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The Game Changer — Nutrition Case Studies

By Amanda Cassell

As a registered dietitian (RD), I have always known that nutrition was important for health, disease prevention and weight loss. Throughout my college years and during my dietetic internship, this was stressed incessantly, time and again. Clinically I had learned a great deal of useful information, but my specialized education had never focused specifically on sports-related nutrition.

nutritionAlthough sports nutrition was always of great interest to me, my curiosity only grew as I started my journey through the sport of triathlon, just a few years ago. The more that I learned, the more that I came to realize that proper nutrition truly is the fourth discipline, amongst swimming, biking, and running.

Progressing from the Olympic-distance to a full Ironman, I began to realize the growing importance of nutrition and fueling as the length of the race became longer and longer. I also began to observe an ever-growing trend among friends and fellow triathletes — that of walking marathons, ugly race finishes, dehydration issues and a “cramping stagger” at the finish line. Athletes who had made tremendous sacrifices and logged a ridiculous amount of volume were extremely disappointed by less-than-stellar results, far below the expectations they thought themselves capable.

How could an athlete dedicate so much time to this sport, yet crash and burn at every race distance? I had trained with them, and knew that they had produced far better results on a simple training day than their race day performances. Could it be that nutrition was becoming more and more of a limiting factor?

I knew that nutrition played a significant role in the above outcomes, but I never really researched its depth until I began dedicating a larger portion of my practice to the field of sports nutrition. Now, the athletes that I work with know without any doubt that we focus not only on pre-fueling a workout, but also on fueling the workout itself and post-workout recovery. Add to this the importance of day-to-day nutrition and the athlete as a whole is fully prepared to absorb the rigors of training, from a nutritional standpoint. Part and parcel to this is hydration! Hydration plays an overwhelming role in athletic performance and overall well-being.

Below are two accounts of real people, producing real results, simply by making changes to their nutritional approach.

Case study 1 — Marie
Marie has always known how to make healthy food choices. Having completed four previous Iron-distance races, Marie contacted me with an interest in losing weight, along with a desire to break a few personal records along the way. Upon review of her previous nutrition and dietary intake, there were many things that Marie was doing perfectly. However, the timing of her recovery fuel and midday snacks were greatly limiting her ability to both replenish muscle glycogen and to lose unwanted body weight. With just a few changes to her already “clean” diet, Marie noticed a fifteen-pound weight loss, and felt dramatically better in her workouts, simply by focusing more attention on appropriately fueling them, before, during and after.

Both Marie and her husband were training for an upcoming Ironman. After a particular long ride, Marie returned home to immediately consume the proper recovery fuel and meal that I had planned for her. Her husband, however, chose to snack on whatever was convenient, at that moment. The next morning, when heading out for their long run, Marie felt wonderfully recovered, energized, and ready to go! On the other hand, her husband was concerned that he was getting sick, because Marie felt so much better than he did, despite their having completed the same workout, just the day before.

Fortunately, Marie’s husband was just fine. He had not taken the same detailed approach as Marie, to his recovery fueling and its timing. This is a significant opportunity for recovery, with the repletion of muscle glycogen, which must not be overlooked. At The Core Diet we emphasize the importance of a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio in a recovery fuel. Ideally, this is consumed immediately upon finishing a workout or race, or, at the very least, within 30 minutes after completion.

With consistent integration into her training, Marie not only felt amazing after her workouts and looked better than ever before, she also began to reap huge rewards on race day. Marie went on to qualify for the 2012 Boston Marathon, and smoked her husband in practically every race along the way. Could all of this have been the result of a renewed focus on her workout fueling? Absolutely! Proper fueling before, during and after workouts led to increased quality in Marie’s training, which translated directly into race day speed.

Case Study 2 — Max
Max always had a great deal of trouble losing weight, regardless of how hard he tried. Fad diet after fad diet only led to an endless cycle of weight loss and gain, with no real opportunity to maintain any consistency. Max believed that restricting his training fuel during workouts would result in some good news from the scale due to the reduction in calories. A constant battle with light-headedness, fainting episodes and midday fatigue prompted Max to seek my help by looking at his nutritional profile.

Upon speaking with Max, I encouraged him to consume the proper training and recovery fuels before, during, and after training, and explained that not doing so was the likely cause of his symptoms. Though reluctant, at first, Max eventually took on my recommendations, whole-heartedly, and dropped a great deal of weight and body fat. Because Max was prolonging his body’s want of fuel, by not replenishing muscle glycogen, his metabolism had actually slowed down to a mere crawl. Though his body was screaming for fuel, its cries went unanswered, and in desperation Max’s body held onto fat with the tightest of grips, because it could never be sure of when it might be fed.

Once adopting this new mindset, and approaching workout fuels not as an enemy, but more as dear friend, Max was thrilled, beyond belief, to see those numbers on the scale finally plunge downward and all the while, eating more than he ever had on any of the “fad diets” that he had experimented with. He was simply eating according to the The Core Diet — no gimmicks. Simply choosing foods based upon their nutrient density, and consuming them during the proper times and in the proper ways.

The above scenario, that of restricting workout fuels, is something that I commonly see among women athletes, as well as Max. Unfortunately, more often than not, this often backfires in a variety of ways:

1)    As the athlete trains, performance is limited that day, possibly even having to cut the workout short due to a fade toward the end of the training day.

2)    The athlete hurts performance for future training; feeling “flat” and exhausted, the next day, due to not replenishing muscle glycogen stores after training.  This results in starting a new training day with a half-empty tank.

3)    The athlete slows down metabolism due to going long periods of time without taking in any nutrition. (You actually need to eat, in order to lose weight!)

4)    The athlete’s systematic atmosphere becomes catabolic in nature, many times loosing muscle which is counterproductive for those athletes that are strength limited.

5)    The athlete overindulges during the remainder of the day, thinking that the lack of calories during the workout, has created plenty of room to splurge. This is a major culprit in taking in excessive calories, and thus hindering weight loss.

The message is quite clear — you can do all of the training in the world, and be the most disciplined swimmer, biker, and runner imaginable, but turning a blind eye towards nutrition will limit your ability to truly benefit from all of your hard work. Why make such tremendous sacrifices of time, in an effort to be the best that you can be, only to miss out on these opportunities to improve? If you can find the time to train for three individual sports, then you can find time to fuel and recovery from them properly, too! You may just find that it is that final piece to the triathlon puzzle that you have been searching for all along.

Amanda Cassell is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian at The Core Diet, under the direction of elite triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki. She holds a bachelor’s degree in food, nutrition, and dietetics, and is a marathoner and Ironman triathlete. The Core Diet is a sports nutrition specialty group working with athletes from age-groupers to world-class professionals. Visit their website TheCoreDiet.com to explore how they can help you meet your body composition, health and performance goals.

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