Saturday, April 05, 2008

the post-race fat trap

there's a common ethos among athletes that--among the many privileges of being a physically active, physically fit individual--you have the luxury of being able to eat whatever you want without the pain of having it add to a burgeoning waistline.

i have to admit, i've been part of this. i've even written about it (reference: international pancake day). i, along with so many of my sporting community friends and the larger sporting world, have freely (and, i might add, quite joyfully) partaken of caloric indulgences that most dieticians, doctors, medical researchers, experts, and mothers (including mine) would have an apoplectic fit over. not only have i consumed extravagant quantities of food, i have also ingested--and even actively sought out--veritably decadent qualities of food.

this means ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, cobblers, cakes, tortes, tarts, pies, danishes, muffins, cookies, brioches, scones (oh god, scooooooooones...), turnovers, popovers, flipovers, sweetbreads, shortbreads, any breads, hard candies, soft candies, milkshakes, cold cream, condensed milk, chocolate milk, chocolate puddings, chocolate soufflees, any soufflees, cheesecake, ganache, mascarpone, baklava, nutella (oh god, nutellaaaaaaaa...), jam, jelly, nutella, peanut butter, apple butter, nutella, honey, preserves, honey, nutella, honey, nutella, nutella, nutella, and did i mention nutella?

pretty much any dessert from any culture of any part of any planet you can think of. especially this one.

the reason for this kind of insanity (and let's be honest, that's what it is: insanity. of the obsessive, ravenous, disgusting, uncontrollable kind) is multiple:
  • you're going to burn it off. especially if you're training for Ironman. dude, you're averaging 5,000 calories a day of food intake (if you're about my height, which is roughly 5-10), and that's just to maintain body weight.
  • at a certain point, your body needs raw calories. under the stress of intense physical activity, your body needs calories, preferably easily digestible ones. and it doesn't get more easily digestible that simple sugars. that's partially why they serve defizzed coca-cola at the aid stations at Ironman. it takes too long and too much work for your digestive system to break down vegetables and meat if you're churning through a 4-6 hour training session; you need energy anywhere you can get it, and sometimes all you need is sugar.
  • you need the mental relief. given the amount of self-discipline and regimented diet that goes with a season's training, you start to get a little loopy with the confinement of food restrictions. it's downright claustrophobic at times, keeping to a strictly healthy, athletic diet. sometimes you just need to take a mental rest, and just let loose and relax.
  • you need a reward. there is so much suffering that goes with training. especially for long-distance events. physical and mental. in order to keep pushing through it, you need to have a reward of some kind in mind to motivate you, and sometimes that reward isn't the image of a healthy, fit body (hey, it goes without saying you've got it by this point, and besides, it doesn't really mean much to tell yourself you're sexy when you're staggering along at mile 130 and trying to figure out if you're going to have to crawl the last 10.6 miles to the finish...). sometimes the reward is the thought of a smooth, savory, silky, sweet ice cream triple-scoop sundae with all the toppings, with a nice thick slice of german chocolate cake and steaming hot scoop of heaping apple that's sexy.
unfortunately, this kind of thinking really isn't conducive to a good lifestyle. it's not nutrient-rich. it's not lean. it doesn't help with the normal functioning of the human body. which pretty much means it's garbage. and you know the maxim: garbage in = garbage out.

and it certainly doesn't help you stay sexy once race day is over and the season ends and you're lounging around on the same diet plan (or not).

a buddy of mine warned me that you have to really control yourself and cut back on the calories and change to more nutritious foods as you reduce your training volumes and intensities. otherwise you'll have an excess of calories and deficit of nutrients that'll send your body into a regressive cycle, thereby eroding all the gains you suffered to get in training and racing. he said this the reason why you see so many athletes start to get decidedly fat (sometimes chubby, and occassionaly downright even obese)--because they continue eating as if they're still in-season, when their activity level is anything but. he called it the "post-race fat trap."

it's just basic physics--if energy output decreases, the demand for energy input also decreases.
if energy input remains the same and energy output goes down, the result is an excess of energy in the system...and the human body is programmed to store the excess energy as (you guessed it): fat. faaaaat. faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaattt.

definitely not sexy.

in the weeks following every Ironman i've done (and admittedly, i've only done 3, so i'm working with a pretty limited data sample at this point), i've noticed that my body follows a definite pattern reflecting these dangers. i usually lose about 10 lbs. race day. this tends to get even more in the week after, when i lose about another 5 lbs. but in weeks 2-4 after race day i start to regain weight, and by weeks 5-6 i tend to actually get above what i weighed on race day.

and seeing this pattern again with this post-Ironman period off IMNZ. it's now about 4 weeks out, and in the past 2 weeks i've started to see the weight come back.

which, actually is kind of what i don't want.

i liked the trim, fit body i had after IMNZ. i liked the way it looked. i liked the way it felt. physically and mentally. i certainly suffered enough to earn it. as a result, i have absolutely no intention of losing it.

which is why i'm really fighting this time to keep the weight from coming back. i'm trying to be good about my nutrition. i'm watching the calories, monitoring the nutrients, making sure to control myself.

to some degree i'm having some success--the weight return isn't as big this time as it was the previous Ironmans, and i think it's pretty stable.

the hard part, however, is trying to readjust my sense of what are appropriate portions and types of food. during the training, i was working on the 5,000 calorie-per-day scale, which inflated my sensitivity of how much and what kind of food i needed to take in. as we all know, 5,000 calories per day is not the recommended daily caloric intake for an average male my size and weight, even an active one...think more like 2,000-3,000. you can get an idea of what's more appropriate by checking out:
of course, i recognize that to some degree the post-race weight gain is just your body regenerating in the wake of a highly stressful physical competition, and rebuilding its own systems. this is something that every athlete knows as part of sports (reference:

but to me, there's a difference between weight gain that's related to body reconstruction and weight gain that's just waste. one is healthy, the other is not. one means getting more fit, the other does not. one means you are becoming healthier, the other does not. and there is a difference--it's something we can all see and feel with our own bodies. you know if you're getting pudgy. you know if you're getting sluggish. you know if you're losing performance. i can see it in myself just looking in the mirror (hey, the mirror does not lie: if you're fat, you'll see fat, cuz the love handles will blubbering over your underwear line). i can feel it just moving around (cuz i'll be lugging useless baggage that i'm not used to lugging around).

which is why i'm avoiding the post-race fat trap this time around.

cuz i've just gone through too much to allow myself to fall into it.

No comments: