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home » understanding body comp and fueling

If you're serious about achieving the best possible race results, staying lean is as important as your training! You will not see chubby athletes winning races. It's possible to get through the swim and a flat ride very competitively carrying some extra weight, but on the run it will drag you down.

Staying lean seems easy for some athletes while others struggle. The athlete's psychology toward food can vary to an extreme and this can have a lot to do with upbringing and [lack of] general food knowledge.

I know one athlete who races at elite age group level but struggles with weight. He eats fast and does not take time to taste or appreciate his food. It's as if he's in a race every time he eats. It reminds me of a kid from a big family where the one that eats slowly loses-out.

When this athlete needs to lose weight he starves himself, and this is not the way to do it. Then when his self-imposed starvation stretch is over he overcompensates, again eating too much. Losing weight can be relatively painless if you look at the quality of your food and cut portions.

When you feel the impulse to eat ask yourself if you're really hungry or if it's just habit/boredom. Of course eating is an important habit, but intimately tied to other emotional impulses you need to be aware of.

Athletes who maintain a steady weight are the ones who resist impulse eating. They eat just what's necessary all the time. They stop when they're full. This doesn't mean you can't have some fun and chow down on a few too many cookies once in a while, but after that you need to back-off and use some discipline. And yes. I speak from personal experience!

Eat quality foods that taste good. Eat slowly and appreciate the food. Avoid eating when you're in a rush. Eat only when you're hungry. Understand [learn] about what's nutritionally good for you and what's not. Then look at labels; quality over quantity is the only way to go.

There is plenty of confusion among athletes about fueling and how that should impact eating patterns leading up to a race; here's some insight:

The concept of carbo-loading isn't necessary and doesn't work. If you taper for a race and keep eating as you would on normal training days this creates a calorie surplus; you've already stored a max of about 2000 calories of carbs as glycogen in your muscles and liver (glycogen is what we call carbs stored form, ready to use). Eat more carbs than you can store as glycogen and it goes to fat. For most athletes who taper with light training for 2-3 days pre-race, consuming additional food as carbo-loading dictates will just make you heavy [fat] for race day.

Sorry if you were expecting some revaluation, but all you need to do is eat normally leading up to a race day. Do try to avoid a double jalapeno pizza the night before though! =D

I've never had (or needed) a gel during a sprint or Olympic distance event. You will complete these distances on stored carb energy (glycogen) mentioned above. The athlete you saw with a dozen gels taped to the top tube of his bike is also the one you saw doubled-over hurling at the finish line. Forcing calories during the race will only slow you down, and probably leave you walking or worse.

Rules for half to full Ironman fueling do change however.

On race day at longer distances you will burn stored glycogen simultaneously with some proportion of fat. Short events racing near redline are predominantly glycogen (carb) fueled, but as you go longer fat will burn in an inverse relationship to speed. In other words, the slower your pace, the more you can burn fat, with fewer calories needed from carbs for energy. This burning of fat along with carbs is exactly how you have enough fuel to get though half to full Ironman. And keep in mind that even a lean male athlete with 6-8% body fat has enough fuel from fat to get him through more than one Ironman race day.

So let's say you need 500 calories per hour to get through Ironman race day, but your coach told you it's only possible to absorb 250 calories per hour during the race. At the slower speed, and lower energy level for the distance, your metabolism will be burning approximately 50% carbs and 50% fat. If you go too fast (~80% of max heart rate or higher), shifting your metabolism into a higher energy level, eventually carb metabolism will not be able to keep up. You will bonk. At that point metabolism will shift entirely to burning fat, limiting you to a very low energy level. It could be a long walk to the finish.

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