There is a common misconception that weight gained during the off-season will come off naturally when exercise volume goes up in the spring. Indeed, the widely held and little critiqued belief that triathlon training naturally leads to weight loss is so pervasive that many people believe it even when their own experience proves otherwise. Recent attention has been given to the topic of exercise and weight loss in the popular press over the past year, and the new line of thought reflects the experience of many triathletes: exercise has many benefits, but weight loss isn’t one of them.
What does this mean for dealing with off-season weight gain? Primarily it means you shouldn’t rely on an increase in training volume to lose weight. Second, it means that the best time for you to lose weight may be during the off-season when exercise volume is lower, not the beginning of the training season when volume goes up. When training volume goes up, your body automatically adapts and your hunger goes up, too. If you are trying to create a calorie deficit to lose weight, it can help to keep exercise to a moderate level so hunger stays in check.
Additionally, your diet should be periodized just like your swim, bike and run training. Your nutrition needs vary a great deal based on where in the season you are, and failure to adjust calories and macronutrient ratios is a primary cause of that dreaded 10–20 pound off-season gain.
It’s only November, so there is plenty of time to avoid holiday weight gain before it starts. The simplest way to do this is to focus on a few dietary and behavioral changes:
- Many people underestimate how much they are eating. Use an online calorie tracker like the ones on Myfitnesspal.com or Loseit.com (or the one on the Triathlete.com nutrition page). Even using a calculator for one week can be very eye-opening and can help moderate food intake.
- Lower your intake of grains and other high carbohydrate foods. You don’t need them to fuel high amounts of exercise right now, and you can get all the nutrition you need with protein, fruit, vegetables and healthy fats. This simple adjustment is a quick and effective way to drop calories while also increasing satiety through added fats and protein so you can diet without hunger. Remember, a high carbohydrate diet may serve you well in season, but if you can’t burn all that quick energy you eat, it gets stored as fat.
- Keep volume low but add intensity to workouts. Adding short, high intensity work can help with fat loss. Instead of a one-hour endurance ride, try an interval-based one-hour ride on the trainer. A main set for this type of workout might be 6×4 minutes at Zone 4 with 2-minute recoveries.
Bottom line: Don’t try to force weight loss with increased exercise, as you may end up doing more exercise than needed in the off-season, which could derail your success next season. Instead, periodize your nutrition to reflect your lowered energy needs.
Jessica Herschberg is a USAT Level I coach, certified sports nutritionist and mother of four in Nashville, Tenn. Find out more at her coaching website: Ftpcoaching.com.