One of the topics I find myself talking about over and over again with athletes is nutrition. Nutrition is complicated. Most adults come to this sport with years of media-supplied information, emotions, experiences, psychology, habits, cultural influences related to their nutritional beliefs and behavior. There’s a lot of stuff out there and a lot of stuff behind why we eat the way we do. Nutrition gets even more complicated when you take on endurance sports. You cannot finish these events on willpower alone. You need calories.
For that reason, nutrition is really the first discipline of triathlon. Yes, it’s more important than even the swim, bike and run. Especially if you’re doing Ironman. You not only need a fuel plan for training and racing but for every day!
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about nutrition. But first, a disclaimer. I am not a nutritionist. There are no letters behind my name that say I am qualified to dispense advice on nutrition. I only know what I’ve read, what I’ve been told, what has worked for me, what has not worked for me and what I’ve seen in coaching athletes.
There are a lot of sources of information out there about nutrition. Before you make any changes based on them, consult with a sports nutritionist. This is something I’ve done every year since 2005. It’s highly affordable and one of the best investments you’ll make. Because like any athlete knows – you can hire the best coach, have the best equipment and do the best training. But if you get nutrition wrong – you’re not going anywhere.
My approach to nutrition is fairly simple. It includes a lot of good stuff but balances out with the not so good stuff. Why? Because I am a normal person with a husband, child, business and other obligations. While I understand the importance of food for performance, I cannot obsess about it. I don’t have time. I cannot be overly awkward or picky about it because it creates unnecessary stress, social tension when I go out and makes home life more complicated. Spend a day trying to feed yourself and your child 3-6x a day and you might just shove some macaroni and cheese into your mouth occasionally. Not because you like it but because you are busy and HUNGRY. To me, any “benefits” I might receive from being “perfect” with my nutrition are not worth what I mentioned above. Which brings me to a finer point about nutrition that people forget about:
You don’t need to be perfect every single day about your eating but the overall trend should be healthy.
That said, let’s start from scratch. Forget everything you know about eating. Change your mindset, attitudes and feelings about food. From here on out, you are an athlete. And food is your fuel. It is not meant to be restricted, manipulated or forgotten. You cannot run your car on milk or on closing your eyes and wishing hard enough, right? Same with your body. Food is fuel! Not only that but it’s used to enhance your recovery, performance and fitness. Without it, you will not recover. Without recovery, you will not gain fitness. Without fitness, you will not perform well.
There’s a lot of information out there on how to eat. No one has the time to filter through all of it. Over the years, I’ve read dozens of books on nutrition. Most are mind-boggling with formulas, numbers, too much information. Go back to the basics. Simple is doable. Here’s how to keep your daily nutrition easy:
-Eat well (eat wholesome, high quality, nutrient dense foods)
-Eat often (when you first wake up, every 3-4 hours, right before you go to bed)
-Eat real food (eat real food first, then go to other stuff if you still have room)
That’s how to eat. Now, what to eat? One of the most challenging things with nutrition is how to create “good” meals and snacks. Do we need carbs? Protein? What about all the numbers? Here’s one of the best pieces of advice that a nutritionist gave me that involves no calculations:
-Aim for three food groups per meal/snack with one always being a source of protein
-For example: source of wholesome grain + protein + fruit
-What’s a food group? Grains, fruits, meats/nuts, dairy, vegetables
More than just your daily fuel, food is also critical for recovery (and fitness, and performance, and…). The recovery window is the 30 minute period after a workout when your muscles are most susceptible to being repaired. No need to overcomplicate it with numbers or formulas – my general rule is within 30 minutes of finishing your workout – put something in your mouth. Don’t obsess about what it is – just eat well and rehydrate. Keep it simple and quick. Throw 1-2 scoops of Endurox in a water bottle in your gym bag, fill it up after swim practice – recovery in a bottle. Stop at the gas station on the way home from your run, grab a “chug” of chocolate milk.
What happens when you miss that 30 minute window? For the first few times it’s not a big deal. Your body gets by. But do it repeatedly and you go towards a place I call “the hole”. How do you get there? Nutritional under-recovery. Of course through long course training you will often flirt with the edge of the hole as over-reaching is sometimes part of the fitness gaining process. But overtraining is not. And as you get closer to the hole, you approach overtraining. Once you are in the hole, it takes an undetermined amount of time to get out. You just sit and wait until your body is ready.
The smart athlete knows to watch for the signs of approaching the hole. First, if you are hungry, that is your body’s way of saying EAT! You are not meeting your caloric needs. If your heart rate seems unusually high or low for the effort, you might be approaching the hole. If you have trouble sleeping – this is a huge red flag. Especially the 1 am wake up call, when you wake up and your brain is saying: danger – LOW ON GLYCOGEN, FEED ME! Insomnia is a huge stress response – and caloric deprivation (coupled with endurance training) is hugely stressful! Extreme thirst, headaches, and excessive weight gain after big workouts are also signs that you’re nutritionally not meeting your recovery needs.
This brings me to my next point: it is very difficult to mix weight loss with long course training. It is difficult to restrict calories and get the recovery carbohydrate you need to repair you body and stock up for tomorrow’s workouts. And this is also why we never want a nutritionally impaired workout – because if you underfuel before/during/after today’s workout, you are inevitably going to impair tomorrow’s workout. The load of training is generally so high with long course training that you cannot get behind with fueling – it’s all connected.
Sometimes, though, we all get it wrong. Every so often, I might ask an athlete to record what they’re eating for 3 days so we can check in with their diet. Sometimes this comes after I see a string of workouts where they’re feeling tired, crabby, low motivation or not hitting their usual paces. Most of the time, I find that athletes simply do not eat enough of the right foods at the right time. They’re eating – stuff – but it’s usually not enough and not when their body needs it most. And it is usually lacking in carbohydrate. If you are training 6+ hours a day, you are ripping through carbohydrate. You’ve got to replace this to recover well.
(interesting tidbit: did you know that the “Paleo” era women experienced diminished fertility because of their low carbohydrate diet and extensive endurance exercise? This is why I feel a low carbohydrate diet is not appropriate for endurance sports – our ultimate goal in this sport is longevity and hormonal health, remember)
From time to time, athletes tell me they have trouble with digestion. Especially women, especially training for long course triathlon. Remember, digestion is closely linked to hormones. Hormones take a long time to burn down. There are two major signs that you are burning your hormones down at a rate quicker than they can rebalance: depressed immune function (sinus infections, illness, inflammatory conditions) and impaired digestive function. Prolonged stress makes your gut more sensitive to bacteria and illness. This can cause problems with nutritional uptake which drains your energy and then causes more stress! While impaired digestion may be due a food sensitivity (ie., gluten, dairy), do not overlook the importance of better managing your stress levels, especially the stress of endurance training, to improve digestion.
Recently, I sent out a list of my daily eating pattern during half and full Ironman training. Not because it’s perfect, just because it’s one example of how to do it. Last year, I stayed injury free. I stayed healthy. I hit my race goals. I set PRs. To me, that’s proof that my way of eating worked for me. On a typical day, I eat 3 meals plus 1 to 2 snacks. I eat most everything with no restrictions. My diet includes grains, fats and all types of meat. I do a full fuel plan in every workout lasting over 60 minutes. I take in 1 to 2 scoops of Endurox after every training session. Honestly, this is how I eat throughout the year. The only thing that changes is what I eat in the recovery window. A bigger workout gets a bigger meal in the recovery window (and I count the window as the duration of the workout; so if you did a 6 hour ride, your recovery window is actually 6 hours where you should be focusing on replenishing calories, especially carbohydrate).
Like with training, a lot of athletes think there is some secret way to eating to be healthy and lean. If there is, I haven’t found it yet. When trying to drop weight after baby (because – huh – it didn’t just magically melt off like everyone said it would!), I realized that dieting is not fun. It involves restriction of fun things in life – desert, wine. While I include these things weekly in moderation, they are definitely not part of my every day. Same goes for eating out. It’s these little things that add up to keeping those final pounds above race weight on your frame. And that is why I try not to get too “picky” about what I’m eating until 4-6 weeks prior to my peak race. Until then, I give myself one ‘cheat’ day a week where I don’t think about what I eat. I’m off the leash.
As I get closer to a peak race (within 4-6 weeks), I take out the cheat day. At that point, every little thing matters. To me, it’s all part of the mindset of sacrifice. If you want something bad enough, you’ll do anything, give up anything for it. So when you arrive on race day, you can say to yourself, I did ____ for this – I’m not going to give up or back down. That’s how bad I want it.
Now, I can only sustain that for 4-6 weeks. You should arrive at race weight on race day – and ideally not too much sooner! If you do, you tend to teeter on that edge of hormonal imbalance. Remember, being lean is very stressful on the body. Staying at race weight too long is not only risky to my immune system and hormonal balance but also interferes with the other parts of my life. Turning down a wine tasting, skipping cake at a family gathering – this is fun stuff that should be part of life. I don’t want to be the “unfun” person all year ‘round. But for a few weeks each year, it is worth it (to me).
That covers daily nutrition. What about during training and racing?
There are basic guidelines for fueling for the bike and run in long course training and racing. There is a range of numbers that your coach (or nutritionist) should give you for each segment for calories, grams of carbohydrate, fluid consumption and sodium. Note that there is no exact number or magic formula. What works for you is based on these ranges but only confirmed through consistent practice in a variety of conditions and venues. Through practice, you can refine your plan. This requires having a plan for every workout lasting over 60 minutes and then keeping meticulous notes.
Get in the habit of writing down exactly what you’re doing before every workout or race. That way, you can revisit it when something goes awry. If you got tired at the 2 hour mark, you can go back to your notes, view exactly what you did for calories, fluid, carbohydrates and know that the number was simply not enough.
Your notes should contain the following:
What you will be using (product name, flavor)
When you will be using it (for example: @ :20, :50 into the ride)
How much you will be using(for example: ½ a bar, 1 gel)
For example, my fuel plan might look like this:
@ :20: 1 strawberry banana gel
@ :30: 2 Salt Stick salt tabs
@ 1:00: must be through 20 ounces of Accelerade made with 1.5 scoop per bottle
Get in the habit of knowing exactly what is in your products (calories, grams of carbohydrate, sodium) and even measure out your bottles. Leave nothing to chance. When it comes to long course racing, the best thing you can do is: control the controllables. There is so much we cannot control in long course racing/training, take charge of what you can control and eliminate some risk of things going wrong.
Through practice, your fuel plan should feel like clockwork. In fact, it will be one of the most reliable ways of passing time on the bike. If you like to keep your mind busy, break your fuel plan down into as many small segments as possible so you are keeping yourself engaged and alert, knowing you need to “do” something every 20 minutes (or whatever). If you have a hard time focusing, keep it simple: do something every 60 minutes.
Another critical piece of fueling properly during workouts and training is to know the distress signals of an improper fuel plan. I give my athletes a chart of over a dozen symptoms they might experience – from bloating, to headache – the possible reason why it’s occurring and how to fix it. Part of racing well is knowing how to “troubleshoot” your fuel plan. Knowledge is power (and speed) in endurance racing.
In conclusion, proper nutrition is free speed.
Athletes will spend thousands of dollars on wheels, helmets, fancy shoes, gadgets yet when it comes to something that all around will improve your speed with very little effort, they find themselves flailing. Implementing change and committing to it is not easy. But none of this is. If you want to perform at your best, stay healthy and look good – it requires some attention to what you’re eating before, during and after training. You don’t have to be perfect but if you want to be at your best, you do need to be good – most of the time. I find that the more I maintain the habit of good eating, the harder it is to break the pattern. I just feel “off” when I don’t eat right. This gives me more incentive to do it right. Above all, feeling good and staying healthy is what life is all about. Not to mention that it also helps with your athletic performance!
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Monday, April 16, 2012
Sunday afternoon, I was driving back from a fun photo shoot with 6 amazingly fit, beautiful and driven moms and our collective 9 children. Max was in his carseat, putting Goldfish crackers between each of his toes, shouting “NO” (I assume self-correcting) but then eating them (I assume unable to resist the awesome deliciousness of Goldfish crackers). I turned around briefly at a stoplight to notice he also had a mud beard.
No idea how that happened.
A few months ago, a local athlete and acquaintance contacted me about writing chapters for a book on being an athletic mom. I’m athletic. I’m also a mom. I love to write! How hard could this be? Writing for the book was more challenging than I thought it would be. I’ve got material. Believe you me, I’ve got volumes of stories and examples in my head. Finding time was the first challenge. Having the inspiration when I finally did find the time was the second challenge. Piecing together my thoughts coherently and in an entertaining way was the final challenge.
Thank goodness for an amazing editor!
Sunday we all met to take photos for the book. At the studio were 6 moms and our 9 children. Immediately I walked in to be greeted by the vivaciously bubbly Jennifer Harrison, just coming off of a whirlwind weekend of working with athletes and balancing it with taking care of her twins while her husband was traveling. Christine Palmquist was there, a woman whose passion for endurance sport has spilled over into her own two children and an entire children’s triathlon team. Carla Hastert was dressed as the “biker” in the group. Anytime I see Carla she always looks nothing short of incredibly fit. I think she used to do body building before triathlon! Lindsay Zucco is someone who I’ve known since I started triathlon. I used to run with a local track group and watched Lindsay running her 800s with the fast group, she was always quietly focused and had an amazing resume of races – one that she still adds to today. Lastly, Jenny Garrison, a perennial champion and new mom to her third child (whom she gave birth to 5 weeks ago). Nothing slows her down. She’ll be winning races by June. The only one missing was Deb, the woman who started this project! (I believe she was in Boston at the marathon).
The book will weave together our stories and experiences of being an athlete and a mom. I was flattered to be asked to contribute to this book. And, impressed that Deb had the motivation, resources and energy to put it all together! But she was right – it was time for there to be a book like this, written by real athletic women who are living it every day. Real women who are competing at the top of their category while raising kids, working and inspiring others to do the same in their community.
My goal in contributing is to help women answer a question I get all the time: how do you do it. When I had Max, I read a lot of mixed things about balancing parenthood and competitive racing. Everything from – you’ll never have time to even if you do have time you won’t want to be away from your kid to it will take years to get back into your racing shape or you’ll never find the same motivation. Encouragement was not easy to find! There just weren’t enough examples out there of competitively athletic women who did it – and did it well while balancing other life demands (work, other kids, etc). I kept reading or hearing about the obstacles, the barriers. But also knew that like many things in life, if this is what I wanted to do – it would take a lot of work, time management and sacrifice but all would be worth it.
All of the other moms involved are examples of how it can be done – whether with one kid, a stepfamily, twins or three kids (including a newborn!). Something I’ve learned in parenting is that you never have the time, you make the time for what’s important to you. And for us – it’s important to make time for athletics. One of my chapters talks about how I make time for workouts – balancing it with working, caring for Max and a husband who also trains. It takes a lot of planning and making the most of every minute in the day. And it’s always worth it, pursuit of your own passion is not selfishness, it is self fulfillment! You don’t have to give up who you are to be a parent. In fact, you’ll be a better parent if you keep on being yourself and giving yourself time to be yourself.
There’s no doubt that at the end of a busy day, I wonder: why do we do it? A lot of this is because we, as moms and athletes, realized what years of athletics have done for us. I never intended to be an athlete. One of my chapters in the book starts with how I became an athlete – and it was really rather accidental. I showed up at the meeting to be on the track team because I wanted to wear a high school sports jacket. What started as a teenage need to belong snowballed into me becoming an athlete. On the track team I was working hard, making friends, setting goals, learning to win, learning to lose, improving myself, developing great fitness and at some point – falling in love with that process. A process that taught me so many things that spill over into all areas of my life.
I’m proud of who I am today – and part of who I am is an athlete. There are a lot of identities I could have taken in life and I realize this one is not the most popular, the most easy nor does it always smell great (as my husband often tells me). But from what I have learned, the people I’ve met and the things I have gained, I wouldn’t have chosen any other path. I know that sticking with this path is hard especially now that we have a family. And the bigger we grow our family, the harder it will get! There are days it would be easier to settle into a quiet life with no workouts, no coaching and never having to wear black spandex again. Yet being an athlete has taught me so many valuable life lessons and rewarded me with so many wonderful experiences and memories. Not to mention a husband, and son and many, many friends. I couldn’t imagine myself as anyone else.
I’m not sure when the book will be available but once it is, whether it sells one copy or a thousand, I’m hoping a woman somewhere will read it and think to herself - I can do this. There are too many people out there too willing to give you all the reasons why you can’t. This book is a collection of how you can.
(Not a professional photo - we weren't allowed to have cameras in the studio - but an awesome photo nonetheless of the moms. PS - yes, I am wearing a skort)
Hope you enjoy it when it comes out!
Sunday, April 08, 2012
You know you’ve become the domesticated version of yourself when you send an email to your husband with the contents of a revenge plot on your neighbors.
We’ve been living in our new home for over 2 months now. Since then I’ve learned a lot of lessons. For one thing, I am about as good as picking out paint colors as I am at swimming backstroke. Is it possible to go backwards when swimming backstroke? Is it possible to go backwards even while pulling on the lane line? After painting one of the bathrooms and excitedly telling Chris I was ready to paint another one, he said:
Liz, stick to what you're good at.
That explains how I found time to write today.
If you ever find yourself looking to paint your house, do yourself a favor: hire a professional. Picking out paint and interior designing by yourself is kind of like coaching yourself. You probably have the basic skills but you also risk turning the room (or yourself) into a train wreck of paint splatters and messy brush strokes. Right now we have half dozen different shades of red in our dining room, a few more shades of green in a bathroom and the master bath is 3 shades of gray. Luckily, I had a come to Jesus moment with myself where I said really, Liz, this painting things yourself is not working out, you’re having some of your worst all time performances with a paintbrush here. The next day, I hired a professional painter.
Back to the revenge. It was Wednesday, around 2 pm, when my quiet neighborhood broke out in a rage of 3 men all using a gas powered blower simultaneously. As I watched them, angry, out the window while Max abruptly woke from his afternoon nap (a nap which – at times – can last up to 4 hours if it is quiet enough), I had to restrain myself from going over there and requesting they come after 3 pm.
So I sent Chris an email: I’m moving the lawn at 6 am on Saturday.
I’ll have gas in the mower.
But the joke was on me. Better yet, the joke was watching me mow the lawn. Next time I buy a house, remind me not to buy one that sits on a hill. I just did one of the hardest workouts of the week. Chris, watching from a window, even noticed me using my “this is really hard work face”, a face I usually reserve for 40K intervals or 5Ks. I gave up with one yard to go (we have 4 yards – it’s complicated). Chris took over. He came downstairs dressed in his “man work” outfit. Every husband has an outfit like this. The one outfit that if seen in public, you would disavow your marriage and claim you’ve never seen him before.
Let me paint the picture (on second thought, given my lack of painting skills, let me just write it out before someone ends up with paint in their hair): Chris’ man outfit is a forest green t-shirt accompanied by army green cargo pants. I’ll let that catastrophe of color slide. What I cannot ignore is what the shirt says. In white velvety cursive letters, the front of the shirt reads:
Will Bark On First Date
I won’t tell you what the shirt originally said. One can only watch her grown adult husband wear a shirt with the word F*CK on it so many times before she takes a black Sharpie and writes BARK right over it. And, yes, all this while he was actually wearing the shirt. Where he got the shirt? No idea. This was one of about a half dozen shirts that magically appeared in his drawer before Ragbrai.
And this is why wives don’t belong on Ragbrai. No wife should be forced to be seen in public with her husband wearing a shirt like that.
I really enjoyed watching Chris do yardwork while wearing that shirt and flower-patterned gardening gloves. This is the domesticated version of my husband. The one that can be seen pulling a wagon with Max and Boss up and down the street. The one who tries to seamlessly weave working outside the home, being dad and training for triathlons. He does his best to make sure he never lets a workout get in the way of spending time with Max – which is why I barely see him. There’s no way I’m getting up before 5 am unless we’re going to a race.
The other day, Chris was doing a recovery spin and had put the ever so patient Boss and Max into the Burley together. He also gave Max a cup of Cheerios and a water bottle. A few miles later, he says he heard a ruckus. Note that in parenting, a ruckus often precedes that moment where your child says “UH OH” which usually means something very bad just happened. Chris stopped, turned around and in the Burley sees a mess of Cheerios stuck to the plastic covering and a soaking wet Boss. We’re still in the throwing things phase. Which I’m convinced they never grow out of. Along with the dumping the dog’s water bowl phase. It’s been 21 months and you’d think that it would be getting old by now!?
Chris had another shining moment of domestication last week. In the coin toss of who would get to watch Max now, Chris flipped tails which meant he got to take Max into the bathroom with him while he showered. Depending on Max’s mood, this can be an easy or bad – VERY BAD – thing. There have been times I’ve had to jump out of the shower, pick something up off the floor only to hear a giggling Max behind me playing a game I call Fluffy Pillows. That’s where he hits my ass cheeks and laughs his own ass off. By the way, this does amazing things for my self-esteem.
Anyhow, I’m in my office, working, when I hear Chris upstairs, from the shower shout NO!
I should add that this was preceded by a: ruckus.
No sooner do I get upstairs than a very naked and wet Max runs out of the bathroom. Inside the bathroom, I see an equally as naked Chris picking up what had to be 1000 dental picks off the bathroom floor.
Why are you both naked and why are there dental picks all over the floor?
Chris explains how Max took Mr. Potato Head deep sea diving in the toilet. And then poured the toilet water all over his head. Which is how he got wet, and then naked and…
The dental picks?
No idea how that happened.
The other night, Max woke up at 12:45 am. It occurred to me that at one point in my life, 12:45 am might be a time you still found me out doing things. These days, it’s the middle of the night. When everyone should be sleeping.
But not this night.
I was awoken to the sound of Max moaning and jingling a stuffed monkey that has a rattle inside of it. The only way I could describe these two sounds together, in the darkness of night, is what you might expect to hear if you were near a medieval prison cell. Max never wakes up in the middle of the night. He’s just not that kid. THANK GOD. Because getting up in the middle of the night – I’m just not that type of parent. But he was up which meant something was wrong. I got him, changed him and then he pointed at his closet. That’s where we keep his books. He was having a MUST HAVE LITERACY NOW crisis, chose two books and that’s how I found myself reading I Love Puppies at 1 am.
How can any parent refuse that?
The other day I finally took Max out for a Burley ride. I’ve never pulled the cart, only watched Chris pull it. He makes it look easy except for last week when we did a family recovery spin up to Whole Foods, heading into a stiff east wind, I look behind me to see Chris and the Burley trying to draft off me. And finally – after years of waiting for this moment – I was able to say to my husband:
Get off my freakin’ wheel.
Now it was my turn to pull the Burley. What Chris makes look so easy was actually like riding a big gear interval for 30 minutes. At 8 mph. At the end of the 30 minutes, we had covered a whopping 5.1 miles and my legs felt trashed. To make it worse, at some point during the ride Max had thrown up on himself. I’m not taking that as an indicator of how good I was at steering the Burley, instead just glad the dog wasn’t covered in it too.
Right now it’s Sunday morning. Max is running around the house with 3 pacifiers (he likes choices) shouting “n-yung n-yung” and we’re not sure what it means. He says it repeatedly. Part of me thinks it’s him saying “I want”, the other part thinks it him going back to his Chinese roots and speaking the language of his people.
A meltdown is beginning and since it’s Sunday – I’m off the clock. Chris takes over all parenting from Friday at 5 pm through Sunday at 6 pm. I sit back and think to myself – how good does that quiet cubicle sound now, eh? Max is stomping around the kitchen, crying, shouting N-YUNG N-YUNG when a frustrated Chris finally said “do you want to take a nap?”
Max says “no”.
Chris says “how do you know?”
You say shit like this to your kid, as if it matters, almost like your subsconcious which you can normally filter gets broadcasted loud and clear during your frustrating moments with children. The crying was building so I went in for the rescue and asked Max what he wanted. He pointed to a kitchen cabinet. Turns out he absolutely had to have the CuisinArt (and yes, I took the blade out of it!)
There are times I wonder if we are doing everything right in parenting – are we meeting his needs? Is he developing appropriately? Does he feel loved, safe and engaged in his world? That one time we forgot to change his diaper all day from 9 am to 6 pm – will that traumatize him for the rest of his life? Does he have enough language? Are we saying the right things and when we say the wrong things – will he remember them?
But then there are mornings where I sit at the stoplight of Columbia and Ogden, and with no prompting at all, he says “ca-ca” as he sees the Caribou off in the distance.
Ca-ca means coffee.
Which assures me that I’m doing the important things right.