Basic Thoughts on Nutrition

As an athlete and coach, I’m clearly interested in all things training related. What workouts should I do? When should I do these workouts? How many rest days should I take? All of these are key questions that most every athlete will consider when looking to work towards some goal.

What should I eat, when, and how much? These questions may well be just as important as those regarding how to train. To address the topic briefly, here are some basic guidelines that I think are healthy and should help you train and perform well, which are guidelines that I generally try to follow with my diet. As an aside, if you looked around at other dietary guidelines and asked me to compare my approach to others’ or to say what’s similar, I’d say that my thoughts on diet are probably most closely aligned with Tim Ferris’ “slow-carb diet” and Cordain/Friel’s “Paleo Diet for Athletes.” I do include fruits in moderation, which Ferriss does not. I also include legumes, which the Paleo diet does not include. I’ll include oats and other grains some of the time, but neither diet really advocates for that.

Eat vegetables and legumes in abundance. You can never add unhealthy or performance hindering body weight from eating too many vegetables. You’ll get the highest ratio of nutrition to calories that you can. With legumes (beans and lentils) you can add fiber, protein, minerals, and slowly digested carbohydrate to your diet. Eating a ton of this stuff will likely keep you healthy, lean, help repair muscles, feed healthy gut flora, help give you energy for workouts, and likely reduce your risk of most every disease out there. It’s probably impossible to eat too many vegetables or legumes, so go ahead and include them however you can enjoy them. The only caution would be about how they’re prepared, so just be careful to keep extra ingredients limited (e.g. oil or butter with salad or vegetables, cheese with beans, etc.). Potatoes are considered a starch here for our purposes, not a vegetable, though it clearly also falls into that category.

Eat fruits and nuts in moderation. Fruits and nuts are both great sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and energy (in the form of carbohydrate and fat, respectively). Fruits also have the added bonus of providing a lot of water, helping make them good recovery foods (carbohydrate and water, both good for recovery). Nuts are good sources of protein, minerals, and arguably healthy fats. The challenge for each of these is the high fructose content of the fruit, which in general would be a bad thing, but when it’s packaged in its natural casing (i.e. whole fruit), fructose is probably fine for you in moderation. Likewise, nuts are good for you, but high in calories, so you just don’t want to consume too many of them. With that in mind, I’d say it’s probably fine to have both daily, but just keep it moderate.

Animal proteins are fine in moderation. Skip it if you’re vegan or vegetarian, and you’ll be fine too. Meat, eggs, and/or dairy can be a great source of protein, iron, some vitamins, and fat that can be used as fuel. There’s definitely some question about whether animal protein is ultimately all that good for athletic performance. Really it’s not at all necessary, but animal products may be helpful because they are a great source of protein that’s relatively easily assimilated, and have basically just the right stuff for adapting to hard training. The question about meat and dairy is more of a public health question regarding how much meat is safe to eat, what kind of meat is safe to eat, and whether dairy is safe to eat. Some people argue strongly against hormone and antibiotic fed meats, so in an ideal world, it’s probably good to avoid if you can. Dairy is strange because of the high insulin production that follows its consumption. That alone makes me question whether or when you might want it. Also, some people argue that high intake of dairy protein encourages the growth of cancer cells. I’ll admit that I really like yogurt, and eat it regularly, but otherwise, generally avoid milk products altogether, for the reasons above. Fish may have mercury and maybe other things you wouldn’t want to consume, but some fish has healthy fats, and they all have great protein, so it’s again debatable if or how much is going to be okay or good to eat. Lastly, there’s the fact that vegetarians tend to weigh less. Ultimately, I’ve gone back and forth over time about whether there seems to be sufficient justification to eat animal food products and about how much may be safe to eat, but where I stand now is that it’s probably fine in moderation, especially if you limit or avoid dairy and choose natural meats (grass-fed, free-range and non-farmed fish).

Include unrefined starches in proportion to high-intensity training or racing. The more you ride, lift weights, run, or otherwise workout, the more you’re going to need calories to fuel your activity, and the more intensely you do those things, the more carbohydrate you’ll use up. At lower intensities, you burn mostly fat, so replacing used up glycogen stores is much less crucial. If you eat a lot of carbohydrate, whether it’s sugars or starches, refined or not, it’s going to encourage your body to release insulin into your bloodstream and store glycogen and fat, which is fine at the right times, but not good if it’s a chronic condition in your body all of the time, because it will limit fat-burning and encourage undesirable and potentially unhealthy fat storage. Anyway, all that to say, consume extra carbohydrate in proportion to the high-intensity work that you do in your training, but limit it when you’re not doing as much. I think that potatoes are fine, but they’re pretty quickly digested and absorbed, so I’ll keep them reserved for after hard workouts or during stage races. Sweet potatoes and yams are great, because they have a some extra nutrients in them compared to white potatoes, but more importantly, they’re much more slowly digested and absorbed, so they cause less of a swing in your blood sugar and insulin levels. Likewise, I’m a big fan of oats, because they’re slowly digested, have more fiber and protein compared to some grains, and are gluten free (which some people like). I’m not a big fan of bread, pasta, rice, or related flour-based products. They are refined and shoot glucose into your bloodstream way more quickly. Personally, I avoid refined, flour-based products and rice almost all of the time, but again, will use them sometimes in hard training or during stage races.

Research on training versus diet: Everyone wants to get stronger, faster, better, etc. so everyone can justify doing studies on what kind of performance effects strength training, endurance training, interval training, etc will have on your performance, whether it’s power, endurance, speed over distance, etc. Somehow it seems that research related to diet is a little more one-sided, because most research on diet seems to be focused on public health and whether too many hamburgers will kill you or too many donuts will give you diabetes. With respect to performance, a lot of research is done with athletes to see how they perform if they drink nothing, drink water, or drink a sports drink. Some research is done to see if caffeine in your sports drink helps you out, or even if swishing-and-spitting a sports drink or caffeine drink helps you perform better (it does on both counts). It seems like most of this research is done to see acutely if performance is enhanced that day with that protocol, but I whenever I come across interesting studies on nutrition and sports, it’s usually not done on how long-term diet changes help or hinder performance.

So, all that being said, I think that there could be more real research done to answer the questions of what diet is best for performance in the long run, and whether that diet will be constant, or like your training, will vary significantly. I would argue that the latter is likely to be the case, that just as your training changes from day to day, week to week, and throughout the season, that if you change your diet along with your training, that you’ll likely be able to be healthier and perform better in the long run.

Does drinking a sports drink help you perform today? Yes; research clearly supports this idea. Does training with a sports drink every day help your VO2 or threshold power? Does it help your endurance? Does it hinder your endurance by hindering your body’s reliance on fat as a fuel source? Does it make sense to do endurance training with less carbohydrate and more intense threshold, aerobic capacity, and anaerobic capacity training with more carbohydrate? These questions are more interesting, but are harder to study, and likely will make a notable difference in the long run. Maybe it’s worth sacrificing a few watts on Saturday’s long ride by having less carbohydrate going into it, so that your body will have better endurance and perform better in the long run. Or maybe it’s not worth doing that, because you’ll still burn just as much fat, but have a better high-end aerobic workout on that ride. Maybe it will help you 3 months down the line to modify your diet like that, or maybe it won’t. I imagine that it probably would, the challenge is in the details and how to exactly implement that kind of change.

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How do I train when I can’t train? Part 1

As a lot of people know, at the end of this 2013 racing season I had the misfortune of crashing out of the Tour of Utah with some relatively serious injuries. Basically, I got knocked out when I went down, I fractured two vertebrae at the base of my neck (cracking one and breaking a piece off of another), sprained my right shoulder and left wrist, fractured my right arm, and scraped up my face, neck and shoulder. Now I have some scarring on my cheek, eyebrow, and neck that will probably always be there, a bump on the back of my neck where I have an extra piece of bone that broke off of my spine, and some physical therapy exercises to get my shoulder back in the right shape. At the end of the day, no big deal.

So, what have I been doing this last month since the accident? Clearly I can’t ride my bike. How can I train or try to make progress towards my goals when I’m injured like this?

ATOC tt

Summary (for those who don’t want to read much):
modify my diet (eat more like I would if I wasn’t an endurance athlete)
train on the trainer a moderate amount, 4-5 times a week, ~30m each time, with a few hard efforts
ease into cross training
do some strength building aerobic rides once back on the road

Well, for the first two weeks, there’s nothing I could do that was physically active. I was supposed to be wearing a cervical collar (a neck brace) and taking it easy. The most that I could do was to just walk around and do normal everyday stuff at home and at work. No hiking, no running, and definitely no biking. But, that definitely doesn’t mean I can’t make progress towards my goals. In this case, the main priority was to recover, with a secondary goal of not putting on weight when my training volume went from 15-20 hours a week down to zero. So, I tried to take it easy and gave myself as much time to sleep as my body wanted to take. During that time, I was sleeping anywhere from 9 to 11 hours a night. Usually it was a pretty normal 8-9 hours, but for the first two weeks, I definitely slept 10 or 11 hours every 2 or 3 nights, and considering the fact that I had a low level concussion was probably a good thing.

For my diet, trying not to gain weight and provide lots of good nutrition for healing bones, mending connective tissue, and making sure my brain was functioning properly meant that I focused on trying to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, some nuts, a bit of fish and meat, some yogurt, oatmeal for breakfast most days, some eggs, and otherwise, just a lot less calories and almost zero refined carbohydrates. What on earth would I need high-octane carbohydrate fuel for? I definitely didn’t need it for training hard or racing, and if I had bread, pasta, and rice on a regular basis, I’d probably be producing insulin in higher amounts and storing more body fat than I would prefer to do. Going from very active to zero activity, some weight gain is inevitable, but I could try to minimize it… I tend to think of it this way: you always need a good balance of healthy nutrition with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, maybe fish, meat, eggs, and perhaps fermented dairy, but then on top of that, you need extra fuel at a level that’s on par with your level of activity. So, if you’re not training, you just need good nutrition. If you’re training hard, racing, or what have you, then you need the same nutrition, but then you just add on extra calories and carbohydrate. Or, in the other direction, if you’re not training, then you can try to just limit the extra calories and carbohydrate that you aren’t using for training and racing.

After about 2 weeks, I was able to take my neck brace off, get on my indoor trainer, and even go running when my neck and shoulder felt good enough for it. Riding outside was against the rules for risk of falling, but just getting on the trainer was good. About this time, I was also considering some of the dietary changes I’ve tried over the last several years of racing as well as some of the research I’ve come across, and had decided, mostly for fun as an experiment, to try a reduced carbohydrate diet (similar to a Paleo type diet) for at least a few weeks as I started riding the trainer again and eventually got back on the road. At this point, my training consisted of 20-45m rides that were usually just pretty steady with a few hard efforts to get my HR up and my legs burning fuel at a high rate, even if only for a few minutes. Even if it’s short, riding a few times per week is way better for your fitness than not riding at all. Likewise, doing just a few hard efforts for some of that time will be much better than just riding steady. So, even though I wasn’t making any actual progress in my fitness, I was able to significantly diminish the detraining I experienced during this month away from the road.

While I was at it, trying a different diet as a fun experiment, I was interested to see how, if at all, my training would be affected by the change, especially as I got back out on the road. The aim for the lower carbohydrate diet would be to encourage my body to produce more aerobic enzymes while training in a glycogen depleted or partially depleted state, because some studies show that training while glycogen depleted is more effective for producing aerobic enzymes than training while fully glycogen loaded. Basically, I would hope to have better endurance as a result, even though training at a minimal volume. (The other side of this principle is that if you want to train your anaerobic energy systems and do very high-intensity efforts, you can do them with any diet, but you will be able to do more if you have more glycogen to burn during those high-intensity, anaerobic efforts. For this reason, I’m thinking I may experiment with cycling macronutrients in my diet this winter while doing blocks of endurance/aerobic training and higher intensity training. We’ll see, but I think it should prove interesting.)

Once I was able, I also wanted to start building up some running fitness in my legs by just doing a few shorter runs each week to put my bones under some running stress, so that more running later is less likely to result in a stress fracture or anything like that. That’s not to say that I or any other cyclist would necessarily be at risk for this, but it’s a distinct possibility, so I figure it’s smarter to hedge my bets and ease into it. Likewise, I used to be able to run 50, 60, or more miles per week on a regular basis, with long runs and intense intervals, and never really get that sore from it. Sure, I would be a bit stiff after a long run or a tough interval workout, but nothing that would inhibit my ability to run the next day. Currently, after riding and racing my bike almost exclusively for the last several years, just doing a 4 mile easy run ends up making me sore for at least 3 or 4 days. So, for various reasons, I’ve decided that my top cross training priority this off season is to get my legs to be more resilient when it comes to running, and to get to a point where I can run regularly without major soreness. To this end, I’ve been doing easy runs of 3-6 miles with some dynamic stretching and strengthening drills (lunges, bounding, etc.) and have done more foam rolling and light stretching after my runs than normal. Again, even though I’m not making huge progress in my aerobic fitness, at least I’m making good progress towards my goal of running regularly and with minimal soreness and discomfort. Ideally, I’ll be able to do longer runs and hard running workouts this winter.

Lastly, for at least my first few weeks out on the road, I’ll focus on doing steady to high-endurance riding with some tempo/threshold type efforts to just regain my strength and general power on the bike. I know that being off of the road for a month or more, and just riding the trainer for a bit in the meantime, there will be a lot of strength that will have to come back just to generate the kind of torque on the pedals that you usually do on the road. That will come back quickly, I’m sure, because among other things, your nervous system is usually one of the faster adapting systems in your body. But, at least for the first few weeks, the main goal will just be steady and high-aerobic work to regain a general baseline of strength and fitness.

How can I deal with exercise in the heat?

Right now it’s the height of the warmest time of the year for us living in the Northern Hemisphere, and a lot of us are having to find ways of training and competing successfully in temperatures that range far higher than what we get most of the rest of the year. For those of us that live in coastal regions, like myself in the San Francisco Bay Area, most of the year, we may only see temperatures in the 50s and 60s fahrenheit (or the 10s c). This time of year, it may be up to 100 or more (over 35 c) when I ride over the hills for most of my rides. I’m sure it’s much the same for most of us. So what are we supposed to do about it? How do we cope with the heat? (I’ll try to keep it brief, but I’ll also just throw down some bullet points at the end to try to leave you with some basic take home points… so if you’re short on time, just skip to the bottom.)

Well, first off, I would want to point a few things out that should make us a little pleased that we get to work out in the heat. For one thing, when you engage in endurance training in the heat, your body makes adaptations that help you perform better across all temperature conditions, both cool and hot. That’s an area of research in which some people are showing interest, because it’s quite notable how much performance can increase after exercising in the heat. The most obvious change that occurs is that your blood volume increases as you retain more water, and you have an increased pool from which to draw for sweating and heat dissipation.

Another thing worth pointing out that is very important is that while you want to stay relatively hydrated when working out in the heat, you don’t want to overconsume water. If you get dehydrated, then you may slow down and see your performance suffer, but that isn’t cause for you to drink tons of water. Rather, drinking too much water can and will dilute your body’s electrolyte balance and can lead to hyponatremia, which is a more common cause of heat-related health issues, mainly related to poor nerve function and resulting heart problems. Also, somewhat ironically, getting slightly to moderately dehydrated in training is actually going to be more effective at helping you adapt to the heat than consuming tons of fluids and electrolytes, because doing so mitigates the actual fluid/electrolyte stresses of heat training.

Be aware that it is relatively rare for you to actually overheat in the heat. Most of what goes on with your reduced performance or a lowering of your tolerance of a certain pace or workload is a preemptive reduction of effort and increase in perceived exertion managed by your brain to keep you from overheating in the first place. Under all circumstances, keeping your body from overheating is a priority for your brain, but in the heat, you’re consciously and unconsciously aware that such an event may happen sooner, so you slow down more quickly or reach a state of failure sooner precisely because you’re avoiding a point where your body is in real danger. That’s not to say, that you can’t or won’t ever actually overheat and run the risk of real harm, but in general, for most people in most circumstances, you’ll quit or slow down before that happens. The biggest risk is probably when you have a driven, motivated athlete with a high pain tolerance and limited prior heat adaptation; then we may have more cause for concern.

Whether you’re exercising in the heat or in cooler conditions, you are almost necessarily going to lose weight during a training session of any substantial length. When your body stores glycogen in your muscles, it also stores 3-4 times the same mass of water, so if you burn through 500g of stored glycogen, you’re going to be taking 2000g of weight out of your muscles. (500g of stored glycogen is about the maximum usually quoted for a fully carbohydrate loaded endurance athlete.) So, even if you were able to fully maintain the same water and electrolyte balance over the course of running a marathon or doing a tough 5 hour bike ride, you’ll almost inevitably lose about 2kg (5lbs) of body weight. So, don’t panic if you come home from your ride and see the scales showing a loss of 1kg or more (2-3lbs or more). Rather, if you come home and you aren’t lighter, that probably means that you were consuming more fluids than is necessary or ideal, and you’ve diluted your body’s electrolytes, so you probably need to take in a little extra salt. You definitely should not be drinking enough fluids to avoid any and all weight loss during a training session. If you do, you’re increasing your risk of hyponatremia. You should drink as much as you are thirsty, and make sure that you’re taking in electrolytes along with your fluids, but expect to lose a little water and carbohydrate weight during any training session lasting more than about an hour or two, running or biking respectively.

In any case, the biggest thing that can be done to increase your performance in the heat is to just get used to it by training in the heat. When you train in the heat, you will not be able to maintain the same power output or pace for as long as you would be able in cooler conditions, so you should just be aware of that and accept the fact that you will be slightly slower and usually feel more fatigued in the later portions of your workout sessions. Still, because the changes in water retention are probably the most significant adaptation you get to the heat, the most helpful training you can do in the heat is endurance training (i.e. longer and less intense rather than shorter and more intense). Doing longer sessions in the heat will lead you to lose more fluids and will cause a greater stress on your body’s heat management and water retention mechanisms, and for that reason should yield the most gains in performance once your body adapts. Again, this is most helpful when you train long enough to get at least a little dehydrated. You should always be drinking and taking in electrolytes, but over the course of a longer training session, some level of dehydration is probably inevitable.

For shorter training sessions, there is much less time to lose fluids and and therefore have more limited ability to sweat and cope with the heat, so you can often do fairly intense short rides even in the heat, but longer ones can’t be done with the same intensity as they can when it’s cool. One nice thing about the heat is that your warm-up time will be reduced for the obvious reason that it’s warmer outside and it will take less time for your blood vessels to dilate and your working muscles to get up to their optimal operating temperature. So, don’t be concerned about being unable to get in the intensity you want on the days that you plan harder workouts, because you can usually get it in early or late in the day, or by just condensing the time taken for the workout so that you don’t get too hot or dehydrated.

Aside from the actual internal changes that your body makes to cope with the heat from training, there are things that you can do with your body to help it cope better. When you train in the heat, your body produces anti-diuretic hormone (or “vassopressin,” depending on where you’re from), and your body doesn’t give up as much water. Another way to force your body to retain water is to increase your sodium consumption. So, it’s important for endurance athletes to consume more sodium in the heat, to help them absorb and retain more water and to replace the salt that is inevitably lost through sweating… One of the worst things you can do is to be on a low-sodium diet in the heat and to simply increase your water consumption, because it reduces your body’s ability to retain water and increases your risk of hyponatremia, both of which are performance limiting and potentially risky to your health. So, that being said, after working out in the heat, be sure to drink an electrolyte drink mix, eat salty snacks, or even consider a product like Pedialyte to keep your body’s electorlytes topped off.

Lastly, a lot can be done while you’re exercising to keep cool. First off, make sure that you have appropriate apparel. Namely, wear lighter weight, more breathable fabrics and less layers. Consider pouring water on your head and body. The cooling effect of cold water on your head, neck and upper back and chest is profoundly relieving and can reduce your perceived exertion and prolong the time you can sustain a hard effort. Even if you don’t have cool water on hand, even warm water has a profound cooling effect, because as soon as it’s on your skin and it starts to evaporate, heat will be drawn from your body as the evaporating water molecules take thermal energy with them… this is the reason that sweating works. As sweat or other fluids evaporate off your skin, they take heat with them and cool you off. And, along similar lines, consider putting ice in your jersey. Ice-socks are usually made of short stretches of panty-hose material filled with ice and then tied-off. These can easily be handed up to competing athletes and tucked under their jersey behind the neck and will help the athlete stay cooler longer.

So, what’s the take home, and what do I do? Something like the following:

– try to train in the heat, so that you can adapt to it

– pre-hydrate and stay hydrated with fluids and electrolytes when you need to perform well

– don’t be afraid to get a little dehydrated when you’re training, because it’s inevitable with longer sessions and it will help you adapt (still be sure to drink and take electrolytes, just don’t overdo it)

– never just drink a ton of water, you won’t retain it well and you’ll dilute your body’s electrolytes, which can be risky

– stuff ice in your clothes, pour water on your head, and stay cool while reducing your body’s need to sweat

– take in extra sodium before competition, so that you’ll retain more water and perform better

– take in extra sodium after competition and training so that you replace lost electrolytes, retain water better, and keep your body in healthy balance