Performance Plates –
Plan your meals for training days in minutes using this simple tool
By Patrick McCarthy, O2X Nutrition Specialist
Do you find it difficult to plan out your meals? Do you know what a typical meal should look like on a training day? How should it differ on low- and high-intensity days? How should you eat on a rest day?
In this article, I hope to answer all of the above questions and provide you with an important tool for making these decisions yourself.
What are performance plates?
Performance Plates is a tool that was developed by the University of Colorado Springs and United States Olympic Committee specifically called The Athlete’s Plate®. The group designed and published visual graphics depicting an ideal plate for days with different training loads – i.e. rest or “easy training,” “moderate-intensity,” and “high-intensity.” Since then, the concept has been adopted by numerous sport bodies and organizations, and more widely known as Performance Plates.
In today’s media-driven society, it is easy to become confused and overwhelmed with the mass amount of information out there surrounding performance nutrition. Performance Plates provide a simplified remedy to this.
Put simply, by ensuring that you are getting enough of the necessary nutrients in and around your training, you can rest easy knowing that you are fueling and recovering effectively. This tool will also help you to maintain a healthy weight, through effective portion controlling on rest and lower-activity days.
Why do I need them?
For decades, the role that nutrition plays in optimal performance has been overlooked by athletes. False reliance on genetics, natural ability, and good training allowed little space to factor in nutrition.
This was not due to a lack of research in the area. In fact, performance nutrition studies date back to 1925 and earlier, when researchers first discovered that carbohydrate ingestion during the Boston Marathon resulted in improved performance. (Source: Gordon et al., 1925)
As interest in this area has grown throughout the past two decades, so too has the spread of misinformation and financially-driven claims about what foods and diets we need to adhere to for optimal performance.
Performance Plates provide an easy method of structuring your day and ensuring you are consuming enough of the necessary nutrients.
What should I eat on a training day?
When it comes to training of any type, you’ll need to make sure you are ticking the following boxes:
- Getting sufficient energy (kCals) – This is pretty simple. You’ll need to consume more energy on active days, and less on less-active days. The reason I include this is because sometimes people will look to the macronutrients before the crucial first step, energy.
- Carbohydrates – This is the most efficient source of energy and fuel for high-intensity exercise. If you are engaging in training that produces a lot of sweat or leaves you short of breath, there will be a level of carbohydrate reliance going on. More specifically, in any exercise that surpasses 60% of your maximum intensity, carbohydrates will provide the main fuel. That means on days when you have HIIT sessions, crossfit workouts, or a heavy lifting workout, you’ll need to fuel and recover with carbs.
- Protein – You may already know that protein is an essential nutrient for the repair and buildup of muscle, and especially important on weight-lifting days. However, you may not have known that there will be muscle breakdown in any exercise type. In fact, our muscles are always going through a process of breakdown. For this reason, protein should be a component of recovery meals regardless of the training modality.
- Fruits & Veggies – I often get asked about the role that fruits and veggies play in enhancing performance. While a bowl of kale won’t exactly fuel you through a 90-minute weightlifting session, it has other important roles. These relate to the vast array of micronutrients that we get through fruits and vegetables. They might not provide the energy for training and competition, but these micronutrients are essential for the extraction of energy from carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Beyond that, fruits and veggies are also crucial for healthy immune function, gut health, mental state, and inflammation levels.
How do performance plates work?
There are now a variety of approaches to incorporating performance plates into your routine. All of these, however, consist of a few main principles.
First, you’ll need to classify the days in your week according to the levels of activity in each. I recommend separating your days into three categories: rest, lower-intensity training, and high-intensity training.
I often get asked, “What should count as a training day?” to which I respond, “Any day that you engage in training.” With that said, a 30-minute light run on the cardio machine or bicep/triceps day in the gym hardly compares to a 90-minute Crossfit class. That is why we have the designations for lower- and higher-intensity days.
You’ll now want to establish the meals that align with the above designations, i.e. rest (or easy training), low-intensity and high-intensity training days. These plates will differ not in the foods eaten, but the portions of each nutrient consumed.
For example, on a light-training or rest day, carbohydrate portions should be smaller and take up less space on your plate. Instead, lean proteins and veggies should take up a larger portion on these days.
On more intense training days, or during an active 24-hour shift in the station, carbohydrates are of much higher importance. They need to be prioritized, and so you should look to increase the portion here. Importantly, fiber and fats each take a longer time to be digested and pass through the GI tract, so portions of these should be smaller on heavy training days.
Now that you have a general idea of what nutrients should be prioritized on rest and training days, it is time to get practical.
After all, “we don’t eat nutrients, we eat foods that contain nutrients” (Laurent Bannock, We Do Science Podcast).
As a final step, you now need to identify some go-to meals that fit nicely into the meal templates above. To do this, here are some tips:
- If you are equipped in the kitchen, try to adapt some of your favorite recipes to the meal templates
- Find a trusted website with easy, tasty recipes
- Buy a performance-related cookbook
- Take a cooking class
- Head to Youtube and find some simple, performance-based recipes
- Try a meal-prep service if you are short on time. These services will likely have specific meals for the different training needs
Here are some of the trusted recipe sites that I recommend to athletes:
- Our App – O2X App
- Australian Institute of Sport – Recipes
- Sports Dietitians Australia – Recipe Archive
- Eleatnutrition.com – 30 Recipes for Busy Athletes
As we have covered, Performance Plates provide a simple tool for altering the composition of your meals (not necessarily what you eat, but how much). It is your responsibility to identify and prepare meals that fit these templates.
As an example, let’s imagine you had a busy day at work, and didn’t get to train due to time constraints. As you return home, you flick through the O2X App taking a look at different recipes. After reading this article, you know that carbohydrates are not the main priority on a less-active day, and instead you should look toward a higher-protein, veggie-packed option that provides all the necessary nutrients.
By just making these small adjustments based on your daily activity, you will begin to see marked improvements in your energy levels, performance, but also weight management.
I hope this article helps, please feel free to reach out with any questions.