Thinking of Joining USA Triathlon?

Be a part of our 550,000 member community of multisport athletes. Membership benefits include a subscription to the quarterly USA Triathlon magazine, discounts from USA Triathlon partners, inclusion in the national rankings, excess accident insurance at events, and savings at races. To see why you should join or renew today, visit the membership benefits page. Already a member? Login below.

Forgot Password  |  Forgot Member ID  |  Help Renew Membership Become a Member

Find Balance and Burn Fat, Not Sugar

By Joanna K Chodorowska

balanceAs athletes, we want to be leaner come race day but the challenge is trying to get the body into that fat-burning mode, and not only when we are racing. Consider this: if we have our bodies in a fat-burning mode all the time, we won’t have to consume as many calories while racing.

When I work with my athletes, many of them are consuming more carbohydrates in their meals than necessary. From the food diary logs I see, they are fueling on high grain meals with very little protein or green vegetables and rarely do they eat root vegetables or legumes. Sometimes athletes think because they are training, they can eat whatever they want. In reality, what you eat every day may be creating a fat-storing machine instead of a fat-burning one. By changing your food intake, the balance of nutrients and usually the timing of the meals, the body can change to a fat-burning mode.

For most, eating healthy is what we strive for. Many of my clients come in with some healthy meals as part of their nutrition plan, but the meals are not balanced. The meals do not have the right combination of high-quality proteins, high-quality carbohydrates, fats or green vegetables. For each person, this combination is going to be a bit different — some will include animal proteins, others will not; some will include some grains, others only root vegetables. But most meals need a bit of each of those components in it to keep the blood sugars balanced throughout the day. Mismanage that blood sugar (like eating a bagel with cream cheese which is basically all carbohydrates/sugars), and your body will not only store fat from the extra calories it cannot use now, but you spike the blood sugar and will be really hungry two hours later when that blood sugar drops drastically.

If you change the bagel to a whole wheat option, it’s a bit better. Eat only half, but add some turkey and cucumber slices or handful of spinach and we have a different story. Your blood sugar will be balanced and you likely won’t over eat, and you’ll be satisfied for longer periods between meals. You don’t need to eliminate the carbs, but change the kinds of carbs and limit the quantity in each meal.

Another example of an unbalanced meal is a great big salad with lots of vegetables and some grilled chicken on it. This is a fabulous healthy meal, but it is not balanced. It is missing a carbohydrate —an unrefined carbohydrate — which can help keep you from feeling hungry. Add half a sweet potato or ½ cup of brown rice, quinoa or chickpeas to balance the meal and make it more complete. Once you have this balance, you may find that you will consume less calories per hour when you are training, and you will consume less during each meal, too. Your body will start using your own fat stores for energy rather than blowing thru the glycogen stores and increasing your needs for more sugar.

I had two clients last year who were both training for their first Iron-distance event. One changed his diet and lost 27 pounds. He toed the line at 160 pounds, 6 feet and consumed about 175-225 calories per hour during the event on average. The other was a female who just came in for race-day nutrition. She had been training on 400+ calories per hour — mostly sugars! — and her diet was high on carbs, low on balanced meals. I suggested she lower the calories per hour to 250 calories, but because her diet was not optimally balanced, she needed to consume more carbohydrates and calories during her event. She also suffered the GI distress.

This is a down side to consuming high sugars and too many calories per hour. But if you train your body to use sugar, you have to consume sugar. If you train it to burn fat, when you train and race, you will not need as many calories to continue at a higher output. The body will naturally need less sugar as it is using its own stores of fats for energy. This is what we want.

It may be a good idea to review your nutrition plan and balance your meals so that come race day your body will use fat for fuel, not refined carbohydrates and sugars. With a little extra balance, you may be surprised at how you feel and how you recover. You may also be surprised at how much better you perform on fewer calories! You can be lean by race day with a little balance in your meals.

Joanna Chodorowska is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and founder of Nutrition in Motion – a sports nutrition coaching company specializing in helping athletes reach their potential by changing what they eat. She offers race day nutrition sessions to help athletes develop the right nutrition plan for their everyday, pre-race and race day meals. You can find her at and on Facebook.