Today I have the pleasure of sharing a unique interview with one of my favorite health & fitness writers – a man named Trevor Connor. I first came across Trevor’s articles a few years back and was immediately struck by the quality of his work. He comes across as being intelligent and knowledgeable, and manages to make his case despite being measured and balanced in his approach. He’s the opposite of careless and arrogant. That’s perhaps his greatest strength as a writer. Quite recently, I connected with Trevor. As we started chatting, I got to thinking that it would great to have him come on the site for an interview; a desire that’s now come to fruition.
What is the optimal dietary strategy for endurance athletes?
When Trevor and I first got in touch, I already knew that he was a sportsman. What I didn’t know though, which Trevor told me during our conversation, is that he’s been a competing cyclist for much of his life, and that he was ranked among the best racers in the U.S. some years back; an achievement that he largely credits to the dietary changes he made leading up to that time.
This immediately struck me as a very interesting topic for an interview. Not just because it’s a fascinating story, but also because I haven’t talked much about competitive cycling or the nutritional needs and practices of endurance athletes here on the site in the past. It’s something new and fresh. I’m not an expert on these topics, but I find them very intriguing, and I’m eager to learn more about them. I suspect that others feel the same way, which is part of the reason why I asked Trevor to share some of his keen insights into the sport of cycling.
One of the things I like about Trevor’s approach is that he recognizes that our dietary choices greatly affect our health and immunity, which in turn affect our athletic performance. A body that’s chronically inflamed or otherwise compromised in some way is not going to recuperate as quickly following physical stress or perform as well in athletic events as a healthy body.
Unfortunately, this is something many athletes don’t fully appreciate. They look at food as fuel and largely neglect the impact their diet and lifestyle have on their microbiota, gene expression, and general health. It’s arguably difficult to impossible for hard-training athletes to eat a perfectly healthy diet, seeing as they have special nutritional needs and need a lot of energy in order to fuel their athletic endeavors. That said, the fact that one is an athlete doesn’t mean that one has to eat a diet rich in refined carbohydrates all year long.
With that said, let’s get onto the interview…
1. Thanks for carving out some time to do this interview, Trevor. Before we delve into the main topics I’d like to focus on – sports nutrition, endurance training, and your road cycling career – it would be great if you could briefly tell us a bit about yourself, such as where you grew up, how you first got interested in health and fitness, and your work and educational background.
Hi Eirik, that is a long and probably not very interesting story. I’ll try to give you the short version. I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. I was born to American parents but proudly Canadian, even if I am the butt of a lot of Canada jokes on Fast Talk.
I first moved to the US for college. I studied history at Cornell University and started my career as a website developer in Washington, D.C. So, I really can’t say it was a direct route to exercise science. In fact, during my website development days, I hit 220 lbs!
The big change for me was when I was handed the Philip Morris account at the web company I worked at. That caused some soul searching and I realized that I wanted to do something that helped society. I just didn’t know what yet, so I started getting serious about my cycling in the meantime. Eventually, I ended up at the National Centre in Victoria in the mid-2000’s and started taking courses in nutrition and physiology to improve my cycling.
2. When did you first get into cycling, and what types of races have you mostly competed in? What other sports and physical activities, if any, have you participated in?
I’ve always loved riding a bike and unlike a lot of people, I never really had a point where I said “this is what I’m going to do.” I just started progressing and whenever I hit a higher level, I simply wondered if I could get to the next level. Then I did what was necessary to find out. So, trying some local races in Ithaca, New York led to racing at Nationals, which led to the National Centre which led to racing out of Colorado with Team Rio Grande.
It was never my goal to be a professional and I never really tried which is something I regret a bit now. At the time, I was just focused on seeing how strong I could get. My biggest excitement was always when a big name showed up to a race and I could see how I measured up against them.
Before I dedicated myself to cycling, I was into a lot of sports. Believe it or not, I was lineman in American rules football in high school. I also did tennis, cricket, soccer, downhill skiing, swimming, gymnastics, and frankly most sports that were available.
Almost forgot… I love long road races and stage races. Has something to do with the fact that I can’t sprint.
3. In 2009, you retired from full-time cycling, due to the fact that you were experiencing health problems. What kinds of health problems were you dealing with, and why do you think you became sick? What type of nutritional strategy and training regimen had you been following up to that point?
Actually, my major health problems were back in 2000 and 2001. I started getting serious about my cycling in 1998. I was rising up through the ranks pretty quickly, but I knew nothing about diet or how to train. So, I was eating tons of pasta and cottage cheese and riding hard every day. Absolutely no nutrition or training plan.
By the summer of 2000, I was burnt out and I’m sure suffering from nutritional deficiencies. I remember one evening in the summer of 2000, being at a local training race and really struggling. Refusing to admit weakness, I decided I’d try to attack on a short climb that we would hit about 20 minutes into the race. Then I looked around and realized we had already passed that climb – 30 minutes earlier! I had absolutely no memory of about 40 minutes of the race. That scared me.
A week or two later, I started getting fasciculations all over my body. At times, it even made driving difficult because my feet shook too much. So, I went to see a doctor. And that’s when I found out the hard way that many doctors don’t understand athletes. I wish I had known about sports doctors back then, because a good sports doctor would have recognized my symptoms immediately and likely saved me months or years of pain.
Instead, the GP I saw put me on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. The medication didn’t help and considering how out of balance and depleted my body was, I’m certain the medication actually made things worse. The next few months were a nightmare of doctor after doctor with no answer except more medication, worsening symptoms, and reaching a point by November where I started to get really scared.
Thankfully in December of 2000 I decided I had had enough, cancelled all my upcoming appointments and rested.
Knowing what I know now, that was the best decision I ever made. When I started reading the literature on burnout many years later (not the “I’ll be fine in a few weeks” burnout, but severe burnout,) I recognized all the symptoms. Rest, not medication, was what I needed.
I was off the bike for over a year until I felt I was healthy enough to take up cycling again. It was still a struggle. Even an easy one-hour ride would bring back the fasciculations, leave me shaky and shut down my digestive system. Sadly, it took a couple years of suffering through those symptoms after almost every ride to finally get fully over it.
When I was finally able to train hard again, I took a very different approach that started with swallowing my ego. I talked with people who understood a lot more about training, I read books on the subject, and started taking classes on nutrition.
The classes I took on nutrition covered traditional sports nutrition (high carbs, lots of pasta.) I followed that strategy through the mid- and late-2000’s but got frequent colds. They were frustrating but compared to what I went through in the early 2000’s it didn’t seem all that bad. It was however those frequent colds that ultimately set the limit on what level I felt I could hit at the time. So, in 2009, I stopped racing full-time and left the Centre to pursue my master’s at CSU.
4. Fast forward two years, to 2011, and you were suddenly ranked among the top 30 racers in the U.S., which is particularly impressive in light of the fact that you were 40 years old. What happened? How did you go from being a broken athlete to becoming a world-class racer?
I would say “national-class.” I’m not sure I was ever world-class, though I did have some pretty good throw-downs with true world-class riders. One of my personal favorite moments of my career was riding away from the pro field at Joe Martin with Francisco Mancebo (he was in the leader’s jersey.)
The biggest change, was my diet. I took Dr. Loren Cordain’s class on evolutionary nutrition in the spring of 2009 and started following those guidelines. What he taught us was completely contrary to what I had learned in traditional sports nutrition, so initially I was quite angry about the class. I spent the summer of 2009 trying to prove him wrong. Instead, as I read the research, I just kept saying “well that makes sense” and would adopt the change.
By December of 2009 I was pretty much on the Paleo Diet almost by accident. I was shocked that winter to find, despite being a full-time student with a coaching business, I could train as hard as I did in the mid-2000’s and recover better. In June of 2010 I broke away at Canadian Nationals and was sitting top five – I believe – until the last few hundred meters of the race.
So, in 2011, I joined Team Rio Grande and decided to race a full domestic calendar again. I continued with the Paleo Diet and applied what I had learned about physiology during my master’s to my training. 2011 became one of my best seasons ever. Of course, having Chad Haga as a team mate to motivate me certainly helped. Basically, 2010 and 2011 ended up being some of my best years on the bike because of the changes I made.
5. Most endurance athletes consume a grain-heavy diet that’s extremely high in carbohydrates (typically, 60-70% of total calories is derived from carbohydrate). What are your thoughts about such a diet? What do you personally feel is the ‘optimal’ eating regimen for endurance athletes (e.g., professional cyclists)? What kinds of nutritional strategies would you recommend to sportsmen who want to be as healthy as they can possibly be without sacrificing their athletic performance?
My master’s thesis was on the negative effects of wheat on the immune system (though I also researched other grains and simple carbohydrates which also inflame the immune system.)
Our immune systems are responsible for much of our training adaptations – they repair the damage done during training. So, to be our best in sport, we need a properly functioning immune system. Inappropriate or excessive inflammation slows recovery and harms training adaptations. So, it’s essential for athletes to avoid inflammatory diets.
I am not anti-carbohydrate. Endurance athletes need them. But its not possible to eat 60-70% of our calories from carbohydrates (especially considering the quantity of calories we need to consume in a day,) without eating a lot of simple, nutrient-poor CHO that is frequently inflammatory.
However, in my opinion, we should focus less on macronutrient ratios (CHO to protein to fat) and more on eating healthy nutrient-dense foods. My experience is that if endurance athletes focus on healthy sources of carbohydrates (such as vegetables and fruit,) they’ll still consume several hundred grams of CHO (which, for most of us, amounts to around 30-40% of daily caloric intake) but it will be nutrient dense and non-inflammatory.
If you want to boil it down to its simplest form, eat nutrient dense non-inflammatory foods. If we ranked foods from most nutrient dense to least nutrient dense, here’s the order:
- Lean Meats
- Starchy roots
- Nuts and seeds
Note that vegetable oils are not a “food category” but they would be at the bottom of the list and many are highly inflammatory. Also note that anyone can reproduce this list using any decent nutrition software.
In my opinion, the more you can eat from the top of the list and the less you eat from the bottom (especially refined grains and sugars) the better you can train and recover. I always like to keep it simple and that nutrient density ranking I just gave is a really simple and easy way to approach it.
One of the biggest changes I made in 2010 was to stop eating pasta every night before races. Instead, my favorite pre-race meal became salmon and vegetables. Despite the lower carbohydrate intake, I found my energy was better in the races and I recovered faster.
One other recommendation – some of the inflammatory effects of simple carbohydrates (sugar) disappear if they are consumed while training or racing. So, if you’re going to drink sports drinks or eat gels, etc. do it during your rides or races, or immediately after. The rest of the day focus on nutrient density and avoid nutrient-poor simple carbohydrate foods.
6. As previously noted, most endurance athletes swear by a high-carbohydrate diet. That’s also the type of diet that’s recommended by most sports coaches and trainers, as well as by the majority of scientists who conduct research related to sports nutrition and athletics. Not everyone conforms to this ideology though. A, by comparison, small number of athletes, trainers, and researchers say that the idea that athletes need carbs is nothing more than old dogma. They argue that it’s better for endurance athletes to eat a very low-carbohydrate diet, rich in fat, given that sufficient time for adaptation to such a diet is provided. What are your thoughts about this fat-heavy philosophy? Do you think it’s possible, as the proponents of this alternative eating strategy claim, for endurance athletes to perform as well, if not better, on a fat-heavy diet as on a carbohydrate-rich one?
As I mentioned above, I think a dietary strategy focused on macronutrient ratios is a bad approach regardless of the direction. A high carbohydrate diet can be very unhealthy, but a high fat diet, if it’s all butter and bacon, can be equally unhealthy. High-fat, low-fat, high-CHO, low-CHO – none of these guarantee a healthy diet.
I think we need to get away from this approach to nutrition and focus instead on the actual foods we’re eating. Eat healthy nutrient-dense non-inflammatory foods and let your macronutrient ratio be what it’s going to be. Our bodies evolved to handle a staggeringly large range of macronutrient ratios. From an evolutionary perspective, what we used to eat in the summer had a drastically different macronutrient ratio from what we used to eat in the winter. So, let your body do what it’s good at. Your job is to give it the best quality fuel.
I always like to point out that no hunter-gatherer ever looked at a piece of fruit and said “sorry, I’m trying to cut carbs.”
7. If a young person came up to you and asked if you could help him or her become a good endurance athlete, what general tips, for example related to programming, mentality, recovery, or nutrition, would you offer? Is there anything you’d say that you feel should be said, but that typically isn’t brought up by endurance coaches and/or doesn’t receive much attention within the athletic community?
Oh boy, that’s a huge question! I guess looking back at the horrible mistakes I made and where it took me, I would try to help a new athlete avoid the same path. And I think that’s important because I’ve worked with a lot of new athletes who are just like I was – all motivation with no understanding of how to train. That’s a dangerous combination.
So, my recommendation is to seek out experienced athletes, coaches and physiologists. Then listen and try! Ultimately that was the change I made and that turned my career around. My mentor Glenn Swan had been giving me advice since 1997 and I ignored him for years. Had I listened, I would have avoided years of pain.
In 2003 (I think, ) I finally sat down with him and asked “could you explain everything to me again.” He did, I listened and a little over a year later, I was at the National Centre in Canada.
The hardest part of this advice is the “listen and try” part. When we’re starting out, most of us are filled with misconceptions and our instincts are usually wrong (i.e. our instincts say “go hard all the time.”) Listening is hard because experienced athletes are going to give a lot of advice that seems intuitively wrong. New athletes need to put the ego aside, say “that person knows a lot more than me” and try.
8. Our hunter-gatherer forebears were very physically active; however, they obviously didn’t train specifically to become really good at performing a specific activity (e.g., cycling, running, rowing). In other words, the modern athlete isn’t necessarily best off emulating every aspect of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. That said, there’s no doubt that he can benefit a lot from incorporating evolutionary health principles into his mindset and way of life. What Darwinian lessons to you personally feel athletes can benefit the most from?
Yup, that’s a really good point. Hunter-gatherers were obviously extremely fit. Some scientists have tried to answer the question of how they would perform in a marathon. The most common answer I’ve heard is “pretty good, but they wouldn’t win.” Frankly, running fast was dangerous. Break an ankle and there’s no hospital to help you. So, hunter-gatherers tended to just walk quickly and ran sparingly. At least that’s my understanding.
So, the first lesson is that sport, at least high-level sport, is not what our bodies are designed to do and at some level is not healthy. I certainly know personally that there are things I do to help my performance that are not healthy – such as consuming a bag of candy during a race.
To a degree, it seems we can focus on living as healthy as possible or we can focus on optimizing performance, but unfortunately, either one means at least partially sacrificing the other.
I think the lesson from studying evolutionary nutrition, is that the sacrifice (in either direction) is not as big as many think it is. And I think the goal is to figure out how to minimize the sacrifice.
For example, I remember listening to a podcast with Floyd Landis, where Landis said flat out that the nutrition they ate as professional cyclists was very unhealthy, but that’s what was necessary to perform. After listening to his explanation, I’ll admit that i fully disagreed. My personal feeling was that they ate that way not because it was necessary but because they didn’t know better.