Letters: Nutrition


12 September 2004

I have a question regarding your approach to nutrition. Tom Crudgington wrote a thought provoking article featured recently which was a good introduction to the subject. I was hoping for an insight/ brief overview into how you would outline a diet suited to a no holds barred athlete. Also how an eating pattern would fit into a training schedule? For example what quantity of which particular proteins / carbohydrates consumed how long before a hard work out. How would someone determine their personal required intake?

I have recently read “The Zone” by Dr.Barry Sears in which he talks about the hormonal effect food has on the body. I found it to be quite convincing based on my GCSE understanding of biology! The result of reading this book is that I know think very differently about food and go through quite a thorough decision making process, almost subconsciously when shopping. I have cut out a lot of junk that I was eating regularly before hand. I am using fruit and vegetables as my main source of carbohydrates and getting protein from favorable sources like fish and chicken. I am also eating protein and carbohydrate in a different ratio than before. I have noticed an improvement in my energy levels and also in my general alertness.

I’m aware this is a broad subject but if you have any pointers or general recommendations I would be grateful. Even if you can recommend a good publication? — Tom Baskaya

You’ll notice that on the site there are no articles by me on diet, and we took Tom’s down. At the time Tom was making a gym available to me in Bath and was eager to contribute to the site, so I published his article; however, we’ve subsequently removed it. I can’t endorse his view on nutrition simply because I don’t really know anything about it.

The reason I don’t write about diet is because it’s never been a major factor in my training, though I can fully understand, from an athlete’s point of view, why you would be seeking to optimize your performance. In recent years, I have made an effort to educate myself about nutrition in a basic way, but that’s only because people keep asking me for advice. The truth is, I’ve never bothered much about what I did or didn’t eat; I just trained hard all the time.

From my observation of the advice on offer out there, the whole area’s a minefield. There are so many religiously prescribed methods out there (metabolic, blood-type, ethnic, hunter-gathererĂ‘and there’s probably going to be one based on the colour of your eyes one of these days). In the end you’ve (literally) just got to suck it and see. At the moment, there are no tried-and-tested NHB diets out there (that I’m aware of) and so you have to do the work and experiment. And the bottom line is, you have to figure out what works for you. Literally, you don’t want to be spoonfed.

With weight control being such a big public issue, I imagine by now we all know to a certain extent what to eat and what not to, and why. All I can really add are a few common-sense pointers for adapting basic nutrition to your training.

In order to complete a ferociously intense NHB training program of variable work on the feet and on the ground, you need to have a sustained supply of energy, nutrients and fluids within the system, both to get you through the workout and to recover afterward. You need to maintain optimal focus, intensity, and utilization of oxygen (VO2 max). There are various schools of thought on how to achieve that.

The most common-sense way advocates having three fixed meals a day and snacking in between, and spreading across the course of the day your high-quality protein, low-quality protein, complex carbs and simple carbs, monounsaturated fats and Omega-3 fats as well as other dietary supplements (energy/meal supplement bars and drinks, glutamine, glucosamine, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, and other aids). The main bulk of your carbohydrate calories is usually advised to come in the morning and early afternoon, both because that is when your metabolic rate is high, and also in order to be available when you are training–assuming you are doing most of your training in the day. However, not everybody trains according to the same clock.

You have to address two main questions: how to balance your nutrients throughout the day to get energy when you need it most and also for recovery, and how to achieve and maintain your ideal fighting weight. These two main factors vary from individual to individual, depending on your training schedule, body type, and personal metabolic rate.

Because no one size fits all with diet, it might be tempting to consult a sports nutrition expert. What you have to watch out for here is the possibility that the ‘expert’ you consult may adhere to a method that is not compatible with fighting. For example, many martial artists get involved with the bodybuilding/physical culture side of things, or with sports performance enhancement that is not specific to NHB. The experts in these fields train to produce physical types and performances that are not necessarily going to work for you in a NHB/MMA fight.

A lot of guys I come across with bodybuilder-type physiques, I find that their structural alignment is restricted by their muscularity. It has been defined in a specific way, through their training, to produce an upright posture with chest out and shoulders/scapula back, because the fundamental exercises they engage in on Swiss balls, various types of plank exercises, and other core stability work (i.e., alignment of the axises of the hip and spine and the muscles that strengthen those areas) are often specific to other sports and not appropriate to NHB. They’re too upright. I’ll be discussing this more elsewhere. Suffice to say you should be seeking both specific and non-specific ways to strengthen those movement patterns and positions that keep repeating themselves in NHB fighting and which include in various ways all of the muscles of the body, rather than seeking to strengthen muscles in isolation or selected groups.

When it comes to diet, the recommended food intake for a footballer, a bodybuilder, a marathon runner, and a discus thrower (for example) are all going to be different. So be careful who you turn to for advice. That’s why you have to put your training first: do ferociously intense interval training (specific, non-specific, and mixed) and then figure out what you need to eat to sustain that pace for the duration of the fight time.

Also, many people will watch events like the Olympics, see the physiques on display there and the associated performances, and seek out the type of diet used by the athletes. But those physiques may very well be the result of ergogenic aids, not just diet.

Getting back to some basic points. If you’re going to continuously overload the system, both with specific and non-specific work over a three week training period with three to four days of rest between training cycles, you not only need to consider how you are going to fuel and hydrate the system, but also give it adequate rest; i.e., quality one to one and a half hour naps between training sessions on the same day (growth hormones are released during this period), as well as at least eight hours quality sleep a night and, if necessary, additional full or half-day rest periods. Remember, your goal is to be able to fight on the feet and on the ground at high intensity of variable durations over a 30-45 minute period, and although your high-intensity training period might only be 30-45 minutes, when combined with other low-intensity technical drills, playfighting, etc., that period might very well extend to two hours or more. You should consider this when constructing your diet and hydration program.

Your use of carbs depends on how much work you’re going to do and at what intensity. If you mix carbs with protein, you get a more sustained energy flow. If you just take on board simple carbs, you get a high blood sugar and you can get a subsequent crash when your pancreas produces more insulin to compensate. Your protein intake can vary from .75g per kilo of body weight, up to 1.8g per kilo of body weight, depending on the kind of body you have and want to achieve. You’ll probably have to experiment to find out what ratio of proteins/carbs works best for you.

The periods at which you take on board these nutrients and fluids are important. Make sure you eat every 2-3 hours. It’s generally advised to eat 2-4 hours before training, or if that’s not possible then to at least have something like a banana half an hour beforehand.

Time your fluid intake to allow enough time for that fluid to be absorbed into your system, so it isn’t just sloshing around in your stomach. Nor do you want to be training with a full bladder, because if you get hit this can be really dangerous. Equally, when engaging in intense workouts of 35-45 minutes (fight time plus a little more) fluid taken on during those workouts is not going to be used by the system. It will help rehydration afterward, but it won’t do you any good during the fight/workout itself. Whereas, if you’re training for an hour or longer you need to take on fluids/energy drinks, etc. — maybe even carb/protein drinks of 4:1 ratios.

In other words, if your training is specific to fighting, then you have to duplicate that fight as closely as possible. This means very little rest between rounds. In the fight, by the time you’ve got back to your corner, sat down on your stool, and taken our your gumshield, thirty seconds have probably gone by and you’ve only got thirty seconds left. In the same way that you’re not going to be taking great gulps of water in the fight, you shouldn’t be doing that in training. However, in training you can afford to experiment to find out what works best for you. You’d weigh yourself before and after training to check your fluid loss and know how much you need to take on ahead of time in order to compensate for the anticipated loss.

Post-training: you need to take on extra fluids. One way to determine if that fluid intake is right is to check the colour of your urine: if it’s too dark, you’re dehydrated. It should be pale yellow.. Complex/simple carbs and protein mixtures taken between 30 minutes to 2 hours (the earlier the better) after hard exertion have been found to be effective to aid in recovery. You don’t want to be breaking down amino acids as a source of energy to aid in recovery, and you will also need extra protein to rebuild damaged muscle tissue.

There’s a theory that you shouldn’t eat for two hours (or sometimes more) before going to bed because your metabolism is slowing down and you don’t want to be taking on extra fuel when you don’t need it; but again, that depends on your training program. Maybe you train in the evening and need the boost, or maybe you are going to train early in the morning on an empty or nearly empty stomach, and need to load up the night before.

If you are overweight, the most important thing is to increase the intensity of your interval training program. Rather than trying to dramatically change your diet overnight, begin to substitute healthy carbs and lean proteins for high-sugar/empty calorie snacks and of course reduce fats and replace saturated/hydrogenated fats with healthy ones. But you still need to eat enough to train. In this way, over a three-cycle training period (i.e., nine weeks) not only might you be able to complete three days a week of high intensity interval training of specific and nonspecific work and variable fighting methods, as well as other low intensity exercises, but you should see a dramatic change in your physique.

Whereas, if you are able to complete a hard training cycle, but are underweight and need some more strength/power, maybe you’re not taking in enough carbs and protein, particularly at the end of the training session, and to replace the energy deficit your system might be using muscle as its source of energy. It’s all really just common sense.

Most of us know what we should and shouldn’t eat, and why. It’s not something you need to be obssessed with. Hywel Davies, world cross-training champion (amongst other things) was recently quoted in Men’s Fitness as saying he doesn’t waste his time worrying about the occasional digression from a healthy diet, because he trains so hard. A lot of it is down to motivation. For example, in Japan, I’d train four separate two-hour sessions, six days a week in the dojo, and on the seventh I trained by myself. And due to poverty, I ate a Third-World diet and sometimes didn’t eat for three days running. I wouldn’t advocate this as preparation for competition. But this made me psychologically tougher and less dependent on outside factors and more reliant on internal ones.

The important thing is to be sure that, whatever your diet, it doesn’t become a crutch. For example, did you see the Olympic Tae Kwon Do, where after two minutes of bouncing around on the balls of their feet, the competitors ran for their Lucozade drinks? I’ve experienced the same phenomenon in a gym, where people are continuously concerned about keeping their blood sugar up and remaining hydrated. In recent years, I’ve allowed people to drink during sessions; but in the past, if it was a hot day, I closed the windows and took them to hell and back, with no breaks for fluids. Toughness is the bottom line.

In a fight, the guy’s got to beat you, not your diet.

Going back to the concept of ideal fighting weight, a common misperception amongst martial artists seems to be that the bigger you are, the more effective you’re going to be. But there’s a difference between being a big guy who is trained and conditioned to fight (such as Fedor Emilianenko) and just a big guy. One thing you have to consider is your frame and your own attributes. Personally, my best fighting weight is between 180-205. Anything less, although very fast I was kind of restricted on the power moves. Anything more, and although I might have been more intimidating, I couldn’t move. For me what’s more important than size is having a strong, flexible, interconnected structure that can rapidly and randomly offensively, defensively and counteroffensively adapt to the changing situations on the feet and on the ground. Being bulked up with muscle or fat simply gets in the way.

Another problem is that martial artists build bigger, stronger muscles that are not functional in the sense of real fighting. For me, real fighters are the like of Vanderlei Silva and Kevin Jackson, who seriously prepare to fight the very best NHB fighters in the world. Intimidation might work in some walks of life, but it won’t work in the MMA arena. You’ve got to raise the bar on various aspects of your training (mindset, athleticism, conditioning, skills, strategies, tactics etc.) to raise your performance so that you can take on the very best in the world in NHB/MMA/submission fighting. You’re not training to intimidate, try out your self-defense moves or kick the shit out of some legless drunk on a Saturday night, who with a couple of beers thinks he can fight–but to face off against somebody who knows he can fight.

The NHB/MMA/submission fighting arenas of the world are littered with those who believe that their attitude, size and an explosive initial rush were all that were needed to win a NHB fight, as opposed to realistic preparations both on the feet and on the ground. I’ve fought on the streets, clubs and bars as well as worked out with these psychological and physical types–some of whose fighting abilities once matched their increasing girths–and experienced no difficulty in avoiding their initial wild rushes and hitting and hurting them at will. And when after a minute or so their gas ran out, I found it was even easier to do so. Most of these Goliaths not only couldn’t fight in the true sense of the term, but couldn’t even move, yet still somehow managed to convince themselves and others that they could fight.

Although I am against the use of steroids, I could see the reason why many fighters out there might be tempted to use creatine plus HMB to increase muscle strength, size, and recovery during intense work merely in order to remain on par with those who already use it. I don’t personally encourage this, but if you were going to go this route, you would want to act upon sports medical advice and not on the advice of some dressing-room jock, and also you would want to make sure that the muscles you’re putting on are ‘smart’ muscles, not dumb bulk.

Nutritional fads come and go. The fighters of the 30s and 40s didn’t have access to the kind of dietary advice, much less foods, that we have today, but they still put in outstanding performances. Some people would probably argue that the enhanced performance of contemporary athletes compared to those of the past is down to the science of, amongst other things, diet. But I believe that the strongest motivator for performance is a goal. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Maurice Green were to travel back and race Jesse Owens. Sure, he’d beat Owens to begin with, but I have a feeling that once Jesse Owens had got Green in his sights, Owens would start to come back. Irrespective of what either of them was eating. The best diet in the world is no guarantee of success. I don’t believe that Paula Radcliffe quit the marathon and the 10,000 meters because of a faulty diet or hydration. She quit in her mind. She could have stuck it out and come last, but she didn’t.

You’ve got to really just train hard–on little or no fuel if necessary, and anything better than that should be a bonus, not a requirement. I’ve always been a believer in achieving this tremendous intensity in whatever I do, and I believe that’s more psychological than physiological. I’m coming from having put myself in situations where, like a dock worker in India, I’m having to do tremendous amounts of work on very little nutrition, and that gives me the state of mind to deal with adversity. I’m not looking for a reason to quit. I’m in it to the bitter end.

Everybody goes on about primal hunter diets, but the truth is our primal ancestors were probably hungry most of the time. And let’s face it, the best fighters are the hungry ones.