The saying goes, “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” but at times, “I” is the most important letter.
Triathlon season winds down as marathon season gets into full swing, and while endurance and running are common elements of the two sports, they require changes in your strategies for nutrition and physical and mental training. The underlying principles are universal: what you eat and drink, and how you exercise and train, are based on your athletic goals. Ultimately, however, your understanding of who you are and what motivates you will help you figure out where to follow conventional wisdom and where to follow your instinct to what’s right for you.
Eat for yourself
Let’s start with nutrition. If you’re training for a triathlon — with long bike rides, long runs and long swims — your body is working at a lower intensity for a longer period of time than it is in a marathon. At lower intensity, your body will burn more than just carbohydrates, and your physical training will prepare your body to burn fat efficiently and spare muscle glycogen. That means you need to adjust your diet to include a little more fat and protein, and fewer carbs.
However, when you’re training hard to improve your performance for a marathon, you want the carbs. Carbs are clean-burning fuel for intense activity at a higher heart rate. Your muscles also need protein in recovery, but carbs help your muscles integrate both.
I started doing Ironman competitions right out of high school, and triathlon became my full-time career. Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon. I’d become vegan to try to improve my performance and specifically to improve recovery by reducing inflammation, so that I could train more — and better — the next day.
At first, I was hungry and tired a lot of the time. But, as I learned more about eating vegan and experimented with it, I found it could actually help my performance quite a lot: I had more energy and stamina, my sleep quality was better, I woke up more rested, and I didn’t need stimulants like caffeine and sugar. I made smoothies for myself, blending in protein, essential fats, fiber, greens and enzymes — all these plant-based things that I’d researched and found could be helpful for an athlete, especially one who needs to train a huge amount. For Ironman, more is better.
And yet, I was still gaining fat, which seemed strange, and I wasn’t always sleeping well, even though I was tired. The game-changer for me came with a radio program in 2003. A guest was talking about maca, a root vegetable from Peru that I had never heard of and that he had begun importing into Canada, where I lived. He described adrenal stress and the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone, on exercise recovery. Cortisol overproduction can lead to greater dependence on caffeine and sugar and can even lead to weight gain despite increased activity.
Find and fill the gaps
At the time, I was working on a book about exercise and nutrition including stress and cortisol. I found that research pointed to low-quality nutrition as a source of stress. Not getting enough vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals can contribute to elevated cortisol, which undermines quality of sleep. And, lack of quality sleep encourages many people to turn to caffeine for borrowed energy.
I went out and got some maca and put it in my blender drink. After about six weeks, I found my sleep quality was better; I felt better rested, I lost those cravings, and I was getting lean again. I was so amazed by the change that I decided to track down the person I’d heard on the radio.
Build your team — or go solo
It didn’t take long for the maca importer and me to decide to go into business together and replicate the blender drink I was making with the maca. That was the beginning of Vega. I knew training and nutrition, and he knew business, and our combined talents created a complete package — a good, synergistic collaboration. He brought his talents to the business side, while I focused on research and speaking.
I’ve found the same approach true for training. I love running, biking and swimming, and that’s why I got into triathlon. When it comes to training, it makes sense to put partners together who can help you focus on something you’re not as good at. Maybe you need to work on your speed so you run with someone faster, or you need someone to keep you entertained on a long run when you’re just trying to build physical fitness.
Yet Ironman is a solo sport, and a mental challenge as well as a physical one. You have to be comfortable on your own, in your own head space, with no one in your ear, with no external motivation. If you become too dependent upon your training partners, you don’t develop the mental strength you’ll need. Those long solo rides and runs help you know how you’re going to respond when you’re out there on your own — because that’s what’s going to happen on race days.
Coaches are only valuable to a point, too. As I advanced in my career and wanted to learn more about myself, my mental toughness and what my shortcomings were, having a coach could have been a crutch for me. For a long time, I wasn’t really good at running hills. I just didn’t have the proper technique when I was starting out. A coach could have been very positive and encouraging, and tell me I was great at it, but I needed to find out what I was bad at so that I could go away and fix that problem and come back with what I call justified confidence. I found I could really only break through if I didn’t have that positive person around.
Whether it’s athletic or business performance, the right strategy can emerge from a willingness to understand yourself, your strengths and your shortcomings. What seems selfish in the beginning can become exactly what you need to achieve your goals.