Disclaimer: this is a very personal post with a lot of detailed ramblings. If you don’t like that kind of thing, you might not like this post.
Pretty much ever since I’ve cared about reading women’s “health” or fashion magazines, I’ve been pumped full of articles about how to make something “healthier” by cutting out calories or carbs. If you’re this tall (5’3”), you should weigh x, and to weigh x, you need to eat y number of calories; y being something low (low enough to be burned in one long bike ride). I only drink regular Coke after a hard training day or on an Ironman course, I’ve opted for naked burritos over flour tortillas (most of the time), and in a way, I’ve subconsciously been brainwashed by every product of false health promises, mostly made up of chemicals and garbage. I’ve never proclaimed being on a “diet,” yet somehow I’ve twisted a lot of material out there into the notion that if you eat “healthier” meaning fewer calories, as long as you don’t starve yourself, you will be faster. A lighter body is a better body for running fast and climbing hills on a bike. But there is a science-y part that we often cannot see or neglect to admit we feel. Or sometimes, we’re just too damn busy or tired or uninterested in making a huge meal for one person to replenish the needs of an endurance athlete. “I could try and eat 900 calories after a full work day and a 15 mile run or I could make a fruit smoothie or some peanut butter toast and go to bed…”
Let me first give a brief history: I struggled with an eating disorder in college and while it never landed me in the hospital or got that extreme, it sucked. I was gaunt, brittle, and probably should have found better help 12 years ago because there is a residual effect, physically and emotionally that is difficult to overcome. It was harder right after college. But now, over a decade later, including many seasons of what I’ve perceived as healthy training and eating, I’d consider myself a pretty average-sized athlete and a long way off from the female athlete triad. I’m petite, but not skinny. I have meat on my bones, but not enough compete as a Clydesdale (if I was a dude). And up until last week, I thought I was a pretty good eater. A basic training weekday with a morning and evening workout might include: 2 breakfasts, lunch, dinner, and snacks throughout the day, probably close to 2600-2800 calories and I’d guess 350-400g of carbohydrates (made up mostly of whole grains, fruits/veggies, dairy, poultry/fish, nuts, and occasional donut/cookie/candy, beer/wine/cocktail). And when people tweet or blog about losing pounds or getting to "race weight," I'm usually kind of annoyed, except my friend Rebecca Kelley, her post was hilarious. Basically, I just don't like the mixed messages out there about how much or little to eat or how much or little to weigh, because it is so different for everybody. But bear with me; I'm hoping to highlight my nutrition mistakes and hopefully encourage you to improve yours or at least consider assessment of your current state.
Over the past couple years I have been under the close watch of Dr. Emily Cooper from Seattle Performance Medicine. I met Dr. Cooper through my coach and I’m fortunate in the fact that she has sponsored me as an athlete since 2011. She has performed multiple VO2 Max tests and ordered blood tests to look at things like insulin, glucose, estrogen, testosterone, leptin, and other hormones that could affect performance, energy, and long-term fertility, should that be an issue down the road. I first met Dr. Cooper in 2008 for a VO2 Max test. My 2008 test indicated good power and speed, great VO2 Max, but low HR, even when maxing out. Years later when she decided to sponsor me, the results were similar, but lower HR. I won’t go into all the science in this post, but based on my low leptin and low HR, my body and brain was still seeing me as somewhat malnourished, like I was when I was that skinny little college girl. And my motivation for improvement was, "if I could get my HR to go up, could my speed and power go up...?"
So in an effort to get my body and brain back on track, Dr. Cooper had me meet with a dietician, Judy Simon MS, RD. I did it somewhat begrudgingly, because at 30 years old and someone who considered themselves pretty healthy, I wasn’t excited about being told what to eat. Up until last week, I basically ate what I thought was healthy and when I was hungry and it seemed to work okay. When I met with Judy, I had completed a normal meal plan using a weekday training day where I had burned approximately 2,000 calories through one 4k swim and one longer bike workout. I had also eaten pretty well that day – close to 2700 kcals via four meals and one large snack. But based on my resting metabolic rate (RMR) of ~2,100 kcal, I should be eating that plus whatever I am burning to maintain proper energy and carbohydrate stores. So, on a day that I have a morning swim and a 2 hour bike, I should eat close to 4,100 calories. I needed about 1,400 more calories, mostly in the form of carbohydrates, and that was on top of a day that I already ate a lot.
So the past couple weeks I’ve been experimenting with trying to eat more. A lot more! The goal is 3200-3500 kcals and 540-590 grams of carbohydrates. It actually probably needs to be more, but this is already a big change. It seems funny, but it’s actually really, really hard. I'm not just going to go out and eat a Cinnabon every morning; I like more wholesome food. I’ve been going through the bananas, bagels, and rice like crazy. And something that I’ve been bad at my entire athletic career, I’m now adding calories to even the short workouts. While I can easily get through an hour run without a gel, I’ve been taking one thirty minutes in or immediately when I get home. Typically the gels, blocks, and drinks have been reserved for long runs or rides, but having them during the short stuff tops off my glycogen levels and helps me sneak in calories (something I never thought I’d try to do.) I’m trying to teach my body to burn carbohydrates and rarely rely on protein stores. I’m also trying to change mentally and think of food as “fuel” and carbohydrates as something that will give me quicker and better energy to complete my workouts and recover.
During the first week, I tried to change things dramatically and it was a bit overwhelming. When I realized I started neglecting some of my favorite fruits and veggies, I had to reassess and adjust. This week I’ve gone back to my old habits, but found ways to add things like an extra slices of wheat bread with lunch and dinner, beans and quinoa to salads, a bagel and strawberry jam as part of my second breakfast, and some fruit juice or an extra PowerBar throughout the day. I gained a couple pounds in the first week, but I was assured it was the result of water retention from extra glycogen stores. Week 2 feels a lot more comfortable. All my workouts have felt pretty strong (I’m not sure if that’s a result of better eating or just training coming around) and I never have that “I’m starving” feeling that I would sometimes get working out all the time.
I’m still a bit reluctant, but I’m giving it a good faith effort for at least a few weeks. And then I realize this will take months to really get this dialed in. I may gain some pounds initially, but if it means more energy, stronger workouts, and overall better health, it’s worth it. If I could delete the years of reading stupid articles from women’s fashion magazines, I'd replace them with articles from The New England Journal of Medicine or even LAVA or Triathlete. Better yet, I wish I could delete years of improper fueling in my early 20s. Because, if I paid attention to the numbers (and I LOVE math!) I’d realize that like most endurance athletes, I’ve been under-consuming relative the demands of Ironman training.
I’d recommend checking if your insurance coverage includes meeting with a registered dietician or even just paying for it out-of-pocket. Getting nutrition squared away could potentially make a bigger impact than any new training gear or workout kit. It was eye opening for me to have a professional point out something that I probably should have realized all along. Nutrition, like rest and recovery, is just as important as some of your key workouts when it comes to triathlon performance.