One of the most popular topics on my discussion board is anything linked to nutrition. These discussions are pretty much the same old thing over and over. What I thought that I’d do is outline a little background on the topic. I’ll then cover some of the “why” behind the key aspects of an effective nutritional strategy. Some of what I recommend goes against common-held views within the traditional framework of sports nutrition. However, I’ve found them to be both healthy and effective.
Food is an emotive topic and most of our ‘issues’ with food stem from an emotional basis within ourselves. A rapid change in weight (up or down) is typically a sign of a person that is under extreme stress. While this article (as well as those in my book, Going Long, and my tips page) will give you some guidelines, your ability to effectively implement these guidelines will be strongly related to your emotional stability at any one time.
I like to eat like a Hobbit. Even on my lower volume days, I’ll aim to eat four meals throughout the day. On my highest volume days, I will get up to eight meals a day. Let’s focus on a low volume day, which is more like a standard day, for a long course athlete:
First Breakfast – four to six pieces of chopped fruit, with a cup of non-fat cottage cheese
First Session – typically 1:40 of swimming followed by weights and/or an easy run, during this session I’ll eat a couple of bananas
Second Breakfast – stir fry (red onion, mushrooms, eggs and smoked chicken or fish) served with a cup of cooked oatmeal
Lunch – repeat of First Breakfast, typically substitute some cooked meat or fish for the non-fat cottage cheese
Second Session – typically a two- to three-hour ride, I’ll use water, bananas, juices and sports nutrition products during this session
Dinner – either a monster salad that includes an avocado mixed with meat or fish or a stir fry served with a cup of couscous
My first breakfast offers me a slow release source of carbohydrates (CHO) as well as hydration during my swim session. A low GI CHO source ensures that I don’t get an increase in blood insulin levels. Avoiding an insulin spike is an important part of enhancing my ability to use fat for fuel – insulin has been shown to inhibit fat burning. Incidentally, for those of you that like to go hard right out of the blocks, early intensity has been shown to inhibit fat burning as well. Makes one wonder about waffles, maple syrup and a hard first 500m (with limited warm-up) on Ironman morning!
Fat burning is critical for all ultra-endurance athletes. Why? For the slower athletes, it must be enhanced in order to improve body composition (your greatest source of improved performance). For the more experienced athletes, it must be enhanced to fuel your ability to hold your desired race intensity.
I believe, that when we see many of the uber-cyclists hit the wall, we are witnessing a situation where they have simply exhausted their fuel supply. Their chosen race intensity is prudent from a muscular endurance viewpoint (their watts are reasonable for them), but their bodies are simply not able to meet the energy demands implied by that power output. I estimate that the top guys require over 1,000 cals per hour on the bike. Age groupers face a similar pacing challenge, but it is caused most often by the combination of inappropriate pacing and limited lipid oxidative capacity – these two factors result in glycogen depletion. I believe this is what we see in the common situation of a well-trained athlete hitting the wall for an hour (or so) and then finishing the rest of the race. “The Ironman-Shuffle”, giving the body time to metabolize CHO sources.
Back to the body composition point – like most folks in our society, triathletes have a body composition obsession. Let’s put things in perspective with some real life data. Let’s use me! I’ve done ten ironman races over the last five years. Last year, I ran a three-hour marathon off the bike at my heaviest race weight, ever. Seven months before that, I ran a 3:18 marathon off the bike at my lightest race weight, ever. So, there’s more to performance that what your scale is telling you. That said, the ten to 30 extra pounds that many of us cart around on race day – well, they aren’t really making our life easier.
So you think you might want to lose weight? I don’t think that’s what you are really seeking to do. Rather, I think that you’d prefer to burn more fat and store less fat. It’s a subtle change, but it results in a better way of thinking. Improved body composition will only result from the ability to oxidize fat for fuel.
Most of us come to triathlon from a relatively inactive background and a diet that’s rich in highly glycemic carbohydrate sources. As such, we’ve probably spent years enhancing our ability to store fat and not really working on our ability to burn it. It’s going to take a while to turn this around – be patient.
Recognize the patterns that impair fat burning and enhance fat storage. Binging on glycemic carbs and fasting are the two biggest triggers for most of us.
OK, so that was an important tangent leading off first breakfast. Second breakfast is probably my largest meal of the day. If I don’t have a decent session planned for later in the day, then I skip the oatmeal. As another aside, in between these meals, I’ll snack on fruits (a stable source of CHO and slow release hydration) and lean protein (mainly chicken).
At dinner I tend to load up on the veggies and used a mixture of good fats and protein to satiate me through the night. When volume is high, I’ll eat a final meal “first breakfast”-type meal around 8pm. If I find that I am getting really hungry through the night then I’ll have a serving (or two) of protein right before bed.
My meals are timed for (about) 6AM, 10AM, 2PM and 6PM – I am never all that long without food. Long periods without eating have been shown to trigger fat storage. Post workout fasting and extended training sessions without any food (common in athletes seeking to improve body comp) are counterproductive strategies for age group athletes. It’s better to moderate, rather than eliminate intake.
So where is all the bread and pasta? Where are the massive levels of refined starches and sugars that we read about? Where are the smoothies, the bars, the sugary drinks? I’ll use these products from time-to-time, but they really aren’t a requirement. In fact, for all but the highest volume athletes, I believe they hold us back (metabolically and nutritionally). And that’s part of the emotive issue...
Often the reason we get fired up on nutrition is because we know that we aren’t measuring up and our bodies are a constant reminder of the difficulties that we are facing on this front. A person’s shape and size tells us nothing about their worth. However, it tells us a fair amount about the interaction of their training and nutritional strategy. More about the emotive issues can be found on my tips page and my book, I especially like a gTip on Feminine Nutrition (we addressed it to the ladies, but you are actually reading about my inner workings).
I’ve often heard my nutritional recommendations referred to as low calorie or low carb in nature. Given the body composition of our society, I’d say that my guidelines are for “appropriate calories”. When I’ve used the standard formulas in the past, they didn’t work for me, or my athletes. One of my best pals likes to say, “I only count calories when I am looking for a reason to eat too much.” I’ve found that a focus on simply eating appropriately works best for most people.
My experience is that appropriate carbohydrate consumption is essential for athletes. Each of us will need to find the level, and the source, that meets our needs. Our needs will change as we develop as athletes. My fueling needs and sources are quite different today than when I started triathlon back in 1999. Experimentation and research have led me to a structure that works for me and my crew. I am certain that my guidelines will develop further as we learn more about this topic. Still, the basic tenet “eat real food” is unlikely to change. That’s been good advice for a long while.
A final word on the risks of glycogen depletion. I’ve found that some athletes that seek to minimize refined sugars and starches will begin to see carbohydrates as the “enemy”. The popularity of certain brand-name diets has enhanced this misconception. For all athletes, appropriate sources of carbohydrates are essential for good health and performance. Athletes that are undertaking high intensity training will likely find a requirement for increased moderate to highly glycemic sources of CHO during and after intense exercise. While the exact physiological causes of overtraining remain to be fully understood, glycogen depletion combined with intense training has been linked to overtraining. This link is something to keep in mind when undertaking a dietary analysis of an over-reached athlete, or when you feel nuked and have the urge to eat a loaf of peanut butter toast. When I get warning signs of being over-reached, I seek to bump up my unrefined starch intake (mid-day) and back off on the intensity.