Let’s face it—the stretch from Halloween through New Year’s is a minefield of dietary indiscretions. It’s hard to avoid packing on a few extra pounds with everyone shoving high-sugar, high-fat foods in your face. And to make matters worse, most triathletes significantly decrease their training volume in these same months—what I call the “soft season,” the exercise space that falls between full-fledged training and being a couch potato.
It’s during this season that our coaches often scale back their triathletes’ training sessions to one workout per day, with a goal of two to three sessions per sport per week. In most cases, especially for time-crunched athletes and those not preparing for iron-distance goals, weekday workouts run about 45–90 minutes with longer sessions on the weekends.
With the overall reduction in energy expenditure and shorter workouts, you can help thwart gradual weight gain by following this easy tip: Don’t take in any calories during workouts lasting up to 75 minutes. You start these workouts with enough stored carbohydrate energy (glycogen) to achieve high-quality training efforts. At easy-to-moderate intensities, this no-extra-fuel window can even stretch to 90 minutes.
Carbohydrates from sports drinks or energy gels during longer workouts and races are necessary because you’re doing what you can to make your muscle glycogen stores last longer. During shorter (60–75-minute) workouts—even a really hard interval session—you’re not going to burn through all of your glycogen stores. And what you did burn you will completely replenish within 24 hours through post-workout nutrition and your normal diet. When your training frequency was higher, it may have been harder to fully replenish glycogen stores between workouts, but that’s less of a concern during the soft season.
What’s more, you’re not likely to reduce your out-of-training consumption to compensate for what you consumed during short workouts. So, if you don’t really need it during training and won’t account for that energy later in the day, all it’s doing is increasing your total caloric intake for the day and not improving your performance.
Don’t get me wrong: You still need to take in fluids to help manage core temperature. I really like low-calorie, electrolyte-rich drinks for hydration during short workouts. Effervescent tabs such as Gu Brew Electrolyte Tablets provide electrolytes and flavor—both driving factors for increasing fluid consumption during exercise.
In this type of nutrition approach, you’re relying on high-quality foods before and after shorter workouts to provide the energy for training and adaptation. Some of the most frequent questions I get are about adjusting nutrition for workouts at various times of day. At the bottom of this article, I’ve laid out a simple strategy for morning, mid-afternoon or evening workouts.
This may not completely eliminate all weight gain between Halloween and New Year’s. After all, the 1,000-calorie pumpkin spice latte you slurped up in the afternoon is more of a problem than the 150 calories you might have consumed during your workout. Don’t obsess over it; just keep an eye on it. Weight fluctuations by a few pounds are normal and healthy for athletes. What you want to avoid is packing on more than 5 pounds from the end of your competition season to the end of your soft season. Minimize the weight you gain now, and you’ll have less work to do getting to optimal race weight in 2015!
Before: 1 bottle of water right when you get up. Have a small (100–200-calorie) snack to regulate blood sugar, and maybe a small cup of coffee if you need some caffeine to adequately focus.
During: 1 water bottle of a low-calorie electrolyte drink.
Recovery: At least 24 ounces of water and a high-quality breakfast. If you’re short on time, a recovery drink and a smaller, on-the-go breakfast is a good compromise.
Before: 1 bottle of water throughout the morning. Low-glycemic index bar, such as a PR Bar, within an hour before your workout.
During: 1–2 water bottles of low-calorie electrolyte drink and/or water.
Recovery: At least 24 ounces of water immediately after. High-quality lunch within 30–45 minutes.
Before: 24-ounce bottle of water in the hour before workout; many athletes gradually become more dehydrated as the day goes on. 150–200-calorie snack about 30–60 minutes before your workout.
During: 1–2 bottles of low-calorie electrolyte drink and/or water.
Recovery: High-quality dinner within 60 minutes of the end of your workout. Drink at least 24 ounces of water before or with dinner.
Carmichael Training Systems coach Nick White co-wrote this article. Chris Carmichael is the founder and head coach of CTS, the official coaching and camps partner of Ironman. Visit Trainright.com.