Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How to cycle carb intake to improve performance

Over the past couple years I've slowly adapted my body to become more efficient at burning fat as a primary fuel source. This has meant that carbohydrates have become a smaller and smaller part of my overall diet. But, that's not to say there isn't a time and place for strategic carb intake, especially to improve performance. So instead of relying on carbohydrates as my body's primary fuel source on a daily basis, I cycle carbohydrate intake around certain times of the day and certain times of the week depending on when I really need them.

Here are the three basic rules I follow:

Limit overall carbohydrate intake on easy days.
Monday is generally a recovery day for me with some foam rolling in the AM, some more in the PM, and usually a 30 minute yoga session in the evening. Because this is my least active day of the week, carbohydrate intake is also at its lowest. As a general rule of thumb, the more aerobic the workouts, the greater proportion of my daily calories come from fat and protein.

Plan carbohydrate intake around hard workouts, especially fasted workouts.
Hard sessions, particularly hard and longer sessions, when I'm really tapping into glycogen as a fuel source, recovery is key. This is especially the case if I'm planning another session that day or even the next day. There's been a bit of research looking at the optimal timing and ratio of macro-nutrient intake post-exercise, and many researchers and trainers will say a carbohydrate to protein ratio of about 3:1 consumed anywhere between 20 minutes to 60 minutes post-workout. I don't measure anything out, count calories, or really track much, but after a long-hard session I'll make I'm eating a good balance of fat, carbs, and protein from all quality whole food sources. Post-exercise nutrition is a lot more important for fasted workouts since almost all of the research to date has been on subjects in a fasted state.

Gradually increase carbohydrate over the course of the week leading up to a race.
The week of a race is when I most often step up the carbohydrate intake -- gradually. As mentioned in the first point, I'll start the week relatively low-carb. Then, as the week progresses, I'll slightly increase carbohydrate intake, usually starting around Wednesday. These usually aren't huge changes: adding a banana to my lunch, a small sweet potato to dinner, or a handful of oats for breakfast. The biggest benefit to this approach is if you're anticipating tapping into a fair bit of glycogen as a fuel source during the race (for example with a shorter olympic distance triathlon, which is at a much higher intensity). In training your body was so used to running on a small amount of carbohydrates that when there's a larger than "normal" influx, there's almost a sensation of increased energy at higher intensities (similar to something like an athlete training at altitude and coming back to sea-level but certainly a lot less pronounced).

Now, what kinds of carbohydrates do I tend to use? Here's a list of a few of my favorites:

1. Sweet potatoes - packed with anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants, these have quickly become my go-to for pre-race carbohydrates. Add some grass-fed butter and quality sea salt and you're good to go!

2. Quinoa - actually a seed rather than a grain, quinoa is really growing in popularity in health and nutrition circles. Why? In addition to it being a fairly slow release carbohydrate, it contains 14-15 gram of protein per 100 grams and has all nine essential amino acids. (The 20 amino acids are the building blocks of protein and essential amino acids are those that cannot be made naturally by your body.) The major issue before eating, however, is to make sure they are soaked and sprouted to remove the harmful saponins.

3. Nuts - these are one of my daily staples and I will usually have a handful with lunch, especially walnuts, almonds, cashews, or Brazil nuts. Though a great carbohydrate, protein, and fat source, a word of caution to not consume too many, since nuts do also contain decent amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids along with the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

4. Squash - this is an absolute go-to during the fall and winter when squash is in-season. For those who stay away from gluten, like myself, spaghetti squash is a fantastic substitute.

5. Bananas - an endurance athlete's best friend. A single banana can really go a long way for pre- and post-workout fueling. It's simple and easily digested. For longer workouts on the weekend, I might have half before and half afterwards. You really don't need much.

So, give these strategies a try and let me know what you think.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My most complete triathlon performance so far

It was finally here. My first opportunity to compete at the Age Group National Championships and it was finally here. I wouldn’t say I was nervous, just pure excitement.

My wife and I spent the week leading up to the race visiting her parents in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. The change of scenery and the opportunity to relax was entirely refreshing. I felt rested. None of those 6am pool sessions; instead I slept an extra hour or two and then did a morning workout. A couple days I even pushed sessions to the afternoon, which I rarely do just because I’m a morning person and like to get them out of the way when I’m feeling energized.

I was coming off a great block of training and the week leading up to the race was simply about staying fresh. I even incorporated a bit more yoga into my routine that week, thanks in part to my mother-in-law who’s a big yogi.

We arrived in Milwaulkee, checked into our hotel (which, was a pretty sweet deal thanks to my father-in-law), and then headed down to the lakefront where the expo and bike check-in were. I wanted to leave plenty of time so I could have the on-site bike mechanics take a look at my bike (of course, I was still having some small issues with the gearing).

The atmosphere was buzzing. People were out and about. Some athletes were doing some course recon and riding their bikes along the run course.

To kill some time while waiting for my bike, and since we didn't really have a huge lunch, my wife and I went to one of the lakefront restaurants to get some food (and enjoy the beautiful afternoon on the lake).
I tried to enjoy the moment, but (and my wife will 100% attest to this) I was a little nervous about my bike. The only reason I was still in this mess with having to continuously adjust my gearing is because the local shop I took it to a few weeks back did a pretty poor job and I had the issue with my front derailleur at the NJ Triathlon
I got my bike back - it felt great. The gearing was crisp and smooth. After a quick test ride to run through the gears, I went to transition to rack my bike.


I slept well that night, mostly because my wake up time was same similar to any other day: 5:40am. It felt familiar, like my normal routine. Everything was already packed, so just had to grab and go. Off to the most important stop of the morning...breakfast.

I tried something new that morning for nutrition, which, in retrospect actually worked extremely well. I ordered a small cup of plain oatmeal, which I then added cinnamon, half a banana, a handful of almonds that I brought, and some coconut oil. I also got a double shot of espresso, to which I also added a tablespoon of coconut oil. (Yes, you heard correctly, coconut oil in coffee. More on this in a future post.)

Though the excitement was building as I made my way the few blocks from the hotel to transition, I felt really calm. When I got there, I slowly went through my bike checks: making sure I was in the right gear; checking the breaks; checking tire pressure; clipping in my shoes; and attaching my nutrition.

Ok, everything was set. Grabbed my swim cap and goggles, and then it was the waiting game.

My age group's swim wave wasn't scheduled to go off until around 9am, which actually ended up being a bit later because of some delays at the start. Before I met up with my wife to wait for the next 90 minutes (transition closed at 7:30am), I took some time by myself, sitting in the grass, and just reflecting on my journey over the past couple years. I went through some deep breathing exercises to relax. I felt a huge sense of gratitude. This was only my second full year of competing in triathlons (after about five exclusively running marathons) and here I was with the best in my age group in the country, all vying for a handful of spots to represent Team USA at next year's World Championships in Canada.

Though it was an in-water start, each age group had about 4-5 minutes to warm-up in the water. It was definitely nice having a few minutes to acclimate to the water temperature, which was in the high 60's.


And in the excitement of the moment, I hit the wrong button on my water, which I realized just after starting to swim. Keep going or take a quick moment to start my watch? I chose the first. There were too many bodies and arms flailing to stop.

During the initial chaos of the first 300 meters, I took a pretty hard kick to my chest - enough to knock a little wind out of me. I took a few seconds to swim breaststroke and regain some composure. Except, I felt more anxiety now that I had people basically swimming over me because I was going a little slower. Alright, back to it.

I settled into a nice rhythm after finding some clear water and drafting a few times off some nearby athletes. I exited the water feeling really fresh, like I wanted to keep going (which is a pretty rare feeling since I consider the swim my weakest discipline). I knew I had a pretty good swim since I passed a bunch of people from age groups who started before me, but I had no idea how good since I never started my watch.

Quick transition, and on to the bike.

I changed things up a little with my nutrition since I ran out of UCAN Superstarch, which I've been using for about a year now and really liking it. Instead, I used GU Roctane (main difference with regular GU is that Roctane has amino acids): one every 30 minutes, so essentially one at the beginning of the bike (with about 4-5 oz of water), one halfway through, and one just before the end of the bike leg.

The bike course was fairly straightforward, basically a double out-and-back. The first out-and-back along the lake was smooth and fast. It took a few minutes for the burn in my legs to subside, but I felt like I was pushing a good pace. Coming back past transition I heard a few shouts of encouragement from my wife and her parents (thanks so much for your support!) and then towards one of the few "hills" of the bike course, which was actually a big bridge.

The second half of the bike course wasn't very technically challenging, but riding on the interstate and a few of the local roads made for a slightly bumpy ride, constantly riding over the cracks in the road from where the concrete slabs butt up against each other. A few tight turns at the end of the course, and I came up to the bike dismount line, which came up a lot quicker than I thought. I misjudged how close I was and only had time to slip one foot out of my bike shoes. So ,I had to quickly slip the other out after I came to a stop before the dismount line.

Coming out of T1 I felt energized. My legs felt pretty fresh, not the typical heaviness transitioning from bike to run. The run course was beautiful (and dead flat - the biggest elevation change was going from the roadway to the sidewalk), along the lake the entire way. I settled into a good rhythm, focused on breathing and cadence. I didn't want to go out too hard and almost blow up like I did in NJ.

Looking back, I held back too much. I still had a pretty solid run - a 6:30 pace - but, after crossing the finish line, I still had way too much in the tank. A was passed a few times on the run, and my instinct was to try and stay with a few of them. After a few short bursts to try and keep pace, I slowed slightly to settle back in. I should've went. The worst feeling in the world is passing the finish line and wondering what could've happened if you really laid it all out there.

But, as someone who is still relatively new to the sport, these are all things you learn from and incorporate into your preparation from the next race.

Crossing the finish line was a real thrill, not just because I had my best all-around race, but because I received my finisher's medal from non-other than the legedary Chrissie Wellington, four-time Ironman World Champion (three of those consecutive), and undefeated in all of her 13 full Ironman starts. She was there to give the keynote at the Athlete's award dinner two nights before, and was down at the finish line, welcoming in athletes. What a thrill!

I finished in the middle of my pack for my age group, but I cut about 3 minutes off my time from Philadelphia earlier this year. I was where I wanted to be on the swim (25 minutes) and bike (1 hour 7 minutes), but came up a little short of my 6 minute goal pace on the run. My bike split was a PR too!


Putting the race into perspective, it was my most balanced race to date. Sure, I still have improvements to make in all three disciplines, but I no longer feel like I'm chasing the field on the run. It was also a fantastic learning experience. My first time at an event like this, with an extremely competitive field, I now have a better understanding of what it takes to be competitive. Most importantly, I know what I need to work on for next year. I spent so much time improving my swim and my bike this year, that I think I took my run for granted too much. So, as much as creating balance has been important, it's just as important to remember your strengths, and exploiting them as much as you can.

Thanks Milwaulkee for a great race! I'll see you at next year's National Championships!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stuck in a training rut? Change things up

The body is great at adapting.

Take thermoregulation for example and how it feels during those first couple weeks of summer. The first couple days are the worst, especially since Washington, DC can have some killer heat and humidity. After a short walk to the Metro for work in the morning I have beads of sweat running down my face. Ditto for the commute home. I get inside the apartment building after a 10 minute walk and I feel like I can ring out my shirt.

But, then what happens? After a couple weeks, the body adapts. It becomes more efficient at cooling. Thankfully, I'm a bit less sweaty after that walk to the Metro. Same thing happens in the winter time only in reverse.

These same concepts can be applied to training, whether running, cycling, swimming, weight lifting, or whatever it is. After a couple weeks of doing similar workouts, your body begins to adapt to the point where you don't experience the same degree of training effect you once did.

This is essentially where the concept of periodization comes from. The basic concept is that you only go a few weeks doing similar training protocols before changing things up.

Ok, that's fairly straightforward, but what about the broader picture?

I'm certainly a creature of habit. I love my routine and sticking to it. At times though it's more a mental crutch than a helpful aid.

Just after the NJ State Triathlon - where I didn't perform the way I wanted to - I felt it was time to change things up. For a few months I was more or less following a similar training skeleton - swim five times a week in the AM; alternate bike and run days in the PM during the week; do longer bike and run workouts on the weekends (possibly with a brick or two); and use Monday as a recovery day, usually with a little yoga.

Well, I threw that out. After taking a solid three days of rest after NJ, it was time for something new. I not only changed things up with training structure, I made a few modifications with my diet as well (more on that in a future post).

And the small changes combined with a little bit of rest has been extremely refreshing. Some of my best sessions have come in the past week, simply after throwing my body a little something different. The biggest refresher has been mental. Where I live in Washington, DC there is only a handful of places to train. Riding the same old routes and running the same roads can be comforting (especially for me since I thrive off of routine), but can easily lead to training plateaus.

A week ago I rode about 50 miles with a couple buddies and I felt like I could easily do another 50 or 100 by the end. The riding was a great combination of flats and hill repeats, but just riding something different was good enough. Then, a few days later I was down in Roanoke, Virginia and a buddy and I did some cycling along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few thousand feet of climbing was certainly challenging, but the combination of the new environment, the peacefulness, and the different training terrain had me feeling great. Looking back on it, those were some of the best, most enjoyable rides I've done in a while. And the most important thing, afterwards, my mind was refreshed, my legs felt strong, and I felt inspired.

Just the way I want to be feeling heading into another race...