There is a lot of information out there for triathletes on what to eat, when and how much. The big food and supplement players in the market support events, give product away, and create brochures that explain how and when to eat and hydrate. They offer guidelines on how much product to take in over the course of an event. So with all this information out there why is it so hard to get our nutrition right? The answer is easy. We are all individuals. Everyone needs a different number of calories per hour to fuel. Everyone has a different metabolic rate. Everyone has different heart rates while they work out. Everyone has their own stomach which can tolerate what it will tolerate. Finally everyone has different nutrient needs, hormonal balances, and deficits. To make it a bit more challenging this can change as we age. Just because you get it dialed in at 35 does not mean the same plan will work at age 45. Those of you who have hit various marks know this to be true.
Go ahead and read the promotional materials, but know that what they mean as the perfect nutrient mix noted may not work for you. Where to start? Figure out how many calories you need per day. Some people will do this using rough calculation of 10 x body weight. Webmd and Discovery Health both have on-line calculators. Check out the differences between these two online calculators and you will see why the best way to get it is to have your resting metabolic rate tested. It is one of the easiest tests you can have done! Nutritionists will often offer this services as well as those who do VO2 tests. You sit comfortably and rest reading an unemotional piece of literature. Your heart rate must stay constant and low. You wear a mask that registers oxygen in and CO2 out. Some people will come in at the same as the rough calculation. Others, like the author, will come in much lower – base calories needed 168 -245 less per day depending on the calculator! Why does that matter? To maintain I need fewer calories than any online calculator will tell me, but more importantly as I exercise I need fewer calories. At a heart rate of 160 I burn fewer calories per hour than a machine will show me. A VO2 test will give you caloric burn at different heart rates. Almost no one burns the calories displayed on the machines at the gym even after adding in sex and weight. Use a heart rate monitor that takes into account your resting heart rate, weight, and age.
Once you know how many calories you need during the day you can factor in your activity level. We really do not need to fuel with any extra calories for an hour long workout. Water will suffice. If you are doing two a day workouts you will need to get a quick recovery snack in to help fuel the second workout. Once your workouts stretch over 2 hours you may need to start fueling during your workouts. Here is where you also need to understand your fitness level.
Everyone has a different fitness level. Some people will have to work extremely hard to get their heart rate up in a spin class. They most likely have a huge aerobic base. As a result they may sweat and look like they got a great workout, but only burn 450 calories. While someone else may be new to spin class, get on the bike and have an elevated heart rate the entire time burning 750 – same sex, same weight, same age. As triathletes we want the big base. We want to be using fat to go long. The lower your heart rate the higher percentage of fat your body uses in activity. As your heart rate increases the body’s energy sources switch from fat to carbs. Most of us have about 70,000 calories of stored fat. While we have only a couple thousand calories of stored carbohydrates (ready glucose). You need a readily available source of carbs to be able to maintain a higher heart rate. What’s critical is that the brain needs glucose and a steady supply. Deprive the brain and you won’t go much further.
Bob Seebohar talks a lot about metabolic efficiency. That is training the body to use fat instead of relying on carb stores. 70,000 calories is a great store to use. Triathletes should know their body fat percentage as well as fat utilization. A body fat test will tell you lean muscle mass versus body fat. If you look at individual athletes; swimmers tend to have a higher percentage, then cyclists and runners tend to be the leanest. There are ranges for triathletes based on age. Most gyms have the ability to give a test. Optimal are the under water tests, then calipers and then the handheld devices. Tanitra and others make scales to be used at home. Even though these are not perfect in their ability to test body fat they are pretty consistent and can give you a good reading relatively. If you use one that also reads hydration you will see how a small change in weight and hydration can change your body fat. Triathletes need to beware of body composition so that they do not get too lean or too light. Matt Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight book provides a great primer on this.
GI distress is always a hot topic among triathletes. Everyone has a different digestive system influenced by genetics, food intake, stress and so many other variables. The key is to know what you can eat. Allergists can test for certain allergies. Often it takes a lot of self testing to figure out what will work for you. Take notes on what you eat and when then document how you feel in and after each workout. Regardless of your degree of iron stomach as you increase intensity the tendency toward GI issues will increase. There is a new solution that may help alleviate GI distress for many. The Generation UCAN product is a superstarch which digests in the intestines versus the stomach. Worth a try if you have real issues. To get 10% off click here. Bob Seebohar is on the Advisory Board. There are more specifics on the product here.
Finally to get the equation right you have to know your own body. Pay attention to the blood test you get an your annual physical. Talk to your doctor about any specific conditions you have or have had and how those might affect your nutritional needs. There are great sports nutritionists all over NY State. A good resource is the Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition site. Take advantage of local organizations who bring in speakers. Very often hospitals will offer speaking series as well.
In his Weekend Reading for September 29, Chris Carmichael comments on weight loss. He says that 90% of athletes could lose 10 pounds. They would feel better and perform better. “Some may even say I’m irresponsibly advocating an unrealistic body image. If you apply what I’m saying too broadly (kids, teenagers, performers, athletes in judged sports, etc.), then you’re right. But I’m talking to adult (and mostly 35+ year old) cyclists, triathletes and runners. With rare exception, ten pounds off your frame won’t make you dangerously skinny. Above all, this isn’t about body image. It’s about performance. When you are lighter you go faster (on any terrain, not just hills), and the vast majority of the adult endurance athletes I’ve encountered this year are too heavy and eat too much during training sessions and events. If you think you’re not one of them, you might be right. But you’re probably wrong.”
He then talks about eating well, being a little hungry, and being patient. “You’re talking 5-10 weeks of focusing on weight loss and establishing high-quality, lower-calorie eating habits (so you maintain the weight loss). No more giving up after 3 weeks.”
There is a big focus on training and workouts but most triathletes, author included, need a bigger focus on nutrition. Take the opportunity to focus on nutrition this fall. As you wrap up your season and move to a recovery period or base training make sure your nutrition plan follows.
*Kristen Hislop is not a nutritionist, but tries to compile the latest research, findings and practical information for her athletes.