... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fueling a Lifestyle Change - Nutrition Needs!

For the past week and a half, despite my high level of motivation and positive attitude, I have noticed my performance suffering and a higher level of fatigue than normal. Since I had just finished combatting a sleep shortage, I knew that simple lack of rest could not be the problem. I worried about not training enough, but I had been following the training plan almost perfectly and from past experience I know that missing one workout is never enough to cause a drop in performance. 

As I ran, struggling to control my breathing and bemoaning the fact that just two weeks earlier I had been running 3-5 miles comfortably, something clicked. I had also been having extreme food cravings. Not cravings for pizza, or candy, or ice cream, but for cereal, bread, and anything carby and chewy. The cravings seemed almost more focused around texture than taste, but the common denominator was that everything I ached for was full of starchy carbohydrates. 

Could my increasingly lame performance be due to nutrition issues?

As a former ballerina I am no stranger to dieting. I am familiar with nutritional tracking, breaking down the components of what I'm eating, and controlling what goes into my body, and yet somehow I have made it this far into my triathlon training without looking at my food intake. When I did, I realized that my usual diet of vegetables and fruits supplemented with 1-2 servings of carbohydrates, a smattering of fat here and there, and one serving of meat or other protein daily are probably vastly insufficient to fuel my new lifestyle. 

I pondered this for a few days, still feeling cravings so pervasive they seemed ever-present in my mind. After two weeks of craving french bread and brie cheese and Coconut Dreams cookies, I decided to give in before starting fresh on a better nutrition plan the next day so that they wouldn't haunt my subconscious any longer. Normally after binging on crap like that I feel sluggish and horrible, but instead I felt energized. This solidified my theory that my diet was missing something - most likely protein, fats, and starchy carbs. And so, I set about to fix the problem. The first resource I looked at, TriFuel, immediately confirmed what I had been thinking. Nutritionist Jaclyn Maurer had the following to say on the topic:

"Skimping on calories? This may cause your body to break down muscle protein, which can hinder performance.
A triathletes total calorie (or energy) needs vary due to changes in training load and intensity, but meeting daily calorie needs is essential to not only providing the energy needed to train and compete, but also to spare the breakdown of muscle protein."
So, I set about adding healthy, nutritionally dense versions of the things I'd been craving to my diet as well as just consuming more overall. At breakfast, I make sure to get some whole grains and perhaps more importantly, I have incorporated some type of protein -- egg  whites, yogurt, etc. I try to eat a small, healthy snack  between meals, and although I have cut down on starches in the past because of digestive issues, I am trying to slowly add them back into my diet past breakfast time. In each meal, I am focusing more on proteins and some starch in addition to my usual vegetables, and I am eating more peanut butter with my post-dinner apple. After a workout, I am religiously drinking either a protein shake or a delicious "banana milkshake" concoction made by blending chunks of frozen banana with milk and vanilla. 
Two days in, I am already seeing improvements! Last night I went out for a run and it felt easy again. I ran 5.25 miles and felt like I was floating on air! No more gasping for breath, no more heavy legs... it was an immense relief. My 9 mile bike this morning flew by and I was back down to my previous best pace of 4:28 miles. 
I have learned a lesson. Contrary to all of my ballerina training, I need to eat a lot. Fats and carbs are not to be rationed as carefully, and I need protein in every meal. Food is fuel, and my training demands that I fuel appropriately. Now I can start enjoying my carbs! Thanks, triathlon! 

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