaster. Aiming for 2:34 but blowing up at half way didn’t give me much confidence but you have to accept what you have done and learn to move on.

Although I felt I was a “fat burning machine” (Barry’s words) at this stage I wanted to challenge this throughout the build-up and concentrate on two main things, 1: Long hard runs early in the morning on empty and 2: maximising the recovery protocol to ensure I was prepared to go again that day. At this stage I took on a new coach who pushed to me a place I had never gone before. I remember looking at some of the longer sessions and wondering if he had given me the wrong program, if it was for someone else. The type of sessions really complimented the nutritional plan I was on and the challenge of pushing the boundaries beyond what I believed was possible. As the weeks and months went on the miles rose and the sessions got harder and faster. Myself and a few other athletes decided to book 2 weeks warm weather training in Spain and we booked for the month August, early September. By this time I was running at least 10-15 miles per day with 16-20 miles of long runs on a Sunday with 15-16 miles of tempo or intervals on a Saturday. Most of my early morning run started at 6am so eating before this was not an option. Since 2012 I have been used to running on empty even when the effort and intensity of the sessions are high. I must emphasis this is not for everyone and I have just found what works for me. Initially you feel a little rough for the first 10-15 minutes but after that Im able to run at target pace throughout the whole session.

Typical long 20 mile runs were covered in an average pace of 6:35 per mile with the last 10 mile coming down close to 6:15-6:10. In Donegal you don’t get much chance for a flat piece of road so your average pace tends to fluctuate quite a bit. I remember one particular session the day before we left for camp which was 3x5km with 2 minutes recovery between each 5km rep. It was 6:05am once I finished my warm up (3miles) and it was around 2 degrees. The town was quiet and I was nervous as I knew that this may hurt a little. There was no time given for the 5km reps only to run strong ensure pace doesn’t drop dramatically. I choose a relatively flat route (for Donegal) and set off on my first rep. I planned not to look at the watch until I got to 4 km’s and assess how I feel from there. The fist mile didn’t feel great but this was pretty normal, something Barry cold explain more with all his “sciencey” know how. At 4km the watch beeped with 13:50 which got me back in around 16:50. At the line I finished the first rep in 16:43, feeling good. Heart rate was important and if didn’t settle after the 2 minutes I would wait until it got below 115bpm before setting off again. After 90 seconds heart rate was 107 so I set off on the second rep. Again at 4km the watch read 13:40, finishing this rep with a time of 16:26. Two minutes go really quick and although this was the last rep I was feeling nervous, thinking Im going to be walking this last one. I decided to check every mile to ensure I finish strong rather than crawling. 1st mile passed in 5:25, 2mile in 10:45 (5:20) finishing with a total time of 16:19. I knew at this stage things were going the right way and was confident for the upcoming camp.

 

Before I run the risk of ending up one of the people who I was talking about earlier and confusing the hell out of you I’m going to give you a few simple tips and take home messages on what I feel has worked for me

  1. Timing: I must credit Barry for really helping me understand the importance of food timing and recovery. Recovery and refuelling after a hard training session was one of the areas I found I really neglected. Ensuring I had a mix of protein and fast acting carbs at hand directly after my session really set me up for the next day and what I was demanding of my body.
  2. Sleep: Again this is one personally I struggled with. It was only when I and my good friend Mr Feilhm Kelly were used as guinea pigs for a study by English Institute of Sport on the effects of sleep during altitude that I understood how important this is. I always thought I slept ok but after seeing the results and the different patterns and types of sleep and how this affected my appetite and training I made sure I changed when I went to bed and my own sleep hygiene.  Keep to a schedule of early to bed and early to rise. Make sure there are no distractions and I don’t mean your beloved other, I mean TV’s, tablets or phones. This is also an area Barry emphasised to me and how it affected my nutritional choices throughout the day.   Now I aim for 8-9 hours each night and if I’m training hard a small nap of up to 20mins during the day is fantastic.
  3. Protein: Look at your protein intake and requirements’ for your sport and ask are you getting enough. A lot of athletes especially runners don’t consume enough protein. Eggs are a perfect protein and an easy and cheap way to include protein in your diet. (If you like them) and no eggs don’t adversely raise your cholesterol. Try and include a protein source in every meal.
  4. Stress: Reduce bad stress as much as you possibly can. I use the diagram below to describe how stress affects your overall wellness through 4 factors. Mental/Physical/Nutritional and Stress Management. It all starts with the mental state and if something is annoying you your physical state is affected. Increased heart rate and blood pressure, headache, muscle soreness. Research has shown that we look to food as a way of alleviating the negative physical state and this is where bad food choices happen. Sugary, high processed foods. Lastly we beat ourselves up for making these bad food choices and stress appears. If not managed well our overall wellness gets a bit of a hammering which in turn affects our overall recovery and performance. The cycle begins again.

 5.Take responsibility: I am the only person who can control what goes into my mouth. I choose places to eat that can assist me in gaining the extra edge you need. I make informed choices and don’t Im not afraid to ask if the menu can be adapted to suit my needs. If I’m in a restaurant and don’t want something in particular I usually tell them I’m allergic to it or I’m a celiac. You can be sure they will accommodate you then.

 6. Hydration: Drink loads of water. I say this because most people and athletes especially, are in a dehydrated state. Increase your fluid intake during heavy training days, when training in warmer climates and during bouts of illness. At the minute I aim for around 4 litres a day. I Wasn’t near this previously and it does take a while to get used to.

 7. Eat to how you feel: No matter what I say or any other person says if it makes you feel crap, sluggish and generally out of sorts then don’t eat it…SIMPLES!!

 8. Fat is not the enemy: Don’t be scared of Fat in your diet. The bad fats are hydrogenated fats and trans fats. Include good fats in the form of organic fish, nuts and oils. I would love to go into this part a bit more but I think I would totally confuse you. This is where Barry comes in and puts it in simple terms. Fat adaptation and utilising fat as an energy source has to be the single most important factor in my understanding of what we should be eating to perform. I have started 20 mile long runs with nothing to eat when other athletes around me load up on porridge, bread or cereal. During the runs I only use water and on some occasions natural gels consisting of dates, salt and some honey. Other have Coke and drinks loaded with sugar. Sometimes I perform better than them and sometimes I don’t but how I recover and my readiness to perform again is far quicker than any of the athletes around me.

 9. Don’t get sucked into Fads, long detox plans, or any other so called quick fix to Optimal Health. Healthy Nutritional habits are about lifestyle changes that benefit you and only you. There are certain basic principles that fit all people but a ‘one size fits all approach’ doesn’t work for everyone.

These are only a few of many tips or suggestions I have found have helped me. This is not a definitive list and there are many other factors that affect how you eat and choose to eat. I don’t blame anyone for getting confused about food choices as we are bombarded by an array of conflicting information on a daily basis. The journey I feel I’m still on with my own nutritional habits is constantly evolving and as I said previously the psychological battle you go through can at times can be harder to deal with than the eating itself. Like any new regime it takes time to adapt. The plan that Barry suggested for me took almost 18 months to get to a place where I was happy it worked for me. During that time I bonked in races, I got injured, I put on muscle weight, I retained water, I lost weight and questioned what is this man is doing to me? Then there were times of pure magic when during long 18-20 mile runs you felt you were floating on air and you could only go faster and longer. Times when I never felt fitter, learner or stronger. Times when you influenced others to sample a piece of this new way of thinking about eating.

As time passed I realised that other professionals are commenting on similar ways in which I ate. New research shines a bright light on the principles I now live by. Governments even through gritted teeth can see the health benefit for their nation. This gave me a great sense of empowerment and self-belief in what Barry passed on to me. It is a journey and one I don’t think will stop. I have tortured Barry on many occasions and probably asked him the most ridiculous of questions that made him question what has he started? But he has provided me with a great insight into a new way of thinking about nutrition and how this affects sporting performance and more importantly my own well-being. Make informed choices based on scientific research from credible sources. If you are serious about your athletic performance then get your nutrition and sleep hygiene in tip top shape and I’m positive you will reap the rewards the same way I have.

 

 

  1. David Power01-22-2016

    Excellent story, well told. No magic but lots of honest changes we can all make. I’ve made some progress since hearing Barry 2 years ago but after listening to Enda McNulty a lot recently realise the power of sleep, a healthy mind and honest nutrition.

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