4/6/15

The fueling game - less is not best


It's a universal belief that by eating less, you will lose weight. 
It's not that simple. 

So is this why athletes are constantly trying to eat less to weigh less in order to be faster?
Why is it for so many that eating is a chore, an issue, a disorder or a nasty conversation that is centered around what not to eat? 
This needs to stop. 

I've discussed this topic many times in the past on my blog and in articles but I don't feel the message is clear enough so I will say it again...and again and again. 

If you are an athlete that has a drive for success, your methods for changing your body composition should not be counterproductive to your performance goals.
Training for a race is not a weight-loss method! 

There is a huge issue these days with body integrity and this affects how athletes eat and fuel. For the average individual who is just exercising, the consequences are not as extreme if the body goes into a workout underfueled or slightly dehydrated. But when an athlete is willing to push to uncomfortable zones/paces in order to improve, this is when the athlete risks major health and performance issues. 

If you have recently felt vulnerable to your body composition and feel as if losing weight will help you be a better athlete (or look the part), let me remind you that your physical limitations like speed, power and endurance are a direct result of your training stress.
If your body is underfueled, you can't perform.
And your body weight on race day does not determine your ability to perform. You perform based on how well you trained smart and met your metabolic and health needs. 

Let me put this in two different perspectives to be more clear. 

If you feel that losing weight will make you fitter/stronger/faster, with a safe and practical approach, you may improve performance.
So, let's say you want to be able to do a pull-up. You have to be strong to do a pull-up. Losing 5 or 10 or 20 lbs may be less weight to carry and absolutely, you have a valid point as to making the effort easier or more efficient of you weighed less. But losing the weight does not guarantee that you will be able to do even a single pull-up. You must train to be able to consistently execute in each one of your specific workouts to be able to successfully do a pull-up. How much you weigh is not your limiter to being able to not do a pull-up so just because you lose weight, you still have to have a healthy and strong body to pull yourself up. 

If you feel that "fat burning" or working out in a fasted state or not fueling during workouts will help you perform better in endurance sports or improve your body composition because you will be fat-adapted, let me remind you that endurance athletes still have to consume fuel to perform on race day. You can not expect to perform well on race day without fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates. Not only is it risky to not fuel during long distance activity but it is extremely dangerous to your organs, tissues, muscles and brain.
Never should you believe that fat burning will improve performance because the research does not support that. To say that fat burning or eating a low carb/high fat diet is the best method for endurance athletes is like saying that all athletes who want to get fast should only do speed workouts. Yes, I know that speed workouts can make me fast but they also come with risks like injury and I can't be consistent in training if I am constantly sore from speed workouts. 

I would like you to use the same analogy to your training. Intentionally underfueling is an extreme, unhealthy and irresponsible method of trying to get faster or stronger. Not only are you hurting your health but you are sabotaging your performance and you may be increasing the risk for an eating disorder by constantly working out, underfueled, in an effort to weigh less. 

This weekend I had an incredibly strong weekend of training. 
Despite all that is keeping us busy in our life, I'm so thankful to my body for staying strong, healthy and injury free. I thank it daily. I haven't been injured in almost 2 years and I haven't been sick in almost 7 years (no cold, flu, stomach bug or virus).
On Saturday I did a 4:45 hr ride in windy conditions with over 4500 feet of climbing. I rode comfortably for the first 2 hours and then my MS was 3 x 20 min mid to upper Z3 (increasing effort by 5 watts each interval) with 4 min EZ in between. Off the bike, an EZ 1 mile run.
On Sunday I did a 13.5 mile long run. Mobility work to start and then 11 miles slow running w/ good form (8:20-8:45 min/mile pace) w/ walk breaks each mile for 30 sec. Then, my MS: 2 miles best effort (7:35/7:36 min/mile) at the end of my long run.
Today, a 4400 long course swim. 

Karel and I are always dialing in our fueling strategy for race day. We deal with no GI issues in training or race day and I owe a lot of that to our daily diet that is rich in fiber, plants, dairy and quality protein but also because we consistently (like every single workout) use sport nutrition products in training and fuel before every workout (yes - we eat before every workout, even the short ones). And we never neglect proper nutrition post workout.
Karel has not been seriously injured since starting triathlons in 2012 and hasn't been sick in about 6 years. No cold, flu, virus or stomach bug. 

So back to the purpose of this blog.
I don't find it cool, awesome or hardcore when I hear athletes bragging about how little they can consume during a long workout. Now, this isn't referencing the athlete who is still learning how to fuel for endurance sports and is likely working his/her way up with the most that is tolerable while the gut is still getting use to consuming liquid calories while exercising (it can take up to 6 weeks to train the gut). I am talking about the athlete who boasts about how they can swim, bike or run with almost or no calories, fluids or electrolytes. 

The problem I see is that this approach (of less is best) is not practical. There is a fine line between what is healthy and not healthy. While some may say that consuming sport  nutrition during workouts or eating carbs before workouts is unhealthy, I find it extremely unhealthy to not fuel before and during workouts and I would highly recommend that if you are considering (or are on) the train that is all about eating less, consuming less and fueling less, it's only a matter of time before you can do less with your amazing body. 

Here is what I consumed around my two long workouts this weekend:
(I have my nutrition pretty dialed in as to what works best for me. Also, I'm not a heavy sweater and I don't ever suffer from cramping in training/racing. )

Long Bike: 
350 calories before the workout (oatmeal, PB, honey, raisins, milk, banana slices and cinnamon) and water/coffee.
4 x 24 ounce bottles each with 300 calories sport drink
1 Clif Bar (270 calories)
1 wafer (170 calories)
Total: 1640 calories during the 4:45 hr workout + 350 calories before = 1990 calories before my first real "meal" of the day.
And not once did I think unhealthy or feel concerned about my weight. I fuel for performance. 

Long Run: 
300 calories before the workout (Rice cake + 5 saltines w/ PB, Jam and banana slices and cinnamon), water/coffee.
3 x 10 ounce flasks (2 flasks on Nathan Fuel belt, refilled first flask at 5 miles) each with 80 calories Clif Hydration.
Total: 240 calories during a 1:50 hr run + 300 calories = 540 calories before my first "meal of the day.
I did not feel sleepy, exhausted, overly sore or fatigued during the run or after and that is a major benefit from fueling properly before/during the workout. 

I'm sure you know a few but many athletes will say they feel just fine and don't eat before long workouts (or any workouts) and don't fuel during and it's working out just fine or maybe they say they feel even better than ever before! 

The big issue here is that we do not know what damage is being done until this approach backfires - which it typically does in the case of a stress fractures, sickness/fatigue, a drop in performance gains or GI issues on race day. 

Listen up athletes - it is cool, awesome and smart to fuel before and during workouts. 

If you want to train hard, fuel smart!