By: Lauren Story, NYX Athlete & Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist
It is widely known that carrying excess body weight on race day is a great disadvantage in triathlon. Many athletes may think that buckling down in the gym or on the bike, ramping up workouts to burn more calories is the answer to losing weight. And while it does jumpstart weight loss initially, longer hours running and biking will ultimately lead to an increased appetite and overeating. By rethinking fueling strategies, triathletes can achieve healthy and sustainable weight loss goals without sacrificing their health or strength. Now is the time to kickstart your journey to becoming your lightest and leanest self. Let’s explore the key factors to maximizing fueling for training while shedding unnecessary weight.
Pre-Season or Base Phase
Begin your weight loss journey during Pre-Season or Base phase. This is the perfect time to begin a fat loss regimen. First of all, losing fat takes time. In the pre-season and base training phases, there is more time for flexibility with nutrition as the intensity and volume are relatively low and recovery is high. Fat loss takes patience, so allowing 4-6 weeks for you to complete your goal is ideal during this time. Give yourself some grace, losing weight at a safe rate is recommended at 0.25 – 1 pound per week. Once you move into the higher intensity protocols of the Build, Peak, and Race phases, it is too late to implement a fat loss regimen. At this time, energy and recovery demands are too high to try and maintain a calorie deficit and can easily lead to illness or injury.
Here are the top tips for sustainable weight loss in high performance endurance athletes:
1. Choose a weight loss goal
2. Focus fueling around your training
3. Increase protein intake
4. Eliminate all processed foods (sugar, soda, cookies, cakes, chips, alcohol, sweets – all junk food!)
5. Follow the Athlete’s Plates
1. Choose A Weight Loss Goal
To find your maintenance calories or TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure), I would recommend using an online calculator that takes into account your height, weight, gender, and activity level. Once you have your maintenance calories, subtract 300-500 calories per day from that value as your new “weight loss” calories. This is a good start to providing a conservative weight loss plan. In order to maintain fitness and optimize recovery, your weight loss goal should focus on being conservative rather than aggressive. It is a common mistake in new weight loss regimens to severely cut calories only to later binge eat and ultimately delay weight loss goals even further. The conservative route also allows you to make small changes to your diet while still building endurance and feeling satiated between meals. It’s a win-win.
2. Focus Fueling Around Your Training
This is a very important step in achieving your weight loss goals while improving endurance. Carbohydrates are the energy source your body craves most for those long exercise days, and there’s no need to deprive yourself. That being said, it is best to be strategic with your carbohydrates and concentrate your intake before, during, and after your workout to maximize performance and enhance recovery. A carbohydrate-rich meal with moderate protein and low fat/fiber 3-4 hours before your workout is a great way to top off glycogen stores to fuel your workout. During the workout, intra-workout carbohydrate is recommended (consume 30-60g of carbohydrate in the form of GU gel, blocks, or fast digesting carbohydrate solution every hour of exercise). Finally, a post-workout snack or meal within 1-2 hours of completing your workout is recommended. This meal should be a 3 or 4:1 ratio carbohydrates to protein to replace lost glycogen and provide protein to build and repair damaged muscle. The window of time outside of this training time can be higher protein and higher fat as both macronutrients will help keep you satiated while maximizing fat burn.
3. Increase Protein Intake
Even though your overall calories have decreased by 300-500 calories per day, your protein should remain at normal levels or higher (higher protein = more satiated throughout the day = decreased hunger). One of the main concerns when decreasing calories while maintaining a consistent daily workouts is the loss of lean muscle mass which would in turn lead to a decrease in performance. The RDA for protein is 1.2 – 2.0 g/kg of body weight for endurance athletes. To ensure you are preserving your lean muscle mass despite being in a calorie deficit, aim for the higher end of this range. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient between protein, fats and carbohydrates which means it’s going to keep you feeling full for a longer period of time after eating. Once you determine your protein needs, divide that number into the amount of meals you have each day to ensure you are eating protein throughout the day and ultimately reaching your protein goal. For example, a 150 lb. person eating 1.8 g/kg/body weight per day would need 123 g protein per day. If you divide that by the number of meals they eat each day (5) then they should aim to eat approximately 24-25g of protein at each of their 5 meals. Overall, increased protein will decrease your hunger, build and support lean muscle mass, and assist in fat metabolism.
4. Eliminate Junk Food
This one is simple, but not easy. Especially if having on-the-go snack foods available in the pantry is a big part of your daily fueling strategy. And I get it, no one family has the perfect nutrition plan or perfect pantry. Most of us have a sweet tooth or a special food that we crave every once in a while – and that is 100% fine! But, aside from the occasional couple of squares of dark chocolate or slice of birthday cake to celebrate a loved one’s big day, it’s a good idea to avoid these foods and junk food aisles altogether when meal planning for the week. Processed, refined sugars and sweets can be detrimental to a weight loss plan as they are filled with empty calories, high fat, delay recovery, and increase inflammation all of which can be a big setback to reaching your weight loss and performance goals. It may seem silly but not purchasing the all too tempting junk food items that seemingly call your name from the pantry just before bed is key in maintaining a clean and healthy weight loss regimen. Don’t buy the sweets, candy, chocolates, processed foods, or alcohol and if they’re not within reach, they’re not available for you to consume.
5. Follow The Athlete’s Plates
The Athlete’s Plates are nutrition tools created by Team USA nutritionists and dietitians to assist athletes in knowing how to fuel depending on their training load that day. To see a visual, visit teamusa.org/nutrition and you can download them for free. There are 3 plates (Easy, Moderate, Hard) each representing the athlete’s training load and performance/weight goals. Each day displays the Athlete Plate as your plate should look when fueling up. How many carbs do I eat? What about vegetables? How much of the plate should be protein? All questions can be answered by determining what kind of training day you have planned.
· EASY DAY
o Should be followed on rest days, for weight loss, or when recovering from injury.
o ½ plate is vegetables and fruit, ¼ plate is protein, ¼ plate is starch/whole grain carbohydrates
o This should be the majority of what your “plate” should look like during the weight loss plan, with the exception of your Before, During, and Immediately After exercise fueling.
o Can also be a bit higher than ¼ plate protein to assist in weight loss.
· MODERATE DAY
o Can be a 2 session training day (one technical, one endurance).
o Should be a baseline once you reach your goal weight following the weight loss plan (i.e. your “maintenance plate”)
o 1/3 plate is vegetables and fruit, 1/3 plate is protein, 1/3 plate is starch/whole grain carbohydrates.
o This plate has more carbohydrates to fuel increased activity and less vegetables/fruit to decrease the day’s fiber (less fiber with increased training = happier GI tract).
· HARD DAY
o Reserved for your days in the Build, Peak, and Race phase.
o Should be followed on days with 2+ intense training sessions, in the several days leading up to race day, on race day, and the day after the race.
o ½ plate is starch/whole grain carbohydrates, ¼ plate is protein, ¼ plate is vegetables and fruit.
o Maximum carbohydrate consumption to boost glycogen levels, decreased vegetables and fruit to aid in better absorption of nutrients and decreased fiber, maintenance amount of protein to conserve lean muscle mass and repair damaged muscle following strenuous exercise.
It’s certainly not an easy task to be in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time, especially while following a regimented endurance training plan. Just like with training, weight loss is a winding road with hard climbs, flat stretches, and even some breezy descents. Achieving your weight loss goal will come with sacrifice and hard work, but you’re no stranger to that game. Use this challenge as an opportunity to fine tune your nutrition plan, get in the kitchen, meal prep, and taste new foods. Fueling and becoming your best, leanest self come will be well worth the effort come race day.