The days are nasty, brutish and short, the desire to set out for a hard session is waning and that cake is starting to look awfully good. It can only mean one thing - the off-season is here.
And it's a dangerous time for a triathlete because it can mean several and significant changes to body and mind. "The body goes into storage mode in the winter," says Traci Brown, a sports trainer who focuses on the mental aspects of sport success. "It is essentially bringing the body back to caveman times."
Unwanted Weight Gain
There is a mental and psychological component to the off-season that should not be underestimated: the body goes from being focused and having an immediate goal to an empty calendar, and that can lead to unwanted weight gain, which can affect your training and your peace of mind. To help keep the weight off, it is important to understand exactly what is happening to your body.
The biggest change is the decrease in exercise and thus a decrease in the ability to burn calories. Nick Suffredin, exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, and triathlete, explains: "What is happening is your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is decreasing. Your BMR is the amount of energy you need for your body operate normally if you were not to move and just stay in bed breathing - a 70kg 25-year-old male may have a BMR of roughly 1500-1600 calories a day."
Keeping track of the amount of calories you take in is important. "To maintain weight throughout an off-season you have to watch what you eat," says Suffredin. "The amount of calories you take in during the day has a big impact on your body weight. Obviously it is better to eat healthier, as opposed to eating mostly junk food. What you have to remember is that it's the amount of calories taken in versus the amount of calories burned."
This is why knowing a rough estimate of your BMR can help reduce the amount of weight you put on during your lazy off-season. "As you decrease your training you should also decrease the number of calories you take in," he says.
Triathletes often become creatures of habit to help them balance training, work and life away from triathlon. "Transitioning into off-season eating does require a bit of mental concentration," says US professional triathlete and coach Paul Fritzsche. "When I cut back dramatically on my training, there's usually a week
or two where I need to consciously decrease my portion size at meals and ask myself each time I have a snack if I'm eating because I am hungry or if I'm just eating out of habit."
Breaking that habit can be difficult. "I am sure nearly all triathletes have been through periods of training where they think they can eat anything and everything and still not gain any weight," says Suffredin. "This is partially true, since their metabolism is working at such a high rate and if your body knows that you are getting an adequate amount of energy it won't need to store as much and will shed what it doesn't need. In the off-season, however, the body is going to store more of the food you eat since you are not burning it off as fast."
Even nutritionists sometimes struggle with the concept. "Maintaining weight after a long race season can be hard for a triathlete," says Suffredin. When he was training for an Ironman towards the end of last season he counted every calorie and maintained a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. "I didn't let any of my vices get in the way so that I could get down to a weight I felt would be beneficial for me to race at," he says. "Since my season is now over, it is hard for me to say 'no' to all the 'bad' foods I enjoy. I think that is where a majority of athletes begin their off-season downfall."
And the annoying thing about this downfall is that, to an extent, triathletes are at this time of year victims of their healthy, disciplined lifestyle. "Your body is looking for the endorphins [the feel-good hormones produced during exercise] it is used to having," says Brown. "Sugar and caffeine can replace those endorphins but only for a short time."
Sports dietitian and endurance coach Bob Seebohar recommends controlling blood sugar, trying new foods and adding variety to the diet. "I recommend shifting where the calories come from. Increase protein and fruits and vegetables to increase the fullness factor, and reduce whole grains and starches. This will control cravings and thus control the volume of food eaten."
The grim winter weather can adversely affect training opportunities and therefore leave a void in your days. "During this time it is easy to focus on what you can't have versus what you can have," says Brown. "We all have those danger foods and the best thing is to not keep them in the house. But it is inevitable that you are going to indulge so if you do, really enjoy it."
Throw in the holidays and this period can do serious damage to your balanced diet. "The weather can drive an athlete to reach for comfort foods, which are usually high in fat, sugar and salt," says Seebohar. "This is usually triggered when blood sugar levels drop so controlling blood sugar is the most important thing an athlete can do. It is OK to indulge on occasion, but going to a party with a plan is necessary, as is not being too hungry. I recommend athletes have a high-protein and high-fibre snack before going out; that will enable them to control their cravings better."
Don't Go Hungry
If you have an off day, it is important to have a plan of attack for the days that follow. "You have a bad day where you have a lot of bad foods, eat a lot of calories. It will probably happen, and most likely more than once," says Suffredin.
"The best way to approach this is just go back to your normal diet the next day and not cut extra calories to make up for having an overload the day before. It's a horrible idea to starve yourself. You will actually gain more weight this way. What will happen is that your brain will tell your body that it needs to store as much of this energy as it can because it doesn't know when it will get more, since it is coming in such small increments and there seems to be long periods between meals."
You will probably gain a little weight no matter how careful you are, and nutritionists say that's fine and perhaps even beneficial in the long run. "The combination of winter and the off-season represents a threat," says Seebohar. "But it may not matter if you gain a bit of weight.
In fact, for many athletes, this is actually healthy and allows for some much-needed recovery. An extremely lean body is not always optimal all-year round in terms of building and maintaining physical as well as immune strength, both of which are required as foundations for hard training.
Relax, Enjoy Yourself
Tim O'Donnell, Ironman 70.3 US Pro Champion and silver medal winner at the 2010 ITU Long Course World Championships, is sanguine about putting on weight. "I don't mind gaining a little weight," he says. "I think it helps the body repair itself and prepare it for a long season. I also think running with a few extra pounds in the winter helps build strength. The one thing I have noticed is that as I get older [he's 30] it is a bit harder to lose the weight each year. So I do try and mitigate the damage a bit; if I have some drinks I try to account for that with my overall caloric intake for the day. Also, if I am going to eat bad food I try to limit it to the party or event I am at."
Watching your weight in the off-season doesn't need to be frustrating; you simply need to play it smart. If you do, you'll be mentally and physically prepared for that day when you begin to ramp up your training."Try to tread a happy medium; treat yourself, but keep in mind your goals for the upcoming year and ask yourself what is more important," says Seebohar. "Yes, the holiday season and the cold weather are going to make it tough to stay on track, but staying active and eating healthily will not only help you feel better but also give you a head start in the new year."