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Metabolic Inefficiencies

By Bob Seebohar

With the offseason just around the corner, I thought it would be important to discuss how you can improve your performance next year without training. Yes, you heard correctly – no swim, bike or run training to improve your performance! I know it may seem a bit early to be thinking of this since you are transitioning into the relaxation, rejuvenation and recovery part of your year, but with a few simple nutrition paradigm shifts, you can use this time of the year to elevate your performance before you even begin your next base training cycle. Metabolic efficiency is the name of the game for the offseason.

The offseason has quite an interesting reputation: plagued with expanding waistlines and hips, tighter fitting clothes, and more stress due to the holidays. It's a classic love/hate scenario: you can't wait for the offseason to get here so you can justify taking a much needed rest from training, but at the same time, you realize that you will undergo not so favorable body composition and weight changes. It's no secret. Food becomes the centerpiece of social gatherings and your daily eating program becomes disrupted because of travel and parties.  Throw into the mix that your training is practically non-existent compared to your race season volume and you have a recipe for weight and fat gain.

The focus of this article is changing your paradigm of thinking about nutrition so you can teach your body to use the right nutrients at the right times in preparation for next year when you ramp up your training again. It is about adopting some very simple nutrition concepts and most importantly, implementing them. Execution is paramount. The best plan in the world will not be any good if it is not followed.

I am not proposing a complete nutrition makeover. I believe that the more complex you make something, especially nutrition, the less likely you will follow it. If it's simple, it's sustainable.

What Is Metabolic Efficiency?

Efficiency is a term that is typically associated with sport. From a nutrition perspective, being metabolically efficient simply means being able to use the proper nutrients at the right times.

It is likely that you have heard of this scenario before as it applies to exercise: as you increase your intensity, your body prefers to use more carbohydrate and less fat for fuel. The physiological term for this is the crossover concept. With training you can manipulate this to essentially burn more fat during exercise, but this article isn't about what we already know. It's about the relatively unknown effect of your daily intake of macronutrients and their impact on fuel utilization and metabolic efficiency. 

Why Be More Metabolically Efficient?

I've been working with endurance athletes for many years and whenever I ask athletes about their goals for the short and long-term, I typically get the same two responses: lose weight/decrease body fat and get faster. I'll address mostly the first point since manipulating your body weight and composition in a favorable direction can have a positive impact on your performance. This can be done without much physical training during the offseason because, as I mentioned earlier, it's about changing your nutrition paradigm and how you approach food, not about how much you train.

The Carbohydrate Crisis

Carbohydrates are a staple in our eating plan and for good reason. They provide the energy that is needed to fuel the body for training sessions. But during the offseason, maintaining a higher carbohydrate eating plan combined with less training can lead to weight and body fat gain. I haven't met an athlete yet who wants to be heavier at the start of their base training. It just doesn't make sense. 

We know that carbohydrates are beneficial but so are the other two macronutrients – protein and fat. Eating too much of any one macronutrient during the offseason can lead to metabolic inefficiencies. Eating a combination of foods will ensure that you remain in balance.

Science tells us that eating a higher carbohydrate diet will lead to an increased amount of carbohydrates being burned at rest. Eating more fat burns more fat but because of the higher calorie level in fat combined with the lower amount of training that you perform in the offseason, eating more fat simply does not make sense. It will inevitably lead to an increased storage of fat in your body.

How To Become Metabolically Efficient

Your mission now, should you choose to accept it, as you move into your offseason is to teach your body how to tap into those fat stores without gaining weight. It's an easy concept to understand but difficult to execute because you are coming off of a very nutritionally challenging time of the year (race season) where you likely consumed an abundance of energy bars, gels, drinks and a pretty high carbohydrate diet to sustain an optimal level of performance. 

These simple, easy to implement, nutrition steps will help in your quest to become more metabolically efficient, use more of your fat stores as energy, minimize weight gain, and create a metabolic shift inside your body where it will learn how and when to use fat. All of these set you up nicely to enter your base season in great shape, ready to put in those miles!

  1. Adopt a nutritional paradigm shift. As you approach your food selection and preparation in the offseason, prioritize your meals and snacks. First on the plate should be a source of lean protein and healthy, omega-3 rich fat. Second up is a healthy portion of fruits and/or vegetables. Then, if you have room on the plate (no more than ¼ of the plate), add your whole grains and healthier starches. Following this approach ensures that you obtain that "teeter-totter" balance without overdoing it on the carbohydrates. Focus on color. Your plate should be oozing with vibrant colors such as green, red, purple, orange and yellow. Limit the browns, light yellows and tans.
  2. Out of sight, out of mind. Get rid of all of your nutritional supplements. It doesn't matter if they are bars, gels, or drinks. You don't need them, so hide them in boxes the basement or shove them to the back of your pantry. They add unnecessary carbohydrates and calories.
  3. Follow the 90/10 rule. Stay on track with these steps 90% of the time and allow yourself to "miss" the other 10% of the time. Remember, you are human and life happens. Don't stress out if you have the occasional miss around the holidays. Approach your nutrition plan as you do your training plan. Be methodical but allow some room to deviate. For example, if you miss having some fruit at lunch, no big deal. You still have at least 1-2 more chances to have that fruit that day or you can always start with a clean slate the next morning!

Don't make this too difficult. Yes, it will take preparation, execution and commitment on your part, but approach this as you do your training program and give it the same level of attention.  Remember, this is a behavior change that can take weeks to months to adopt. If you start now, you will enter and exit your offseason feeling great, ready for base training and most importantly, find yourself a more metabolically efficient athlete.

For more information, refer to my Metabolic Efficiency Training book set to hit the market in late October of 2009.

Nutrition Periodization for Endurance AthletesBob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach.  He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team.  He is also Sarah Haskins' personal coach and was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon Bronze Medalist.

Bob's book, Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes: Taking Sports Nutrition to the Next Levelwill provide triathletes of all levels education on how to structure their nutrition program based on their exercise program. For more information, visit www.fuel4mance.com or contact Bob at coachbob@fuel4mance.com

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