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Metabolic Efficiency and the Plant-based Endurance Athlete – Dina Griffin @ eNRG

Metabolic Efficiency and the Plant-based Endurance Athlete
Dina Griffin, MS, RD, CSSD, METS II
Sport Dietitian
Certified Level II Metabolic Efficiency Training Specialist
Metabolic Efficiency and the Plant-based Endurance Athlete
Before we get into the “meat” of this article, let it be known that I am not trying to cause any controversy or debate as to whether vegetarian or vegan nutrition patterns are superior or inferior to omnivorous patterns.  There are many reasons athletes choose to follow plant-based patterns such as ethical, moral, spiritual, and/or health reasons; there are also many militant perspectives to try to persuade you one direction or another.  The purpose of this article is to highlight a few concerns for vegetarian and vegan endurance athletes from a sport dietitian perspective and to provide a short Metabolic Efficiency case study on a recent female athlete with whom I worked.
*Abbreviation you will see throughout this article:  PBEA = plant-based endurance athlete
For those who need a clarification on “vegan”vs. “vegetarian”, here is a brief description:
  • Vegan:  Avoids all animal foods, animal by-products and any food that contains any animal-derived food in it. This means no meat, poultry, dairy, fish, or eggs in any form or contained in any other food (such as baked goods). True vegan followers avoid honey, animal broths, and gelatin.
  • Vegetarian:  There are different “levels”such as those who permit eggs, dairy, or fish. All other animal foods are avoided.
Next, let us highlight some issues and concerns in the context of plant-based nutrition patterns.
Protein
While true there are ample plant-based sources of protein, I can report that many of the PBEAs with whom I have worked truly have inadequate protein intakes.  Following nutrition periodization principles, there are certain times of the training year (and within certain types of training blocks) where protein needs are increased based on the volume and intensity of training. This is a common area where I see PBEAs struggle or are simply unaware of their body’s needs.  This particularly holds true for athletes who are restricting their dietary intake to pursue weight loss. Protein intakes can range from 1.2-2.5 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.55-1.1 grams per pound of body weight) depending on health and training. This can be difficult to achieve for some PBEAs, especially if they have several food “dislikes”and are not a fan of cooking.
Tips:
  • Know your protein sources.  For vegan followers, these include the general categories of legumes (beans, peanuts, lentils, peas, etc.; try sprouting to improve the nutrient profile and digestibility), nuts/seeds, nut/seed butters, soy foods, whole grains, seitan, spirulina, sprouts and protein powders. Yes, there is protein in vegetables (such as leafy greens), but you must eat A LOT of vegetables. Vegetarians have more flexibility in protein sources if including eggs and dairy.
  • Vary your protein sources.  This may seem like an obvious one, but I see countless PBEAs who eat the same thing every day with little variety.  Know that not all proteins are the same, meaning the amino acid content can be quite variable. There are “indispensable”amino acids which must come from dietary sources since the body cannot make them. Supplementation of amino acids may be necessary, especially for ultra PBEAs or those in strength-building training blocks.
  • Keep it clean. It’s interesting how many PBEAs eat processed and refined foods for their protein sources, yet these items can be loaded with fillers and synthetic ingredients. Do the body better by keeping your protein sources as simple as possible.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
 
If you are a PBEA who is an ultra runner, long course triathlete, or a female, micronutrient deficiencies are more common than you realize.
Tips:
  • Work with a board certified sport dietitian who can assess your nutrition intake and physical training patterns. Food choices can be optimized to enhance the micronutrient quality. Appropriate supplementation can be recommended as it fits your own specific needs.
  • Get regular blood work. The blood work you get with your typical annual physical is rarely adequate for PBEAs. Seek guidance from a board certified sport dietitian so that appropriate labs can be ordered.
  • Variety in food intake will help.  If you refuse to follow the above tips, then I strongly recommend you get into the habit of eating a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
A Metabolic Efficiency Case Study:  The Female Vegetarian Endurance Athlete
 
Many PBEAs assume that to improve metabolic efficiency (how your body uses fat and carbohydrate as an energy source at rest and during exercise), you have to convert to omnivore patterns and eat gobs of steak. While omnivores have more flexibility in food choices to facilitate metabolic efficiency, it is not necessary to begin eating animal proteins to make an impact on how your body uses its fuel sources. The underlying “trick”is to learn how to put together foods to stabilize blood sugar levels throughout daily eating.
Meet “Dee”, a female marathoner in her 50s who is a lacto-ovo vegetarian (no soy). Her goals were to find out her metabolic efficiency (M.E.) level and to lose weight.  Her daily nutrition resembled this prior to beginning the M.E. journey:
  • breakfast: coffee, bagel, cream cheese prior to run OR 2 eggs with wheat toast if no run
  • post-run: baked good from coffee shop
  • lunch: veggie dog on wheat bun with ketchup, mustard
  • snack: nonfat greek yogurt
  • dinner: “fake” meat with spaghetti or risotto or pizza
This is her M.E. test data before making any nutrition changes:
As you can see in the graph, Dee was unable to utilize fat as a predominant energy source in her running paces.  After the testing, we reviewed her food preferences and devised strategies for her to begin changing her food combinations to promote M.E.  Her new nutrition day resembled more of this:
  • breakfast:  oats/quinoa with walnuts + 1 egg before run OR eggs, veggies, cheese if no run
  • snack: full-fat greek yogurt with berries
  • lunch: wheat tortilla with beans, seitan, veggies, avocado or cheese
  • snack: almonds
  • dinner: roasted veggies or salad with a whole grain and protein source such as BeyondMeat or legumes
A blood workup found that Dee was headed towards iron deficiency anemia. She also had low levels of vitamin B12, zinc, and vitamin D. This explained some of the fatigue and sluggishness she had felt during her recent training runs. Dietary suggestions were made in addition to providing her supplementation recommendations.
Dee continued with her running program, which involved 4-5 days of training per week. When she returned to the eNRG performance facility for her second M.E. test 4 months later, she had lost 9 pounds. She reported feeling stronger for her runs and having good energy throughout her days.  Here are the results of her second M.E. test:
Through her training and her dietary changes, her Metabolic Efficiency Point moved to within her targeted marathon goal pace. She ended up with a new PR and reports feeling in great health with the M.E. lifestyle.
In summary, if you are a PBEA, I recommend working with a sport dietitian who can assess your needs (in conjunction with your goals) and guide you towards optimal health within your food preference parameters. Improvements in Metabolic Efficiency can align with your health and performance goals with further dietary and training fine-tuning.  To all of the PBEAs out there, give it a try!
-Dina
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Metabolic Efficiency Part 2–The Weight is Coming Off!

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So I started this whole Metabolic Efficiency thing at 243lbs back on July 21st and since then I’m down to 226lbs.  I knew the basics to it, burn more fat for fuel instead of carbohydrate.  I knew that it didn’t include counting calories.  I knew that it included the whole low-carb high fat diet.   I had my doubts about it, because it went against everything that you learn from personal training and in terms of fueling the body during long endurance sports.   I also know that 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories of energy and 1 gram of carbohydrate gives you 4.  So you have more than 2 times the amount of energy in fat then carbohydrate.  However, your bodies preferred method of energy is carbohydrate.

So how am I going to get my body to burn more fat and less carbs… well decrease the carbs and increase the fats!   Been doing this for 2 weeks now, and surprisingly I’m eating more spinach, squash, zucchini, and kale then I ever have before.   I’m eating more fish (I try not to eat beef, pork, or chicken), and I’ve reintroduced actually bacon and butter back into my diet!   Little did I know that even though I’m eating tons of greens/carbs I never really knew how low value of carbs they were and filling.   Stuffing my face with spinach and kale (about 2-4 ounces) every day is hard work.  You can see from my MFP (My Fitness Pal) screenshot that I eat… a lot.

MFP

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In doing so, I’ve actually started to become accustom to finding that I’m enjoying cooking more, and looking at more veggies, and the side effect is little to no sugar!  So you can see that even with 80 grams of carbs I’m still getting most of my energy from “healthy” fat sources.  You can see on there avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, and butter.   Now keep in mind yes I’m under my calorie goal by MFP… I don’t count calories so I couldn’t care less about it.

So what about my performance during my workouts?  Let’s just say that I can go 2 hours without needing anything besides maybe water and electrolyte salts on a hot day.  How do I know this?   Well I got a Metabolic Efficiency Profile test does that tells me what % fat vs carbohydrate I’m burning at various intensities.   I now know that if my heart rate is cruising at 151 (Z2) I’m burning roughly 75% of my calories from fat… and with 2000 calories of stored carbohydrate I’m going to go for a while.  If my HR is racing at 155 then I’m reaching that 50% cross over area where I’m getting half my energy from fat and from stored carbs.   So since I’m a slow runner I can now start increasing my effort while trying to maximize my fat burning engine so I don’t need to worry about all those sugar based drinks and gu’s out there that could cause all those wonderful GI issues.  So what do I take on those long training days that are 2+ hours?   I hate Generation UCAN, which is a super starch designed not to spike your insulin levels so you can keep burning fat, and not sugar.  Yeah it can get a bit goopy but so far, it’s working out great!

So now that the science behind it is out of the way, I’m 2 weeks into it.   I haven’t felt any energy crashes.  I raced Solana Beach Triathlon on nothing but water and felt great the entire time.  Took 4th in my division, I’m ok with that cause once again I’ve been training for an Ironman, not a Sprint.  I’m down almost 14lbs, mostly fat.  I’m sitting at approximately 18% BF and I’m feeling like things are falling into place.  Putting on some muscle to get some power back on the bike and I’ve never really ran at this weight for a long time so I’m going to be curious to see how my body adapts to being not just lighter but leaner.

59 Days and Counting till IMAZ… WTF IM #2?

Time is flying by and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts that I am ready for this.  The days are slowing ticking away and my mantra lately has been “This Ironman isn’t going to train for itself buddy.”  I’m biking longer than I ever have before  and enjoying it.  This past Saturday while I was out on a 4.5 hour bike ride it was around mile 70 where I thought to myself that man 20 miles seemed so long back when I signed up for IMAZ.   Now 20 miles just seems like a warm up.  Now with me really having the confidence in not blowing up on the bike I can start getting in more running as well which I’ve totally been slacking on.

I really need to break this mental barrier of running is punishment again.  Today after a 75 minute spin class I went out on a 2.5 mile run and had the best times in a long time and surprisingly in the heat and humidity I felt great (Yeah I just said that).   I opened up my stride a bit more but watched my cadence go from 79/80 to 76/78 but my HR instead of riding that 147 BPM line dropped to 138/140 BPM.  I was lower in my Z2 and my avg times per mile dropped from a 10:30 min/mile to a 9:31 min/mile.  Now I did have to walk once to stretch the hip flexor a bit but then chugged along.   It kind of has me wondering now if trying to get the shorter steps and higher cadence was back firing for me since I have longer legs.   I’ll monitor some of the longer runs to see what’s going on with that.

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On another note yes I signed up for IM Canada as well.  WTF was I think is the first thing that comes to mind but I must be honest.   The course looks absolutely awesome and I’ve heard excellent peer reviews of it.  So why not?   This is in July so it works perfectly for my St. George 70.3 in the beginning of May.  At first I didn’t think I’d like some of the longer IM training but it’s kind of growing on me in a sadistic way.

It’s Been a Week of Hills!

GiroMaybe it’s been 2 weeks of hills, I’m not really sure at this point as everything is running together.  There have been both physical and mental hills that have brought me up and down, but it’s all part of becoming an Ironman right?  You learn to juggle the demands of your work, social, and training lifestyles as volume pick up and move you to what you once thought those limits are.  Slowly as you approach them you start to feel that you get that anxious feeling in your gut and you press on.  You slowly move past your previous limits and the confidence builds as you start to explorer the space you didn’t know existed.

So last Saturday I swim buddied at the San Diego Triathlon Classic.  I was supposed to race in this race but after careful thought with my Ironman training it just wasn’t a good fit.  Especially since I had a 105 mile ride from Solana Beach up Mt. Palomar the following day.  So putting the pride aside I went and rode with this great girl who is also training for IMAZ at a slow pace for a few hours (probably not the brightest thing cause of the 105 mile ride the next day).  Either way we had fun and it was great time…… I guess you might call it an Irondate!  Then later that night I got my run in… again this was not a good idea.  The upside was I ate a TON of carbs!

WP_20140906_003My athlete Rhonda who just did her first ever triathlon back in May finally reached the podium Saturday as well.  She took 3rd in the Athena division which she earned.  The Tri Classic was her A race and she even surprised herself.  You can follow her journey on her Facebook page “Living Instead of Existing”.  She didn’t know it at the time but I decided to stay and watch her finish and cheer her on going across that finish line.  I’m proud of her her finding this new found love of not just triathlon but being competitive.  As I’ve been a mentor for her the goal for this season was for her to just have fun and enjoy the sport, clearly it is.   Next season will be pushing a bit more (like I haven’t done enough of that) for some possible podium spots in the Athena Masters and also increasing 1 or 2 races to Olympic distances in her preparation for a 70.3 early 2016 with possible IMAZ 2016.

palomarSo now to Sunday’s fun…it really wasn’t much fun.  It sucked and it sucked a lot.  Started at 6Am 1 whole hour early and I knew there would be hills and a damn mountain so I used my road bike (I think I should have kept to my tri bike).  My road bike is an aluminum frame which I refer to as a tank.  I’ve had that thing for almost 5 years and never once had to change a tire or tube.  I put thousands of miles on it and it truly is a tank.  I knew I was going to be slow and I knew it was going to be a 9+ hour ride.  Yes you see that big mountain in the middle of the elevation chart that was a 7-8% grade for 11+ miles?  I had to ride up it and the gearing on my road bike in it’s easiest gear was a lovely 4 MPH avg going up it.  I’m not going to lie I wanted to quit going up and just go downhill.  My brain was telling me to quit and just turn around but my legs just kept peddling up even as I saw friends of mine going down.  I stopped and let my HR go back down since the sun was beating down on me and climbing up hill keeps me in my Z4 and Z5 for long periods of time.  On these stops I made the mistake of looking at my map on my phone and talk about the longest mile.. I thought to myself man I’m going 4 MPH this is going to take me 15 damn minutes to get to the top this is just dumb and why did I do this.   It was about this time that my legs wouldn’t let me turn around that I finally caught up to my buddy Marcus and I thought to myself that if he can do this than so can I.  Finally made it to the top with him and another guy named Steve.   10702229_715504185206710_5231643471898073495_nWe caught the girls just before they went down it was a fun quick reunion (I hated all of them at this point because they beat me and weigh half of what I do.)  It was at this time where mother nature decided to shower on us.. A LOT!  Yeah that wall of rain was what I went through on the way down.  My friend Carrie happened to snap this picture as she was going up and I was going down.  At the end of the day we all got across the finish line we got our medals we endured mother nature’s 100+ heat and flash flooding.  Congratulations to everyone we made it out alive and our legs truly do hate us now.

I heard someone say that after 6 hours of straight exercising something happens to you.  They are right and it’s different for everyone and for me it was interesting that it was my legs that kept me going forward and not quitting when everything that I read and listed to told me it would be my body that was telling me to quick and it would be my mind telling me to stop.  I felt that urge to want to keep going, that confidence that you can do this.  You can finish it.  People still call me crazy and say that this is not normal behavior.  I would have said the same thing 3 years ago as well.  But for me this is becoming the new normal and I like it.  One of the best choices I made in my life was losing weight and getting outside of my comfort zone of inside the bar.

Life Time Tri: Minneapolis–Race Report

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Well I’m halfway through my season of travelling for races and man it got here fast.  Strangely enough this felt like my hometown race.  My family from my mom’s side live in Minneapolis and while only a few of them made it out to the race.   Everyone made it to the BBQ we had later that day, and that’s really what made this trip for me.  I rarely get to race with my family watching so it was extra important that I had a smile on my face and that I got over that finish line not looking like death.

This race was unique for me and I had a lot of small challenges to overcome.  First was the weather.  It was rainy every day I was there except for the day after the race and then it was awesome.  During the race it was muggy and humid, and the course had a lot of mud.  The Twin Cities have been getting rained on so there were lots of flooded area’s around town and the ground was completely soaked.  Second was that I rented a road bike.  I didn’t have time to really get some saddle time before the race thanks to the rain.  So during the race I couldn’t really feel my butt past mile 13 or 14.  I also couldn’t really get into any aero position which means I was catching wind like a sail!   The other stuff wasn’t as important because I was mainly there to just have fun.

The Swim:
No wetsuit this time  While the water was warm I didn’t feel the need for a wetsuit and went about swimming without one.  The water was warm so I took advantage of it.   The start was a time trial start so they had us in pairs going into the water every 3-5 seconds rather than 1 big wave.  The entry was a beach start which was cool because I didn’t have to wait behind everyone else wadding through the water.   I got plenty of good leaps in and off I went.  During the leaps I passed 4 people just inching out.  I didn’t even get a swim buddy that I could draft off of in this race and there was a lot of jostling of elbows and kicks that where way off.  I will say this swimming in fresh water for a change is nice.  I don’t have salt crust on the face during the bike.

The Bike:
It’s been over a year since I had to ride a road bike during a triathlon so I knew it was going to be an experience.  The course was very scenic and it went through parts of Minneapolis I didn’t know even existed.  Seems the road crew didn’t either cause there were potholes, creases, and horrible divots through the entire ride.  I couldn’t seem to pickup much speed either cause after mile 13 or so I could no longer feel but butt.  The only reason it was still there was that every single bump I hit I could feel it.  I couldn’t even get into the aero position for the ride which felt really weird to me.  Of course spectators love to cross the street as bikes are going through and I almost hit a few of them but ended up in the oncoming lane of traffic to avoid them.  I’m lucky I didn’t get in a serious accident with other athletes.

The Run:
Well this was a 2 loop course around the lake I just swam in.  It was filled with water from the rains and mud from the soaked grass.  It was pretty humid and muggy out so it felt like I was running through a lake.  Not to mention it was hot without the sun even being out.  Thankfully I had a lot of fun and looking back it wasn’t all that bad.  There was another guy going across the finish with me and we both looked at each other and said lets smile and sprint it through.  So we did complete with smiles and a hi five afterwards.

The End:
Well I might do this race again next year or the Maple Grove Triathlon.  It was nice to see family and had fun exploring the trails that Minneapolis has to offer.   Till next year.

Where Did the Time Go?–3 weeks into IMAZ Training already!

It really got here before I knew it, and I would by full of it if I didn’t say that I’m a bit terrified.  Let’s be honest though, when you embark on the stuff you truly want to accomplish it is supposed to be terrifying.  That’s what makes the accomplishment that much sweeter.  I’m 2 weeks late in starting this blog post due to things coming up and trying to stick to training as much as possible.

The last 3 weeks have been a whirlwind of training, traveling, racing, and helping others reach their goals.  I’m writing this as I get ready to head to Minnesota this week for a race out there.  I have family out there so I’ll be able to stay with them and I’ll have a car as well to travel around.  The upside to Minneapolis is that it’s super bike friendly so I plan to do a LOT of cycling.  I’m excited for my family to be able to get out there and watch me race and I’m excited to see them. I grew up on the west coast for the most part and missed a lot of my family growing up and now as we’ve all gotten older we just don’t get time to spend together much.

My training for the most part has been on track however I don’t feel like I’m where I should be.   Part of that is because of my break for the month of June.   I think my run for the most part suffered the biggest set back and I need to get it back.  However when I look at the numbers though it’s my aerobic endurance that is gone.  Training for short course racing is all about speed and power over the short course instead of a steady pace.  So what does that mean for me?  More longer runs and bikes at a steady Z2 pace to get that endurance built up again.   What does it mean for my short course races coming up?   Well it means that I’m going to look at them as training and keep myself at a solid pace.

Also got to see my friend Rhonda complete her 2nd triathlon the weekend of my ITU Race.  She has come a long way and it’s pretty cool to see the effect that I have had on her.  From believing that she could do her first triathlon before October to now looking at training for her 3rd triathlon in September.   I’ve found it’s very rewarding personally to watch people accomplish what they once thought they couldn’t.

Why do I feel like Forrest Gump?

So I’ve commit to running at least a 5K everyday through the end of May.  Everyone knows that running just isn’t my strength and it’s a bad weakness in the sport of Triathlon.  So the way to get better at it is to increase the volume you run on a weekly basis.  Yes I know but it will only build your aerobic endurance and not your over all speed.  I know this but the speed will come, the speed will come.

When I first started running back in the good ole fat boy days it was all about trying to be fast.  I’d run well into my Z4 or Z5 until I couldn’t do it and then I’d have to walk to recover.  To translate what Z4 and Z5 is for people… it’s heart rate training zones.  I was basically flooring the gas pedal and then once the gas in the tank was gone I’d have to wait for it to fill up.  I did this and slowly watched my average mile times inch lower and lower with this run/walk technique.  I really didn’t have a concept of building my aerobic base.  I thought I was doing the right thing, but it didn’t really click till I ran the Rock N Roll San Diego Half Marathon back in June of 2013.  I found that if I kept my run consistent and my HR around 140-150 that I could run the entire thing.  For some reason though it didn’t really stick and I couldn’t really explain why that number seemed to work for me.  In fact I wrote a blog post about it here, and I go on to explain it a bit more but I didn’t really fully comprehend what was going on.  Well now I do and I’ve known it back from my test at The Fit Stop and now since I’m in a building phase for IMAZ I can really focus on it.   It’s a bit depressing to know that my Z2 pace is 10:30 according to the numbers but as my body becomes more efficient at burning fat for fuel and my body adapts the pace will get better.  Again I have to trust the training.

So then what got me away from that HR training if it clicked back then?  The answer is simple I got more concerned with the per mile pace instead of efficiency.  That’s been my biggest hurdle is worrying about those pace numbers.  As I have a training plan for my ITU Chicago race that has speed work in cause it’s an Olympic Distance I’m still increasing the volume as I build a big base for IMAZ.   Yeah I’m crazy but it’s going to be fun.  Now if only I can stick to the diet aspect.  I went overboard during the week off and I’ve been skipping some days last week.  Well that’s going to have to stop.  I have to drop 25lbs of fat still, but the increase in volume at my Z2 pace should assist with it.