Clare Cunningham, Olympic paratriathlete, talks nutrition

Clare Cunningham is an international paratriathlete competing for Great Britain in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. She’s also a former paralympic champion swimmer. fitnaturally has supported Clare for four years, providing nutrition for her training, racing and general life.

Clare trains most days, up to three times a day, so it’s important that we feed her the right foods at the right times to keep her strong, healthy and immune, not to mention attaining optimal body composition for competition. We know Clare loves her spicy food, so we make sure she gets what she likes – after all, eating should always be a joy!

We caught up with Clare a few days before she flies to Rio for the 2016 Games.

 

Why did you choose fitnaturally for your sports nutrition?

I had a poor race season at the end of 2011 and felt the need to seriously consider my training and application to the sport. I asked myself why I was doing triathlon, what I wanted to achieve and what it would take to reach those goals. Triathlon had been accepted into the Paralympic Games in December 2010 and I decided I want to at least give my best to try to make the team to compete in the augural Paralympic triathlon in 2016 but I realised that my nutrition and body composition was an area for improvement. I was following a few athletes on Twitter who used fitnaturally and appeared to have a positive experience. I made enquiries, signed up and, four years on, have not looked back.

What have been the main changes fitnaturally has made to the way you eat and the way you fuel your training?

I now see food as fuel rather than a treat that I can enjoy without guilt because I exercise a lot. I have never really been overweight because I have always been very physically active. When I signed up with fitnaturally I wasn’t overweight but I knew I was not eating highly nutritious food. I opted for a lot of convenience, ready-made meals. I lived in St Albans, worked full-time as a Forensic accountant for a Big Four firm in London which involved 90 minutes of commuting every day and I was trying to train up to 10 hours a week. I was tired and the last thing I wanted to do was spend hours cooking every day and so I used to consume a lot of ready-made sauces, pasta etc. At the time I didn’t link the tiredness with the lack of nutrients I was consuming but felt I could improve the way I was fuelling and recovering from hard sessions. I learnt that it was possible to prepare a meal from scratch in 30 minutes which was highly nutritious, easy to make and filling. I have a very sweet tooth but learnt to recognise that if I was full I didn’t need to eat just because I hadn’t had something sweet. I started to listen to my body, recognise I was full and feel satisfied.

What difference has fitnaturally nutrition made to your body composition?

I am much leaner than I was six years ago when I first started triathlon. Coaches on the British Paratriathlon programme comment now on the difference between my current body composition and when I first started the sport. I had a DEXA scan when I first started working with fitnaturally in December 2011 and was shocked that I had 25% body fat. By April 2012 I was down to 18% body fat according to DEXA and just under a stone in weight lighter. Over the next three years my body weight went up a couple of kilograms and I seemed to settle at 20-21% body fat just by following the fitnaturally ethos of natural foods in moderate portions. I am naturally a very muscular athlete and so I will never be super skinny but I do get a lot of muscle definition as I become leaner. In the past couple of months leading up to Rio I have been 100% on plan and my body composition and weight has gone back down to the levels I was at when I first started with fitnaturally in 2011/12. I have learnt that whilst these may be optimal for elite competition, these are not necessarily ‘healthy’ targets and only really sustainable for short periods of time around important races.

Do you use supplements or nutritional ergonomic aids?

Through fitnaturally I have learnt that most nutrients can be obtained through a good diet and active lifestyle. However, as an elite athlete, I am constantly pushing my body to the limit whilst trying not to consume more than I need – it’s a fine balance! I have found that I my Vitamin D levels do drop in the winter months and, as someone who has had a couple of bone injuries, I am recommended to supplement with Vitamin D in the winter months. Also my iron levels tend to be a bit low. This is very common with elite female endurance athletes and not helped by the fact that I consume at least five cups of tea a day which inhibits iron absorption. With the help of fitnaturally, I have worked hard at ensuring I eat a lot of iron rich food and time my tea drinking so as not to impair the absorption. It’s probably the one area I struggle with most! I just love drinking tea!!

Does fitnaturally take into account each training session and race when they tell you what to eat and drink?

Absolutely and probably the key to my success and why I have worked with fitnaturally for so long. It’s a fine balance as an elite athlete to fuel properly for training and racing but not to overeat. I have seen both with my team-mates. I have so much to focus on that I fully appreciate the fact that fitnaturally does the thinking about what I need to train and race optimally. It may appear lazy to an outsider but I have been working with fitnaturally for so many years that they know what works for me/what I am deficient in and can provide a bespoke plan accordingly. I can then focus on giving 100% to my training knowing that I am properly fuelled and recovering optimally.

Are fitnaturally nutrition plans easy to follow?

When I first started with fitnaturally I was concerned that I would be spending hours cooking every day and spending more money. The opposite is true. Once core ingredients were in stock, I found my weekly shopping bill was less and I really enjoyed the satisfaction of cooking a nutritious meal from scratch. fitnaturally took into account the time I had available during the week between work/commuting and training and most meals took no more than 30 minutes to make and they took into consideration the lunchtime outlets available to me at work. There is a lot more healthy, nutritious options available than perhaps is obvious. Now I am no longer working/commuting and I am training full-time, I actually really enjoy the process of cooking and see it as a hobby to try out new recipes.

What are the main nutritional messages you’ve learnt from fitnaturally?

Healthy does not mean boring or tasteless food. That I can learn to like more foods than I thought I did if I try them – before fitnaturally I never ate eggs, yoghurt, porridge, fish, all of which all staples in my diet now. That if I abstain from sugar/sweet foods, I do not ‘need’ or necessarily want them. Eat natural, unprocessed foods as much as possible, which does not lead to an excessive amount of time cooking.

How important has nutrition been in the lead up to competing at Rio 2016?

Consistency in training is probably one of the keys to success in elite sport. In the past two years I have only had two days of training which has had to be modified as a result of injury or illness. There is no-one else in the British paratriathlon with such a good consistency rate, Nutrition and proper fuelling of training sessions is key to this. Whilst I am good at ensuring I recover well, and I am an expert in sleeping, nutrition and fuelling has undoubtedly been key to my body’s resilience to training load.

Will it be easy to eat the fitnaturally way when you’re in Brazil for the Games?

There are undoubtedly challenges when competing in a foreign country with a different culture. For example, porridge is unheard of in Brazil. However, fitnaturally is based on eating key nutrients from natural sources in moderation which is always available, anywhere in the World. Whilst in Brazil most of my meals will be buffets and so I will always be able to eat natural protein from meat, eggs nuts, vitamins/minerals from fruit and vegetables and natural carbohydrates where required. I will be taking porridge pots, oat bars, nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate with me to ensure I am properly fuelling between meals and around training sessions but I have no concerns otherwise.

What food and drink does fitnaturally prescribe the on day before, and the day of, competition?

The day before and on race day is all about keeping food simple and reducing GI stress as much as possible. I have learnt over time what works for me and what doesn’t. For example, excessive milk or peanut butter before a race or hard training session gives me a stitch and/or makes me feel sick and so on race day I prefer to eat yoghurt with oats and honey rather than a milky or high protein meal. The day before, I avoid salads, highly fibrous foods and stick to a basic tomato risotto or tomato-based sauce with pasta. I do have a pudding the night before a race – either a chocolate brownie or fruit crumble with ice cream 🙂

What are your favourite foods?! And what do you hate?!

My food choices have changed so much having worked with fitnaturally. In the past I wouldn’t consider a meal to be complete without meat and carbohydrate but now I frequently eat meals without one of these dependent on the training I am doing that day. I really enjoy the fitnaturally vegetarian options such as veggie enchilada, veggie nasi goreng and I love all of the curries. Particular fitnat favourites are chilli chorizo beans on toast, cool porridge and a simple steak with salad. And there will always will be room for a couple of squares of dark chocolate 🙂

How GREAT are you feeling about going to Rio to compete in the paralympics?! 🙂

I really am feeling very positive about racing in Rio. I know physically I am in very good shape. My body composition and weight are back to the best it has ever been and that is being backed up with some of my best training sessions. The hard work is now done. It is now a matter of staying healthy, keeping sharp in training and well-rested. I am in a good place to give a good performance and if that is good enough to produce a great result and outcome I will be delighted but ultimately I know that I have done absolutely everything I could to be in the best possible position. I can do no more than that and so I am vey happy and excited about racing.

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