The First Leg: Finding Speed in Food
A triathlete’s life is not too far removed from that of a baby’s: eat, poop, train, work, sleep, and repeat. When we don’t eat right or often enough, junior’s tantrums are often indistinguishable from our own.
I’ve got the train, work and sleep part down (my wife would add poop too with a smelly hand wave), but I still haven’t quite mastered eating right. My outbursts typically occur post-race in a hail of woulda, shoulda, coulda comments. “I woulda changed my nutrition strategy if I had thought it was going to be so hot and windy.” “I shoulda hit up that aid station at mile 40 for more water on the bike.” “I coulda PR’d that run, I’m not sure why I got so tired only three miles in.”
Constantly finding new ways to go faster can be exhausting and frustrating if the only places you’re looking for speed are via the latest aero and carbon fiber equipment. As I approach 40, I wonder how realistic it is for me to build a zippier internal motor through training and toys alone. So I’ve turned my eyes toward nutrition. Steven Carre, a Santa Monica, Calif. based bike fit guru and co-owner of chic boutique Bike Effect, suggested I partner with a sports nutrition leader in…Little Rock, Arkansas?
Far removed from the traditional triathlon meccas of Tucson, Boulder and San Diego, Sigma Human Performance founder Benjamin Stone has coined the phrase “Metabolic Fitness” to describe his philosophy of building coaching strategies around a nutrition-based framework. In other words, Stone’s team of coaches and clinical sports nutritionists is more interested in honing what’s powering your ability to go faster than speed itself. He’s got the know-how too, earning advanced degrees in the science and medicine of athletic performance from the University of Oxford and lecturing there as well.
Nutrition is sometimes described by athletes and coaches alike as the overlooked fourth leg in a triathlon. During the next few months, and with the help of a Sigma-designed custom nutrition plan, eating healthy is Priority One, even ahead of T1. I will share what I learn along the journey — good, bad and ugly. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m paying for the nutrition plan with my own funds, though at a discounted rate. (The custom nutrition program typically costs $199 per month.)
Plan progress and performance milestones will be based on how I feel and fare at Ironman Boulder 70.3, Ironman Lake Tahoe next month, and Ironman Arizona in November. My goals are to avoid gastrointestinal stress (which has been a mild problem for me in the past) and leg cramping while maintaining or exceeding existing speed and power markers. I’ve worked with Los Angeles-area based Coach Gerardo Barrios of Fortius Coaching for nearly four years now, so we have lots of training data to compare.
I’ve just started the first week of my custom nutrition program, led by Sigma’s registered dietician Katie Rhodes. We kicked things off with an in-depth discussion on my current eating habits and issues, past performance, and athletic background. I shared what I typically eat during the week, as well as how often I dine out versus at home. Rhodes concluded that based on all the data, my big focal points need to be a massive increase in daily water consumption – 10.75 80z cups a day! – more mono- and poly-unsaturated fats to burn fat as fuel and a truckload more of non-starchy vegetables. In short, there had better be a cup of water in my hands practically all day, and when there’s not, I should be eating almonds, avocado slices and a host of veggies I normally would eschew. As a kid, my personal eating motto was “If it’s green, don’t eat it, and if it’s yellow it’s squishy.” While yellow foods are still squishy, in the span of a few days I’ve incorporated a veritable veggie rainbow into my diet. Granted, I was eating vegetables before, just not on this scale.
Speaking of scales, my weight increased slightly during the plan’s first few days. Rhodes said this was normal as the body adjusts. Plus, the cake pops and cupcakes didn’t help at my sister-in-law’s wedding. My weight has leveled and even dropped a tiny bit as Rhodes predicted. This has allowed for the re-introduction of one of my favorite daily pastimes, dessert. My mom’s personal motto has always been, “Life is short, eat dessert first.” This definitely rubbed off on me, as mint chocolate chip ice cream was the notable exception to my “if it’s green don’t eat it” rule. Now, I can incorporate a piece of cinnamon flavored Ezekial toast with hazelnut almond butter and jam after dinner, and it tastes great.
What’s surprised me the most so far is that my overall diet hasn’t required an overhaul. We’re making adjustments but not wholesale replacements. I figured I’d be immediately lectured on the importance of becoming vegetarian (I’m a carnivore) and would have to find a ton of non-existent free time to cook elaborate meals after work. That has not been the case. I can keep eating at my normal restaurants, ordering my normal favorite foods. We’re just adding more vegetables, healthy snacks (carrot chips with guacamole are awesome) and lots of water.
Even with just a few days of nutritional training under my slightly shrinking belt, I’ve noticed some tiny but not insignificant physiological changes. Rhodes’ suggested meals have sustained my energy for longer periods, I have more post-lunch punch (not the usual 30-minute food coma) and am not quite as exhausted before bed time. In fact, I’m wide awake after six hours sleep and have forced myself back into bed for an additional hour or two of rest. Further, now I’m consulting restaurant online menus to assess the nutritional content so I can make sure my meal matches up to the recommended dish. I can’t always eat exactly what’s on the plan, but knowing the desired carbohydrate, fat, protein, fiber and sugar ratios means I can plug in close approximations and enjoy similar benefits. The only noticeable downside so far is that I’m waking up to pee twice as much as usual. Fortunately, this is one area where being a triathlete is a lot different than being a baby – unless I’m on the race course and that’s another story altogether.
What this all means lies ahead. The first test was this Sunday in Boulder.