I’ve had a lot of enquiries around the diet at Sitsongpeenong and how much of a factor nutrition was in my training progression. The short and easy answer is that the food at the camp made a HUGE difference to my results and has changed both the food on my plate and overall approach to eating. I’ve detailed below the salubrious sustenance that aided recovery between sessions as well as how, in keeping with the general philosophy of the camp, managing your diet was your own responsibility.
Breakfast was a multifarious combination of Western and Thai cuisine, as colourful as it was nutritious. Most mornings I would spend the last 15 minutes of training daydreaming about the culinary concoctions that I would soon be devouring. This was, in no small part, aided by the aromas that wafted across my nose and my own imagination which would tell me we were having foods I knew were not part of the menu at Sitsongpeenong. The reality was not far removed from my mental musings, and the kitchen staff kept things interesting enough by mixing up the main dishes as well as delivering some well-appreciated staples. There was always a pot of multigrain rice, white and brown bread, fried eggs (scrambled made intermittent appearances) and quite frequently, pancakes, available. In addition to this, there was a buffet style section of food that would feature one mixed vegetable dish, one meat/fish dish (often made with vegetables too) and a third option that I dubbed the miscellaneous section, as it would contain anything the staff chose to cook (pad thai, another meat/fish/vegetable dish). Lunch was in a similar format to breakfast but with the bread, eggs and pancakes, substituted for a medley of salad vegetables. We ate this after the second training session so this would be a late lunch, around 1600-1630.
Sitsongpeenong provided two meals per day (one after each training session) so the onus was on the individual to procure their own snacks and make arrangements for dinner. Everyone had their different approach to nutrition at the camp and I could see the motivations were an individual mix of taste preference, budget, habit and training goals. Some of the fighters would take advantage of the many street food vendors close to the camp as the fare was flavoursome and modestly priced, also serving as an excuse to leave the camp and explore some of the surrounding area. Alternatively, there were some restaurants nearby that had western options at a higher price, as well as the choice of a large supermarket (“anyone going to Big C?” was a phrase uttered daily), where provisions could be obtained. The amount of food provided at lunch also allowed for the practice of putting a side portion into a small bowl and placing in the personal room fridges, to be warmed up later. Sweets, chocolates, biscuits, doughnuts and ice-cream, were some of the junk options consumed in varying amounts, although I noticed these undesirable ‘nutrient sources’ were eschewed by anyone who had a fight pending.
My own personal preference was to have breakfast and lunch, as provided by the camp, and two peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. I would also throw in some fruit (mangoes, papaya, apples and bananas) as and when I felt like it. For breakfast I would only consume the meat/fish option and the vegetables, plus the third option if it did not contain carbohydrates and was to my liking. I would also have 1 or 2 fried eggs with several pancakes – breakfast was a large meal! At lunch I would often eat all three options or two options and occasionally a small portion of the rice, as well as have salad on the side. On some days this meant I would be eating a lot of food that was mostly protein and vegetables with my main carbohydrates coming from the morning pancakes, fruit, and the bread of the peanut butter sandwiches. Some of the other guys advised me to eat more rice, since we were training twice a day and because of the morning run, but I didn’t feel this was necessary since I was running every other day and felt good, energy wise, whilst training. I was also curious to try and limit my carbohydrate intake as I have come across many exponents of the low-carb/low GI diets and never trialled this method for more than one day. Even though my before and after pictures show a considerable change from the regime, I only lost 1kg in bodyweight whilst following the above diet and aforementioned training routine.
Supplementation was another area where everyone had an alternative approach. I should probably say at this point that I’m not a big fan of supplements, not because I deem them ineffective but rather I feel:
- They are too often the primary option when they should be what they are, a secondary supplemental source of nutrition
- I prefer the taste of real food
- Not all supplements are made equal and there are always doubts around their efficacy
Having said all of that, I was advised to take some creatine by the very person who told me about the camp in the first place, so I accepted that would be the one time supplemental exception unless I felt I was severely lacking in a nutrient that would affect my recovery from training. As far as I recall, I was the only person taking creatine. Some of the other fighters also supplemented protein, via the ubiquitous shakes that are very easy to come by, but the most popular supplement I saw were electrolyte replacement powders. These were available in the Big C nearby, at a very low price (2 baht per sachet) and almost everyone (bar myself) consumed either these or a sports drink similar to 100-plus, Gatorade, etc.
For anyone curious as to why these were so important, electrolytes are the ionised (positive or negatively charged) form of minerals dissolved in your blood, and other bodily fluids, vital for (amongst other things) nerve and muscle function, maintaining blood pH, and regulating body hydration. When you sweat, electrolytes are lost and if you sweat profusely (as you would exercising for several hours in the Thai heat and humidity), you may lose more electrolytes than can be replaced adequately by only drinking water and eating. I took the ‘my body is an experiment ground’ approach and left the others to the electrolytes too, never really feeling like I needed them/was missing these from recovery. This was all based on personal preference and curiosity, rather than rigid anti-supplement beliefs and if I went back to Sitsongpeenong, I would probably include electrolytes, and maybe even protein powders, to see if I felt a difference in recovery and training output levels.
As I said earlier, there were many different nutritional approaches by the fighters at the camp (did I mention the Thai fighters would have three Thai meals per day and protein shakes? They followed this, with lean and strong physiques, housing a lot of power), most of whom had been training for several years and knew their bodies. Aside from when they were cutting weight for a fight (which effectively meant cutting water), I felt as if they all ate as they desired and some would have a few alcoholic drinks on Saturday night, knowing we had Sunday off from training. One small Irish lad, Keith, would seemingly always be eating some sort of sweet or chocolate but didn’t have a drop of fat on him. Initially he would appear to fall into the mythical ‘that person eats whatever they want and doesn’t put on weight’ category. However, I noticed he wasn’t overly keen on Thai food and at most meal times I would eat almost twice as much as him, but I wasn’t keen on the sweets and chocolates (occasional ice cream was my treat) so there was a balance to be found in the way both of us consumed enough energy to keep training.
I learned about nutrition in a different way from the textbooks and lab work of 3 years at university. I have a greater understanding of managing my hunger and how to fuel my exercise, as well as what works for my recovery vs. the amount and type of exercise I am undertaking. I once read that you shouldn’t do an exercise just for the sake of doing it, there should be some sort of goal in mind and, to a certain extent, the same should be applied to your nutrition. We obviously eat and drink for enjoyment, as much as getting fitter, but if you feel your nutrition is where the problems lies, make incremental changes and see if you can measure the benefits before going all out on a supplemental bonanza and latest diet overhaul. I would love to know the opinions of others on this topic. In my next nutrition post, I’ll talk about how I’m managing my diet outside the camp and on my travels, whilst still training daily. Keep reading, keep eating and keep your body moving!