Book Review – Triathlon Nutrition Foundations

Years ago, I stood in front of a small group of industry leading cattle breeders: men and women who were passionate about the cattle they owned. Actually, it seems like a lifetime ago. Back then, I gave many presentations to cattle breeders, and this particular time, I posed a simple question:

How is it that McDonald’s can make millions of dollars by selling tasteless, mediocre-at-best beef patties while you struggle to turn a profit by selling some of the highest quality beef?

No one in the room dared to venture a guess even though I believe the answer is simple. A system. McDonald’s has a system. It’s true that the famous burger chain has incredible wealth in real estate, but people do line up for their burgers which were created using a unique (at the time) system.

If you haven’t seen the movie, The Founder, you really should. Michael Keaton does a great job playing the famous founder of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc.

Now where was I? Oh yes… A system.

And that brings me to Triathlon Taren Gesell’s newest book, Triathlon Nutrition Foundations. In 135 pages, Taren attempts to help endurance athletes of any level fuel for races of any distance.

  • I’ve read instruction manuals with more pages.
  • Monique Ryan’s 432 page Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes just begins to cover the subject.
  • When Triathlon Nutrition Foundations came in the mail, it fit nice and neatly into my mailbox while other books had to be dropped on my porch.

Don’t judge a book by its size.

What The Book Is

I was expecting detailed descriptions of ATP generation, carbohydrate breakdown and cis versus trans poly… blah blah blah. And what I got was something completely different and very useful, a system.

Don’t get me wrong. I do love the academic stuff, but with my history of poor race nutrition, what I need is more of a system than an education.

Written in an easy to read casual style, this book outlines some of the major things to do and not do when it comes to a race based on a combination of the author’s experiences, research articles that he has found and knowledge from other athletes and researchers. I guess there’s not much else you can get information from, so my point is that he’s giving us his perspective. He’s pointing us in a direction that he believes will help us achieve good results.

Very early and throughout the book, he recognizes that all athletes are individuals and that answers to nutrition questions do not apply equally to everyone. In fact, he states quite clearly that his system is a starting point and that each athlete must experiment to find what works best. Not only do I agree completely, but it is refreshing to read that, especially when so much information on endurance nutrition is marketed to us as absolute solutions.

The system outlined in this book is based on four key principles that are actually quite simple and somewhat intuitive if you’ve ever had to deal with fueling for a race. Just like the system itself, these principles are a starting point that beg the athlete to experiment.

Sometimes cultural beliefs and practices regarding nutrition are so strong that they border on superstition. Even when evidence is available to refute a belief, the practices based on that belief can persist. Some of these practices, like carb loading, are addressed in this book, but they are neither thoroughly disputed nor staunchly supported. Instead we get the author’s insight on them which amounts to a realistic explanation of when these beliefs might or might not be useful to us athletes.

And then there’s the low carb gorilla in the room. Anyone who has followed Triathlon Taren knows about his success at the 2019 Challenge Roth race and his reduced carbohydrate nutritional strategy for that race. He makes it very clear that this approach has worked well for him. There are quite a few examples in the book from that experience but, here again, he’s not pushing any fad diets on the reader. Instead, he restricts much of the low carb discussion to a talk about periodization: altering nutritional intake to match changing levels of training.

This book gives us just enough information, as the old saying goes, to be dangerous (in a good way). It gives the reader a starting point to find what works best. Reading about triathlon does not make one a triathlete. If we want to use the information that Taren is giving us, then we need to get out there and try different nutritional strategies and this book gives us a great starting point. There appears to be no other agenda than to help athletes understand this system that seems to have worked well for the author and many others.

What The Book Is Not

I’m not a complete skeptic, but I do like to know sources of information. As a student of science, I would be remiss if I did not point out the one thing I believe is lacking from this book: citations. Unfortunately for me, most people reading this kind of book will not want the pages to be full of sterile phrases followed by citations…

... a recent meta analysis concluded that polarized training has a greater effect on improving time trial performance compared to traditional threshold training models (Rosenblat, et. al, 2018) ...

I couldn’t think of a good nutrition example, but you get the idea. For some readers that can be very difficult to read which makes the subject seem inaccessible.

To be fair, Taren does give three citations in footnotes, however I found myself wanting to know more about the sources of many of his statements. For example, we are told that only 25% of calories burned in a race need to be replaced during the race. It would be nice to know where that number came from, even if it were sourced from personal experience, peer reviewed research or cultural belief. I have the feeling that many of you will say, “Well duh! Everyone knows that 25% rule.”

I don’t. Well, I guess I do now, but why 25% and not 40%?

Certainly I can dig through the research on my own and the author does not demand that we blindly believe his words. However, a list of references would be nice.

OK. So the book has some statements with no citations, but this concern of mine is very very minor, because the book is not a scientific treatment of the subject. It is a guide to finding your own methods for fueling the body and mind during endurance training and racing.

Wrap It Up

It may seem that I am mindlessly gushing with enthusiasm over Triathlon Taren and his latest book, but that’s not the case here. Taren has always stated that he wants to help people achieve their endurance sport goals and I think this book can do just that with respect to nutrition.

Triathlon Nutrition Foundations is easy to read, easy to understand and has references to web links for downloading a spreadsheet to help estimate caloric needs during a race. The spreadsheet is a little wonky, but it certainly does what the book says it will do. If you really want to get wild, you can play with some of the parameters of the spreadsheet formulas to see how they affect your estimated caloric requirements.

I highly recommend this book. While it is not going to solve all your race nutrition problems, it is a great starting point to get you thinking about how to solve them. For most of us, that’s what we need.

Until next time…

An Army Story

Q: How do you ruin the training effect of a long run?

A: Stay on your feet after the run.

0900 hours. Long run complete. Feet up. Hank Snow, Dwight Yokam and Del Reeves on the radio. OK… let’s write a blog post about the time my colleagues almost blew up a section of Arizona highway 79 and then we’ll try to move the topic on to something more esoteric like memory.

First of all, 0900 hours is the same thing as 9:00 AM. There are pieces of military service that refuse to be forgotten. I also can’t forget the taste of C-Rats, MREs and dust clouds kicked up from Arizona desert roads while riding in the back of a gama goat .

C-Rats? Gama goat? Yes. I’m dating myself with cryptic military jargon, but there are days I’d love to be back on the Florence military reservation or in Fort Huachuca during live fire drills. Have you ever sent 100 pounds of steel five miles down range? It’s an incredible feeling of power and strength. But when all the stars are aligned right and nobody spills coffee on the charts and the second lieutenant in charge minds his own business, that’s when the field artillery really shines with incredible accuracy.

In the 1980’s we were using firing tables developed in the 1950s at the Yuma Proving Ground. These tables coalesced battlefield variables into a form that soldiers could use to put steel on target. For the most part, those tables were dead on accurate. We used to say we could land a projo in a garbage can. Projo is short for projectile: the bullet shaped explosive device shot out of our 155mm canons.

If you were to design an artillery firing range, you would probably place the impact area far away from a public highway. At least I would. I’m sure you would too. Along a stretch of Arizona Highway 79 just north of the town of Florence, someone did it the other way around. We used to drive way out into the desert and then turn around and fire the canons back toward the road. This wasn’t completely insane, because there was a huge margin between the impact area and hwy 79. But still… you can see where I’m going with this.

I’ll cut to the chase and just say, one of the batteries (infantry calls them companies, artillery calls them batteries) overshot the impact area and threw a huge smoke and dust cloud over Hwy 79. As far as I know, no one was hurt, but there were sure a lot of high ranking officers running around. To me, as a young 20 something, it was no big deal. After all, even Sandy Koufax threw some wild pitches at a distance of only 60.5 feet yet we were lobbing shells miles away. I have no idea why it happened or who missed the safety checks, but the point is that I remember it vividly.

It’s been over 30 years since the incident. That artillery firing range may not even be there anymore, but the question that nags me is, “Did it really happen, or is it a fabricated memory?” The other nagging question is, “Does it really matter if it really happened?” Parts of my personality and character have been built on such memories. Would I be any different if Sam or Don or Doug, who were there, told me today that it never happened?

Yeah… being an amateur philosopher means coming up with questions that probably have no answers.

Until next time …

Virtual Olympic Sports

Ironically, the IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga race was canceled for 2020 the day after publishing my most recent post in which I lamented the fact that IRONMAN was so tight lipped about plans for upcoming races.

I think a lot of athletes are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that they have time to alter their plans, cancel hotel reservations and set their training sights on something else. Personally, I’m keeping my training plans just about where they’ve been. Back in May I told you about my TriRiot 70.5 race. I’m planning something similar for September.

Zwift Wants Olympic Glory

Here’s something I think is absolutely crazy: Zwift wants to make their video game an Olympic sport by 2028. In the hierarchy of things to do other than basic survival and earning a living, we have play, game, and sport. I do not have an education in psychology, sociology or anthropology so my discussion on these points may be completely out of touch but I’ll let you judge that for yourself.

Here’s how I understand play, game, and sport.

  • PLAY: When we are bored we make up things to entertain ourselves. Maybe we do this alone. Perhaps we can convince the person sitting next to us (at the bar or in your car or in the doctor’s waiting room) to join us as we pass the time. One example might be counting the roadkill on a road trip with the family.
  • GAME: Put a few obstacles in the way of a playtime activity and make up some rules. Games have winners and losers. For example, that guy changing a tire on the side of the road does not count as road kill and whoever can identify the most species wins (humans don’t count).
  • SPORT: Get serious about your games. Get others involved. Make an app that allows all drivers on your highway to tally their road kill counts and offer prizes for the winners. As the old saying goes, “100 believers is a cult. A million is a religion.” A traditional view of sport might be something very physical like track and field or baseball or triathlon. However, look at some of the sports in the Olympics: shooting, curling, golf. What makes them a sport is not the extreme physical demands of the athletes. They are sports because:
    • Each requires great skill. Yes, even curling requires skill; although that skill, I understand, is associated with drinking after practices and competitions.
    • Each has a governing body, either nationally, internationally or both.
    • Each has a shit-tonne of followers and devotees called athletes that either get paid to participate or pay to participate.
    • Someone or some company sponsors the events, because a different shit-tonne of people may be watching what the athletes are doing and companies can capitalize on that audience even if their products have nothing to do with the sporting events.

Does the Zwift platform fall into any of those categories? Sure it does, but why would you cycle vicariously through a video game when we already have the real thing in the Olympics?

Video games and artificial training have gotten closer and closer to the feel and look of the real thing. From what I’ve read, some smart-trainers can simulate the feel of riding through the streets of Roubaix, France (cobblestone streets). Video displays can show us a a view of what it’s like to ride outdoors (some of us may have forgotten that experience during periods of isolation and lockdown).

Why do we need to approximate these experiences in the Olympics when the Olympics already has four types of cycling (road, bmx, mountain, track)?

We don’t.

Video platforms certainly have their place and are very valuable for simulating conditions that are not available to athletes, such as hills. There is one hill about 25 miles from my house, so I might be a good candidate for a simulation. Another good reason to use platforms like Zwift is to ride when the weather or local conditions (traffic, etc) don’t allow for a safe training experience.

My opinion on this subject is just that: an opinion. I’d like to hear the opinions of others so I can tell them that they are wrong. (kidding! just kidding there).

Does Zwift have a valid request to add their platform to the 2028 Olympics or is their desire completely self serving?

Until next time…

The Best Laid Plans…

It’s easy to criticize the big guy. It’s especially easy when the big guy is slack on communication.

WTC and IRONMAN take a lot of criticism: some of it deserved and some of it just hot air. I’m not going to judge which is which.

Many races have been canceled or rescheduled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and most of us are looking at WTC (the IRONMAN company) to see how they handle it. I’m signed up for the 70.3 Chattanooga race which was initially scheduled for May 17 and is now scheduled for August 23. If that race does not get canceled, it will be the first IRONMAN production in North America since the start of the pandemic induced moratorium on races.

Will this race actually happen? Let’s take a look at precedence, shall we…

Mike Reilly’s adventure from San Diego to Lubbock and back

IRONMAN 70.3 Lubbock was expected to take place several weeks ago. Mike Reilly even drove there from San Diego so he could announce. An hour after arriving he was told the race was canceled.

Did the race directors just hope that it would proceed or did they have a plan? I assume they had a plan, because this pandemic had been with us for over 3 months by the time they pulled the plug on Lubbock. The main reason for the cancelation according to the press release as it appears in a slowtwitch.com article was,

“…it would not be responsible to host the event at this time.”

IRONMAN Press Release

Obviously, I cherry-picked that sentence, but the gist of the message is that IRONMAN is taking responsibility for the decision to cancel the race. I’m guessing the city of Lubbock would have retracted the permit if IRONMAN had not canceled. Muncie Indiana just went through the same process (with perhaps a bit more notice).

My insider connections tell me that the directors for both races were amazingly confident in the staging of their events. So what happened?

Well, Duh! COVID-19 happened.

But COVID-19 has been happening for several months. Did the race directors not plan for it? On the contrary. They must have, because according to the press release mentioned above they were planning to implement the new safety guidelines established by the CDC and the WHO (the organization, not the band). I have a feeling that they didn’t anticipate the impending proliferation of COVID-19 cases that caused the governor of the big state of Texas to take a stronger stance against the virus.

I’m not blaming or shaming anyone. I’m building a case for my argument that companies need to be a bit more transparent with their plans for dealing with COVID-19.

As stated before, I am registered for IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga. My insider sources tell me that the race directors swear up and down this race will happen.

Given what happened with Lubbock and Muncie, should I have faith in their optimism?

I’m not the only one asking this question. Check out one of the 70.3 Chattanooga Facebook pages. Everyone who is signed up for an upcoming race this year is wondering what to do. I’m sure there will be many nervous athletes at packet pickup ready for the giant loud speaker over Chattanooga to announce in God-like fashion, “Sorry. This year’s race has been canceled. Thank you for coming. See you next year.”

If the optimism I hear about is based on hope and faith, perhaps I should cancel my hotel reservations now. Hope and faith are great for individual guidance, but when dealing with 1000 plus athletes, there needs to be more than someone else’s hope and faith.

One tiny link on the race website points to any mention of how races might deal with COVID-19

On the other hand, if they have a plan to deal with escalations of COVID-19, then I’m in and I’ll be perfectly fine if they have to cancel at the last minute due to unforeseen factors. Therein lies a problem. I see no evidence of a plan on the race website. As of this morning (2020-07-13), the athlete guide has not been updated and there is little mention of plans for dealing with COVID-19. I found only one tiny link to the WTC protocol for handling races in our pandemic environment.

I realize there is no easy way to deal with the pandemic and changing health policies. There is also no easy way to deal with all the athletes who are registered for this event and expect it to happen. My heart goes out to these race directors and I have faith that they are doing everything possible in the interest of the athletes.

It would be nice if IRONMAN and their race directors were more transparent with their plans. It would instill a bit of confidence in us athletes that they are planning something… even if it may lead to cancelation. WTC has always been tight lipped about the fate of their races and I guess that’s just how they do business. For my $300 entry fee I don’t expect to get personal texts from race directors telling me their exact plans every morning. However, I do expect to be kept informed through official IRONMAN channels (email, website) as to the current plan for upcoming races.

Athlete guide status as of July 14, 2020.

Last I looked, the race website said the athlete guide would be published 6-8 weeks out from the race. Here we are at less than 6 weeks and no athlete guide for 2020. If you want to show your customers (us athletes) that you care, then communicate with us: update your website, email us what you know about the host city’s intentions for us. Things are not going to get much worse for you or us so it won’t hurt to divulge your plans: at least part of your plans.

And if the race does get canceled before I’ve already traveled to Chattanooga, you can be sure I’ll be racing the TriRiot 70.5 again (by myself in my home county).

Until next time…

Welcome Back to Commercially Produced Races.

IRONMAN 70.3 Lubbock: CANCELLED

IRONMAN 70.3 Muncie: POSTPONED

Battle For Independence 5k: In the books. Done. Complete.

OK. Last Saturday’s 5k was not an IRONMAN or other big triathlon. However, it was a commercially produced race with timing chips, loud music, an announcer, a big finish line and other athletes. AND WE WERE THERE!

If we are going to experience the fanfare and atmosphere of a big race anytime soon, the big boys on the block might just have to learn from the little guys.

Go ahead, IRONMAN. Swallow your pride and take a lesson or two from the locals.  Watch them carefully and see how they are doing it.  Take note of what they do right and take note of their challenges.   It's likely that they will be able to pull this off before you.   

Oh wait!  

They did.

Excited!

Am I excited? Damn right I am.

A public race venue, a national anthem and other athletes makes for a great start to the 244th edition of our beloved Independence Day. And I must say, the singing of our national anthem was beautiful. I don’t know the young woman who performed it (a capela), but it was, just beautiful.

The first reason for my excitement comes from the race itself. I had forgotten what it’s like to run with a large group of other athletes. We may have kept much larger distances than in previous races, but I could still hear dozens of shoes pounding the pavement and the heavy breathing of people all struggling to reach the same goal. It was magic.

The future of racing is my other source of excitement. For the past three months the dark coronavirus cloud has hung over the world. All human life changed and we had to reconcile our desires with the reality of isolation and social distancing. Governments mandated our lives in ways we never expected in our innocent youth of four months ago. As the economy slid toward panic and so many joined ranks of the unemployed, race directors and producers feared for their companies’ existence. And with good reason. Last Saturday’s race might be an indication that not all is lost. It might be an indication of what’s to come. Until we find protection in a vaccine or a scorched earth eradication of COVID-19, future races just might look like this one.

A New Race Environment

Initially, I was operating under the old mentality of racing: get there early so you can be sure to get your race bib and use the Port-O-John two or three times before the start.

The old rules are not necessarily the correct rules today.

We knew we were at the right place, but the parking lot was empty at 6:30 AM. We were early… very early.

The things that made this race different from pre COVID-19 races are mostly what you would expect.

  • Masks were worn by all race staff.
  • Masks were required (and available) for athletes in the starting chute and those hanging around the finish line.
  • Everyone was advised to maintain safe distances from each other.
  • Hand sanitizer appeared to be used up faster than the drinking water.

The interesting part was the race start. Unlike the mass starts of other races, here we grouped ourselves into waves of expected finish times. Starting times for each wave had been scheduled in advance so we knew when to be ready and each wave assembled in their assigned starting chute a couple minutes prior to their start. The entire field consisted of less than 140 runners so it didn’t take long to send off all the waves. Our wave had a population of about 10. Each starting chute held a maximum of 20 runners. Little orange pieces of tape on the pavement marked where to stand so we could prove to the authorities that we were standing at a safe distance from each other. In my uneducated assessment, it worked quite well.

The starting chute was divided into two sections.

Once the airhorn blasted for each wave, runners doffed the masks and ran just like any other race.

I’m the type who wears a mask around other people in public places; not because I’m concerned about contracting COVID-19. I just don’t want to spread it if I have it.

Instead of handing out cups of water, volunteers stood by a table adorned with neatly aligned water bottles at the halfway point. If a runner wanted water, she had to grab it herself.

The finish line was full of the usual festive music and tired athletes and, because there were so few participants in this race, social distancing could have been easy. I don’t know if everyone maintained distancing guidelines after the race, but it looked like they did. The finish line, just like the start line, offered a dose of hand sanitizer and free masks for those who wanted them.

Now let me tell you about the awards ceremony. There wasn’t one. No ceremony = no crowds.


The Road Ahead

I’m not a race director so I don’t know what lessons were learned from this race, but I imagine the race staff was pleased with the overall experience.

If we are going to have big races, like IRONMAN, in the near future, this is probably a model for how they will do it. Of course, a triathlon has a lot more to consider such as maintaining distances inside the transition area with athlete numbers in the thousands. However, there are plenty of smart people working for race companies so I’m sure solutions will be tested and applied.

Perhaps I’m being too optimistic. After all, this was a very small race and it was easy to maintain a safe distance from other runners. Is it scalable with respect to the number of athletes?

That is not a question I can answer. Like I said before, I’m not a race director. And there is nothing wrong with small races. Maybe small races is the answer. In the early years of endurance sport, races were quite small. The Boston Marathon and IRONMAN started out very small. Back then it was a matter of demand and now it’s a matter of health and regulation. However, I could certainly see those smart race directors coming back small and slowly growing as they navigate the health issues and government mandates.

As far as I know IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga is still scheduled to occur on August 23, 2020. Yes, I’m still training for that race.

On August 24 I’ll let you know the outcome. Until next time…