Can You Really Eat ‘Right’ For Surfing? We Ask A Nutritionist, We Get The Answers
Hi Francesca, tell us a little about yourself.
Hi, I’m Francesca Eldridge and I’m a registered clinical Nutritionist and beginner surfer living in Auckland. I ride a 7’4 Modern Blackfish, she goes by the nickname of Plummy. Food-wise, I eat most things, and I eat a lot – so long as it’s real food.
I completed my studies with the Naturopathic College of New Zealand. I’d always had an interest in natural health but it was my own experience of recovery from long-term severe illness – both mental and physical health problems – using nutrition, herbal medicine and other tools, that inspired me to study formally and start working as a natural health professional.
I’m passionate about helping people learn how to support their own mental and physical health, and I encourage the concept of each individual learning to build a tool kit to support their health, in which nutrition is one powerful tool.
I’m also an advocate of falling in love with real food. I think there is currently information overload and a lot of half truths around what we ‘should’ eat. And I think really, people need to be encouraged to simply get in the kitchen with fresh, real foods, try new things, and have fun. And listen to how their body responds to particular foods. That, and to be taught how to cover all their nutritional bases, because nutrient deficiencies are common and can and do lead to many health problems, sometimes very serious ones.
As a surfer, do you think it is particularly important that we watch what we put into our bodies before a session? Why?
Yes, definitely. Surfing is a moderate to intense sport, physically speaking. Even when you’re waiting for a set, you’re still burning energy to keep warm (most of the year in NZ, anyway), and when you go for a wave, you tend to be giving it your all and your heart rate increases significantly. Plus, we tend to stay out for more than one hour most times we go out. And then for beginners, when you’re in the white water, you never really get a rest. So all these factors combine to make it a physically demanding sport and you’re going to become low in energy more rapidly if you haven’t fueled well before surfing. Your muscles won’t perform as well and you won’t concentrate as well – your brain will literally be hungry. And you’ll possibly feel a bit yuck and weak. All this can potentially be unsafe too.
You are definitely going to feel better, focus better and be able to make the most of what the ocean offers you and look after yourself and your mates, if you have fueled well beforehand. This means plenty of water as well as nourishing food. In particular, you want to be sure you’re getting plenty of B vitamin-rich foods not just before a surf but every day, because these play such a key role in making ATP, the internally produced fuel that powers our cells and powers everything we do. All leafy green vegetables (spinach, asparagus, chard, kale), sweet potatoes, free range eggs and meats, wild fish, black beans and brewer’s yeast spread (the home-made version) are some of your best sources of B vitamins.
What do you think are the top 5 nutritional mistakes people make when trying to achieve highly in sport?
1 not eating enough,
2- not hydrating adequately,
3 – over-training and getting physically and mentally burnt out,
4 – not making the time and investing in professional guidance to find out what is going to work for you, nutritionally, as an individual, particularly if you want to compete or have ongoing health issues,
5 – perhaps a tendency to reach for refined carbs (white flour and white sugar foods and drinks) for quick energy hits that offer no nourishment. And in fact stress can deplete the body and its nutrient stores and lead to energy crashes and emotional crashes.
It’s worth mentioning that the old sports nutrition wisdom was to carbo load, to ramp up our glycogen stores (stored glucose), before partaking in sports. Now we are seeing a shift toward a ‘healthy fats and low carb’ (HFLC) way of eating for sports performance, and getting the body to switch from burning carbs/glucose to instead burning fat (ketosis). The theory being that the body can only store so much glucose from carbs but this will eventually run out if we are active and do long-duration physically demanding activities, because glucose stores are finite. Whereas the body can store much greater amounts of fat, so you are unlikely to run out of fuel and can ‘go’ for longer, and you won’t hit the wall.
In addition, research shows a HFLC way of eating can greatly assist with weight loss, reducing inflammatory health conditions, such as joint problems and digestive problems, and for some people it may support management of mental health problems. If you were thinking of trying out a HFLC way of eating to support your health and surfing performance, I recommend you get started under the guidance of a qualified nutritionist. Getting into ketosis properly requires informed support and typically pushing through a period of ‘keto flu’ before you start to feel the benefits.
We also know that going low carb doesn’t work for everyone – some people don’t feel mentally or physically at their best eating low carb and can become underweight too. Though we definitely can invest in our health by learning about health-enhancing carbs vs health-depleting carbs.
Don’t do something just because it worked for someone else or it’s the latest thing – figure out what works for you and supports Your mental and physical health and your surfing goals.
What would an ideal pre surf meal look like?
I personally favour a focus on healthy fats for energy and satiety + whole carbs or animal protein in a pre-surfing meal. So maybe some overnight soaked oats with berries, cream or coconut cream and cinnamon; leftover roast veg from dinner with pesto and olive oil; toasted rye sourdough with toppings like avocado or butter + almond butter; a free range fried egg sandwich on sourdough with lashings of butter or avocado; or a smoothie that includes coconut cream, banana and a free range egg yolk plus almond milk, chia seeds, cocoa..all the yum yums!
A dawnie doesn’t mean skipping breakfast and things like a smoothie can be prepped the night before so you basically only have to add an egg in the morning and hit blend. And if you’re a ravenous morning type like I am, dinner leftovers often go down a treat.
Notice how all the meal suggestions here have texture, natural colour, density, and a nourishing fat component.
And post surf?
First of all, this is where being prepared brings benefits – so prepping some food before heading out surfing (the night before if necessary) and having it waiting in the car for you when you come out of the water. This increases post-surf stoke!
Again, I favour focusing on real food and defo healthy fats for satiety. Dinner leftovers are a winner – cooked chicken and some salad leaves, leftover steak and veg, or leftover black bean nachos (all more fat and protein-based). For quick energy, I’ve tried oat biscuits sandwiched together with honey and almond butter (more carb/glucose based so quick energy that can relieve feelings of being famished, but won’t fill you up for long).
For something quick to prepare before you head out surfing, good options are a sourdough sandwich with lots of butter or avocado and some hummus + leaves or chicken + leaves; or a salad with hard boiled eggs, seeds and olive oil. As long as you are eating as soon as possible after you get out of the water and it’s real, home-made food with ingredients your grandparents would recognise, you’re doing your body good and taking care of yourself. I always make eating after a surf a priority – sometimes before I’ve even got out of my wetty, especially if it’s been a long session.
Although we don’t often visibly sweat whilst surfing, dehydration is a common problem for anybody that spends extended periods of time in the water. How much does dehydration actually influence our performance?
Keep in mind that we don’t just lose water to sweat but also to respiration (breathing). Dehydration affects so many body functions. It raises blood pressure and makes our heart work harder, and adversely affects nutrient and oxygen transport in the body, which can leave our organs, tissues and brain hungry for oxygen and nourishment – none of this is ideal when you’re wanting to focus and perform at your best, whatever level you surf at.
Dehydration also makes it easier for wastes and toxins to accumulate in the body and can adversely affect joint health. In addition, the mineral losses that come with dehydration can adversely affect muscle function (including the heart), and lead to cramping and feelings of fatigue.
The general rule for how much water You as an individual need is 30ml for each kilo of your body weight, every day (this is your baseline), plus one big glass of water for every tea, coffee or alcoholic drink you consume, to replace fluid lost to the diuretic effects of these drinks. And if you’re breast feeding, you need an extra one to one-and-a-half litres of water each day on top of your baseline.
If I am wanting to surf well can I eat “bad” on the days I am out of the water, and then just pay attention to what I eat on the days I am surfing? Or are my food choices accumulative?
Our food choices are definitely accumulative but at the same time, we don’t want to be overly hard on ourselves. I always encourage my clients to take the 90:10 approach – eat well 90% of the time and then you can enjoy those treats the rest of the time. Eating for soul is also important. We all need a croissant now and then, and a good wood-fire pizza and a couple of glasses of red. And chocolate.
One thing that is important for surfers to learn about is the vital role of B vitamins in energy production. As mentioned earlier, B vitamins are needed for making the energy that powers our cells – ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Active people are obviously going to metabolize B vitamins more rapidly and be more at risk of deficiencies. So get to know your best food sources of B vitamins, like free range chicken, lamb, beef, sardines, wild salmon, free range eggs, brown rice, oats, almonds, navy and black beans, lentils, peas, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, asparagus, broccoli, and brewer’s yeast.
Also, be aware of reducing foods/substances that deplete nutrients needed for surfing performance, such as B vitamins…so this means not overdoing the caffeinated or alcoholic drinks, which cause us to lose B vitamins via increased urination. For coffee lovers, I suggest having a really good coffee once or twice a week and savouring it, rather than having it daily. And same with beer or wine – drink less but drink the good stuff (like the Italians do) and aim for five alcohol-free days per week.
Do you have any little hacks that could help an athlete or dedicated surfer really thrive in their body?
In addition to all the nutritional advice above, making sure you rest and look after yourself during times of physical and emotional stress, such as injury, bereavement, big life changes, surgery, emotional trauma. We are not designed to go go go all the time….often we will perform better for doing a bit less. Meditation and yoga can be really helpful for grounding, breath, reducing anxiety, and getting into that relaxed rest, repair and digest state, also known as Parasympathetic Nervous System activation. Rest days are equally as important as training. And please, don’t be scared to eat healthy fats – olive oil, butter, fish oil, flax seed oil, coconut oil. These are all great sources of energy and support cellular function, mental health, and so many other aspects of our physical and mental health.
Thanks so much for your knowledge and time Francesca!
If you’d like to learn more about the nutrition consultations I offer for mental + physical health, you can visit me at www.francescaeldridgehealth.com. I have a focus on supporting people affected by OCD, anxiety, depression, excessive stress, burnout, PMS and insomnia.
I offer free 15-minute calls if you’d like to have a chat about how I can help you learn how to thrive. We can also hang out on Insta and Facebook – I offer regular Facebook Live talks, with a mental health focus
Thank you so much for your time Francesca! We really appreciate it and I look forward to implementing some of your advice to see what changes I notice in my surfing.