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My Metabolic Efficiency Journey

By Nicole Drummer

What am I doing?

As I was driving to watch Ironman Arizona, I had a lot of time to think about my upcoming race season on the drive to Tempe from Colorado Springs. The 2011 Ironman Arizona is to be my key race. I'm not so concerned about the training (I have a great coach and am pretty disciplined in my own training) but I knew I needed to figure out something about my overall approach to nutrition. I generally eat healthy, but I had let myself put on a few extra pounds last season. Additionally, I knew I wanted my body to be as efficient as possible in terms of burning fat, so I could avoid being one of the athletes that tells the terrible GI distress tale after an Ironman-distance race. My nutrition strategy is going to be the key.

I revisited Bob Seebohar's Metabolic Efficiency Training concept, which I had learned about in my USAT coaching certification, taken the webinar, and read the book, but never fully implemented the concept. Here's the idea: Train (keyword!) your body to burn more of its natural fat stores as fuel and rely a bit less on your muscle glycogen (carbs) stores. In turn, you can consume fewer calories during your event and have less chance of something going wrong.

What was holding me back previously was giving up whole grains, even for a little bit! My mom used to call me “starch mouth.” I lived on cereal and bread. But if you are serious about a goal you've got to take a leap of faith. Fortunately I was riding with my friend, Kelly Ping, who is a Registered Dietitian and finishing up her Master's degree in Sports Nutrition. We came up with a plan to test the concept and kick start my Ironman training nutrition plan. I would change my eating habits to improve my body composition and endurance sport performance by:

  • Eating only fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats.
  • Allowing myself two "deviation" meals per week (it was the holiday time). Not to pig out, but to enjoy the treats of the holiday season.
  • Eating when I'm hungry and only until I'm satisfied.
  • Tracking all my exercise and food intake on TrainingPeaks.com.
  • Getting an ISAK skin fold test at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs Peak Nutrition Clinic before and after the three week study to see if there were measurable changes.
  • Weighing myself on my home scale once a week for tracking purposes.
  • Blogging about the daily food on my personal blog (it's all there on http://bananadeath.blogspot.com) to let the public hold me accountable!

For three weeks I ate fruits and veggies balanced with lean proteins and healthy fats. That's it. No processed food. No whole grains even, except at a few holiday gatherings. I ate when I was hungry and not by the clock. I tracked my intake for the study, but I didn't count calories. 

salmonMy training was not intense at all. I did some body weight strength training, some swimming, and a little running. The reduced training load was helpful because, I had more time to focus on nutrition changes.

What Did I Eat?

Skipping the whole grains sounds challenging, especially for the endurance athlete, but it was a lot easier than I thought. Here are some of my typical meals:

Breakfast:

Non-fat yogurt (plain) mixed with whey protein, cocoa, fruit and peanut butter.

Scrambled eggs/egg whites with spinach, black beans, onions, green peppers, and diced tomatoes topped with a little cheese (This was a great dinner, too.)

Snacks:

Fruit salad with cottage cheese

Carrot, apple, raisin salad with greek yogurt and cinnamon

Edemame and clementines

Lunch:

Salads with assorted veggies and fruit, and topped with a good amount of either chicken, salmon, tuna, or tofu. Vinaigrette dressing.

Leftovers from dinners!

Dinner:

Chicken with kidney beans, swiss chard, diced tomatoes with green chilies, onion and garlic. Topped with smoked gouda cheese.

chart1Baked salmon with a generous side of sautéed veggies (e.g. asparagus, cauliflower, zucchini, mushrooms).

I played around with seasonings to keep things interesting, and had a lot of fun trying out new foods! The holiday time made it easy to incorporate what I call deviation days (or meals). You can't completely ignore the foods you enjoy.

Did it work?

Yes! Thanks to TrainingPeaks.com, I was able to easily track my nutrition and exercise data. It turns out I was pretty consistent in my caloric intake, getting in around 2000 calories each day. My macro-nutrient breakdown over the three week period was about 40 percent carbs, 33 percent fat and 27 percent protein. I never ran out of energy or felt sluggish. My first week was actually a little low in terms of carbohydrate intake (around 36 percent), which lowered the overall average. Weeks two and three were actually closer to 45 percent of calories from carbohydrates.

chart2

I even lost a couple pounds and the ISAK skin fold test proved that I did lose some body fat as well. And two centimeters of girth around my gluteal area is a good thing, as my jeans fit better! I also used TrainingPeaks to track my exercise. I actually only got in less than 9 hours of exercise over the three week period.

The Metabolic Efficiency Test

With good results like these, I decided it would be worth it to see Bob Seebohar for a Metabolic Efficiency Test. I'd get on the treadmill attached to a metabolic cart and we'd learn at which paces I am most efficient at burning fat versus carbohydrates. This information would help me dial in my base phase training. If I spend time in my metabolically efficient zones, my body should get even better at burning fat as fuel.

So after a 12 hour fast, I drove to Littleton and met Bob and his Fuel4mance partner, Dina. Hungry, but excited about the test, I hopped on the treadmill. Below are the results.

crossover 

The results show that I do have a Metabolic Efficiency Point, or a pace/heart rate at which my body burns more carbohydrates than fat. So anything slower than this pace, I burn more fat than carbohydrate. You might notice that there are a couple points that are floating around 50 percent. This is good - it means that my body has a bit of a range before it decides to switch over to the carb burning. Once it does turn it on, it goes pretty quickly! Now that I know my training zones and will work with my coach to dial in my Ironman base training plan.

Summary

I didn't know if I could do it at first, but I've eliminated whole grains from my diet and still get enough carbohydrates from other food sources. Lately I've increased my training volume (closer to 7-9 hours per week) and still have plenty of energy for base phase training. As training intensity will increase later in my season, I will re-introduce carbohydrates in the form of whole grains and sports nutrition products as needed to keep up with the training. But in the meantime, it's just real food and water, and maybe some electrolyte supplements for the longer workouts. My body composition is changing for the better, as demonstrated by the skin fold test, my mirror, and the jeans test.

I incorporated significantly more fruits and vegetables into my diet, which provide a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. One day during the study I counted 12 servings of fruits and veggies! I never got bored with my food choices. If you are looking to tweak your body composition, give this a try. You might be surprised how easy and effective it is. You can learn more about Bob Seebohar's Metabolic Efficiency concept at http://www.fuel4mance.com. For more details on my Metabolic Efficiency Journey, visit my blogs at http://neoendurance.blogspot.com and http://bananadeath.blogspot.com.

Nicole Drummer is a USA Triathlon Level 1 certified coach. She is the author of The Triathlete's Guide to Race Week, and is the owner of NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness. In addition, she coaches for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training triathlon program. Learn more at http://neoendurancesports.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.

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