One of the difficulties I face as an age-group duathlete is that I’m trying to train and compete for the sake of the competition whilst also training and competing to lose weight. Unlike the über-lean classic triathletes and duathletes I line up with, I’ve got extra weight on my frame. Less than I had before, mind you, but at 5’8″ and 177 pounds, I’m easily a bag of dog food heavier than the elite athletes queuing up at the start line.
You might think training and weight loss go hand-in-hand – after all, an average week of training in the lead up to race season can include anywhere from six to nine hours of cardio and strength training, amounting to several thousand extra calories burned. And in fact I do enjoy having more leeway with calories when I’m training hard. Who doesn’t love the idea of being able to eat more without too much consequence?
But the reality is that there’s always a nagging voice in my head counting calories, exertion, and calculating whether I’m achieving a deficit or not. Even on a two-hour bike ride, when I have to eat an energy gel or chews mid-ride or risk not making it back, I feel guilty about the 100 calories taken in – even though I’ll easily burn that in ten minutes of riding.
Achieving a calorie deficit makes for weight loss, but it can also make for a miserable existence. When I train hard, I’m hungry. When I’m hungry, I easily get hangry. And while that’s cute on Betty White in a Snickers commercial, it’s not pleasant for my spouse, my coworkers, or anyone else around me. More importantly, it can also affect my performance. A hungry body can’t perform at its best. No fuel reserves in the tank, no power or endurance.
So each week, I struggle with the balance of fuelling appropriately while also trying to drop more pounds. For the most part, I can achieve this balance – after years of trying, I should hope I’ve got a fair handle on it [I admittedly have less of a handle on the cookie, pie and adult beverages front. That’s an ongoing battle.]
The true challenge, however, comes during taper weeks.
Tapering before a competition refers to the practice of reducing one’s training volume and intensity somewhat to ensure that the body is rested, healed, and ready for competition. For long course distances like a half- or full Ironman, or even a straight marathon, a taper can be as long as three weeks, though commonly, it will be two weeks. For my shorter efforts of Olympic (aka International) and Sprint duathlons, the window tends to be six or seven days. That’s a week of reduced output in order to prime the body for racing.
Taper week doesn’t involve sitting on one’s butt doing nothing, but it does entail a significant reduction in activity.
Last Saturday, I did a somewhat uncommon full race distance brick workout – running, biking, and running again at my next race distances (I really love doing bricks. More on that in another post down the road). It was an endurance session lasting about two hours. That’s my last hard workout until next Saturday, when I race. Everything between then and the race is shorter, less intense, or just not happening. So instead of over seven hours of working out this week, I’ll maybe get in four and a half hours. For anyone using fitness to maintain or reduce weight, this is understandably anxiety-inducing.
I feel anxious during taper week. I am sure I’m not ready to race. I feel like everyone else is out there training. I get blue, for no reason, except maybe a reduction in the usual post-workout endorphins. All classic taper emotions, according to everything I’ve read.
For a person used to working out all but one day of the week, the extra time not working out creates its own anxiety. Too much time to kill leads to time for doubting. And time not training feels like time wasted – I could be working on my speed, or my focus, or my cadence… as if the preceding weeks of obsessing on these details just don’t count. I should be trusting that I’ve established my base, but instead I’m invariably questioning it.
Unfortunately, in these last few days of light workouts and rest, I’ve also got to load up my glycogen stores with some extra carbs. So right when instinct tells me to eat less, because I’m working out less, I’ll be shoving my face full of quality carbohydrates. I don’t normally eat low carb by any means, but for hours 48 through 12 before a race, I switch things around so an extra quarter of my calories are coming from carbs. Right before I dress myself in a bunch of spandex and go stand next to those lean elite athletes.
And so, in the lead up to a race, the struggle goes from being physical to mental.