Thursday, August 25, 2011

Triathlon Training Questions?? We've Got Answers!

Questions of the day: Nutrition, training while sick, and road biking vs. mountain biking while training for a triathlon.

Laura is training for the Iron Girl triathlon in Lake Tahoe (and I'm so excited to get to meet her at the race!). But, like anyone relatively new to the triathlon world, she has questions. Since these are things that many people might wonder, I asked her if it would be okay to answer them here, and she agreed. So here's the first one:

The whole topic of nutrition makes my head spin. There are so many different ideas about what is best. My understanding is nutrition should be viewed as fuel for the body yet I am having trouble filling my tank! I am hungry ALL the time.  I graze on wholesome foods during the day but, the hunger comes back within a half hour or so.  Do you know of any foods or perhaps the timing of when I eat that will help me feel fuller longer?  Also, if you know of any foods that seem to do a better job at sustaining energy throughout the day, I would love some ideas. Some days I am wiped out by three o'clock.  I realize this can probably be a tricky question because we are all unique. I would be appreciative of your input on  general nutrition guidelines an endurance athlete should follow.

It's definitely true that nothing besides religion and politics has as many opposing viewpoints as the topic of nutrition! My views on nutrition guidelines can be summed up pretty simply: Eat simple, whole, non-processed foods. If you've followed my journey here from vegetarian to Paleo, you'll know that while I've always focused on a diet of high-quality local and organic foods, I'm also not averse to changing things up to achieve a better and more nutritious eating plan. And recently I've been tweaking my Paleo ways to include more carbohydrates for endurance fueling.

When it comes to hunger, there are some important questions to ask. The first is, are you getting enough calories in? When you start training more, you get more hungry! This seems like such an obvious thing, yet a lot of us get used to "how much food I eat", and are reluctant to eat more than that, especially if we are worried about gaining weight. The fact is, how much you eat is directly influenced by how much you burn. I may eat 30 - 50% more food on a heavy training day than on a rest day, and I'm always amazed at how little I eat on my days with no workouts. It really doesn't take all that much food to keep a sedentary body going, yet it can sometimes take huge amounts of food to fuel an athlete's body. So the first thing to do is to make sure you're eating enough. If you're curious about calories in vs. calories out, you can use an application like or (both of which have Android and iPhone apps) to track how much you're burning (including workouts) and how many calories you're taking in.

The second part of the equation is meeting your body's specific needs. If you're training hard, you are burning through glycogen, which you then need to replenish, hence the need to eat at least a certain amount of carbohydrates. Luckily, carbohydrates also fall fairly high on the satiety index, so they help you feel fuller longer. Sometimes that "empty tank" feeling is simply your body's glycogen fuel stores getting low. I've come to be able to distinguish between what I call "stomach hunger" (the familiar rumbling belly) and "body hunger" which is more an overall sensation of needing fuel.

Many people find that adding more fat to their diet helps them feel full longer. Healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil are great for this (in fact, I had an athlete friend who swears by a tablespoon of oil when he starts feeling hungry). Now that we are far from the fat scare of the late 1990's ("eating fat will make you fat" was the motto of the Snackwell generation) and hopefully know better, we can make good choices regarding getting fats from great sources like eggs, fish, grass-fed meats, nuts, and seeds. I almost always start my day with two eggs combined with something (veggies, bacon, or coconut/banana are three favorite options) and that helps me avoid the hunger-crazies through the morning.

Hopefully that's helpful and you can avoid that afternoon burn out by fueling your endurance workouts! Next question:

The other thing is biking. I am mountain biker. I love the tranquility of riding in the dirt and through the trees.  Recently, I dusted off my road bike for the first time in three years.  This bike certainly handles the road much better than my moutain bike.  However I am not accustom to riding near traffic!  I need to shake the road riding jitters. Do you have any important road biking saftey or ettiquette tips (besides the obvious like wear your helmet and pray) that I should follow? I just want to be sure that I am not missing any important safety items, especially when I am making left turns or when the bike lane crosses between the right hand turn lane. Also, if I do some of my training rides on my mountain bike will that still be adequate training for the road coarse?  Or will I be short changing myself?
I completely understand - I love being off of the main routes of traffic and I know how nerve-wracking it can be to ride close to cars. My tips are as follows:

1) Wear girlie clothes. Sorry guys, but studies show that drivers are far kinder to female cyclists than to males. They even give them way more room when passing. Anecdotally, I've noticed that when I wear my flowered cycling shirts, I get more consideration than when I wear the green/blue/black team kit. So flaunt your flower power and get some pink/orange/girlie jerseys!

2) Give yourself some room. Unless there's a wide shoulder or bike path, I don't ride right on the edge of the lane. It's useful to take up a little room in the lane, not so much that cars can't get around you, but enough that if you swerve around a stick or rock, or get buffeted by the draft of a big truck, you won't go flinging into the gravel shoulder.

3) Be courteous to drivers and obey traffic rules. Know your state's laws for cyclists (including hand signals) and use them. I always try to send very clear body language to drivers to let them know what I'm doing. A big left arm out, encased in neon yellow is an easy sign that says I'm turning left. Don't make tentative gestures.

4) Wear great reflective gear, blinkies, and lights. A blinkie during the day is even a good idea, and my reflective gear has saved my life in dusk-like riding conditions. For the most part, drivers want to see you, and are happy when you provide an easy way for them to spot you in plenty of time.

As for training on a mountain bike, sure! Make sure you're comfortable on your road bike since the saddle, seat angle, and strain on places like wrists or lower back may be different than on your mountain bike, but go ahead and put in some of your training time on your mountain bike as well. I know the year that my hubby took up mountain biking he became a monster climber on the road bike. It's great training for those hills!

Last question:

What happens when you catch a pesky head cold during training? =(  Can I keep going and watch and see how my body feels? Will throttling back on the training hurt me race day?    
  Taking a few days off to recover shouldn't hurt you much on race day, but more than 4 or 5 might start to have an effect. Generally, I'll train through a light cold, but if I feel it start to go into my lungs or if I'm running a fever, I give it a rest. Also, my sister makes this awesome soup that has a ton of cayenne and garlic in it. If you feel a bug coming on and drink a couple bowls of that stuff, it knocks that pesky cold right outta the ballpark.


ThreeBoysFull said...

Thanks Robin! I appreciate your input on my various questions. (kind off topic here) A couple nights ago, hubby and I watched the documentary Food Inc. What a wake up call for us!! I wish everyone understood more about the source of their food. We have decided to make some major changes in our grocery selections.

You mentioned calorie intake. I think you may be on to something with the app. Perhaps tracking how much is going in/out might be a helpful for me. While weightloss isn't a goal for me, ensuring I am getting enough fuel is important. You mentioned good fats. Last summer we began drinking coconut milk. So yummy but not sure if the health benefits are is great as plain coconut oil.

Your biking tips were helpful! I didn't even think about using a blinky light during the day. My biking jerseys are pretty girly so I am covered there. =) I have kept up with my training through this annoying cold. Although one workout turned into just a bike ride instead of a brick.

Off to ride! Have a great weekend.


Patricialynn said...

Off topic, I know, but I didn't know of any other way to reach you. Are you discontinuing your Urban Farm blog? I had just started following you - and really enjoyed reading your previous entries - and you stopped updating.

Robin said...

I haven't discontinued the Urban Farm blog, just been too busy to post. I know I need to do an update, but since our yard reconstruction project has been underway, I have NO garden, half a chicken coop, my chickens are molting since their light isn't hooked up, and everything is a mess. I'm definitely a total fail as an urban farmer this year! Not a single veggie :-(

Kathy said...

I find my hunger takes a while to kick in and my hungry days come the day after the effort. Good info here!

Patricialynn said...

@Robin okay, I totally understand that. Nothing had been posted about yardwork on the Urban Farm blog, so I had no idea what was going on. I feel for you about the veggie issue - I have a small container garden this year, and nothing has provided fruit or veggies. I did notice that I have three blossoms on my pumpkin plant though!

I'll keep watching the blog for updates.