When it comes to sport and what makes people ‘good’ at a particular sport, many things influence this. Age, experience, genetics to name a few; however one of the most important and influential component is physiology or how we are built.
Look at sport all around the world and you see a huge contrast in body shapes and sizes. Some sport are very specific in ‘ideal’ body composition, for instance elite marathon runners. Other sports benefit from athletes having varying body types for different roles particularly in team sports where it may help to have bigger, stronger athletes along with smaller, faster and more agile athletes.
Triathlon is another level again. It’s an individual sport requiring athletes to prepare for three disciplines being swim, ride and run and at varying distances where different body types excel not only at particular disciplines but at the different distances. This in itself is unique compared to other sports.
Coming from the running mentality of lighter is better and cutting my teeth on IM over the last 10 years I’ve done a lot of experimenting, particularly over the last 4-5 years with varying degrees of frustration and success.
Eating your way to the finishing line
Diets I've tried include:
- gluten free
- high carb/ low fat
- high fat /low carb
- high fat/high carb
- fasting (both in and out of full IM training)
- calorie restricting
- fat adapting
And there is probably more. Now those that know me will tell you that I like my food and the real reason I’ve played around with all these varying methods is because I’ve read benefits of all the above however reading, doing and getting results can all be very different. I could for example confidently ride for 200k’s with absolutely no nutrition as I’ve taught my body to burn more fat (hydration is different in this case). It took a lot of time and patience. Would I be able to do it as fast as what I ride in an IM whilst fueling myself? Absolutely not. My point is not about fuelling during training (what you’re eating whilst running or riding) I’m talking about what you’re eating between sessions and how you’re fueling your body for training.
Hindsight is always 20/20
During my first Kona I learnt a valuable lesson; I was too light and was on the knife edge of what my body could handle. I was very volatile in training in terms of my energy levels, I would have good days and bad days as we all do; however it was very inconsistent and looking back I honestly struggled to string good consistent weeks of training together because of it. It was most evident riding as the duration is naturally longer whereas you can ‘fake’ feeling OK or skimping on fuel for a 2.5hr run.
I didn’t try to be a particular weight however I was very particular with what I ate outside of training. Always ate what I perceived as ‘clean’ foods which as it turns out are not very calorie dense. The problem with eating food that isn’t calorie dense is you have to eat a hell of a lot of it and it can be a real struggle to get enough calories in to fill your quota for energy requirements.
A few months ago I reflected on what I thought needed changing to help me race better. Training wise there wasn’t that much I could have done more and I had my race nutrition down pat. I decided that I was going to experiment with my weight by gaining a few extra kilos in order to have my tank full. Being sensible about it and knowing there is a tipping point of putting too much weight on which will make performance go backwards.
After a few months I had gained around 7kg and started to notice a change. Training was going great and my energy levels were very consistent throughout. I didn’t bomb out on any long session as I had in previous preps and in fact seemed to be handling the work load better than ever before. Yes other factors like training consistency, experience etc play apart however jumping on the scales after long sessions (valuable to monitor hydration) and still being 3kg more than what I use to start races at, I have no doubt I just had more energy to use rather than running on empty.
Taking extra weight into a race
Whilst perusing my experiment I was able to secure a spot in the Cairns IM and decided to continue with the extra weight all the way through to race day. Again I found that I just had more strength to give in longer sessions and deeper into the prep when carrying fatigue. The only real effect of ‘slowing’ I noticed was top end running speed but hey, who needs that when you’re running an IM. Needless to say I had a solid day at Cairns and a big part of this I attribute to racing and training at a ‘smarter’ weight to allow my body to function without thinking it was going to run out of fuel.
Aesthetics vs performance
So take a look at the top performers in IM racing and their body compositions. Yes there are very lean people and when the conditions are favourable you can sometimes get away with this. Turn up the intensity of the conditions and that’s where you see all the ‘layers’ get pulled back from the athletes to expose what’s really there. Those without as many ‘layers’ in those conditions just get exposed earlier.
So do you want to look like a 'good' athlete or get the most out of your body and get the best result?
Be smart about your body composition particularly when training for Ironman distance events. Even in half iron distance events you can get away with things nutritionally that will just find you out in the full distance events. It’s easier in the winter to rug up for a ride and then take off layer because you are too hot rather than not wearing enough and freezing. The same applies for your body, better to have some extra and the option to lose some if needed than walking the tight rope where if you fall off, it can be a long way down.