Essential Sports Nutrition


Attempting to reach your race weight - part II

A change in your body composition to ensure a performance improvement (race weight) should be the outcome of a well planned and executed fueling and training plan, alongside a healthy and balanced, non-restrictive daily diet. Just because you lose weight or achieve a certain body fat percentage, this doesn't mean that you are physically, mentally, emotionally and nutritionally prepared to perform well on race day. You may "look" a certain way but this doesn't mean you will preform a certain way.

When a healthy change in body composition is desired, it should not involve restriction, elimination and obsessive strategies. While some sports may reward a "leaner" build, this doesn't mean that you can't be successful in your sport with a little more cushion with your strong bones. As it relates to the sport of endurance triathlon, you are not penalized if you are carrying around a little more body fat on your frame for a strong body can better tolerate training stress versus a weak and fragile body that may be lighter. Furthermore, if you desire weight loss for a performance boost, you should not be unsupervised in this process as it can lead to performance and health declines. You should reach out to a team of professionals to help you safely lose weight without sabotaging your health. Most athletes do not take the "hard work" approach as they want a quick, inexpensive and easy fix to assist in weight loss.

When an athlete steps on the scale (or looks in the mirror) and responds with "I'm too fat/heavy" or "I don't look like an athlete" or "I will never perform well at this weight", this thinking may trigger the need to make an instant and drastic change in the diet and/or pushing harder or going longer than the workout calls for. When a vulnerable athlete feels uncomfortable in his/her skin or feels pressure to lose weight, the next step is not a patient and long-term approach. Typically, athletes will go the route of calorie restriction, carbohydrate elimination and improper fueling and hydrating strategies to try to gain control over eating and body composition - none of the former strategies assist in weight loss OR performance gains but instead, the body becomes weak and you lack the energy and motivation to stay consistent with training.

Let's consider two athlete scenarios as it relates to attempting to reach race weight:

Athlete A is motivated to lose weight in order to improve athletic performance for an upcoming endurance event. This athlete is not aware of how much energy is needed to support the metabolic demands of training and despite consuming around 1500-2000 calories a day, he/she is not losing weight and always feels as if he/she is "too big" for the sport.  This athlete only uses the scale to asses weight loss and each time she/he doesn't see the scale change, he/she makes more and more food restrictions during the day and around/during workouts in order to see a drop in body weight on the scale. Eventually, the athlete does lose weight through his/her tactics. But seeing that a number of key hormones play an important role in the regulation of body composition and energy production, the glands in the endocrine system (ex. adrenal, hypothalamus, ovaries, pancreas, parathyroid, pineal, pituitary, testes, thymus, thyroid) are slowly being compromised - unbeknownst to the athlete. Athlete A doesn't realize that his/her diligent dietary adherence to a restrictive diet and poor fueling/hydration strategies alongside strict dedication to training are actually destroying his/her health.  While this athlete may have arrived to race day at his/her "race weight", this athlete is in poor metabolic health and race day performance is likely to be compromised. There's also a good chance that this athlete will need to spend the next few months or year, trying to fix his/her overtaxed, overloaded and damaged endocrine system (and potentially poor bone health). It's worth mentioning that even for athletes who are not seeking weight loss but do not understand the great energy demands that are needed to support endurance or high intensity training, many endurance athletes may suffer from health issues during training as a result of unintentionally damaging hormonal or metabolic health by not "eating enough" or timing food appropriately with training, to support training stress.

Athlete B follows his/her training plan by keeping the easy sessions easy and hard sessions hard. She/he works with a sport dietitian to better understand how to time nutrition with training, to understand individual energy and nutrient needs (to eat "enough"), he/she always eats before/after workouts and learns how to use sport nutrition properly to support long and intense training sessions and to maximize recovery. This athlete can train consistently throughout the entire season and puts the focus on performance over weight. Although the athlete would like to lean-up or lose weight, she/he is not making it a focus. Ironically, athlete B notices a change in body composition over an extended period of time through sustainable healthy eating habits that support training demands (especially as the volume and intensity of training increase in the hot summer months). This athlete increases lean mass while reducing overall body fat without intentionally trying and has improved strength to create a more resilient and durable body to withstand training. She/he also has great training sessions to build confidence for race day and also has a great relationship with food and the body. There is little risk for injury or sickness because the athlete is properly supporting training stress with proper eating and fueling. This athlete arrives to race day in great health, with a strong body and feels prepared to perform and just like with training, can bounce back relatively quickly from the race to get back into structured training.

Intense/high volume training + extreme caloric/carb restriction places athletes at risk for losing lean tissue, bone mass, depleted energy stores and a possible gain in body fat. So why would any athlete want to compromise health with this approach? Isn't the point of training to become a better, stronger and faster athlete? Your race weight should not come at a cost of damaging your health and performance. If you are training 10+ hours a week and struggle to see a change in favorable body composition, there's a good chance that you are not eating enough to support your training demands and/or not using sport nutrition products properly and/or improperly timing food with workouts to delay adaptions to support lean muscle mass and strength gains.

If you are attempting to reach your race weight through extreme measures, you may placing yourself at risk for illness, injury, poor recovery, decreased performance and a host of hormonal, bone, cardiovascular and metabolic health issues. ....All of which will negatively affect training and can compromise overall well-being.

For you to perform at your best AND to adapt to training, while still functioning well in life, focus on lifestyle strategies to achieve/maintain a healthy weight and let your race weight take care of itself. With optimal fueling and hydration strategies, a healthy and well balanced diet, consistent quality training, good sleep, stress management, a healthy relationship with the body and food and great recovery habits, you will not only reach athletic excellence but your great daily habits will continue to bring you long-term health benefits with a body that you can be proud to call your own. 

For more on this topic of when to reach your body composition goals, check out a past Ironman article that I wrote on this topic. 


Still trying to reach your "race weight"?

In a media driven world, body image has become a critical issue as it relates to athletic performance and health. Whereas one would think that athletes would be obsessed with eating enough to perform well in training sessions to prepare for race day, athletes are constantly worried about eating too much, constantly obsessing with being "too big/fat" or not looking like an athlete. Far too many athletes are training for leanness instead of training for performance. With the idea of body weight and performance having an inverse relationship (the less you weigh, the better you will perform), you may be attempting to reach your race weight in order to be thinner, leaner and lighter for race day.

With so many misguided strategies on sport nutrition and daily eating for athletes, it doesn't surprise me when I see/hear athletes intentionally underfueling/undereating in an attempt to lose weight or change body composition. 

As it relates to your healthy weight, it's very hard to define a healthy weight as an athlete. Most charts (ex. BMI) do not account for the extra muscle and denser bones that you will develop through training. I know for myself, I am always on the high end of a "healthy" weight for my height because of my athletic build and from my genetics. As an athlete, for much of the year, a healthy weight is one that puts you at little risk for disease or illness, is a weight that allows you to function well in life without following dietary rules or restrictions, is one that allows you to have great energy throughout the day and is a weight that is easy to maintain with your activity regime. Only at certain times during the year will/should your body naturally change as you peak for your main event.

Unfortunately, many athletes try to maintain and achieve a weight that is based on a look or a number on a scale for much of the year.  Self-identity to a lean/strong body image (or race weight) is often a struggle for athletes because your healthy weight may not be the one that you accept for what it looks like, but it may be the best weight for you to maintain great health for much of the year. My advice for athletes is to work on body acceptance and to not try to fight for a certain "lean or defined" image, size or weight for the entire year. Let your body change as you maintain healthy lifestyle habits. Through good lifestyle habits and a great relationship with food and your body, a healthy weight will be easy to achieve and easy to maintain regardless how much or little you are training.

As it relates to race weight, far too many athletes are using a number on the scale to determine athletic readiness for an event. Unfortunately, this approach does not tell you what type of weight is being lost - is it fat, muscle or water?

Your body composition provides very specific information about your body make-up, much more than simply looking at a number on a scale. As it relates to body composition, you are focusing on the proportion of fat and lean body mass in the body.

Your body is made up of body fat and lean body mass.

Body fat can be found as storage fat and as essential body fat.

The human body stores fat in the form of triglycerides within fat (adipose tissue) as well as within the muscle fibers (intramuscular triglycerides). Through endurance training (without any dietary manipulation), there is an increase in fat oxidation from intramuscular triglycerides. As exercise intensity increases, fatty acid mobilization from adipose tissue slows but total fat oxidation increases due to the increase use of intramuscular triglycerides. Let's not forget that dietary carbohydrates influence fat mobilization and oxidation during exercise.

Storage fat is located around organs and beneath the skin, which protects the body and acts as an insulator. Excessive accumulation of visceral fat is associated with negative health issues, which is why it is important to keep your body composition within a healthy body composition range - not too high but not too low.

As for essential fat, this is fat found in the marrow of bones, the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, muscles and lipid rich tissues throughout the central nervous system. Essential fat is critical for normal body functioning. Women tend to have higher essential fat compared to men.

Your lean body mass represents everything in your body that is not fat - the weight of your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and internal organs. Certainly, you don't want to lose any of this "weight" through dieting or exercising.

As you can see, a healthy weight may be your race weight but your race weight is probably not your healthy weight. A healthy weight is not a number or a look but a feeling - it's a weight where you feel healthy. A race weight is where you perform the best. 

In my next blog, let's consider two athlete scenarios for achieving race weight and the big takeaway as it relates to "race weight" for athletic performance.


How to stop overeating

If you have ever skipped a meal (or snack), you've probably noticed extreme hunger later in the day with a good chance of overeating late into the evening hours. Overeating (and undereating) contributes to low energy and low motivation - neither of which make it easy to reach performance, health or body composition goals.

As it relates to training, anytime you overeat, there's a chance that you will feel uncomfortable and tired - you may even feel guilt or shame. None of the mental and physical effects of overeating will help you perform well in your upcoming workouts, especially if you don't do what you know you should do as it relates to pre and during fueling and adhering to your workout prescription. As an example, skipping meals during the day can lead to low energy before your evening workout, possibly forcing you to skip the workout due to low motivation or trying to perform the workout with no energy in the tank. Eating too much late at night before a long morning workout the next day may cause you to intentionally underfuel (or not eat) before and during the workout because you feel "too full" or you think that not eating will help you burn off the calories you consumed the night before. You may even find yourself working out a bit harder than planned which can lead into poor recovery from an underfueled body trying to work out intensely or for a long duration. Furthermore, overeating contributes to lethargy, sleep disturbances and disrupts a healthy eating regime which can all affect your consistency with training. It's very difficult to meet your energy needs and perform well in workouts when meals or snacks are skipped or overeating takes place at some point in the day.

Yesterday, I came across a great article about overeating and gave a lot of great tips and suggestions on how to prevent and manage overeating. Although it's not geared toward athletes, I find it effective enough to shine light on a topic that affects many athletes: Here's the full article if you are interested in reading it. To summarize the article:

How to deal if you overeat
  1. Don't fast or skip your next meal.
    Do make your next meal healthy and satisfying.
  2. Don't exercise really hard to "make up for it."
    Do take a walk.
  3. Don't try to "detox".
    Do drink a reasonable amount of water.
  4. Don't say "screw it!"
    Do think about your next meal. 
How to prevent overeating 
  1. Don't label foods as good vs. bad.
    Do remember that there's room for indulgences in a healthy diet.
  2. Don't undereat during the day.
    Do spread your food intake out.
  3. Don't suffer in silence if you are struggling.
    Do understand your triggers. 


Long workouts/weekend training reflections

Resilience and mental toughness come to mind when summarizing this past weekend of training.

Here's the run down:

Bike: 4:05 ride (70 miles) with 5700 feet elevation gain and one tough 4.5 mile (35 minute) climb up Sassafras mountain. Prior to that climb, we did a hard effort up to Rocky Bottoms - around 4 miles of climbing.
Run off the bike: 2 x 15-20 min smooth effort running with 6 x 30 sec of hill bounding (with 45 sec rest) in between the intervals (total: 48 minutes, 5.64 miles, 407 elevation gain
PM run: Smooth running for 43 minutes, 4.94 miles, 276 elevation gain)

AM Run: Smooth endurance on rolling hills for 1:45, 12.7 miles, 617 elevation gain
PM group swim: 1 hour/2800 yards

Prior to this weekend, I had a solid week of training - a lot of frequency workouts. As the week went on, I was carrying around a lot more fatigue and working through a bit more niggles than normal but that's all to be expected at this point in my training block. Strength continues to be a focus in all of my workouts (including strength training) so I am feeling very fit and strong right now, but not so fast....and this ok!

Thinking back on this weekend, it's not surprising to see endurance athletes training with this much high volume at various points in the season, especially in peak training before an endurance event. However, I feel it's important to recognize that higher volume training is not a guarantee to athletic success on race day. Many athletes check off long distance workouts on the weekends that involve little structure or specificity or lack the necessary consistency in training to gain true physiological improvements. Instead of gaining fitness, confidence and race readiness, the athlete ends up exhausted, burnt out, injured or sick. In other words, just because you are an endurance athlete, you don't need to be collecting a massive amount of miles/hours over the weekend just to prepare for your upcoming event. Long workouts make sense if you are have prepared yourself to absorb the longer time spent training.

While endurance workouts are a component to preparing for an endurance event, we must not forget that it's the work you do prior to these longer sessions that help you better prepare for race day. Without the right foundation, you may be piling training stress to a weak and fragile body. Although the work that is done in the early part of the season is not as glamorous (or epic) as the longer sessions that make one feel hard core, like an "endurance" athlete, these workouts should be seen as your criteria for the longer sessions. Do your homework in the early season so that your body can better withstand the higher intensity/higher volume training when it's appropriately planned in your training.

Every athlete has the ability to work hard all season long but some choose not to apply the work ethic until there is some type of pressure of an upcoming race. Falling short on the preparatory work prior to the more specific race sessions is not the formula for athletic excellence on race day. While you can still check off those longer training sessions in the 4-8 weeks before your race, these sessions will do little to change your physiology or will allow you to dial in the many components that make for successful racing - like nutrition, pacing and mental strength - compared to if you did these sessions with months of previous work behind you. While I know injuries/sickness/life happens, you can't skip steps in building your foundation. There are no short cuts or quick fixes when it comes to the work that needs to happen to properly and safely prepare your body for an endurance event.

Nearing the start of my 12th consecutive season of endurance racing, I've always been one to embrace the grind and appreciate the process of preparing for a half or full distance Ironman event. Training is also a needed escape to reduce stress, give me energy, boost endorphins and let my creative thoughts flow. But on top of the joy I have for training/exercising, I think about my workouts of the day as a way to move me closer to my season goals. It isn't within one workout that will get me fit but instead, it's the accumulation of consistent workouts that allows for continued growth and development with my athletic skills and fitness. At 35.5 years old, feel stronger, fitter, healthier and more resilient now than when I did my first Ironman at the age of 24. Throughout my journey as an endurance triathlete, I've learned that success on race day doesn't come from checking off weekend long workouts in the 8-12 weeks before a big event but instead, nailing the basics every single day while building the strongest foundation possible to withstand future training stressors.

I am very excited to see what this season has in store for my body. I am bringing 12 years of learning, exploring and challenging my body - along with setbacks and obstacles that have helped me become a smarter and more grateful athlete. I am proud of my body for where it is right now in my training and I am extremely thankful to my body for letting me do what I do with it on a daily basis.

And to finish off my weekend recap, I can't forget about my new furry friends that I met during our shake-out spin on Friday afternoon/evening.