Every triathlete knows that weight matters. To perform at your best in events, you need to get your body weight down toward the low end of your personal healthy range. In practical terms, that means getting rid of excess body fat, leaving only the fat your body needs to function optimally.
It’s a simple concept, but most triathletes have as hard a time actually reaching their ideal racing weight as many overweight non-athletes have achieving their own weight-loss goals. One of the reasons triathletes struggle to get as lean as they want to be is that they try to prioritise fat loss and race-focused fitness building simultaneously. While athletes typically burn off some excess body fat
in the course of preparing for events, the best diet and exercise programme for fat loss is different from the best diet and exercise programme for race preparation. Therefore it’s best to keep the two agendas somewhat separate.
When you’re increasing your training to get ready to race, your top nutritional priority is fuelling your body adequately for performance in workouts and for recovery between workouts. Rationing your calories too strictly in an effort to cut weight while gaining fitness is likely to leave your body under-fuelled and struggling to perform and recover. The most effective way to quickly shed excess body fat is to combine a daily calorie deficit with a balanced, manageable workout programme that won’t be compromised by careful calorie rationing.
In short, the weight-loss phase of your calendar should be kept largely distinct from the race-preparation phase. A sensible approach is to prioritise fat loss during a four- to eight-week racing weight “quick start” phase that immediately precedes the beginning of a race-focused training cycle in which building fitness becomes your new top priority.
Within a quick start, your diet and training should differ from your diet and training within the race-preparation phase in five key ways.
1. Moderate calorie deficit
To lose weight you must consume fewer calories than your body burns each day. In a quick start, your daily calorie deficit needs to be large enough to promote fairly rapid loss of excess body fat, yet not so large that you lack sufficient energy to perform well in your workouts. The calorie deficit “sweet spot” is 200 to 400 calories per day. Such a deficit would be too large in periods of heavy training for races, but it’s perfect for quick starts, when your training load is lower.
To calculate how many calories you need to eat daily in a quick start, first determine exactly how many calories your body burns each day and then subtract your desired deficit from that number.
2. Strength training
During a quick start you should make a greater commitment to strength training than you do within the race-preparation phase. Research has shown that when a calorie deficit is combined with strength training, nearly all of the resulting weight loss is actual fat loss. When a calorie deficit is not combined with strength training, weight loss is equal but body fat loss is less, because muscle mass is lost too.
3. Increased protein intake
While carbohydrate is king within the training cycle, I recommend switching to a high-protein diet—getting as much as 30 per cent of your daily calories from protein—during the several weeks of a quick start. Protein is the most filling nutrient, and research has shown that “dieters” experience significantly less hunger when they combine a calorie/ deficit with increased protein intake. A high-protein diet will also enhance the fat-burning and muscle-sparing effects of your strength training.
Xendurance protein contains 20g protein per serving, so is ideal for helping to increase protein intake.
4. Fasting workouts
A fasting workout is a long, moderate- intensity ride or run undertaken in a fasted state—that is, without a meal beforehand and without carbohydrate consumption during the session. When you deprive your muscles of carbohydrate in a long workout they burn a lot more fat. Such workouts also boost general fat-burning capacity. I suggest you perform one fasting workout per week during quick starts, alternating between rides and runs.
5. Sprint intervals
When personal trainers work with non-athlete clients seeking weight loss, they do not have these clients perform multi-hour rides and runs. Instead they have them perform very short, very high-intensity sprint intervals. (For example, 20 stationary bike sprints lasting 20 seconds each.) Research has demonstrated that sprint intervals promote a high rate of fat burning in the hours that follow the session through a phenomenon known as EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). Also, relatively unfit individuals tend to tolerate them very well—it’s easier for the out-of-shape to do a bunch of short sprints than a very long cardio workout at lower intensity.
Sprint intervals are also ideal fat- burning workouts for triathletes engaging in a quick start. Your training volume is necessarily lower during a quick start than it is during the race-preparation phase. You can’t maintain maximum training volume year-round, or you’ll burn out. Obviously, the higher your training volume is, the more calories your burn. So when your training volume is lower, as it is in a quick start, you need to burn calories in alternative ways.
Sprint interval sessions are the per- fect alternative. No other type of work promotes more fat burning on a per-minute basis. And while sprint intervals are challenging, they won’t put you at risk of burning out. In fact, they will give you a solid fitness foundation to build on in the race-preparation phase that follows.
I recommend performing one set of sprint intervals in each of the three triathlon disciplines every week throughout a quick start. Note that running sprints are safest to do on a steep hill, as this reduces the risk of hamstring strains.
Putting it all together
To complete a successful quick start, you must create meal plans that hit your daily calorie target and your 30 per cent protein target simultaneously. You’ll also need to design a sensible training plan that combines strength workouts, fasting workouts, and power intervals, plus the right amount of aerobic filler. It’s not so hard, and there are resources available (such as Calorieking.com for the calorie- counting piece) to guide you through each of these steps.