Monday, February 1, 2016

Small Unit: Eat to Train and Race

by Sue Aquila

Kilojoules don’t lie.

One of the reasons I love my power meter is that regardless of my weight, height or bad attitude, it will display the work I have completed in kilojoules. Without boring you with the science, a kilojoule equals roughly a calorie of energy found in food.

When I started my triathlon journey, my goal during long course events was to learn to consume half the kilojoules per hour in calories. As a novice, 34g of carbohydrates (150 calories) per hour worked fine. I could even process some protein at this level.

As I improved, the kilojoules per hour that I burned steadily climbed. My nutrition plan stopped working. I found myself nauseated, under fueled and thirsty. I decided to research fueling and ended up reading Nancy Clark, Asker Jeukendrop and Monique Ryan, among others.

My focus changed from consuming calories to consuming the optimal number of assorted transportable grams of carbohydrates (research has identified a “sweet” spot of 75 grams of mixed carbs per hour). The most important part of the research? You could train your stomach to consume more grams of carbohydrates. I was suddenly no longer ruled by the tyranny of the kilojoules.

With some practice and trying multiple nutrition products, I learned to consume 75 grams (more than 300 calories) per hour at race pace. I was now coming off the bike ready and excited to run.

How do I fuel my training? For any workout over two hours (or a combination of workouts over three hours) I consume a minimum of 42 grams of carbs per hour (.71 grams of carb per kilogram of body weight). If the workout is intense I fuel with a minimum of 75 grams of carbohydrates per hour (1.27g/kg). A short TT? I will use a 10-second carbohydrate mouth rinse.

As a small unit, at race weight since April, competing frequently, I have found a system that works for me. Almost all of it is based on science and tested with my performance. I have not been ill once this year. I eat a standard diet daily and will happily go out to a restaurant for weekly date night.

I believe strong is fast but lean and strong is fastest. I don’t believe there are wrong foods, just poor choices or bad timing. Whenever possible I choose organic. If not organic, I default to local. Other foods I eat regularly:

  • Fat - I consume small amounts of avocado, real butter, olive oil, coconut oil and eggs.
  • Nuts - I like pistachios for their salt and almonds for their fiber. I limit my eating to a small handful. And my hands are small!
  • Chocolate - I love a small piece of dark chocolate (85% or more cocoa) at night.
  • Dairy - I enjoy full fat yogurt, usually with berries.
  • Protein - I eat eggs, chicken, grass fed beef, beans, lentils, etc.
  • Kale - My favorite vegetable. I eat huge kale salads. Most dinners are multicolored salads with lots of dark leafy greens and a protein.
  • Berries - Any berry will do and I love them for healthy snacks.
  • Beets - I enjoy them roasted and juiced.
  • Espresso is required. Frequently.
  • Hot sauce - Srichacha sauce and kimchi can make any food pop!

What is different for a small unit? My portion sizes. I love food but I have learned at 130 lbs (59 kg) that I can’t eat like other people. If someone else is having the large steak, I order the petite. You eat the whole sweet potato? I eat half. You get a beer with dinner? I sip from your glass (but only if I know you really well). You order the medium cone? I get the child size cone (and yes, I am bitter about it at times!).

The key for my performance gains this season and ability to train at a high level is being well fueled. As small units, we don’t require a lot of energy and can actually train and race quite well on little to no calories. But, if you aspire for greater performances, then you must learn to stoke the engine. Being well fueled for me is the difference between a good day and a great day!


Sue started her triathlon journey with a 50lb weight loss and continues as a Kona qualifier. As a successful entrepreneur, she believes that, “You can run your business like your training and your training like your business!” As a coach (USAT Certified), she helps athletes to develop success in all areas of their lives: family, health and work. She blogs regularly at fewoman.com. You can find her on Twitter @fewoman.
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