– By Alexis Williams RD
Summer has come and gone and it’s the off-season for most triathletes, but that doesn’t mean we all want to let ourselves go this winter. Did you over-indulge at the Thanksgiving buffet table? Or perhaps you kept eating like an Ironman in training long after the race finished? Whatever your reason, it’s common to worry about gaining too much weight when you’re not training as much as you normally do.
Many athletes think they can wait until the start of the new season to lose weight when, in reality, the best time for weight loss is in the down-season. The logic is simple: losing body fat and weight requires that you be in a calorie deficit. When you are in calorie deficit, your energy levels and fuel stores are reduced, which can hamper your ability to push yourself in long or intense training. While training is important to improve body composition, hard intense workouts require you fuel well, which may not be consistent with the calorie deficit required to lose weight. Since down season workouts are often less intense, athletes can reduce calorie consumption to create a deficit and limit the impact on performance.
Gradual is the key
Many diets push people to the 1200 to 1600 calories level, less than half what many athletes in training need. Severe deprivation does more harm than good. A more reasonable approach is to target a modest caloric deficit of between 200 to 500 calories per day. This level of deficit should result in a weight loss of 0.5 to 1lb per week. There are two ways to achieve this deficit. The first is to modify your food choices by cutting back on the extras like alcohol, sugary treats and second helpings. For example, if you normally enjoy two glasses of wine each night, try cutting back to a smaller one or limiting to only having the wine on weekends. Other extras like flavoured coffees, sugar or cream in hot beverages, second helpings of pasta, fruit juices, sweet drinks and condiments can easily be changed without contributing to severe deprivation. As a general rule, focus on reducing calories in areas that are not providing key nutrients and fuel. Continue to eat calories that count, such as pre-, during and post-exercise meals and snacks. Cutting back on the quality calories from whole-grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables won’t help in the long-run.
The second way to create a calorie deficit is to increase non-training activity while holding your food intake constant. You can do that simply by planning at 20 to 30 minute walk with your spouse or using a pedometer to increase the steps you take in your workday. The good thing about low-intensity activity built into your lifestyle is it won’t make you hungrier, contribute to over-training or require as much planning and time commitment as additional training sessions.
Watch out for ‘lazy athlete syndrome’
Recreational athletes often think that “since I run, I don’t have to take the stairs.” Once they have worked out, the rest of the day is spent lounging and snacking. On days with moderate training sessions, plan some extra non-training activity. For days after longer runs and bikes, make sure you have activities that keep you off the couch and moving.
Improving body composition can help you lose body fat. Strength training to improve your lean body mass will improve your metabolism and make you burn more calories.
Fruits and Veggies
When winter comes, we do the opposite of what we should by skipping salad in favour of richer, fattier, more calorie-dense foods. Fruits and vegetables help you feel more full with smaller portions and have important immune-enhancing nutrients for cold winter months. In the winter, soups and stir-fries offer warm alternatives to cold salads. A warm bowl of vegetable-based soup after an evening workout can provide a quick and easy pre-made meal. Add some beans to up the protein level and you’ve got a convenient recovery meal.
Under-eating is as bad as over-eating
All the advice up to this point assumes you are eating enough (or, if gaining weight, too many) calories to support your training. This isn’t always the case as many athletes in a large calorie deficit still struggle to lose weight and body fat.
The effects of eating too much are well understood and obvious, but eating too little can have a similar negative impact on your body composition. Severe calorie restriction wreaks havoc with your metabolism and encourages your body to store fat and shed muscle through a series of hormonal and metabolic processes. Under eating also tends to increase susceptibility to injury and contributes to general nutrient deficiencies and poor bone health.
This year, don’t gain it back
If you usually gain significant amounts weight after the end of the season, this year try to moderate your weight gain to a maximum of five to 10 lbs. To do this, you’ll have to reduce your caloric intake to reflect reduced training. When your training volume changes substantially, consider keeping a food journal to allow you to adjust intake accordingly. Just think of how great spring rides will feel if you can climb that hill without feeling like you are dragging the Christmas buffet table up the hill behind you.
Winter Weight Loss Key Points
- Choose food wisely making sure that your calories count
- Be consistent with caloric intake from day-to-day
- Don’t restrict too greatly – aim for a 200 to 500 calorie deficit per day.
- Look for easy eliminations – sugar, alcohol, sweet drinks, condiments, etc.
- Limit off-season weight gain – aim for no more than five to10 lbs.
Alexis Williams is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer in Burlington Ontario. She is an avid triathlete.