Simple Nutrition for Athletes?


Aric In Training Makes a Tri Tuna SandwichIs there such a thing as simple nutrition for athletes?  Is is possible to break nutrition and the need to fuel properly down to one or two rules?

I am a huge fan of K.I.S.S., not the band, but the saying “Keep It Simple Stupid.”  But, the books I’ve read regarding nutrition for athletes, endurance or otherwise, talk a lot about what type of nutrients are needed and when.  Reading these books was a lot like reading  science experiment written by someone who had forgotten what English was, replaced with technical garble.

So, I was overwhelmed with the thought of getting the exact amount of protein for my body at just the right time.  Let’s not forget that I am an overworked Analyst by day and I don’t have much time to spend buying food, cooking, and eating in addition to the job, triathlon training, and rest of life.  As much as I tried to make it work, it was just too complicated for this triathlete.

I even tried the paleo diet for a while and have to say that it made life a lot worse.  While it was simple, the complexity in carrying out the diet while at work and with busy weekends just couldn’t work for me.   The paleo diet eliminated some foods that were okay by some diets and were convenient for busy people like me.

So, is there such a thing as simple nutrition for athletes?  If we strip away the metabolic typing, the protein and carb calculators, and even the calorie counting bank recording calories in versus out, what is left?  In my opinion, there is a lot left that can be considered simple nutrition for athletes.   Let’s take a look, but keep in mind that if you are going to get technical on me, please don’t send me hate mail.

This is what simple nutrition for athletes is in my mind:

  1. Avoid the sweets: Sure you can have a little cake and ice cream at the neighbor’s kids birthday, but don’t have a small amount of sweets more than once a week.
  2. Avoid processed foods: Processed foods are anything that doesn’t resemble its natural counterpart any longer, such as anything made with flour, those frozen chicken nuggets, and anything that comes out of a drive through window.  This is the paleo influence on my simple nutrition for athletes.  Don’t eat white breads, processed sausage, cakes, or pastries.
  3. Eat lean protein:  Protein is what helps build muscles and aids in recovery post-workout.  Having a small amount of protein with every meal and a little before and after workout will help you recover and build muscles.  Eggs, chicken breasts, lean pork, salmon, and buffalo burgers are great choices.
  4. Consume fresh vegetables and fruits: Salads, greens, citrus, and berries are a great source of fiber and provide much needed energy for your workouts.
  5. Cook with the intention of creating leftovers:  Cooking four chicken breasts even though you are only going to eat two gives you two extra to eat during the rest of the week.  Package up some salad mix into tupperware and toss on some cheese and other veggies while making a salad for your weekend lunch.  Consume a salad right after a workout to help recover as well.

So, simple nutrition for athletes broken down to five rules.  It is not all inclusive list, but is a great place to start when getting a handle on what you eat.   You might be surprised just how simple this can be while achieving race weight and feeling great about yourself.  There is such a thing as simple nutrition for athletes after all.

The Food Cloud Goes Paleo


The Paleo Diet is the latest and greatest of fads in the realm of diets.  We have gone from Weight Watchers to Atkins to South Beach only to realize that what our ancient ancestors ate is probably what we should be eating too.

After all, homo erectus didn’t have the convenience of grabbing a burger and fries from the local fast food joint while looking for a new cave.  No sir or maam, the diet that the human race survived on is no joke.

So, with all of the hype about eating paleo and reading paleo blogs like Mark’s Daily Apple and Son of Grok, I decided to try the paleo diet.  It was time to cut out the processed foods and consume fresh vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, nuts and good fats with a little luck thrown in.

I expected to do well on the paleo as I did quite well with the No Flour, No Sugar diet in 2009.  It really isn’t that much different, although it is much more strict about what you can eat (no potatoes, no vinegar and no grains).  So what could happen?

Well, I found out just how hard it is to eat paleo consistently.

  1. For me, I need to have each meal prepared ahead of time or else I will settle for something more convenient than paleo.
  2. The somewhat limited food items get boring after a while, so creativity in the kitchen is soon to be expanded.
  3. The diet requires a lot of preparation ahead of time, so squeezing in time in the kitchen is hard with my already packed schedule.
  4. The grouchiness is a little like giving up coffee as the body is adjusting to life without an abundance of refined foods.
My paleo food cloud for the past week

Well the word cloud to the left shows exactly what I have been eating.  While I haven’t been sticking to the diet per se (burritos and mochas aren’t paleo!), I do see the beginnings of ridding processed foods from my diet.  Getting rid of the tortillas and buying a coffee versus a mocha will be the next steps. I’d also like to see more lean proteins in the cloud as it appears that chicken and bacon are the primary meats I’ve eaten.  What is good are the nuts, fruits and vegetables, but those too can use a bit more variety.

What are the initial results of going more paleo?  I feel like I have increased energy and clarity of mind.  My weight has only dropped three pounds, which is within a normal fluctuation so I can’t say I’ve lost weight.  Also, my kitchen is being used more and my stove is happy to see me, if for a limited time on the weekends. My grocery bill has also gone up, but my fast food bill has dropped significantly.  So there are pluses and minuses involved, but overall I think the changes have been positive.

However, Before coming to further conclusion, I’d like to gather more data, both physical and workout data.  Theoretically, the paleo diet will help me improve my fitness performance and if its true, the results should be clear in my triathlon training dashboard.   Only time will show.

Have you tried the paleo diet?  What are your experiences?

How My Busy Afternoon Screwed a Great Workout


There are afternoons that just fly by like like the clock has had too many grande red-eyes from Starbucks.  It is that situation where you start working on something at 1pm and then suddenly realize that it is already 4pm and realize that you haven’t had your afternoon snack.

No Snack Just Yet

But, just as you get up to grab that snack, the phone rings and the boss needs something that super-cedes that snack.  For the next hour or so you are caught in a meeting and thinking of that snack you so need.  Then you realize that you have a group strength workout at 6pm…  this better wrap up fast!

It doesn’t.  You’re stuck.  With just a few minutes to spare, the meeting wraps up and you speed across town to the gym, only to arrive in time to change.  Then you realize that the snack you’ve been dreamin’ about for the past few hours is still at the office.  Ugh!  Your tummy growls and you wonder how you are going to get through a group strength and cardio workout from hell.

The Beginning of the Sabotaged Workout

The warm-up on the treadmill went okay as did the stretching circuit.   Stepping into the weight room and looking at the mats, the incline bench and weights sitting on the ground.  How far am I going to push this?

Pumping weights was easy, but the step-ups with alternating legs and 25 pounds quickly started to drain the energy out of me.  Finishing the last of the 15 leg lifts, our group trainer informed me that the cardio portion was two 90 second sprints on the treadmill.  Busted…

The first circuit really wasn’t too bad, but I knew I was on borrowed time.  The step-ups were the worst and I could feel my heart pounding even though it was quite low at 145 bpm. I was also sweating profusely and I struggled with every breath.  Yep, how far was I going to push this?

The third circuit came and I tried to push on.  The step-ups were the worst and I stopped a few times to let the leg muscles recooperate and the shoulders recover from the strain of holding the weights.  As I stepped onto the treadmill the third time, I knew this was going to be bad.  At the end of the first 90 seconds, nausea set in, the legs turned to rubber and I thought I was going to go down.

I should be looking forward to this, happy that I am alive to carry out such an amazing workout at an amazing gym.  But I wasn’t, I was miserable and letting my busy afternoon and lack of fuel destroy my dream.

The Realization

Then I realized that I had some almonds in my gym bag.  These were my emergency fuel supply for situations like this.  How could I have forgotten?  I ran to the car, grabbed a packet of almonds and slowly started munching a handful…  after a short break, some additional water and a moment of silence I think my body started to recover.

I went back in for the fourth circuit.  Despite feeling better, I was still drained.  The step-ups were the worst ever, the cardio intervals short and slow, and the body was even more ready for a long nap than ever.

Too Little, Too Late: I’m Done

But, wait, there was still a second circuit…  oh boy.  I quickly learned from the deadlifts that my wrists are highly inflexible. The elbows are supposed to point up when the wrists flex holding the bar…  theoretically at least.  Then came the single-leg ball squats where you balance on a spiny little inflated ball and squat on one leg, moving the opposite leg in front and then to the side.  My balance is the worst and after being drained from the previous circuit, it is even worse.

At that point, it was time to cut my loss.  Besides, after an hour and a half, the next group was arriving.  While I hate leaving anything unfinished, this was the right call for me on this particular evening.

The Reflection

Reflecting back on this rather enlightening day, I realize that I sabotaged my workout and that I was heading toward even worse injury.  I need a strategy for making sure I fuel at the right times and am ready for anything.   While the emergency almond supply saved me from total devastation, it was one of those situations that should never have been.

It just sucks that I let my busy afternoon screw a perfectly good workout!

It begs the question, what strategies do you use to make sure you are ready for your workouts?  By ready, I mean that you are fueled, have the equipment/gear you need, and can workout with any thought of “I forgot something?”

Recovering from Distractions


Aric in Training April to November
April on the left, November on the right

Life isn’t always as convenient and fun as a walk through the woods to the creek for a picnic.   If it was, people probably wouldn’t be obese, depressed, and unemployed.  Instead, life is a lot like a box of chocolates (Thanks Forrest!) where you really don’t know what you are going to get.

In fact, I got nothing but the icky chocolates over the past few weeks.  A client with a very complex house-sitting situation left town and my obligation to the business kept me from enjoying my usual triathlon training routine. There were also some additional early morning hours required at work that exacerbated the distractions from training.

To make matters worse, the increased stress led to additional distraction from the proper triathlon training diet.  Some how, fast food found its way back into my stomach.  Those compromises between fresh home cooked meals and fast, convenient food were pushed to an extreme.

By the time the client returned and my schedule opened up, my training on average per week dropped from 5+ hours to less then 3 hours.  And today, my body felt every minute of reduction in training and every over processed carbohydrate I’ve eaten.

Today’s run: 80 min endurance run, which turned into a 58min run that only covered 4.8 miles.  Given where I was a few weeks ago, this is shameful. While my muscles were in pretty good shape, the main problem was my inability to breathe and a heart rate that kept spiking higher than Mt Everest.   I simply couldn’t catch my breath and as I pushed on, the heart rate rose to ridiculous levels, the chest tightened and life sucked even more.

Previously, I was able to maintain 12:00 pace for quite some distance (1hr +) with a heart rate in the low 160’s. Today, dorking (remember the dork run?) along at 13:00 pace still brought on a heart rate of 170+ with my lungs feeling like filled balloons, gasping for air.

While I really don’t want to believe that a three week reduction in training and a less than ideal diet would cause such poor performance, I have to remind myself that I am sensitive to airborne allergens. With such dry weather and so much burned land around Santa Barbara, the particulate count is at ridiculously high levels.  This has impacted my cardio performance before.  Perhaps, next time I will try taking a Claritin before the next big workout.

So, with just one week from the Santa Barbara Triathlon, I am not feeling ready.  Granted it is a very short distance sprint, but my hopes of crushing last year’s time of one hour and four minutes are diminishing.

All of these distractions have reminded me of how important triathlons and associated training is to me.  Time to put into place an action plan to prevent further long-term distractions from happening again.   Triathlons are a huge part of me and I can’t ignore it.

I look at the thumbnail above, two pictures of me running 7 months apart, and am reminded of how far I’ve come.  I don’t have time to recover from distractions that shouldn’t exist.  I am a triathlete.

Eating to Entertain Oneself


Eating is an activity that can be used to fill time.  In fact, when eating goes beyond basic survival one must step back and take a hard look at the role of food in their life.

Eating to Fulfill

In this case, the person gorges them self in the extreme at every meal.  They do not pay attention to the amount of food they eat and their only consideration for what they eat is how it fulfills their emotional cravings.  In fact, when they are done eating this meal, they are already thinking about what the next meal will be.

While this sounds a bit crazy, it starts to make more sense when you realize that they are emotionally distraught, lack a formal job, and live in an environment that is both boring and toxic.  With these conditions in place, the only security one has is food.  Food goes from a survival need to one that fulfills the absence of everyday structure and emotional fulfillment.

My Personal Case

In my personal case, this all changed when I started my triathlon training.  Not only did I start exercising, but I soon realized that the food I was eating was not supplying my body with the right fuel. I was also eating so much that my body was burdened with digestion constantly, my stomach was stuffed and stretched at each meal.  Through baby steps, I eliminated fast food, sugar, and most other refined foods. Today, food is a tertiary thought since I eat to fuel and not eat to fulfill.  As a triathlete today, I look back and can’t help but be bewildered by my previous relationship with food.

Family and Lack of Routine

Visiting my family this Thanksgiving, I see my old self in each of them, two years ago before I started training.  They live in a small town where employment is difficult, they seldom exercise, and the only security in their life at the time is food.  This epidemic is so prevalent, that even the cat is obese!  Seeing them this way makes me very sad.

It is also very difficult to not get sucked into the emotional binge eating. I certainly have consumed more food than I typically do and my training has tapered off.  My routine has been interrupted and I can’t let their routine substitute for my own.  It has been tough and I am feeling the consequences for not being more disciplined with my eating habits.

Life Changing Event?

While I desperately want to help them, you can’t force someone to change when they can’t see the problem.  I hope that they encounter a life changing event that makes them wake-up, deal with their emotions and become more fit and loose some weight.

When you begin your triathlon training, please take a conscious look at your relationship with food.  It may not be as healthy as you think it is.

Thank you.

When the Dork Run Becomes a Short Run


My last post, When Something Is Wrong, discussed the circumstances around a less than enjoyable endurance run that I have come to nickname the dork run for its awkward pace. In that post, my weekend activities created a chemical imbalance in my body that caused my heart rate to spike easily and my mood to be not so gracious. I also suggested that training with metrics was a great way to keep you focused on your fitness and triathlon training goals.

My most recent dork run on Thursday morning was quite the opposite experience.  In fact, it went so smoothly and at fast enough pace that this dork run became more a Short Run (endurance run but over short distance).  The comfortable pace I found was between 11:30 and 12:00, which produced a heart rate of 149 on the flat surface.  It was so comfortable that it felt like a run and not a dork moment. I was also back in my FiveFingers barefoot running shoes for this run. Data set is below:

Training with Metrics
Much smoother Heart Rate and Pace

If you recall, November 9th’s dork run was plagued with heart rate spikes with a wide range of pace.  It felt far from relaxed and felt more like a burden to maintain.   All of this was caused by my body being out of balance.

On Wednesday, I payed particular attention to detoxification, rest and having fun at the new job.  I ate a very healthy breakfast, had an amazing salad for lunch, and a simple dinner.  No coffee, no sweets, no alcohol, and a good night’s rest prior to Thursday’s run.

There is one additional difference between the two runs that I need to point out.  Stress.  Last week and early this week, I was caught up in changing jobs and my stress level was quite high.  This likely made the weekend’s exhaustion worse.   On Wednesday, after starting the new job, I felt like a ton of weight had been lifted, allowing my body to be in a very relaxed state for Thursday’s run.

Going forward, I will incorporate a stress variable in my training with metrics dashboard.  As much as it is important to track the hard data, there is soft data that surrounds your emotional state that should also be recorded.  Fitness and peak triathlon performance requires not only physical readiness, but mental as well.  If you are stressed out, find a way to de-stress before you workout. Otherwise you are just taxing your body and making yourself suffer.

 

When Something Is Wrong: Training with Metrics


You know when something goes wrong and you can’t quite put your finger on it, what do you do?  In my case, I develop a bad attitude and fixate on little things that really don’t matter too much.  Unfortunately, I also seem to lose the importance of long-term goals and the vision to achieve them.

The Dork Run Fixation

Last night and today, my fixation was focused on the dork run.  The name refers to the form that I use when running at a pace that keeps my heart rate in zone 1 and 2, which is between a really fast walk and really slow run.  The point of the dork run is to build endurance and teach my body to burn fat efficiently, so that when I run a marathon, I don’t deplete my glycogen stores too quickly. As much as I dislike “running” at awkward (aka dork) pace, it is an essential part of the training plan.

In fact, dork pace was so uncomfortable, that my left knee was quite sore by the end of the run.  This is quite surprising as the long dork run I finished on 11/1 was quite enjoyable, albeit slow.  Check out the two images of the data collected from each dork run below.

01novDorkrun
Nov 1st Dork Run (click for interactive data)
09novDorkrun
Nov 9th Dork Run (click for interactive data)

The top image was my first long dork run on November 1st.  Note that the heart rate and pace are fairly consistent.  Now compare this with the bottom image, Novermber 9th’s dork run.  While the routes are very similar, the 9th’s heart rate and pace are very sporadic with extremely short periods between high and low, patterns indicative of a stressed out body. Two very different runs with two very different attitudes:

1st – Slow, but fun and leisurely wearing FiveFingers without the iPod.
9th – Not fun, inconsistent and stiff wearing shoes because my feet hurt in the FiveFingers and my iPod Touch for music.

The Factors That Caused the Wrong

What caused the difference, the fixation, and my bad attitude? A number of things that center around my weekend activities:

1) Saturday morning I ran the NewsPress 5K Fun Run and did great, but pushed my body hard.
2) I took one tablet of beta alanine prior to the 5K, this causes me to have strange moods 24-36 hours afterwards.
3) Saturday afternoon I hosted a BBQ where I consumed some margarita, cheese cake, cake, and other products made with refined flours (basically, the diet was horrible).
4) Sunday, the diet continued to be less than desirable as I continued to consume left over refined foods and fatty hamburgers.
5) On Sunday I also rode the bike 10+ miles, my first ride in a month.  This was not a good idea since I was still recovering from the BBQ and 5K from the day before.
6) I also ate a complimentary Starbucks Mocha Ice Cream bar on Sunday afternoon (I love my favorite barista who gives me free stuff).
7) When I started the Nov 9th run, I wore the FiveFingers, but my feet hurt too much.  I returned to the car and switched to shoes which ended up hurting my knee.  My feet hurting should have the indicator to stop, go home and go back to bed.

What these items boil down to is this: wrongness with a really bad attitude.  My body was exhausted and I continued to push it. Making matters worse, my diet was so bad that my system was confused and fogging up my brain.

The Realization

All of this boiled over on Monday night and Tuesday morning as I started to realize was what happening:

  1. I realized that I had lost touch with my long-term goal and the meaning of the dork run.
  2. I realized that my diet had gone totally off course and immediately started consuming quality whole foods.
  3. I needed to rest and let my body recover.
  4. The bad attitude was like night and day as I started to cleanse my system, most likely driven by the horrible refined foods I ate (refined foods seem to act like mind altering drugs to me).

The shameful part is that this isn’t the first time this has happened.  In fact, my trainer can tell you many stories about my strange attitudes and some of the not-so-great stuff I can dish out when I am in one of my moods.

Training with Metrics

To prevent this from happening again, it is essential that I continue to track and enhance the metrics that I review routinely.  Using Training Peaks, Excel, and paper, I record my workouts, weight, food intake, and general mood.  However, I need to develop an enhanced way to bring all of these items together into one training center that will allow me to correlate them. Hence, the importance of developing my training dashboard.

Even simpler is developing enhanced discipline to:

  1. Maintain a proper diet in sufficient quantities
  2. Listen to your body’s signs of fatigue
  3. Stay focused on your long-term goals, no matter what

I have to point out that having a system of metrics in place isn’t a replacement for discipline, but they are great for making sure you are holding yourself accountable.

This past weekend I dropped the ball in a major way, a way that threatened my long course training forever (injury and being rude to my trainer) and that is wrong.

Going forward, I will stress the importance of tracking metrics and fully understanding how they relate to the training plan.  With some tracking obstacles to overcome, in the coming weeks I will discuss more of my training dashboard and share with you my ideas for the ultimate training metrics.

In the meantime, may the dork runs rule!