Apr 7, 2011

Eating right and racing light

As I was finishing up my counterclockwise Paradise Loop last Saturday, I ran into Alex and Silas heading in the opposite direction, so I jumped in with them and did the whole thing (all 8 miles of it) in the opposite direction. Along the way, Alex asked if I would write a blog about what and how I eat to get to race weight. The information in this blog is half from my own experience of dropping 10 pounds this season and half from a book which helped me do it, Racing Weight. If you’re an endurance athlete and don’t feel you are at your optimal weight, I suggest you get it and read it. At about $13, it’s absolutely worth every penny.

Why lose the weight? Well, as a cyclist who likes to race and enjoys climbing, I want to climb faster and along with building power, the other gravity-defying technique is to have less mass dragging me down. Awhile back, I recall reading somewhere that each extra pound on the bike equals to 3 watts you have to put out to move it up hill (for the life of me, I can’t find the source now). Obviously grade and wind matter, but let’s just go with 3 watts. I can hold 330 watts for about 12 (maybe if I’m really fresh and feeling strong 15) minutes. On the other hand, I can hold 300 watts for close to an hour (it will be very painful, but doable). So you can see that losing 10 pounds makes quite a difference with respect to climbing.

In my opinion, the first step to creating a workable diet is understanding yourself. Know the foods you like, know the foods you don’t and be honest with yourself about your eating habits. Do you snack on junk between meals? Do you have an insatiable sweet tooth (or a salty tooth, like I do)? This is key because even the best diet planned out on paper is doomed to fail if you set up insurmountable barriers. Not only will you not be satisfied with how you eat, but you will constantly beat yourself up mentally each time you slip off and have something you know you shouldn’t or just too much of something.

In general, the diet I speak of is very, very simple. It is a diet I’ve advocated for years and the one that was reaffirmed as the best approach in Racing Weight – calories in < calories out. So after you’ve had an honest discussion with yourself about your eating habits, the next step is to decide how much weight you need to lose and how quickly you want to lose it. If you are really heavy, weight loss will come easy at first and then plateau, so don’t get discouraged if you drop 10 pounds in your first month, but only 5 pounds in the subsequent month. There is not such thing as diminishing returns in weight loss: loss is loss. On the other hand, if you only have 2 or 3 extra pounds, those can be the toughest to lose off the bat. In general, you shouldn’t lose more than 2 percent of your body weight per week, especially if you’re training hard because you won’t be fueling your body sufficiently to keep up with the demand.

The “how fast” question is often easier to answer than the “how much” question. And because I imagine you’ll be using the information above to decide the former, you really need to figure out the latter first. There is no magic number and we are all different. What you should be striving for is you ideal weight for the events in which you compete. Hilly road races and flat criteriums are probably the extremes of the spectrum, and through trial and error, you need to figure out at what weight you feel the best and perform well. I came into cycling after years of heavy weight training and at one point, my weight peaked at 205 pounds. As I scaled back on the lifting and continued to do more cycling, it went to 190, then 180, then lingered in the 175-180 range for a long time, and this year, I was finally able to get it to a sustainable 168. This all took years, not months, but I also had a lot of upper body muscle I needed to shed, and believe it or not, it’s very difficult to do. As my upper body continues to “shrink” and bone density due to cycling drops somewhat, I will probably be able to dip into the 163-165 range, but I doubt that will happen this year.

After you have an idea of how much you want to lose, you have to decide how much you have to eat in order to lose that weight. The question is twofold – how much and what? To decide how much food you can consume daily, you will have to count your calories in and estimate your calories out. Livestrong.com has a great calorie counter with a variety of foods already entered (even from some of your favorite fast food places), so you can easily track how much you’ve consumed. On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of their calorie goal estimator. To estimate your daily need, you have to estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and then adjust it for your level of activity. You can make the estimate using this online calculator.

For example, for me, a 28-year-old male at 6’1” and 168lbs, my estimated BMR is 1850 calories per day. Which in simple terms means that I can burn this amount by sleeping all day. But I don’t do that, I’m active, I’m on the bike five to six days a week, so clearly that needs to be adjusted. For that, we use the Harris Benedict Equation:

1. If you are sedentary (little or no exercise) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.22.
2. If you are lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
3. If you are moderatetely active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
4. If you are very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
5. If you are extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9

I use number 4 and come up with my daily calorie total of about 3,240 calories. Now you just need to know one more magic number – 3500. That’s the number of calories that equal to one pound of fat. So if my body burns 3,240 calories daily and I want to lose one pound a week, I divide 3500 by 7 (days) = 500 and then subtract that amount from 3,240. This tells me that in order for me to lose my pound in a week, I have to consume about 2700 calories daily.

So now you supposedly know how much weight you need to lose, how fast you want to lose it and you know how many calories you can eat daily to get to that number. This is where it all gets incredibly dangerous.

This writing is not intended for couch potatoes, but rather for athletes who routinely stress their bodies. Aiming for numbers alone is a dangerous trap because you can snack all day on carrots and have two burritos and be at your daily calorie intake, but that doesn’t do much for your body in terms of keeping it optimally fueled for continued training. If you don’t properly fuel, your workouts will suffer and you risk injury.

In trying to meet your calorie goals, pick your foods for optimal efficiency. As an endurance athlete, you need carbs, so if you’re going to eat high calorie foods, make sure that the ratio of calories to carbs is about 4 to 1, at least. There are very few foods that exceed the 4:1, so don’t be disappointed if you have a hard time finding them. Some of the best calorie to carb foods are:

Oatmeal ~ 150cal to 30g carbs (per serving)
Kashi Autumn Wheat cereal ~ 180cal to 43g carbs
Sourdough toast ~ 100cal to 20g carbs
Trader Joe’s Greek Yogurt 0% fat Vanilla 200cal to 22g carbs and 18g of much needed protein

Quinoa ~ 170cal to 30g carbs
Cous Cous ~ 230cal to 45g carbs
Israeli cous cous ~ 220cal to 46g carbs
Potatoes ~ 110 to 150 cal/each depending on size to 25 to 35g carbs

Of course, there are always rice and pasta, and when shopping, try to find the brand that has the best ratio of calories to carbs. This way, you’ll be sure to meet you calorie goal (i.e., not exceed it) and still get the carbohydrates you need to fuel your body. Another great source of carbohydrates is fruit. I eat at least three servings of fruit daily and sometimes up to five. I rarely exceed five, because some fruits do carry a hefty calorie count. A banana, for example, packs about 120 calories.

Carbohydrates alone, however, are not enough. For your muscles to heal and rebuild, you will need to fuel them with protein. An endurance athlete doesn’t need as much protein as a bodybuilder or a power lifter, but post-workout protein is a must for improved recovery. I highly recommend dairy protein for post-workout. This casein protein is complex and takes time to break down, slowly fueling your muscles and helping them recover. During workouts, whey protein works better because it is a simple protein and your body can break it down easier under stress.

Two of the best sources of dairy protein are Greek yogurt and Kefir. With Greek yogurt, you will notice that the lower fat content results in higher protein content. I prefer the “Trader Joe’s brand vanilla-flavored 0 percent fat” kind because in addition to 18 grams of protein per serving, it also packs 22 grams of carbs and come in at about 200 cal. With regard to Kefir, it’s an Eastern European thing. I grew up drinking it and to me it’s very natural. Some of my American friends who’ve tried it had very different reactions to it – some love it, some can’t stand it.

With all this talk about carbs and proteins, don’t forget about veggies, legumes, vitamins and all that other stuff that makes your body function well. Throughout my day, I typically have 3 servings of fruit, 3 servings of veggies, 1 serving of meat or poultry, 2-3 servings of dairy and the rest is some combination of high carb foods I listed above.

Now that you’ve hopefully had the chance to digest the above (pun so intended), here are some tips. Don’t make any radical changes to your diet. Add and subtract things slowly, so everything doesn’t overwhelm you. If you’re already a healthy eater, this will be easy, but if not, then take it one step at a time. Reward yourself with some “bad” food once in a while. If you’re generally good about your diet, have something that you’ve sacrificed. If you do it in moderation, it shouldn’t set you back. Try to work with foods you enjoy as much as possible. Part of changing your diet maybe just preparing the foods you already enjoy in a different way. Not everything needs to be smothered in cheese and butter. If you don’t know how to cook, learn. It’s much easier to control calories when you are in control of what goes into your food. Lastly, once you’ve hopefully achieved your weight loss goal, don’t forget to increase your calorie intake to maintain the weight, but don’t fill the “new” calories with junk. 

1 comment:

  1. Awesome writeup, Vitaly! Thanks for sharing.