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Women’s Guide to Nutrition – Part Two

Women's Guide to Nutrition

Women's Guide to Nutrition - Part Two (The Implications of Weight)

Stacy Sims, PhD, is an Environmental Exercise Physiologist and Nutrition Scientist. Her long academic and sporting career includes racing at high level in road cycling, XTerra, and IRONMAN triathlons.

One consideration women have is a power to weight ratio optimal for high performance. We have a factor against us.  Women have a more difficulty leaning up than men. We can blame estrogen surges.  Estrogen surges decrease our ability to use carbohydrates and increase our ability to burn fat.  Logically, that's something we want.  However, many think if I go out empty, eat a little bit less, or don't eat while training or racing, I'm going to burn more fat.

It's counter-intuitive to the body because if you're burning a lot of fat, it's a signal to store fat. Not only is it a signal to store fat, but you also increase the amount of cortisol, well known as the belly fat hormone. Cortisol is a high stress hormone that causes the body to store fat as well as increase overall stress. This decreases your ability to relax and recover. It also decreases the ability to fuel and use fuel properly. The idea of being light on calories both on and off the bike is counterproductive to trying to lean up.

Losing weight for a race situation, we want to fuel for our training and fuel for our racing and really use a timing window to work with the body to signal to lose fat and increase the lean mass. If you are going to do some training first thing in the morning, you've hopefully been sleeping for seven to nine hours. You wake up, you haven't eaten, and you haven't had anything to drink in that timeframe, so your blood sugar is low; your cortisol is high, and your body is primed to be in a starvation mode.

When training in this situation, you end up releasing a lot of body fat, which in some regards people think is good. This is a signal to store more fat when you're finished, however. If you are just existing on water or a light sports drink during your training and not bringing in any calories,  you can't hit intensity. If you can't hit the intensities, you're not maximizing your body's potential to adapt to a higher level of fitness. It's counter-intuitive in two ways. One, you're signaling your body to store body fat, and two, you're not hitting the intensities to signal your body to get to that higher adaptation.

If an overall goal is to get fitter at a higher intensity to be able to push the power at the front of the field, the simplest thing that you could do is have about 150 to 200 calories of mixed macro-nutrient food before you go out. An example of mixed macro-nutrient food would be maybe a piece of toast with some almond butter or you have four ounces of nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurt thinned out with some sweetened vanilla almond milk. For those people who can't eat very well first thing in the morning, you can look at using a recovery protein drink and mix it up with some water so it's very light, easy to digest and readily assimilated by the body. This way you're reducing cortisol. You're increasing your blood sugar. You're giving your body some fuel so that it's ready to go.

When you're on the bike, think about the kind of training you are doing. Am I doing some VO2 intervals, am I doing a tempered workout, am I doing some surges? Whatever aspects you're doing, you need to be able to fuel for them. If you're doing top end stuff, using something like some raisins or glucose tablets to give you some quick hits of energy to be able to hit those intensities is going to allow your body to get more out of the training session. If you're doing a longer, slower ride that's more of a tempered ride, then having a couple of bites of a sandwich in your pocket or having something like salted new potatoes. If you really need to go the engineered nutrition route, going with something like a Clif Bar to give you some protein and fat and carbohydrate to keep going.

Now, I don't mean eating two or three bars an hour. I mean eating about 3.5 calories per kilogram of body weight per hour. At 120 to 125 pounds, you're looking at about 180 calories in that hour, so it is a little bit less than one full bar. It's not a lot, but what it does do is allows your body to relax to a point where you're not releasing a lot of cortisol. You are accessing both the glycogen in your liver and your muscles to hit intensities. You're also reducing the signal to store body fat when you finish your training. When you do finish your training your body's really primed to build lean mass and to restore the carbohydrate in your liver and your muscles.

Don't lose this window of opportunity because the faster that you refill the tank, so to speak, the faster there is a signal for your body to lean up and to decrease body fat. Getting that protein in in that 30-minute window and then thinking about good carbohydrate intake over the next hour after that so in that hour and a half after training you're fueling yourself, this will signal your body to store carbohydrate in the liver and the muscle where it needs to. It'll signal your body to repair and adapt those muscles to stronger fibers and to be able to hit those intensities the next time you see that stress. Then it allows your body to use more body fat at rest.

Two or three hours later, have a little bit more protein. This will keep your blood sugar up. It'll also keep your amino acids circulating. Both of these will reduce cortisol being released and keep your body in a good tempo to keep lean mass production and decrease body fat. If you're thinking about, oh well, I'm going out in the afternoon; I'm just going to eat something light before I go training, again, it's the same concept. You want to go out with a little bit of fuel in your system and then really fuel for your intensity and for your ride.

There's a saying that we like to use in the nutrition world, fuel for your training and diet off the bike. Don't go light on your calories on the bike. You want to be able to hit those intensities. You want to be able to get what you're after during training. Be smart about your recovery and look at your overall nutrition. If you're going and being light on your calories, being light on your fuel and light on your hydration, you're being counterproductive in the things that you're trying to get out of your training and your racing.

In Summary:

  • Eat before, during, and after your workout.
  • Fueling is important to maximize training potential, keep from signaling the body of starvation, and allow for muscle repair/recovery.
  • Eat 3.5 calories per kilogram of body weight per hour during exercise
  • Eat 30 minutes after working out
  • Eat a large meal 2 to 3 hours after working out
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