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Many North American triathletes have now completed their last triathlon of 2018. In most cases that means they’re taking a short break from training and then going into “maintenance-training mode” through the holidays.
Every triathlete knows that training and diet go hand in hand. When you’re training hard for races, you need to maintain a diet that optimally supports performance and recovery. But what should happen to your diet at the present time of year? How should your eating habits change to match up with changes in your training?
Logically, food intake should decrease as training does. Otherwise fat gain is the inevitable result. But human beings are not completely logical. We’re also emotional creatures, and many triathletes feel an emotional desire to reward themselves after completing a season of discipline and restraint by allowing themselves to indulge in some fattening treat foods—fried foods, beer, desserts, whatever your special craving may be.
I believe that a brief, post-season food reward period is a perfectly acceptable practice to engage in. We tend to define health too narrowly—too physically. Sometimes a thing that is unhealthy for your body can be healthy for your mind and spirit, and sometimes what’s healthy for the mind and spirit can trump what’s unhealthy for the body. Cutting yourself some slack with your diet for a week or two after you’ve completed your last race of the year could be the very thing that enables you to stay disciplined in your eating habits for the rest of the year.
They key word is “brief,” however. Your season of feasting and bacchanal should last no longer than your break from training. If you let your bike sit idle, your running shoes lie empty, and your pool pass go unused for two weeks, then eat and drink whatever you want for two weeks and no longer.
If you tend to struggle with your weight, you might want to consider doing even less than that. Research has demonstrated that those individuals who maintain significant weight loss most successfully are those who maintain the most consistent eating habits year-round. For some people who struggle with their weight, a “just this once” period of pigging out around the holidays is all too similar to a smoker’s “just this once” cigarette to celebrate a year without smoking.
Okay, so what happens after the off-season break, when you move into maintenance-level training—consistent but much less intensive than the workload you bear at the height of the summer race season?
Two main things. First, your carbohydrate intake should decrease. Carbohydrate is fuel and nothing else. It is not used structurally in the body. Therefore the amount of carbohydrate you need each day is tied directly to your activity level. As your training load goes up, so should you carbohydrate intake. And as your training workload comes down in the off-season, so should your carb consumption. If you’re training four hours a week or less, don’t eat more than 2.75 grams of carbs per pound of body weight daily. If you’re training five to six hours a week, allow yourself 2.75 to 3.25 g/lb. And if you train seven to 10 hours a week even in the off-season, aim for 3.25 to 3.75 grams per pound.
The other thing about your diet that needs to change in the off-season is your total calorie consumption. Unless you actually want to get fat, your daily calorie intake must decrease by an amount roughly matching the reduction in the number of calories you burn daily through training. Fortunately, your lowering of carbohydrate intake can pretty much take care of that. For example, if your training load drops from 10 hours per week to five, and you lower your carb intake from 3.75 g/lb daily to 2.75 g/lb, then you’ve just lowered your total daily energy intake by 600 calories (assuming you weigh 150 lbs and assuming your diet remains otherwise unchanged).
You may be able to trust your appetite to help with this adjustment. Typically, appetite increases and decreases appropriately with training load, so that you will naturally find yourself eating less in the off-season. But not everyone can trust his or her appetite all the time. So you might want to conduct what I call a calorie audit at the start of the off-season—that is, sit down and use online resources such as Calorieking.com to calculate how many calories you burn each day so you can set a calorie intake target that prevents weight gain and doesn’t put you in a hole when it’s time to start training for the 2019 season, which will be here before you know it.