by Lily Nichols, the Pilates Nutritionist
Ever have those days where it feels like you’re just not on your A-game in the studio?
You start losing form 6 breaths into your Hundreds, your Series-of-Five is just a bit more challenging, or maybe you can’t perform some advanced moves with your usual stability.
Perhaps you’re noticing your once-defined abdominals are not as strong as they used to be.
You might be telling yourself, “I’m just out of shape.” Your Pilates mentor might have you think you’re just not “engaged” or “focused” enough, but I’m here to tell you it could be something else entirely.
When I decided to become a Pilates instructor, I was consciously choosing to build another skill set to help my nutrition clients reach their goals. You see, I was already a registered dietitian/nutritionist and was noticing that my clients would often assume that food would solve all of their problems, when in many cases what they really needed was exercise or better stress management.
For a time, I immersed myself in Pilates and spent more hours teaching Pilates clients than I did with nutrition clients.
Well imagine my surprise when I realized, more often than not, my Pilates clients’ failure to progress didn’t have anything to do with Pilates and everything to do with their nutrition.
Clearly, I had come full circle.
Sometimes the lines between nutrition and physical performance become a bit blurred.
So if you’re feeling like something is off in your Pilates practice, especially in your “core”, you might want to consider focusing your attention elsewhere for solutions.
Here are a few nutritional tweaks to consider if your core strength or tone leaves something to be desired.
- Change what you eat BEFORE Pilates – Eating the wrong foods before Pilates can most certainly make you bloated and make it challenging (or uncomfortable) to engage your powerhouse. In general, irritating and gassy foods include grains, beans, dairy products, foods high in sugar (including eating large quantities of fruit), and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cabbage). Of course, there is a wide range of individual tolerance among foods, so be especially mindful around which foods trigger bloating and digestive discomfort for you (and which foods don’t). I think we can all agree that engaging your abdominal muscles when your tummy is upset is not a good feeling.
- Adjust your meal/snack timing – Eating too soon before Pilates (or simply too much) will divert blood flow from your muscles to your digestive system. When you eat, especially a large meal, it triggers your parasympathetic nervous system and puts you in “rest and digest” mode. That’s not exactly where you want to be before starting Pilates, unless of course, you have a very gentle session ahead of you.
Consider waiting 90 minutes after a good-sized meal to workout, or, if you’re eating a snack, wait approximately 30 minutes. There isn’t a hard and fast rule here, so listen to your body as you adjust your meal and snack timing to suit your body’s cues.
- Drink less fluid with meals – It might seem counterintuitive, but if you drink too much liquid with meals, you’re almost guaranteed to experience bloating and distension. If you want to understand the science behind it, read this. But, in general, avoid drinking large amounts of fluids immediately before, during, and after meals. Of course, hydration still matters, so carry a water bottle with you and drink the majority of your fluids separate from eating. I highly suggest bringing that water bottle into the studio!
- Slow down at meals – As a Pilates instructor or student, you’re no stranger to mindfulness, but I’ve noticed a lot of my fellow Pilates instructors don’t carry the mindfulness from the studio to the dinner table. Just like most Pilates exercises start with aligning yourself and engaging the right muscles, digestion is best performed in sequence. The first step in breaking down the foods you eat is to chew, so take your time, savor the flavors, and chew, chew, chew that food before swallowing. The rest of your digestive system will be so grateful.
If you work a very busy teaching schedule, be sure to block out a lunch break where you can sit down and actually enjoy a meal. Stress is a known trigger of digestive issues. If you find yourself frantically noshing on Lara bars between clients (full disclosure: I’ve totally been there), it’s a good sign you need to take a break, sit down, and properly refuel.
- Consider an elimination diet – If none of the above is alleviating your digestive woes, consider the possibility of undiagnosed food sensitivities. Gas, bloating, distension, heartburn, and stomach pain are some of the most common symptoms of food sensitivities (although they can be felt far and wide throughout the body). For those of you that like a DIY challenge, you can download my free guide “30 Days to a Happy Tummy” to guide you through an elimination diet (available here). But if you’re having trouble identifying your trigger foods (or have tried and failed at an elimination diet), it’s a good idea to get accurate lab testing for food sensitivities and work with a skilled practitioner to guide you through a customized elimination diet and careful period of food reintroduction. If you need help with that, reach out to me (http://www.pilatesnutritionist.com/food-sensitivities/). When I decided to take my own advice, get tested for food sensitivities, and embark on an elimination diet, I was pleasantly surprised to see my Pilates performance, core strength, and muscle tone improve – all because of food!
You may notice that changing up your pre-Pilates food choices makes all the difference in the world. Or, you may find you need to dig a little deeper. Whatever the case, trust that you can figure it out. Just as it took months (or years) to master certain Pilates exercises, it can take that much time or longer to get to the bottom of what’s truly going on.
Hopefully this has given you a few ideas as you continue your mindful hunt for answers.
To your happy tummy and strong powerhouse,
Lily Nichols is a real food registered dietitian/nutritionist and certified Pilates instructor who runs the popular blog, PilatesNutritionist.com. Her practice focuses on prenatal nutrition, food sensitivities, and mindful eating. Lily is also the author of Real Food for Gestational Diabetes, RealFoodforGD.com.