USA Triathlon News Articles That Matter of Fat

That Matter of Fat

By Monique Ryan | Nov. 25, 2008, 4:24 p.m. (ET)

Triathletes often place a high value on a low level of body fat. Achieving an appropriately lean physique does allow you to move more quickly and efficiently when cycling or running, particularly on a hilly workout route or race course. Now that most triathletes are entering a transitional phase of training, this is a good time to determine and achieve appropriate body composition goals for the 2009 season. With a decrease in training volume and intensity, there is less chance of compromising the fuel stores needed for tough workouts as a result of cutting back.

For your best performance results, you should aim for your own ideal body composition, based on your physique, genetics, and training level. Trying to become excessively lean is not recommended as it poses negative risks regarding your health and performance. A thin athlete is not necessarily a strong athlete. Excess weight loss can result in loss of power and strength, while disordered eating can result from extreme weight loss efforts.

Fat check
Your ideal body fat should:

  • Not necessarily be associated with the minimum levels of elite triathletes
  • Account for individuality and genetics
  • Support a strong immune system and good health
  • Be associated with improved performance over time, not in the short term
  • Not require extreme dieting or training measures to maintain

During anytime in the season, the scale is best used for monitoring changes in fluid balance and muscle glycogen stores, so get an initial body composition assessment.

There are various techniques for checking body composition including hydrostatic or underwater weighting, air displacement or the Body Pod, bioelectrical impedance, and skin fold calipers. All of these are indirect measures of body fat and have a degree of error ranging from 2-4 percent.

Choose a method that is available to you throughout the season (same technique, same technician) so that you can monitor changes in fat and fat-free mass over time and have a qualified professional interpret your results and make recommendations.

You can set goals around both body fat loss and building muscle. Muscle burns at least twice as many calories as fat, even at rest.  

Metabolic check
To determine just how many calories you need to consume for weight loss, it could be helpful to have your resting metabolic rate (RMR) checked.

RMR is the amount of calories that your body needs to survive at a state of complete rest. RMR is determined by body composition, sex, age and genetics, and typically accounts for 60-70 percent of total energy expenditure. RMR can be estimated from equations but can actually vary among individuals, so an accurate check is best, particularly if you have history of struggling with weight loss. RMR can be measured at a performance laboratory or with the use of a metabolic cart.

Several companies have developed portable metabolic carts for RMR testing, and this service can be offered at a reasonable rate. Other calories factored into your energy expenditure come from daily activity (life, school, work), and of course training. You even burn some calories when burning, digesting, and absorbing food.

Training caloric expenditure can vary greatly, but during this transition time, may account for only modest calorie burning. Perhaps you have a heart rate monitor, power tap, or other device that allows you to estimate caloric output during various training sessions.

Your RMR, daily activity and training account for your daily calorie burning. While at best this represents an estimate, it does give you some ammunition for determining your energy requirements and then making a smart decision about cutting back. A sports dietitian also can help determine your energy needs for various types of training days.

Dietary Check
It is also important to lose weight or body fat the smart way. Regulation of body weight doesn’t always abide by seemingly rational rules and is actually a complicated and dynamic process. Reducing your caloric intake can cause your body to lower its resting metabolic rate. The greater the caloric cutback, the greater the RMR drop. Creating a daily caloric deficit of 300-500 calories or a weight loss of ½ to 1 pound weekly should not result in as great a drop in RMR.

During the transition phase, cutting back on calories from carbohydrate and protein should not compromise recovery, tissue repair and energy levels as it could during a build phase or race cycle. But during any training period, too low a carbohydrate intake can compromise your muscle glycogen stores and limit your ability to have a quality workout.

Some endurance workouts still could warrant paying close attention to recovery nutrition. For easier intensity and shorter training sessions, having carbohydrates before and during training is likely not as essential as during heavy training periods. But for more important workouts, still focus on nutrition around those training sessions, and decrease caloric intake away from the training session.

Training on no carbohydrates can increase fat burning for the session (not calorie burning), but likely would not be well tolerated during more demanding workouts and could compromise recovery and your immune system.

Protein should still be consumed prior to and after resistance training sessions to facilitate muscle building. At meals, stick with lean protein sources and keep portions modest at 3-6 ounces, as your protein needs are not as high during the transition phase. It is possible that your hunger levels may decrease with the drop in training.  

Healthy fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts and seeds, and avocado should still comprise part of your diet, but keep an eye on portions. More importantly, watch out for hidden fats in prepared foods and at restaurants.

One of the best ways to discover just where you should cut back is to keep a food journal. Look for sources of hidden fat, areas that could use some portion control, and some ongoing food habits that can trip you up in the weight and body fat loss department.

Research demonstrates again and again that ongoing food journal records can help you stick with your weight loss goals and nutrition plan. A few weeks can help you stay on track and make the new habits more permanent. There are also plenty of web sites where you can track your food intake and get a calorie tally and nutritional breakdown.  

The transition phase is also a great time in the season to try new foods, recipes, and menus. Emphasize plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dried beans that provide a broad spectrum of phytonutrients and antioxidants that keep your immune system strong.

Monique Ryan, MS, RD, is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics and is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs with programs at She currently works with age group and professional triathletes, and is the author of “Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes,” from VeloPress. Buy the book at