Science is Stronger: An Evidence-Based Approach to Superior Athletic Performance
With nutrition credited for as much as 80% of any health and fitness plan, it defies logic that so much misinformation exists in the increasingly crowded nutrition space. Diets of the month—from juice cleanses, to paleo and the ketogenic diet—are broadcast throughout the internet, much of it from social influencers without any formal training or tertiary qualification in dietetics. So how can people cut through the noise to find what’s right for them?
Consultations with a sports dietitian who can show how they’ve helped people achieve the kind of results you’re after are a solid, albeit expensive, option for all those looking to make significant and sustainable change in their lives. But one company is using the power of the internet to cut through the noise and offer a high quality, affordable service, and restore credibility to the industry.
Renaissance Periodization (“RP” to its legion of fans) has more than a dozen PhD consultants on staff, servicing clients throughout the world, from beginner-level athletes right through to representatives of the CrossFit Games and the World Weightlifting Championships. We caught up with Nick Shaw, RP’s Founder / CEO, for his take on food and supplements for pre-workout, performance, inflammation, recovery—all from a scientific, evidence-based approach to superior athletic performance.
Can you share a bit about your background and the birth of Renaissance Periodization?
Absolutely. I was studying Sports Management at the University of Michigan, which is where I met RP co-founder, Dr Mike Israetel. We actually met in the gym on campus, started chatting, and he got me hooked on powerlifting and the idea of competing. Not long after, I did my first ever powerlifting meet.
Mike and I shared a passion for fitness and helping people achieve their goals. After graduation we moved to New York City to become personal trainers. During that time we got to meet some really cool people from all different backgrounds, but when you’re training people one-on-one there’s a limit to how much help you can give. Mike left NYC to get his PhD, and after that [in 2012] we started RP so we could reach more people.
It started from working with close friends and family, offering diet and training programs. A lot of things we were experimenting on ourselves, and tweaking it how we wanted, so we knew what worked and what didn’t. We started using social media, the results started to spread, and it took off.
So you started off with nutrition and training from day one with RP?
We liked bodybuilding, nutrition, training—we liked everything—and that’s all we did with our lives. We had some crazy ideas. In 2014 we released our first ebook, which was massively popular. We went from being able to coach just a few people, to reaching tens of thousands of people via the ebook. Building off that, we came up with a plan to help even more people. We had to make it scalable so we could reach damn near everybody. In February 2015 we came up with our diet templates. We thought it might be popular with college students, but they were a complete gamechanger—they blew up.
Was the RP idea born out of frustration that existed from the misinformation that existed in the market, or was it just a cool business idea that you were passionate about?
Both. One of the things we wanted to do with RP was cut through all the bullshit. And there’s so much of it, especially in the nutrition and fitness industries—gimmicks, fads, all of that. So the main model of RP is that science is stronger. There’s a reason that all of our coaches are basically PhD-caliber individuals. But not only that.
Generally, companies in the industry are usually one of two things: a) they’re a good athlete so people gravitate towards those who are genetically blessed, or b) on the flipside, people might be booksmart, but not athletes themselves, so lack the practical application. At RP we wanted people of PhD caliber who know what they’re doing, but we also needed them to be high level athletes. We have a couple of female consultants who are PhDs and world champion jujitsu grapplers, as an example. When you get the best of both worlds, no one can argue. We know the science. We know the application. And we have the results to back it up.
One of the things we wanted to do with RP was cut through all the bullshit.
What are the major nutrition mistakes you see people make?
#1. Not eating enough carbohydrates.
This one goes hand in hand with CrossFit, from the whole paleo / keto movements. You can put a lawn mower engine in a nice car, and it might work, but it’s certainly not the best thing you could do if you, say, put a V10 engine in. That’s the difference between a low carb diet and one that offers the additional benefits.
#2. Desire for short term results.
People are too interested in the short term, when they actually need to look at the bigger picture and the long run. It follows on from point one. People want quick fixes. For example, when you cut carbs, you might get faster, immediate results, but it’s short-sighted—it’s benefits are finite and your results will trail off eventually. If you come from a scientific approach and use a balanced diet, you don’t have to give up all your carbs. Take a balanced approach and think long term.
#3. Making too dramatic changes.
Slow and steady wins the race. Picture the tortoise and the hare analogy. You might remove some fat on a low carb diet, but you’ll crash out eventually. Aim to lose 0.5-1kg/week.
Take a balanced approach and think long term.
What are the differences between eating for muscle mass versus eating to lose body fat?
Calorie balance is key. If you want to lose weight, you’re going to have to reduce your calories at some point (eat less than you’re burning). If you want to gain weight, you’re going to have to raise your calories at some point (eat more than you’re burning). The easiest way to track that is using a scale. If you’re consistently trending down, you’re in a caloric deficit. If you’re consistently trending up, you’re in a caloric surplus. Most people overcomplicate it.
Is a calorie a calorie?
There’s certainly some minor exceptions. But for the most part, yes calories are king and the most important part for people who want to lose weight. To use the car analogy again, if you focus on everything else—food quality, supplements, etc.—but you’re not focusing on caloric balance, it’s like having a Lamborghini without an engine. It might look great, but it’s not going to go anywhere.
What are your thoughts on the ketogenic diet?
It goes back to people wanting the shorter term results. If you drop out your carbs, you’ll lose a lot of water-weight upfront, which is really motivating for some people. Again, I hate any diet that is automatically too restrictive—let’s say it requires you to give up an entire macronutrient food group—it’s not sustainable in the long run. Over time, you’ll backtrack really fast.
What we’re after is a slow, steady approach and making it more of a lifestyle. After an initial few months, you’re going to need a maintenance period, and then if you want to keep cutting after that, that’s fine. But, again, think long term and think rationally.
What about the nutritional differences between a CrossFit Games athlete compared to your average social CrossFit athlete?
The people who are training a lot more, and a lot harder, are going to be eating a lot more carbs. Carbohydrates are heavily tied towards activity levels. If you take someone who’s working out for 45 minutes, doing class—their energy needs and demands are lower. In contrast, a Games or Regionals athlete, doing multiple sessions in a day, their energy demands are greater—they need more food and carbs so they can recover. As it gets more and more advanced, you start to focus more on the smaller details, like nutrient timing, so you have more energy for multiple workouts.
Self-experimentation is the best way. If something doesn’t feel right, avoid it.
What are the carbs people should be having?
Aim to get most of your carbs from traditionally healthy sources, like fruit, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and rice—those are all really good options. When you start getting a bit more advanced, at that Games and Regional level, you actually may need specifically higher GI carbs, like Gatorade or Gatorade powder, to actually helps improve your performance. Definitely aim to get most from the traditional sources, but as you get more advanced there’s a need for higher GI carbs around your training.
What’s the best thing to have before a workout?
There are some supplements we recommend: whey protein, casein protein, creatine monohydrate, and coffee. Pre-workouts are mostly just caffeine anyway, so coffee is a great affordable pre-workout. During a workout, something like a carbohydrate drink (e.g. Gatorade powder) can be used by more advanced athletes.
How about inflammation. Are there certain foods that people should avoid?
It will depend on the individual. If you’ve got celiac disease, there are things you shouldn’t eat. Some of those things are a bit overblown. What you want to control is mostly the calories. Most people don’t like something just because it doesn’t sit right for them. In that case, definitely try different foods, but by and large most people can get away with most of those healthy carb choices and probably be okay. Self-experimentation is the best way. If something doesn’t feel right, avoid it.
Where do you sit in the organic debate?
We come from a scientific and evidence-based approach. Considering that, there’s really only one thing that stands out about organic foods—price. Some people prefer organic foods, and we would never tell them not to, but in terms of benefits—especially for body composition and performance—the difference is negligible.
Does that extend to animal products, too?
For people who have issues with lactose, it definitely makes sense to avoid dairy. With technology now, you can easily avoid things like lactate and generally be fine. Unless you want to avoid those things for morality reasons, there’s no other scientific reason to avoid them. At RP we have vegan diet plans that have no animal products whatsoever, and people have seen really great results from both.
What can people do to get their own training goals on track?
Again, look at the “Dieting for Body Composition” image. If you get the big things dialed in, you’re most of the way there.