Essay: On Off-Season Eating
(2017) “I want to weigh my high school weight.”
This was how I started off my first visit to a Registered Dietitian (RD) all those years ago. I certainly give her credit for holding a straight face. I honestly thought I could shave the weight off by working hard through training and racing. Whatever was left over could be chiseled off with even more harder work through training. My follow up visits would be some of the most enlightening information I ever received regarding off-the-bike training that I still implement to this day.
The first order of importance is researching a reputable registered dietitian. But actually even more important is deciphering the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist. They are not the same. Among other differences, RDs must have a bachelor’s degree from a program approved by the Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) and must have coursework in numerous science studies including chemistry, biology, biochemistry, and physiology. Nutritionists on the other hand may not have gone through formal training to obtain the label. Some nutritionists may have simply completed an online program. Those who have received formal training attain the Certified Nutritional Specialist (CNS) certification that requires some form of advanced degree. To be confident I was seeing a specialist, I made sure I saw a registered dietician.
One of the first things covered was my overall feeling with my diet. I regularly felt like I would run out of gas during heavy weeks of training. I struggled with stomach issues that seemed to have no predictability. I also groped at any diet hoping it would stick. I had not considered adequate recovery meals and struggled immensely with eating in a decent time period following heavy workouts. These were all perfect reasons to see a registered dietician.
One of the first changes I was told to make was my underestimated water consumption. I thought I was drinking enough to rehydrate but when I was thrown the fact that a 200-pound athlete should consume 100 ounces of water a day, I realized I was certainly dehydrated. One of the three pillars to my visits consisted of drinking a healthy amount of filtered water daily.
Another implementation was the recommendation for scientifically certified multivitamins. Here is another pitfall in the nutritional field: vitamins and supplements. Due to the lack of a regulatory committee regarding supplements, many companies are not required to scientifically back up their product claims (see the chapter in Spitting in the Soup that discusses this topic). Here again is where a registered dietician can help navigate companies with a scientific reputation. This is how I learned one reputable company in particular is actually stocked at a pharmacy and not at a chain store. The RD recommended several supplements to help the body prepare for - and recover from - hard workouts.
With water and supplements covered, the visits turned to the major pillar of athletic nutritional performance: a healthy diet consisting of whole foods is essential for optimal performance. This is perhaps my most lasting change. To this day I avoid fast foods, microwavable foods, and many things that can be found in the frozen food section or the middle of the grocery store. It was the reason I joined a community-supported agriculture (CSA) to get fresh fruits and vegetables regularly. That led to seeking out healthier recipes, which led to more enthusiasm to cook. My eating became cleaner and I forgot what fast food tasted like. Remarkably there was not much cost difference in food once meals were laid out in advance and other purchases were deemed unnecessary.
The RD laid out a loose framework of meals and snacks to keep me going through the day. Given the amount of training I was subjecting my body to I was given a daily guide that included three meals plus three snacks per day. She also gave me cheat sheets to design my own menu. For example breakfast could include two starches, one fruit, one milk, a secondary carbohydrate, one meat, and two fat groups. Or, two pancakes, a cup of orange juice, a glass of milk, pure maple syrup, a fried egg, and two servings of bacon. Having this menu laid out got me past the difficult parts of trying to decipher what fell into which category. It propelled me right into the kitchen. Even more enjoyable was the happiness of hardly ever using the microwave to make food.
A portion of the visit that I did not tap into was the food panel test. Not the cheapest test by any means and probably not covered by insurance, a registered dietitian can administer a panel to discover any food intolerances. The RD stated she took the test after gaining weight over a period of time despite eating correctly. The test revealed intolerances for certain types of fish and seasonings. Despite working hard to stay healthy, the body’s intolerances for these foods actually counteracted her attempts. Taking this test can isolate tricky foods that disagree with your body, thus setting training back as well as recovery. Who knew people could have intolerances with things like oranges or basil? This test can help identify those intolerances. The other option is to restart with a basic diet of chicken and rice and add items over time, tracking the body's reaction. I only had three visits with the RD, not enough time to administer that approach.
One grounded thought did occur in the desire for items such as potato chips and soda. Given the amount water I was consuming, I found myself getting bored with such flavorless intense hydration. This led to me having a can of soda or two per week. I figured to just let it happen instead of trying to avoid it, which could only make it more attractive as I went along. I thought the same thing about potato chips. I decided it did less damage to keep them around than the potential of lusting after them week after week and sneaking off to buy small bags. This thought process did break the third and final pillar that stated avoiding refined food, sugar, and food additives, but I learned that having a can of soda or a bag of chips was just fine in moderation. It is something I still follow to this day.
So did I manage to get my weight back down to my high school numbers? No. However that immediate fact put me at ease. For three visits my fat percentage was measured via bioelectrical impedance. An electric device was clipped to my finger and another to my toe. A current was sent throughout my body to measure the true weight of my bones, muscle, blood, organs, etc. The RD did say it was not the best test available, but if using the same testing method over and over (and at the same time during the day), reliability increases. I was told that my body fat percentage was so low, it was becoming a concern and I was still far away from my high school weight. I was told it wasn’t possible by any healthy means to obtain that number, and I abandoned the unhealthy notion of trying to shed more weight. This is also something that sticks with me to this day.
As the summer racing months fade into the winter, I’m sure cyclists will watch what they eat and carefully eying the 8% rule, keeping in mind that cycling trip to the Alps next summer. Nobody wants to show up to a climb-fest packed with a few pounds, but if one has taken advantage of the off season with a regimen of visits to a registered dietician and implemented it prior to the start of spring training, you just may find yourself putting down a few more watts than you did last season, and you hadn’t even focused on the bike yet.