Let’s face it: it hasn’t exactly been a “normal” season of racing this year and for most athletes, the summer has brought either huge mileage on the bike or less training with changes in routine due to lockdown. As triathletes, we are pretty resilient creatures and crave routine, numbers and a challenge! So without fixtures in calendars this year many athletes have tried to hold onto some end of season races and duathlons.
But as any good coach worth his/ her salt will know; an offseason/some downtime/time out is required. We simply can not keep on training at the same intensity and being “race ready” 365 days a year. It has been frustrating for many athletes who have got “race ready” a number of times this year only to sit on their turbo at home or dream of the race that could have been.
So as training starts to taper down and your schedule starts to enter a new mesocycle or period so too should thinking around nutrition.
This has a number of answers all of which are individual to the athlete. Firstly we need to think what the goal is during this time? what the focus? what work is required with regards to body composition or weight?
I am a firm believer in structured and guided strength and conditioning for athletes all year round but for some athletes, the winter or offseason is a time to try out some cross-training or hit the gym. If this is the case and we are looking at building muscle the timing of nutrients around the session is important whilst the amount of protein in recovery may possibly vary depending on the load lifted. As a general rule meeting, 0.25g/kg of body weight at each meal or a dose of about 20-40g protein is sufficient to meet needs for muscle protein synthesis (or making muscle) and maintaining muscle mass.
It is interesting to note that the higher end of the range; 40g protein, may be required for older athletes (1). That said we also need to ensure that we include high quality, rapidly digestible proteins with 3g of leucine for muscle protein synthesis. An example of which is whey in dairy which is a fantastic high-quality protein or eggs as a great inexpensive protein source. The total protein dose should also be spread across the day.
Most important is that an athlete starts to learn about their own hunger and appetite.
Once we realign with our bodies and minds and take a step back to review the season; we also have time to listen and learn about our appetite again. In fact, you may find with lower volume and hours out on the bike, running or with a reduction in intensity on the turbo or at the track that our appetite starts to increase. Or maybe we can notice once again. More so we actually start to feel hunger which can be knocked and suppressed during longer or intense sessions.
This entirely depends on what an individual’s goals are for the season. If you are looking at managing appetite then thinking about reducing the number and type of snacks you have in the day would ultimately decrease total energy intake and most likely the total amount of carbohydrate too.
Naturally without planning for most athletes who succeed at managing appetite will listen to their hunger and so not feel the need for the snacks that they may have had pre-session for example.
Some nutrients such as protein and fat have more of a satiating effect which can help us to feel fuller for longer. That said we can not simply, and I am not suggesting that one simply takes out a jar of peanut butter with a spoon in an attempt to kerb appetite as fat also has 9kcal/ 1g so it is very energy-dense. The key here is not to simply add extra fat and protein thinking that this will somehow magically cause weight loss or a reduction in energy intake; we need to first learn about our hunger. Athletes also sometimes forget that whilst adding protein and fats into the diet can help reduce hunger if we are also trying to reduce energy intake we need to consider the ratio to other nutrients such as carbohydrates.
It is worth noting that we can periodise carbohydrate depending on the amount of training and what the goals of the athlete are.
Think of this as a constant moving range; so as training load decreases we would also decrease the dose per kg of body weight. For example with a shift toward more low-intensity exercise, an athlete could aim for 3-5g carbohydrates per Kg of body weight or up to 5g/ kg of body weight for a day with about 1hr of moderate training.
In comparison, we would expect an athlete to meet their energy needs when in heavy training of 4-5hr per day looking at 8-12g per kg of body weight! So here lies the beginning of learning to periodise carbohydrates around training needs and an individual athletes’ goals (2).
With a reduction in training, load athletes need to mitigate as much as possible the effects of reduced energy expenditure and the subsequent effects on body composition.
By tweaking the energy density of the diet and being mindful of managing appetite by perhaps increasing the ratio of pro and fats to carbohydrates this may help to kerb hunger and reduce energy intake. Remember we are not expecting an athlete to be race-ready all year round, and we should sit with the feeling of the offseason being a time for our bodies to restock and restore ready for the new season ahead.
Again …. it depends on what an athlete’s goals are! For example, some natural ectomorphs or athletes who typically look like marathon runners who are long lean and linear may have struggled throughout the season to maintain weight; for some putting their health at risk.
For other athletes it may have been quite a battle to get race ready and manipulate their body composition; so the winter season often leaves them feeling anxious about weight gain. I repeat we can not simply remain race-ready all year round and this includes our body composition, a part of which is the metric of body weight itself.
Body composition measurements show us the amount of lean or muscle mass, bone and fat mass. Measuring lean and fat mass throughout the season is another metric we can use to track changes with our training. We would expect that body composition may change when we decrease the load of training and as a general, we would try to limit the amount of weight change between race season and off-season between 2-3kg. Keeping a weight range allows for natural day to day weight variation when weighing, psychologically is less stressful reducing a focus purely on a set weight whilst also making for an easier adjustment back into training and a refocus on body composition as a new training cycle begins.
I would strongly recommend against big shifts in the weight range between on- and off-season; a yo-yo diet effect and with this would question if appetite and energy needs are being met within both of these training cycles adequately for health, performance and body composition.
It must also be noted that for some athletes the offseason and allowing for some weight gain may yield positive results in terms of hormonal health for example. It should be noted that no athlete should be maintaining a weight or energy intake that is insufficient to support hormonal health such as adequate testosterone or oestrogen levels for one example.
So this time can be really beneficial to address these imbalances for athletes; concentrating on getting the body fit, ready and strong ready for the new season ahead whilst helping to prevent low energy availability and risks of injury in the future. It is a perfect time to reevaluate how to better plan for the season and prevent under-fueling.
So don’t go trying to keep race-ready for 365 days a year; instead use this time to learn about your appetite, manage your hunger and get ready for the season ahead so that your body is restored and regenerated. The offseason should leave you chomping at the bit to get back into training and to have a body ready to do so!
1.Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
2. DT Thomas, KA Erdman, LM Burke . Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Volume 116, Issue 3, March 2016, Pages 501-528