Like a lot of articles that come out of our coaching team, this one is formulated from thoughts based on a lot of similar recent experiences with athletes we coach and happens to form the third in a series of articles that started with training approach for winter, followed by the polarised training model and now something that rears it’s head in a very obvious manner during a very polarised approach – “properly” fuelling your training and recovery for optimal results.
Let’s keep this simple, cut through the science and find simple solutions to what is in fact a simple problem – something that should come natural to us as humans, what to eat and when to eat it – however in the 21st century this is heavily impacted by trendy fad diets, the latest craze on Instagram and the crazy busy lives most of us live, surrounded by poor food choices, all very sub-optimal for the aspiring athlete.
We tend to see three recurring issues from Triathletes. Firstly, too many people are simply not eating enough to sustain the workload undertaken on a daily basis, especially those training multiple times a day. Secondly, the quality of what they eat and how much they eat in their main meals and “normal people” snacks is good, but they are not adding in enough additional, well timed Fuel and hydration to support their training sessions. And lastly the timing of eating certain types of foods is sub optimal or without thought around the different levels of intensity and duration of their training
Fads, trends and the negative thoughts these lead to.
As I touched on earlier, we are heavily influenced by the amount of information available to us, often causing confusion or poor choices, often from social media or on-line videos and post’s from individuals with their own experiences, experiences with very small test studies, and one sided views. Of course there are those who can race an Ironman on 2 Avocado’s and a handful of nuts or worse, a race day plan of just pork pies, those who have seen improvements in their performance by turning Vegan and the idea that only eating 5 days a week is a great way to “lean up”. I am not saying any of these things do not work for people but often we do not have the context behind them to make informed decisions about how they work, why they work, who they work for and consider there will always be outliers for who extreme measures really do work well.
And from this love of the “latest trend” one food group has certainly taking a beating in recent years – Carbohydrate.
The dreaded Carbs!
Stemming from as far back as the famous Atkins Diet, we have been bombarded that in general carbs are bad for weight gain and yes, in the general population of very sedate people reducing Carb intake does have merit, but so does just reducing calories, which could just be done by reducing what you eat based on how active you are, arguably more healthy and long term sustainable for most people. What we are now seeing is a skewed relationship between the athlete and their view, sometimes sub-conscious, on Carbohydrates where people are not thinking correctly, or at all, about fuelling for upcoming workouts, during their more arduous workouts and post workout for fear of weight gain. But for the athlete, carbs are far from the enemy. They are a necessity.
Skirting around the science of how you turn that bagel in to useable energy, Simply put Carbohydrate is the bodies preferred source of fuel for more intense training even in the most fat adapted athletes so for harder workouts to go well you need to ensure good stores within the body pre-workout and top up as required during the workout. Think of it simply as the best fuel to make the wheels/legs/arms go around as fast as possible!
Not only does Carbohydrate provide athletes with the required energy to perform, especially when levels of intensity are higher, but they play a huge part in our ability to recover and stay healthy. They, along with protein, help to regulate the levels of many hormones in the body which become elevated or suppressed from the type of stressful loads many triathletes put their bodies under. Restoring homeostasis, or baseline levels, within the body as quickly as possible after hard training is very important to recover for your next session and get the maximum adaptation from what you have put yourself through. Allowing these hormones to remain in a sub-optimal level in your body also does precisely the opposite to what you might think you are achieving by taking less calories. They actually force the body into a state of stress actually meaning the overall effect is a worse body composition. On top of this some of your muscle building hormones are too low to let positive adaptation occur. In Women, there can be even greater hormone imbalances having both sport and non-sport related negative effects.
Ensuring adequate fuelling after your training sessions is one of the single biggest failings we see on a regular basis, having knock on effects to the following days and even weeks, not to mention the immune system which takes a beating from hard training. You know that feeling of a few hours after training having huge cravings for things you know you shouldn’t be eating? Well this is linked very closely to inadequate post training fuelling as it is your hormones that control your blood sugars that result in this craving to raid the biscuit tin in the office! Remember, Consistency is key to long term progress and you need to recover well from every session to be ready to nail the next one.
Create Good Habits
So, what am I saying you should do to help performance, simple solutions for real world application. It is simple stuff really but with a busy life, it is about taking a moment to look at your training and put steps in place to make sure you have access to the right food at the right time. So often do I hear” I had a busy day, skipped lunch and had to go straight to training from work……session went awful!”
- Don’t be scared to fuel your session properly when it is intense as your training, recovery and hormonal system could be all effected by inadequate fuelling. You will inevitibility gain weight from hormone imbalance, not to mention the times you have to skip the next training session as you are just not recovered well enough having an impact on both fitness and losing terms weight trend – Keep a gel in the swim bag or your run shorts, something easy to eat near the turbo and do not be scared to use it to enhance your session.
- Make sure you take on carbohydrate adequately the night before an intense workout for a successful session to occur the following day.
- Re-fuel well after your training sessions, A form of easily digestible Protein and Carbohydrate taken within 30 mins of finishing training is the optimal way to enhance positive adaptation and offset that desire to overeat later
- Sometimes you might head straight to train from work, just make sure in your kit bag you have some Carb drink or gels etc along with a form of post workout carbs and protein such as a recovery shake or even some milk and a banana! If you have quick access to food some cereal, yogurt, fruit, nut butter, rice all work as easily digestible and fast forms of recovery
- Keep some spare forms of fuelling in the car, or work bag, even some chocolate taken at the right time can have positive impact on the session, recovery or even your weight loss vs taking nothing at all.
- The rest of your easier workouts are more than likely fine to fuel from the meal you have had prior but even on longer workouts carry a form of carbs in order to stop yourself running into deficit and producing “too much” stress response within the body.
So how where does fasted training fit in to this as we know that increasing your ability to burn fat helps in endurance training. In my view, carefully planned specific sessions targeted at a specific response from the body, followed by adequate re-fuelling and to be carried out at specific times of the year and only as frequently as the body can manage without negative impact on other training.
Hang on, a whole article talking about recovering from intense workouts with minimal mention of protein. So, yes, you need protein in your diet and definitely after training (as it also offset’s the negative hormonal response) but for me and what I see all the time protein intake is normally high enough, not negatively influenced by any recent fads or trends, and it seems carbohydrate is the one viewed as the enemy to most where weight gain is concerned, hence trying to just address this issue in this piece
To finish off, my view is not that low carb is bad, or high carb is good, but that it is a well-balanced proportion of macronutrients is the optimal way to fuel MOST athletes but shifting a higher percentage of your intake around intense periods, days or session towards carbohydrate will have a positive effect on your performance, weight and overall health. These are basic Principles that are fundamental to our approach in coaching age group athletes at Total Tri Training
Thanks For Reading,
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The Previous 2 articles in this series are here