BALANCE IN THE OFF-SEASON
By- Erin Green, Professional Triathlete & Registered Dietitian
Many call it the off-season. Maybe you refer to it as post-season, or my personal fave, SKI SEASON! No matter how you slice it, this time of year usually allows for a more relaxed approach toward fitness so that you might catch up with old friends…and perhaps old foods…that the rigors of triathlon season held ransom for months.
Now, I’m no fuddy-duddy when it comes to embracing a much-needed break and letting go of some of the type-A discipline it takes to race competitively. However, I am a proponent of moderation. The ambiguity of such a term can leave people drifting in an uncomfortable void of nutrition uncertainty. Explicit food rules can seem like an easier approach. Beer was off-limits during training, so it is to be enjoyed in surfeit now. Saying no to desserts is something that is done during the season, so the holidays should be a smorgasbord of sugar before training ramps up again. There’s no structured, critical workout tomorrow, so nutrition isn’t as paramount of a concern today.
Catching a pattern here? Thinking in such black and white nutrition terms may seem like the easiest way to manage weight when attempting to reach peak fitness. But there are lasting implications of this restrictive-indulgent eating cycle.
The athlete’s body needs to achieve an energy surplus in order to fully recover from the rigors of a hard season. A good target is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4%-8% gain above race weight in the off-season. However, there are those athletes who over-shoot this mark and put on a substantial winter adipose layer beyond what is necessary for recovery. A pattern of substantial weight gain followed by whittling down to race weight again is termed “weight cycling” and has been shown to have a host of lasting negative effects on metabolism and cardiovascular health. In fact, athletes who practice weight cycling may have a higher risk of obesity later in life.
What is it about training that makes athletes lose their rationality? I have heard countless athletes describe their eating habits during their training season as “clean,” or “focused.” Granted, sound nutrition practices are paramount to peak performance (otherwise I’d be out of a job). Where sound practices go wrong, though, is when they turn into a compulsion to eat perfectly in every situation. Often this intense focus on eating habits is precipitated by a need to reel in some erratic eating behaviors. Prolong this extreme discipline and the urgent desire (or need?) to indulge ultimately follows. Thus the cycle continues. No wonder athletes are at a higher risk for disordered eating than non-athletes.
As mentioned above, moderation can be a tough term for people to apply to eating. But it is the key to a balanced, healthful relationship with food. Unless you have an allergy or symptomatic intolerance, NO food should be completely off-limits. Ever. With the athlete’s Type-A personality and ambitions, a couple foods being considered taboo can easily expand to entire food groups, which inevitably eliminates essential nutrients from the diet. In my practice, athletes have reported eliminating dairy, grains, even fruit from their diets. When asked why, the enigmatic reply usually indicates they’re not entirely sure what benefit they’re reaping from such restriction. Yet they are committed to doing it.
On the opposite end, we have the off-season gluttony that encompasses any and all food. The problem is that when people lift arbitrary “food rules” from their diets they tend to focus on all the wrong kinds of foods to include while they can. Fast food, baked goods, alcohol, excessive red meats or processed snack foods are common culprits. Your body doesn’t know that it’s the off-season. It just knows it’s not getting the fiber, vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly and stave off chronic disease.
Balance it Out
The athlete’s off-season certainly should be enjoyed and it is expected that eating practices may be a bit more indulgent during the holidays. Be mindful about where to spend those indulgences and how often. Lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are still needed for your body to function properly. You’re a human being first, and an athlete second. Help prepare your body for the next round of training and racing by feeding it well year-round.
Thanks for reading - Erin Green
1. Nieman D. Weight cycling of athletes and subsequent weight gain in middleage. Yearbook of Sports Medicine. 2007;2007:227-229. doi:10.1016/s0162-0908(08)70183-1.
2. Matt F. 5 Ways to Avoid Unwanted Offseason Weight. ACTIVEcom. Available at: http://www.active.com/running/articles/5-ways-to-avoid-unwanted-offseason-weight. Accessed December 2, 2015.
3. Sundgot-Borgen J, Torstveit M. Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Elite Athletes Is Higher Than in the General Population. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2004;14(1):25-32. doi:10.1097/00042752-200401000-00005.
5. Seebohar B. Common Nutrition Myths of the Offseason. USA Triathlon. Available at: http://www.usatriathlon.org/about-multisport/multisport-zone/fuel-station/articles/common-nutrition-myths-offseason-010813.aspx. Accessed December 14, 2015.
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