Feeding our bodies is one of the most important things we do every single day, multiple times a day. As important as this is, there isn’t one way to nourish ourselves that works for each individual. What works for one person may not work for another person. Although there are many basics nearly anyone can incorporate, it’s important for each of us to find our own path to how we best nourish to fuel. Taking into account many things, such as body composition, goals, athletic performance, allergies, food intolerances, health, you name it. Each journey is our own, but we can learn a lot from others and how they fuel their bodies. In the first of a new series, the “Nourish Interview Series”, I interviewed Chelsea Nicholas an Engineer, CrossFit NW Regionals Athlete, and awesome woman to welcome in the CrossFit 2015 Open and this exciting new series on how an individual uses nutrition to reach their goals! Over the course of the next couple weeks you’ll hear from other CrossFit regionals athletes (including one athlete who was just signed to the NPGL Grid league) as the series continues.
Let’s get started and hear about Chelsea and her nutrition!
Please introduce yourself. Who are you, what is your background professionally and athletically?
My name is Chelsea Nicholas. I’m 27 years old. I grew up in Bothell, WA. I’ve always been busy with sports including gymnastics, cross-country and track and field. I earned a BS and MS in Civil Engineering at Washington State University, where I pole-vaulted on the Track and Field team for my first two years. After graduation I started working as a Structural Analysis Engineer at Boeing (December 2011). Right around this time I also found CrossFit.
What are your current goals? Are you training for something specific or training in general?
After competing on a team at the North West Regionals CrossFit competition last year, I decided I wanted to start competing as an individual to see how far I can go with the sport. I hired a coach to design my programming and have been working with her the last 9 months or so putting in 15+ hours a week. I have countless goals that vary in magnitude and depth. The main goal I have been working towards this year is qualifying for regionals as an individual. Day to day I’m also chasing personal records (PRs) in various lifts and common workouts such as a 300 lb back squat. I like to have something to train for. CrossFit is an exciting sport to participate in because everything is measurable; you can literally track your fitness. I think that’s why a lot of people fall in love with it so quickly.
What motivates you?
Initially my motivation for getting to the gym was purely aesthetics; I wanted to look good. At some point I realized that everyone has a different idea of what it means to look good and you get a lot more satisfaction if you focus on performance. That’s when I stopped “working out” and started “training.” I try to be my own motivation. The only person you should worry about impressing is yourself.
Tell me about your diet/eating philosophy.
My perception of healthy eating has evolved so much over the years and I’m sure it will continue to change. It’s all about something you can sustain and enjoy every day that keeps you energized and fueled for training. Nutrition is very personal and you have to find what works for you.
How are you using nutrition to help reach your goals?
I use nutrition to energize, recover, and heal. It absolutely affects performance and if I want to reach my goals I need to plan/track my nutrition (and sleep) very closely. If you are eating right you will feel happier, healthier, stronger, more powerful, and ready to attack your workouts. This means eating enough of the right things at the right times.
How important do you feel nutrition is to getting you to your goals? Would you still be able to achieve your goals without paying attention to your nutrition?
Nutrition is essential to reaching my goals. If I want to maximize performance and uncover my full potential then I can’t ignore it. They go hand in hand.
Tell me about your nutrition journey. How did you find what works nutrition wise for you?
I started paying closer attention to nutrition about a year and a half ago. At the time I was still working out because I wanted to look good; I cared more about the weight of my body than the weight of my barbell. I started tracking my food to control calories and macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) but was not as concerned about what foods I was eating. I set my goal numbers using a calorie distribution of 30/40/30 for protein/carbs/fat. Wanting to lose a few pounds I set daily calorie intake too low. This was effective for losing a little weight but it came at a price; I was not enjoying my time at the gym and it was completely exhausting! Ultimately it was not sustainable and at some point I stopped counting. From this initial food tracking experience I developed a concept of how many macros are in different foods. I learned that I tend to be low on protein and high on fat if I don’t pay attention. With this in mind I tried to consume more protein and continued eating what seemed healthy and training hard. When I hired my coach 9 months ago she set some new macros for me. They followed the same calorie distribution, but with protein set at my body weight which ends up being right around 2000 calories a day. This was great for a while, my body weight stayed the same and I continued making gains in the gym. Several months later my workouts were getting longer and I reached a point where my muscles would fatigue before my lungs gave out. At this time we added an extra 100g of carbs post workout to ensure my muscles are properly nourished. I don’t eat the extra 100g of carbs every day, but I can tell if I am going to need them based on the types of workouts I see in my training week and how I am feeling. It’s nice to be in a place where you know your body and what it needs to perform at its best.
When it comes to what foods to eat and what foods to avoid I’m still experimenting. When I find things I like that are easy to prep for the week, I stick with them. I don’t have any food allergies so I was never too worried about cuttings things out of my diet. Then about two months ago I had a weightlifting accident…I won’t tell the full story because I don’t want anyone thinking CrossFit is careless or dangerous but I tore the ulnar collateral ligament in my right elbow more than 50%. Right after the injury my coach had me cut out all wheat, dairy, and sugar from my diet to help with inflammation. I also doubled my fish oil and started taking tart cherry concentrate. Cutting these things out of my diet was surprisingly easy with the mindset that it would speed up my recovery. It’s been a frustrating yet amazing process. Your body can be extremely resilient if you treat it right. I plan to continue with the new restrictions. The only thing I really miss is ice cream and that can still be a rare treat.
How did you eat before finding what works for you? Did you pay attention to what you ate? How did that affect your training?
Everyone has their own notion of healthy eating and there are different levels. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who eats healthy, but my definition of the word is constantly evolving. Before I started tracking my food and reading labels I think my diet was probably low in protein and high in fat. I did not cut any food groups from my diet and I did not pay attention to the timing of my carbs. I am not the same athlete I was a year and a half ago. Knowing how to feed your body is a game changer.
What do you eat on a typical day? If you time your meals to a schedule, when do you typically eat?
I will include a sample of my meals for one day but basically I try to hit 150g protein, 200g carbs and 60g fat each day. The only real timing rule I have is eating carbs immediately post workout. This is for recovery; I also try to put in more carbs at night after I train. I like to start my day with protein and fat because it keeps me feeling full longer; my favorite lately is 4oz ground bison with 2 eggs. It seems like most of my calorie intake is in the beginning of the day, but most of my carbs are consumed closer to the end of the day.
Do you count macros? Why or why not?
Yes I do. I developed an excel spreadsheet with a database of all the foods I like to eat so I can plan my meals. I have a scale in my kitchen to weigh out portions. It’s not every meal, every day, all the time, but enough to know I’m getting enough of the right things. When I don’t count I tend to fall short on protein and carbs and I pay for it at the gym.
What are your favorite pre and post workout snacks?
I always keep little packets of baby food in my gym bag. Mostly things like sweet potatoes and bananas. They are easy to eat, simple, and about 20g of carbs. After workouts I usually have some kind of post-workout drink like Progenex Recovery, Afterglow, or Revive Rx Recovery. These are all powders you mix with water and have roughly a 2/1 carb/protein ratio. This is all for ease and consistency. When I get home from the gym it’s always something like 150g sweet potatoes with more protein.
Do you plan your meals in advance? If so, how do you plan and what tips do you have for others who might need help planning their meals?
I do plan my meals, in a way. On Sundays I go grocery shopping and meal prep. By “meal prep” what I mean is I cook all the foods I bought so they are ready to portion out and eat through the week. I have all my meat and potatoes cooked and veggies chopped. It makes the week a lot easier and it still leaves room for some flexibility. I have an off day from the gym mid-week and this is an opportunity for me to try a new recipe or something different. I have it easy since the only person I’m planning meals for is myself. This method works great for my lifestyle. For others, try to sit down and outline what a perfect couple days would look like before you head to the grocery store then prepare food accordingly. It’s nothing fancy but it is efficient and effective.
What is your favorite treat meal?
On Sunday mornings I go to Whole Foods for breakfast with my sister. Usually we get bacon and eggs but every now and then we’ll get biscuits and gravy. This breaks a couple of my rules but that’s why it’s called a treat. I’m lucky to be one of those people who actually enjoy simple foods. When people ask me what my favorite meal is I always say steak salad. I’d pick that over biscuits and gravy any day.
What suggestions or advice would you give others who are trying to optimize their nutrition to nourish and fuel their bodies?
You have to find something that you can maintain and that means DO NOT starve yourself. Take everything you hear with a grain of salt because everyone is a little different. Find things you like to eat that fit your own personal guidelines for healthy eating and experiment to find what works best for you and your goals. A good starting point is to track your food for a week and find out about how many calories you consume in a day. From there you can try redistributing your macros to fit the 30/40/30 calorie distribution of protein/carbs/fat based on your current calorie intake. Make adjustments from there based on how you feel and how you weigh in.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
We all have this vision of who we want to be and where we want to end up. But how do you know when you get there? What do you do IF you get there?? You’re not going to go back to your old ways and feel satisfied for the rest of your life; that would be completely unfulfilling. You have to learn to love the process because the process is your life.
Where can people follow you?
On Instagram @chelsnichs