Thank you Girls Gone Strong for letting me share my thoughts on fueling the vegetarian endurance athlete.
As a 22-year vegetarian and 9x Ironman finisher, I had so much to say on this topic so we decided to make it a two part series and finish with a Q&A on the Girls Gone Strong Facebook page!
Q: On Tuesday, in this article you gave some guidelines for protein, carb, and fat requirements for female endurance athletes. Do the numbers look different for women who mostly strength train, and whose goals are strength-based? If so, how do they differ?
A: Thanks for asking ! The main focus of fueling an endurance athlete is ensuring that glycogen stores are not the limited as we want to keep our bodies energized for the long haul. I am a firm believer that endurance athletes need a healthy amount of fat in the diet to stay satisfied and healthy as well as protein for recovery/repair but the carbohydrates would be on the greater range for endurance athletes compared to strength-focused athletes. There is also a timing issue because endurance athletes need to consider how digestion affects the gut so I encourage athletes to focus on more low fiber energy dense foods around workouts which should be low in fat/protein and fiber. Example, whereas a strength athlete may be fine with eggs and oatmeal before a workout, an endurance athlete may find this too hard on the gut before a long run so she may opt for cream of wheat with a little nut butter and maple syrup.
Q: If you would like to transition to eating more vegetarian meals what would you consider the core staples that can be used to make quick healthy meals and build the right nutrition behaviors for early adopters? Sorry, I know I am not a girl but I know you are the best at building strong healthy bodies!
A: Thanks for the question! Whenever transitioning to a more plant strong diet we want to make sure a good solid foundation is in place. So if the diet is already rich in fruits, veggies, grains/starches and healthy fats then the modification to take place would be swapping out animal protein for plant strong protein. For example, if a standard lunch is a salad with a chicken wrap we could replace the chicken with any plant protein (ex. beans, lentils, edamame, tofu, tempeh) as an easy swap. If a standard lunch is just a chicken wrap, then my suggestion would be to get this meal more plant strong by adding some type of veggie component to this meal (salad or stir fry or raw veg) as a starter and then once that habit is in place, swap out the protein option.
Q: For a female athlete (or family) who is looking at having protein strong plant based meals. What would you suggest as an appropriate equivalent of protein in non animal protein sources
A; In reference to the guidelines in the article (~1.3-1.8g/kg body weight of protein per day) this would be a nice starting point for total protein. I recommend to break up protein consumption per meal, around 20-30g is a nice range. 1 ounce of animal protein = ~7g of protein as a guideline so to swap out 4 ounces of chicken (28g of protein) this would look like 1/2 cup lentils, 1/2 cup peas and 1/2 cup cooked tempeh for around 29g of plant strong protein.
Q: A question we get a lot is whether or not endurance athletes need to strength train? Is it an important part of their overall program? Where does it fit in? How often? What kinds? Does it ever take priority over endurance training? How does this differ between in-season, post-season, off-season, and pre-season?
A: I actually went into this in great detail at the The Women's Fitness Summit because I think many endurance athletes do not understand the importance of strength training OR they don't make time for it. I am a firm believer that strength training needs to be part of an endurance athletes training plan but it must be periodized with the season plan. For my athletes/myself, I emphasize foundation building first to work on good motor patterns and mobility. Pretty much breaking down sport-specific movements and refining the movements. We take about 6-8 weeks in this phase while the cardio is focused more on strength (ex. using bands/buoys and paddles in the pool, heavy gear and climbing sets on the bike and slow form focused running with a few pick ups at the end of the workout). The next phase I transition my athletes to is more complex and dynamic training. Plyometrics should come to mind. Whereas the intensity and volume of the cardio training will increase a bit, the body is in a good place to accept this added stress. The goal for cardio is to keep the hard workouts hard and easy workouts easy and to plug in the dynamic strength movements that will yield favorable results to swim, bike run fitness. We call this the build phase and this will take us to the peaking phase of the season for the first key race of the year. Around 4-6 weeks before this race, the frequency of the strength increases but it is still good to keep the body primed for power in the gym once a week and then the other cardio workouts take priority as the focus is race specific workouts. There is always a continued focus on glute, hip and core/lower back strength to ensure that this is never a limiter. The #1 goal of strength training for endurance athletes is that the strength should make the athlete better at the sport she is training for. So strength training should not be designed to get an athlete strong just to be strong but to be strong, fast and powerful at her sport.
A great book for triathletes to better understand a quality approach to training alongside focusing on the strength and recovery component is from Matt Dixon with Purplepatch fitness - The Well Built Triathlete.
Q: I'm more of a paleo eater now, but my doctor suggested vegetarian for my PMS/PMDD symptoms. Have you seen any evidence to support this or would high protein be better?
Thanks for asking Katrina Skurka Howard - I personally do not advocate a specific diet for athletes as I strive to encourage variety and balance in the diet and no food rules. But when it comes to PMS symptoms, it is important that female athletes understand how their menstrual cycle is affected (or may affect) training and fueling. Stacy Sims discussing this topic in great detail but to help manage these symptoms, I don't feel a specific diet will alleviate these issues but instead to focus on your own individual needs. You may want to start with a lab test to see your vitamin D and ferritin levels which can affect PMS symptoms if inadequate or deficient. For women who are not on the pill or other contraceptive and have a natural menstrual cycle, metabolism will be affected by the different phases (follicular and luteal) but I personally am opposed to any restrictive style of eating that eliminates major food groups. I hope this helps a little. I feel you on the symptoms, I have had my menstrual cycle naturally for the past 7 years every month so I am no stranger to these symptoms
This is a fantastic reference from Stacy Sims.
Q: As a female endurance athlete how would you suggest balancing the nutritional needs of sport with the desire to lose weight?
A: This is always a tough question because we want the body to be in a healthy place to tolerate the demands of training but we do not want to underfuel in an effort to lose weight. I think there are many approaches to this but it certainly can be done in a healthy way and depends on where the individual is with her relationship with food and the body. I think the focus needs to be on supporting the workout as many athletes underfuel around the workouts and end up overeating later in the day. As an athlete, making the effort to understand how to eat before, during and after workouts will help take training to the next level. I think another common issue is athletes undereating during the day which affects metabolism. Skipping snacks, not enough adequate carbs, skimping on calories/fat, etc. We need to eat enough to support the demands of training so planning out the day before it happens can be an easy way to see what the day will look like in the most balanced way possible with healthy and satisfying meals and snacks. Lastly, the evenings can be a time of overinduging or overeating so I encourage athletes to not beat themselves up if this happens in the evening but to identify any triggers during the day that may be tweaked to ensure a good balanced dinner in the evening and an early bedtime without excessive snacking. If all of this takes place and an athlete still finds it hard to lose weight, then additional modifications can be made in training to make sure that the workout routine is not too stressful for the body.