This article was written by Katie Elliott, MS, RD, Sports Dietitian and USAT Coach with Elliott Performance & Nutrition.
The excitement in Kona came to a close a few weeks ago, pumpkin spice is in every grocery store and the temperatures are dropping (Colorado is even getting snow). If you are like most triathletes in North America, off-season has begun or is coming soon. As you transition from race season, keep these nutrition tips in mind to stay healthy, avoid unnecessary weight gain and enter 2020 energized and ready to go.
Chews, Gus, sports drinks, waffles and bars are definitely important in the heat of the season. These products offer easily accessible carbohydrate (e.g. simple sugars) that support both intensity and duration in training. However, when intensity and training volume drop in off-season, sports nutrition products no longer serve a purpose. You simply don’t need easily accessible sugar when your focus is rejuvenation and recovery. Stash these products for now and save them for pre-competition and competition phases of training.
When triathletes are in the heat of the season, they need more calories overall to support training. However, as athletes take an off-season their activity levels will drop, sometimes significantly. This means that overall caloric needs will be lower, which requires an adjustment in food intake. To make this shift successfully, pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Start by putting normal sized (non-training) portions on your plate and check in to see if you are hungry or full throughout the meal. One way to gauge this is to ask yourself your percentage of fullness. At the end of a meal, you want to be roughly 80-85% full.
In terms of the balance of macronutrients, there will also be some changes. While protein and fat needs will decrease slightly with less volume of food, carbohydrate needs change most dramatically in the off-season due to a reduction in training intensity and volume. Simply put, as activity and intensity drop, you should reduce the amount of carbohydrate you consume by as much as 25-50%. During race season, half of your plate might consist of whole grains (1/4 protein and ¼ vegetables and fruit). During off-season, dedicate 25% of your plate or less to whole grains (depending on your activity levels). Rather than grains being the main attraction during meal-time (like they often are in season), you will want to focus more on vegetables and some fruit, healthy fats and lean protein as your body recovers.
Even though the look of your plate is changing, you still want to meet your micronutrient needs. The best way to do this is to eat a variety of foods and colors and to emphasize nutrient density, while limiting processed foods that come in a bag or box. Emphasize foods like vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes and lean protein. Limit crackers, chips, candy, bars, sodas and other foods that don’t offer a lot of nutrients per calorie. A focus on quality nutrition will help you to stay healthy, recover from a big season and be able to hit the ground running in 2020.
While I do think it is important to periodically indulge in the off-season, I encourage you to do this purposefully. In general, keep your diet quality high while saving indulgences for important moments that you’re excited about. Be choosy. Once you have determined an indulgence that you really want, plan for it, sit down and savor every bite or sip. Remember to enjoy whatever you are eating or drinking mindfully. This means chewing slowly and processing taste, smell and mouth feel. This will ultimately be more rewarding than opening the flood gates to junk food and alcohol. Remember, good nutrition practices help you to feel energized on a daily basis in addition to being additive to performance. When you completely disregard healthy practices, you are going to feel crappy.
Yes, off-season is generally at the same time as the major eating holidays in North America. It is okay to indulge purposefully during the holiday season. However, resist the urge to completely ignore your diet until January. If you take a “forget about it” approach to nutrition and go crazy in November and December, this will impact the way you recover, your immunity and your ability to be in a good place to accomplish 2020 goals. I am certainly not saying that indulgence is not a part of off-season. You may even gain some weight while your body recovers, which is okay (shoot to gain no more than 8% of your ideal race weight in the off-season[i]). As a rule of thumb, take a balanced approach to off-season, eat mindfully and make the above changes to ensure that you are in a good place in the New Year.
Enjoying the off-season doesn’t mean doing a complete 180 on your in-season, healthy habits. I would argue that you will enjoy this down time more if you employ a balanced, healthy approach to eating. Have fun with this. You will have more time, so try out some delicious new fall and winter recipes with nutrient-dense foods that are in season. Enjoy making soups or new seasonal dishes and share them with friends you didn’t see much during the triathlon season. If you are nervous about off-season, reach out to a sports dietitian. At Elliott Performance & Nutrition, we offer an off-season package to help athletes both enjoy and navigate this period stress-free. This should be a fun, relaxing time. If you use the tips above, you will be well on your way to reaping the rewards of your hard-earned break.
Katie Elliott, MS, RD, Sports Dietitian and USA Triathlon Coach
Website link: www.elliottperformanceandnutrition.com
Instagram Handle: @elliottnutrition
[i]Racing Weight. 2012. Matt Fitzgerald. Velopress.
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