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Denis Faye

You Need to Eat more, Pt. 2

by Denis Faye, M.S.

Welcome to two-part of my series on when you should “eat more.” Last time, we discussed the ironic fact that sometimes you need to increase calories to lose weight. If you were absent that day, you can read about it here.

Or, I can quickly tell you that sometimes, when you try to lose weight that your body doesn’t want to lose, your metabolism and its associated systems can slow down, stymying your efforts. Eating more can help break this plateau.

If you can’t buy that based on two sentences—frankly, I wouldn’t respect you if you did—here’s that link again.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to part two, in which we discuss eating to overcome an endurance sport performance plateau.

One of the fun parts of embracing a new endurance sport is the steep mastery and fitness curve. At first, you don’t need to dial in the specifics of your training in order to improve. If you just go out and do your new activity, your performance will naturally get better.

Most neophyte athletes do this for a while and it’s all pretty exciting because they just get faster and faster or go longer and longer—until they don’t.

When this happens, it might be that you’ve reached your peak fitness and to progress you’ll need to get on a serious training plan. However, odds are that you’re either overtraining, undereating, or some combination thereof—and progress can resume with a quick fix.

Not to disparage the many amazing coaches and training programs out there, but when it comes to performance gains, before you listen to someone else, it’s a good idea to listen yourself. Your body is probably the best coach you’ve got.

I’m not really going to discuss overtraining except to say that it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your resting heart rate—a super easy metric to track in this era of wearables. If it starts to elevate, it’s probably time to mellow out. I like to follow a weekly template taught to me by the president of my racing club, Greg “G$” Liebert: hard, easy, hard, easy, hard, easy, rest. Sometimes, I might throw an extra “hard” in there, but I also keep an eye on my heart rate.

Undereating can happen in any sport.

When undereating becomes serious, it’s called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S. In my experience, undereating is especially prevalent in cycling, where everyone aspires to be a beanpole and the ergonomics allow participants to spend as many hours on the bike as their domestic and professional relationships allow. Accordingly, they can expend an enormous amount of calories. It’s not uncommon for your daily expenditure to shoot past 4,000 calories on long training days.

If you eat relatively healthfully and have a decent relationship with food, it might be hard to wrap your head around that kind of caloric burn. Most folks think that the waffle they ate on the ride (300 calories) combined with the greasy apple fritter they consumed afterwards (400 calories) and a bonus protein shake (200 calories) will bridge the gap—when it’s not even close.

To put this in perspective, researchers tracked the diets of nine pro riders during the 2019 Vuelta a España(Spain’s version of the Tour de France). Over 21 stages and two rests days, the riders average daily intake ranged from 6017 to 4851 calories. Yet, they managed to lose a kilogram (2.2 pounds) each.

I understand that your average amateur competitive cyclist is not an athlete on this level. I also understand that the Vuelta covers hundreds of miles at a blistering intensity in a short period of time. But put it in perspective. Even if you’re operating at a fraction of the intensity of the pros, we’re still talking hundreds, maybe thousands of calories added to your daily burn.

As I explained last time, your body adapts to energy output and finds ways to slow your metabolism. On this note, it can adapt to workouts and stop losing weight—even if you’ve done all the math and your fancy wellness app shows you at a deficit. However, workouts with a calorie burn in excess of 600 calories can override this adaptation. (A hard ride or long run will burn 400-800 calories per hour or so.)

But if you’re eating around 2000 calories, your body isn’t going to let you get away with burning 4000 per day for long. After all, there’s only so much of you to burn for fuel— an average male consists of about 125,822 calories.

Your body solves the problem by slowing you down so that exercise burns less resources.

I see baby cyclists lose their oomph like this all the time. When they ask me how to tweak their diet, I give them a simple (and usually quite fun) test: eat more. That night, get the monster burrito. Or have second breakfast. Or eat some pie. I don’t really care. I just want to see what happens when they up their calories.

Most of the time, the results are immediate. They feel great and ride better the next day. Now that we know for certain they need more food, we can micromanage. Sadly, the long-term solution is rarely more pie. It tends to be a balanced blend of fibrous grains and produce for energy and some extra protein to promote recovery.

In this era of lethargy and indulgence, we’ve been trained to consider eating more and moving less to be bad things. But endurance athletes are rare birds. By definition, your leisure time is spent suffering, but you don’t need to do it mindlessly. Be strategic; consider mindful suffering.

If that doesn’t convince you, just focus on the fact that I’m telling you to eat pie.

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