Yes, we all have performance goals, be it to compete or complete, but the added benefit of the training is obviously to keep in shape. Having an event to focus on can free your mind from the decision of whether you’re going out in the rain at 5.30am to do a 45 min easy run before work – the program has decided that for you, you’re going out regardless.*
Along with a plan for training, people often also focus on their food intake. Sometimes the threat of lugging around additional dead-weight when training is the impetus to be mindful of food choices. Or perhaps the increase in activity naturally makes you gravitate towards healthier food choices because they make you feel better both physically and mentally. Both of these can help people lean up prior to their scheduled event. On the other hand, sometimes the increase in training can almost open the floodgates on the food. Whilst this can in part be related to the oft-heard ‘it doesn’t matter what you eat, as you’ll burn it off in training anyway’ mentality, for others it’s almost a subconscious process they aren’t even aware is happening. Where once they more often than not said ‘no’ to a scone with your coffee, now you will more often than not say ‘yes.’ While we all know people who seem to eat this way and successfully maintain a good body composition, others struggle to maintain their weight or lose body fat despite the increase in miles. I see many people in my clinic who have signed up for an event, started the training and are frustrated that they’re not seeing the results they thought were inevitable once they’ve started putting in the miles. A lot of people can end up gaining weight while training for a half or full ironman – or any endurance event. I know I did when I trained for my first half marathon.
Why do I gain weight even though I do all of this training?
For some people, despite the good choices they make throughout the day, unwanted fat gain could well be the additional food consumed to support the training. Two pieces of honey on toast, a couple of sports gels throughout, then a sports drink, protein shake or a handful of jelly lollies to finish up adds a significant amount of refined sugar and calories you would otherwise not be consuming. And whilst you have just completed a 2h run, the amount of energy that you’ve burned might be a lot less than what you have estimated. Further, your ability to continue to burn fat afterwards is compromised with the influx of sugar that is readily burned instead of your own fuel stores. Finally, there is a potential for your energy levels to be lower later in the day from the food choices made specifically to fuel your next training session. This can lead to making food decisions that are geared towards instantly increasing energy levels (an increase in caffeine, sugar….) to combat a crash due to a sugar-fuelled fest.
The other thing to consider is that your body is under stress. Don’t underestimate the role that stress – be it physical, emotional, work-related, environmental, has on the body’s response to food. The body’s stress response is an appropriate and necessary pathway in order to adapt and grow. In the training arena it’s important to be exposed to stress in order to get fitter. However, too much stress, again – dietary, physical, emotional – can cause elevated adrenaline and cortisol which works to drive up blood sugar and insulin levels as stress. This was a necessary evolutionary response to ensure survival tens of thousands of years ago. However, while the stressors have changed (unless you are fighting with a sabre-tooth tiger), our response hasn’t. Thus this stress response has the same impact as too much sugar. The combination of the high sugar load and high training load – the reality for most endurance athletes – is the perfect storm for weight gain and long-term metabolic health complications.
How do I combat the weight gain?
Avoiding a sugar crash (or unwanted weight gain) is easier when you can rely less on sugar for energy and more on your own body fat stores. Your ability to use fat as a fuel source is compromised when you dump sugar into your system. The more you can move away from this, the better you’re able to tap into your fat stores and utilise these more for your training. Regardless of your goal (compete, complete, improve or maintain body composition goals) most endurance athletes would benefit from trying something different with their pre and post training nutrition if they are currently struggling with energy levels, with maintaining weight, or with trying to shift towards a leaner body composition. Despite what you read in magazines geared towards endurance events such as an ironman, it’s possible (and preferable) to train effectively for an event with minimal additions such as sports drink, gels, energy bars or other highly refined products to your everyday diet.
Okay, so what are some practical things I can do?
Training fasted is one way to encourage your body to utilise fat stores instead of carbohydrate for training. If you haven’t got a session that requires a lot of top-end power, (say, an easy 45 minutes) then this is a good opportunity to do so. Further, choosing to do your long, easy session in a fasted state is an extension of this concept. If you’re new to fasted training, then try going out fasted for your easy sessions during the week and one long sessions every other weekend as you adapt to using fat as fuel. This should start in the base training phase. Depending on the length of the long session, take on board fuel after 75-90 minutes. You will feel sluggish at first, and maybe experience dead legs afterwards, but you will adapt. For body composition goals, this will help reduce the amount of dietary energy going in on a day-to-day basis if you’re currently eating before every session.
If you train in the afternoon then having a snack before training (or your lunch meal) that doesn’t promote an insulin spike (and thus a reliance of carbohydrate for fuel) is ideal. I encourage clients to choose a snack incorporating fat and/or protein along with some carbohydrate – particularly if they are eating just before heading out the door. Some of these foods might be
• Small handful raw nuts
• Piece of fruit and nut butter
• Full fat greek yoghurt with seeds and a few berries
• Cottage cheese with a sprinkling of cranberries and pumpkin seeds
• Hardboiled egg and piece of fruit
Whether or not you require a snack is individual – some might feel fine going out after work if they feel adequately fuelled from lunch. If this is you, training four hours after lunch could also be considered a fasted session.
Is becoming fat-adapted just for people wanting to lose weight? No!
Becoming fat-adapted has real benefits for all athletes. Now it’s not necessarily about being low LOW carb (and I will discuss this in future posts), but by default this will be a lower carb approach. However, relying less on carbohydrate will help reduce incidence of gastro-intestinal distress that so many athletes suffer due to fatigue, over-fuelling or just merely the nature of the event.
For those who struggle to maintain their weight and feel that they have to eat constantly to maintain a feeling a fullness then becoming more fat adapted will, also be of benefit. If you train in the morning, then instead of going out in a fasted state or trying to get down a snack such as those above, a number of clients have found that having a black coffee with coconut oil in it before heading out (1-2 tablespoons) does the trick in terms of energy for the session and overall calorie intake. Another option could be a couple of tablespoons of coconut butter. Both of these will provide calories without the associated insulin spike that occurs with carbohydrate (and some dairy). If neither of these options appeal, then a smoothie made with coconut milk, unsweetened almond milk and perhaps some berries is another idea.
There are many ways in which to tap into fat stores, and nutrition before training is the first place to start. Ideally over the course of the day your food intake will gravitate towards changing the proportion of energy coming from refined carbohydrate to a more even balance of protein, fat and good sources of carbohydrate. I know that training and being the best athlete you can be is the driving force behind a lot of your food choices now, however this approach is also helping your long term health too. Perfect for those who want to make endurance sport a lifestyle. Isn’t that all of us?
*yes I know there are some slackers amongst us who always hit the snooze button. But that’s not you, right?