Accredited Sports Dietitian, Strongwoman competitor and STRONG Australia’s very own Nutrition Round Table expert, Harriet Walker, knows a thing or two about fuelling bodies for peak performance.
Through her business Athletic Eating, as well as personal experience lifting heavy, and often, 32-year-old Walker spends her days making sure Australia’s strongest athletes are nourished for their sport. But she says the benefits of eating for fuel rather than aesthetics goes beyond body composition and the number of plates you can stack on your barbell. When you eat to perform, your life changes, she says. And she puts her money where her mouth is, offering cash and free coaching to a number of sponsored female athletes each year.
So how can you fuel your body to be at its best in the gym? Walker provides her tips.
SFMA: Firstly, in your own words, what is Strongwoman?
Walker: Strongwoman/Strongman is a weightlifting sport that tests strength as an athletic ability via a wide range of events. In short, the sport requires you to pick up and move a bunch of strange objects, as quickly as possible. As a predominantly male-focused sport, it’s traditionally been called Strongman. However, particularly more recently, female numbers have skyrocketed and many female athletes will now refer to themselves as Strongwoman competitors.
SFMA: How did you find such a niche sport?
Walker: Strongwoman fell into my life about six years ago, shortly after I competed in a bodybuilding competition. Bodybuilding is a sport based on aesthetics, which is a fantastic challenge but can also make you feel overly critical of your body. When I was struggling a little with my body image post-comp, a friend of mine entered me into a novice Strongwoman competition and I loved it. I enjoyed that it was about what your body can do, not what it looks like.
I dabbled in the training across a few years, while also competing in surf boat rowing. Then I decided I wanted to go all in and get right into strength training. I hired a strength coach and dedicated the next 18 months to building my strength up to a point where I could compete. I ditched the idea of an ‘ideal’ body weight and just focused on getting stronger. I qualified for my first Arnolds Sport Festival Strongman competition in 2017 and competed again in 2019, and I provide nutrition services to a lot of Strongman and Strongwoman athletes.
SFMA: What’s the most empowering aspect of the sport for you?
Walker: I love how building physical strength carries over into all other areas of my life. You build personal and professional confidence through weightlifting. I have also met so many awesome ladies while I have been competing – I could travel around Australia and drop in to any number of gyms and have a friend to train with. It’s a fantastic network to be a part of.
SFMA: How does your Strongwoman experience help you help your clients?
Walker: I studied nutrition and dietetics at university for over five years, but for me, the true learning has come from applying that knowledge – on myself and on my clients. Knowing the exertion experienced when lifting heavy weights highlights the stress we put on our body during a Strongwoman training session – stress that requires adequate nutrition to support recovery and muscle adaptation.
SFMA: Over 80 per cent of your clients are female and mostly strength sport athletes. Why did you decide to specialise in their nutrition?
Walker: I love the feeling of being strong, confident and capable, and want to share that with other women. I have adjusted my diet for bodybuilding competitions and weight class sports over the years, and I have seen it done well. But I have also seen it done poorly.
Because the sport of Strongwoman is still quite young, there is not a comprehensive scope of research on the topic. This makes it harder for people to access the right information, particularly when it comes to weight cuts. Honestly, dieting for a sport has taken many years to sit comfortably with me. And it probably still doesn’t, as any time you play around with your diet, you risk harming your relationship with food and your body. I do know, however, that I can make a positive contribution to the world of strength sports by providing considered and evidence-based information to the women doing it.
SFMA: What are the most important aspects of nutrition for Strongwoman athletes?
1. Adequate calories: To build muscle and get strong, you need energy. So ensuring you are consuming adequate protein and calories is key. Athletes need to be consuming enough energy to support their training and build muscle. Many women are shocked to see how much food they can eat while getting stronger! When you start to focus on eating for athletic performance, you move away from an ‘eat as little as possible’ mentality to a ‘how much do I need to eat to hit that personal best’ mentality.
2. Variety of foods: Athletes need to be hitting both macronutrient (carbs, fats, protein) and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium and calcium) targets. So eating a wide range of nutritious food from all food groups is important.
3. Pre- and post-training nutrition: Ensuring energy levels and muscle glycogen levels are topped up going into an athlete’s training session, and that they are eating enough protein, carbs, water, and colourful fruits and vegetables after a training session to support recovery.
4. Supplementation: There is a lot of solid research on the benefits of whey protein powders, caffeine, creatine and collagen for strength athletes.
SFMA: What is your ‘day on a plate’?
Walker: I get my clients (like myself) to focus on fresh quality foods, including lean meats such as fish, chicken and steak, low GI carbs such as quinoa, oats, rice and sweet potato, and healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, nuts and oily fish. Plus, lots of brightly coloured veg and fruit – the volume is quite large! And then I layer in foods I love, which might not be seen as ‘healthy’ per se but are important for balance, enjoyment and social time.
A pre-training snack will be some easily digested carbs around one hour before training. Think a banana smoothie, crumpets, cereal and milk, or a piece of fruit. After training, I’ll opt for oats with high protein yoghurt and berries or a smoothie with whey, a banana, honey and milk or water. For my other meals, I usually choose a lean protein, a good handful of whole grain carbs, lots of vegetables (at least half a plate) plus a healthy fat source.
SFMA: How can people make following a meal plan more enjoyable?
Walker: I see meal plans as a temporary tool that teaches an athlete about how much food is required to fuel and recover from training, or for an athlete who has a short-term goal such as a weight cut. Understanding that meal plans have an expiry date is key – no one can be expected to eat the same foods every day, for the rest of their life.
I make sure my athletes understand the meal plan principles, so they can adjust their plan without feeling like they have ‘failed’ if they eat outside of the recommendations. I also let them know that we are not aiming for perfection but consistency. This takes a bit of the pressure off and allows the athlete to focus on how their body feels and how they are performing, rather than on an arbitrary weight goal.
It is also important to educate people that social eating and eating for enjoyment is really important and should not be avoided! There is room for all foods in a healthy diet.
SFMA: What does a week of training look like for you?
Walker: When I am training for a Strongwoman competition, I work on building up my strength for basic movements, including deadlifts, bench, squats, overhead press and core. I aim for four to five sessions per week, usually with a session dedicated to each major lift plus Stongwoman event practice. There would usually be a push, pull, overhead, and carry type focus for each day of the program, plus accessory movements.
SFMA: How has this sport changed your life and what do you think the sport can do for other women?
Walker: Beyond giving me some impressive back muscles, Strongwoman has changed my mindset. I always learn something about myself during training and competition. It took me from feeling uncertain about my capabilities to being unashamedly confident and willing to give anything a crack.
To learn more about the growing community of Strongwomen in Australia and hear how it is changing the mindset for many women like Harriet, check out the upcoming Strong Women Web Series. This three-part online documentary series is centered on a group of powerful Australian women who compete in Strongman competitions. The series follows them as they shatter stereotypes and rebuild themselves inside and out and will be released in 2021.
Learn more here.