Adjusting diet to a work assignment: Detroit Edition

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Hello from Detroit Metro, Michigan.

The below is a scenario I’m working through now that I’m in town, and a great example of the thought process required to maintain my exercise and training progress, as well as stabilize my diet while on the road long-term.

Currently I’m working the swing (aka 2nd or evening) shift on assignment. On the one hand this allows a lot of time in the morning to run or exercise. I ran a very comfortable 4.3 miler near my lodging around 10am on Wednesday.

But my assignment also requires I spend a lot of time on my feet walking the facility, and on that Wednesday I burned about 4000 calories that day.

Never minding how tired I felt at the end of the day… while not opposed to burning some fat after bulking up in Vegas, I also was worried I wouldn’t consume enough food (especially protein) to prevent muscle catabolization. I ate a solid pre-work meal, a light snack during work and then a ridiculously large processed meal before going to bed. Despite housing 3300 claories I was well below my overall burn.

Yesterday I decided to not exercise at all, just work that day, to see how much I burned. After a similar workday of activity, I ended up finishing yesterday with 3840 calories burned. I had done nothing physically but walk a facility floor over an 8-9 hour day. On a similar eating schedule I *only* managed 2900 calories, and of course still finished well short of my overall burn.

While not a bad dilemma for someone trying to burn fat, this still presents a dilemma.

– Burning 3800+ calories a day despite not training at all leaves very little bandwidth to train during the week. I got a little lucky the day I ran in that I didn’t move as much during the first 2-3 hours at work as I usually need to. If I had, the burn would have been more like 4200-4300 calories. Doing that on a weekend (especially a long run day) isn’t so bad. Doing it 5 days a week means any substantial exercise poses a burnout or injury risk.

– I could just accept my Michael Phelpsian fate of burning 4000 calories a day, and just try to house more food, sure. I generally avoided breakfast, and I could simply just make sure to eat breakfast in addition to a pre-work lunch.

– But! One of the key reasons I’ve eaten a massive processed post-work meal is because by the time I leave at 11pm I am absolutely punched out, and standing over a kitchen for an hour while preparing dinner isn’t workable. Eating cold leftovers isn’t workable for a number of reasons, to the point where I’d be better off eating pricey processed garbage anyway.

– A light dinner (as much as I’d like to do that) isn’t workable either, because it’ll quickly digest and an empty stomach after so much activity (from experience) would wake me up during the night, compromising my sleep.

– I mentioned a light snack during the workday. This is a protein bar, small/quick by design due to the demands of my current role. Sitting down for a full meal simply isn’t workable. Because my bag can get thrown around a bit and because the office has a pest problem, I’d rather not bring fruit.

Because of all this… before I can resume weekday exercise of any kind, I need to develop a plan to get enough protein and overall calories to effectively fuel and avoid burnout or muscle catabolization. Fat loss is welcome and inevitable, but I want to limit my calorie deficit to no more than 1000 calories in a day… more like 500-700 whenever possible.

I at least have the weekend to figure it out, since the facility pretty much operates on weekdays. But having a workable action plan to follow is important for the following weeks, if I don’t want to end up like Morgan Spurlock. And of course I need to have all my food purchased and in-house before work resumes Monday, because there won’t be much time or space to shop during the week.

Current keys:

– Sorry, intermittent fasting fans, but breakfast now becomes mandatory. I do wake up before 8am, so eating breakfast in itself is not a logistical problem.

– One answer after work is to heat cooked rice and eat it with canned tuna in oil. This has worked well for me during my prior, more normal workdays, and would work at the end of the day. That said, it’s substantially fewer calories than I’m currently getting at the end of the day (though they’d be better calories). So I need to find many, many more calories to eat earlier in the day. Also… I’m trying to avoid eating too many carbohydrates outside of exercise, so rice for dinner may be out of the question.

– I can’t eat fruit at work, but I can definitely eat it back at my lodging. I’ll have to eat it in the morning or before work, however… not just because of the work issues, but because any sugar before bed could keep me awake.

– No matter how many calories I burn… by experience I can’t comfortably consume more than 4000 calories in a day. 3500 is probably a suitable goal for now. Three meals of about 1000 calories each is do-able, though possibly a bit tough because I’m used to around 800ish calories.

– A variation of the common “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper” approach could work here, though perhaps dinner will be more like a pauper who found some extra food, and maybe breakfast is more like a king trying to lose weight. I don’t do well stuffing myself silly first thing in the morning, and as mentioned dinner does need to be a bit more substantial.

One plausible scenario is to do things backwards, to start with a dinner-style breakfast with chicken and potatoes around 7-8am.

Sample plan:

8am: Baked chicken, boiled potatoes, chase it with some fruit.
8-9am: Have some coffee. Maybe with coconut oil.
10am: Exercise.
11am-12pm: A substantial lunch to refuel. This is probably the most flexible option of the three meals, and can depend on how I’m feeling. Again, probably eat some fruit with it.
1pm: Go work.
5-7pm: Protein bar during break at work.
11pm: Get home from work. Upon returning, eat something like breakfast that can be quickly prepared: Eggs, probably the tuna, probably a vegetable like carrots, maybe chase it with an avocado or something similarly fatty and satiating. A Foreman grill would allow for a lean cut of beef to be prepared with it if I didn’t have that for lunch.
12mid: Go to bed.

Now, I may do it this way exactly, I may do something rather different than above.

But this is the thought process that goes into changing gears. Once this meal plan is in place, then I can resume my desired training.

During the weekday, these workouts would be one hour max, probably more like 30-45 minutes. I’ll push past 60 minutes on the weekends and worry about long runs and such there, when there’s a lot more flexible time. Most of all, I won’t worry much if I have a bunch of days off during the week, because my current role assures that I’ll get a lot of exercise anyway.

But the key is to figure out your nutrition before you figure out your workout plans. Your recovery is the foundation on which your training is built.

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