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Getting Your Early Season Triathlon Training Nutrition Right

healthyfoods.jpgAs we begin to ramp up our training for the first spring triathlon, it's important to focus on nutrition as well. Especially on long courses, that often neglected fourth leg of the race frequently separates great races from bad ones. As many of us in colder climates start our return to race fitness, we thought it would useful to get expert advice from Brian Shea, President and Head Coach at Personal Best Nutrition.

Shea has developed race course nutrition plans for a number of top professional triathletes, including Julie Dibens, Terenzo Bozzone, Simon Lessing, Jordan Rapp, and Heather Gollnick, to name a few. He also prepares nutrition plans for age-group triathletes ranging from beginners to World Champions. We had the opportunity to ask Brian a number of questions about how to make nutrition an integral part of our early season triathlon base period.

Paul Tyler: How should age-groupers looking at May/June season starts be changing their diets now?

Brian Shea: In the early part of the season, the majority of athletes are coming off a period of lower training volume and typically less-than-perfect eating. The end result of less training and more food equals being over target race weight.

PT: What if I put on so many pounds over the holidays that I'll maybe only make my target race weight by the end of the season?

BS: Regardless of whether you're 1% or 30% over your target race weight, you'll benefit from being closer to your ideal race weight and it's really the easiest way for free speed. What I mean by free speed is that if you make zero improvement in your fitness between today and race-day, but get 5 pounds closer to your ideal race weight, you're going to race faster. The closer you can get to ideal race weight, the less likely you'll be to get injured, the healthier you'll be and -- what most of us feel is the most important benefit - the faster you'll be!

PT: So is losing weight a goal I should build right into my early season training plan?

BS: Yes, look at weight loss as the primary early season goal when training intensity and volume are typically less. At that point in time, an athletes' workout will not be negatively impacted if you're short on calories. We specifically create workouts done in a semi-depleted state and have an article on the PBN Forum which goes into greater detail on the physiologic benefit of training in a restricted state.

PT: How complicated is it to lose weight and launch a base period training schedule?

BS: It's not overly complicated and always comes down to willpower. The focus on this is not only during workouts, but also in reviewing your diet for the other 20+ hours of the day when you're not training. This is not to say that all workouts through your entire year should be done in this manner, but early on, it's perfectly appropriate. As key races approach -- especially those of a half Iron distance or greater -- it's important to replicate the hourly caloric intake strategies that you intend to implement on race-day. Therefore, a consistent 'low' calorie training regime wouldn't be as appropriate.
Outside of your training, the last thing you want to do is starve yourself. As such, I generally recommend not straying too far from what you're accustomed to doing normally, but cut out the garbage calories for 6.5 days per week. I always like to build in a half day to cheat a little, but if most athletes can adhere to a solid dietary plan for the majority of the week, their body should adapt to the weight best suited for racing.

PT: What should their nutrition goals be for their early "b" races?

BS: Just as these races should serve as opportunities to test pacing strategies, identifying a nutritional strategy that works well for you should also be of utmost importance. Although this may seem simple, most athletes don't take the time to monitor exactly what they consumed.

supplements.jpgPT: Can I get by just on feel when it comes to nutrition?

BS: More experienced athletes definitely can as you become better conditioned at recognizing the signs of caloric or hydration needs. The problem many beginner athletes and even some on the professional ranks have, is they haven't taken accurate notes whether a race goes good or bad. When this is neglected, athletes don't have a record of what they did and therefore, can't replicate what went well or discontinue what went poorly. With both the professionals and age groupers whom we work with on their nutritional strategies, prior to these 'B' events, we set an outline - literally down to the gram - of what that athlete should consume on race-day.

PT: I t sounds like a food log is critical to keep and maintain even during training, right?

BS: Yes, especially for those key training sessions. Our strategy is based on much trial-and-error in training, so on race day we're simply implementing a strategy which has proven effective in training. When race day comes, we aim to implement the plan as close as possible and then debrief after the event to keep what worked and discard what didn't. So by the time we get to the 'A' race, the nutritional component is a complete non-issue.

PT: Could I just copy Jordan Rapp's race nutrition plan, adjust it for my weight, and be done?

BS: The short answer is yes, if you have the identical calorie, electrolyte and hydration needs, you could follow his plan and it should work perfectly. The problem is, what's 'best' for Jordan, may or may not be the 'best' for you and in most cases, it's probably not. The fact is, the best nutritional product or strategy is what works for you. I once heard an interview with a sommelier and he was asked, how can you determine what is a good wine? His response, 'The one you think tastes good!' As athletes, we should be thinking along those same lines and aim to implement our own best plan and the best plan for you is simply what works for you!

PT: What "new" foods are worth trying in the early training season?

BS: With regards to specific 'new' products, there are always new flavors and improvements on existing products. Another trend we are seeing is more manufacturers offering products which are all-natural - not using any artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners. The benefit of this may be less from a specific race-benefit and more related to general health benefits for those athletes trying to limit artificial colors/flavors.

PT: Do you have any brand-name products like this to recommend?

BS: The most significant product in this category is the release of Powerbar's Ironman Perform which will be the on-course drink at all Ironman and 70.3 events -- where tens of thousands of us will be racing this season. You always want to practice your nutritional strategy prior to your big event of the year and getting familiar with the product that's going to be on-course is an important part of that. Given how widespread the Ironman and 70.3 events are, the likelihood that you'll be served a cup of the Perform is very good. I would say it's probably one of the products that should be on your 'must try list' if you'll be racing an event which will be serving it. It's also good to see the direction Powerbar has taken with this product. So far, the reviews from our athletes and customers have been good.

PT: What types of new foods or nutrition strategies are the pros experimenting with this year?

BS: When it comes down to it, the pros are no different than the age groupers in that they also want to experiment with anything that may give them a step up on their competition. So when it comes to something 'new', it may not necessarily be a product that's new to the market and may just be a new product or strategy for that athlete.
For example, an athlete may not have used caffeine in the past, but over the Winter did some experimenting with caffeinated products and had good results. Now that the new season is upon us, they may be taking a harder look at more caffeinated products (gels, drinks or capsules) which contain caffeine.

PT: Let's switch gears briefly and talk about training in general. Given the length of the professional season, what are the unique training periodization challenges that pros face?

BS: Regardless of whether we're working with professionals or athletes working 50-hour weeks, there's generally an upward trend in total training volume as key 'A' races approach. A full-time professional athlete does have the luxury of revolving their life around their training and not vice-versa and therefore the difference in total volume may be less dramatic than that of an age-grouper. Often these athletes will relocate to warmer locations through the winter months which will also allow them to continue with a moderate/high volume program, without being forced indoors. Those athletes staying indoors will generally restrict themselves to a lower volume program, if for no other reason than the large, high-volume training on the treadmill or trainer isn't always the most mentally stimulating.

PT: What lessons can age-groupers take away from pros who can focus on training full-time?

BS: To truly be in top form, the professional athlete you see on race-day is the culmination of week-after-week, month-after-month and year-after-year consistency. If there's a takeaway that age-groupers can learn from professionals, it's that triathlon is a sport which rewards consistency over time. We're often asked about 'the best' workouts and the truth is, there are no best workouts. There are no secret workouts. The secret is hard work over long periods of time pays big dividends!

PT: Does it make sense to really focus on one's limiter in the offseason? If the bike is my weak link, should I turn into a cyclist for a month early in the year?

BS: There are many different schools of thought on this, but I am a strong believer that the answer is a definitive YES!! The fact is to be a good triathlete, you don't need to be the best swimmer, cyclist or runner....but you do need to get pretty good at each of them if you expect to do well. You're not going to be a good runner in a triathlon, if you're not a good runner without the swim and bike attached to it. Given that most of us have commitments from training endlessly each week, it's important we make the most out of that training time and the off-season can serve as a great opportunity to really improve your weakness, without sacrificing fitness in the other two sports, once the season gets here. So if running is your weakness, get out there and run! Chris Solinski (American 10K Record Holder) had a fantastic quote: "You don't get better at running by doing everything but running. You get better by running!" All of us can take something from Chris, so if you want to get better at running in the off-season, don't spend your spare time getting good at tossing around a kettle bell, get out there and run!

About Brian Shea:
Brian Shea is President and Head Coach of Personal Best Nutrition, a company specializing in endurance sports consultation where athletes and active people can also purchase the highest quality endurance sports nutrition.

Author: Paul Tyler
Second story Photo by Jeff Sparling
Paul Tyler is founder of Triessential.com. Triessential offers an iPhone application that provides training tips and motivation every day throughout the entire year.