Goal Time!

By Coach Nick Morrison
USAT and RRCA Certified Coach

Have you started thinking about what goals you have for the new year and in what events you want to participate? Most of you probably are making plans for the new year and that’s great to hear! As you look ahead, keep these tips in mind when making your goals.

Strive to make your goals challenging yet realistic. That’s often easier said than done. Try to use your past experience to project your future performance potential to help strike that balance. For example, we often use Jack Daniel’s VDOT calculator and race projections to help our athletes. Plug in your best times across various distances and see what VDOT the calculator gives and what times it projects for different race distances. You might find that your shorter distances like 1 mile or 5k project a higher VDOT than how you have performed in longer distance races like the marathon. A challenging yet realistic goal could be to run a marathon at the equivalent VDOT pace that your shorter races project.

Another way to strike the balance of challenging yet realistic is to make A, B, and C goals. If you’re making a time-based goal, break it up into 3 targets with A being the best performance, B being a little less, and C being a little less than that. There are so many variables outside of your control on race day, that it’s good to have A, B, and C goals so that you can still push yourself even if something like the weather doesn’t cooperate on the day of the event.

Make goals that are not timed-based/performance-oriented. So often as athletes, our first thought with regard to goals is I want to finish in X time or I want to place at a certain spot in the results. Those types of goals are great, but you should also make other goals that are focused on your growth as an overall athlete and include things like knowledge, skills, and enjoyment. For example, most triathletes that didn’t grow up swimming spend every workout swimming front crawl and only ever swim front crawl. Make a goal to learn other strokes or to get better at flip turns. Setting goals like this will not only help you get more enjoyment out of your training, but you will likely even find that it helps improve your performance.

Once you make your goals, the next step is to make a plan to meet those goals. What are you going to do in individual workouts that will help you reach your goals? How is your annual training plan structured to help you meet your goals? This is also where we can help as your coach. Make sure you coordinate and communicate with us so that we can come up with challenging yet appropriate goals for you and so that we can make a custom-fit training plan to help you achieve them. You’re going to do great in the new year!

Nutrition Basics in Daily Life

What you eat in your daily life has an impact in how well your body will be able to perform in training and on race day. Many athletes we coach are either trying to lose a few pounds, looking to optimize their performance, or simply seeking a healthy, well-balanced diet. This article outlines some key nutrition information and builds from very basic to slightly more intermediate levels. At the end, I also address some common misconceptions that I see causing confusion.

Level 1: Quantity and Calories

At the most basic level, we can think of food in terms of quantity which is most often measured in calories. Calories are a unit of energy. Food provides us the energy our bodies need to survive, move around all day, complete workouts, and build muscle after workouts. We need to keep our total caloric expenditure (everyday life + workouts) in balance with our total caloric consumption (how much we eat). Or, if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your total caloric expenditure. If you find yourself eating more calories than you’re expending, you’re likely going to gain weight.

Level 2: Macronutrients

Protein (target 10-25% of your diet): Protein is used to build muscle. The best times to eat protein are during meals, after a workout, and just before bed. You do not need to eat protein during most workouts since it is not used as energy to fuel workouts. Small amounts of protein can be beneficial during longer exercise (over about 3 hours).

Carbohydrate (target 40-65%): Carbohydrates are used for immediate energy, with higher intensity exercise, over shorter duration. Your body is still burning carbohydrate for energy during longer, moderate and low intensity exercise, but it becomes the secondary fuel source. The best times to eat carbohydrates are shortly before, during, and after exercise and during meals. You should avoid eating carbohydrates in the couple hours before bed since you’re about to be sedentary. When your body consumes carbohydrate, it immediately converts it to glycogen and stores it in your muscles. Our bodies have a limit to how much glycogen they can store (typically around 1200-2000 calories), and any carbohydrate you consume beyond that limit will get converted to and stored as fat.

Fat (target 20-30%): Fat is used as energy in longer, moderate to low intensity exercise – it’s the main fuel source we use in endurance sports. The best times to eat fats are during meals. You should avoid eating fats shortly before and during exercise as it can cause GI issues. It also takes your body 10-12 hours to metabolize fat, so keep in mind that the fat you eat now won’t be ready to fuel exercise for 10-12 hours.

Level 3: Simple and complex carbohydrates and their impact on blood sugar/glycemic load

Blood sugar (glycemic load) is just that, the amount of sugar in our blood. Our blood sugar levels will naturally fluctuate throughout the day as we eat, digest, and exercise. Our goal needs to be to try and keep those fluctuations gradual and small instead of rapidly rising or falling to extreme high or extreme low levels. Carbohydrates are sugars, so we need to focus on what types of carbohydrates we’re eating in order to manage our glycemic load.

Simple carbs: Simple carbs are high glycemic foods which means they are digested quickly and cause a very fast and very high rise in blood sugar levels. This is a bad thing, so we want to avoid simple carbs in our diets. Simple carbs include foods like desserts, table sugar, soda, candy, white bread, and others.

Complex carbs: Complex carbs are low glycemic foods which means they are digested gradually, so they cause a slower rise in blood sugar and also a lower overall rise in blood sugar. These are good things, so we should try to pick complex carbs for our carbohydrate needs. Complex carbs include whole grains, whole wheat bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, chick peas, and more. Although at a molecular level, some foods like fruits and milk are simple carbs, you can think of them as being in the same category as complex carbs since they act more like complex carbs because they have plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber which results in the same gradual blood sugar increase that you get from true complex carbs. 

Glycemic response

In practice, this can actually get pretty confusing because it’s not entirely black and white as to which category a given food falls into. It’s probably more accurate to think of simple vs complex carbs as a spectrum rather than two distinct buckets. Some clues to look for are the amount of fiber and how refined/processed the food is – you want more fiber and less refinement/processing (ex. choose whole grain breads with visible grains, seeds, nuts, etc. instead of white bread which is highly processed). Also, if you stick to natural sources of carbs like fruits, vegetables, and dairy, you’ll be good.

Read more on simple and complex carbs here.

Level 4 and beyond

There is more beyond this information! Keep in mind that additional information builds on this foundation – it does not replace this foundational information. It’s just like how we all learned math growing up. First you learn basic addition and subtraction, then you learn your multiplication tables and long division, eventually maybe you continued to more advanced topics like algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and beyond. Each new advanced topic builds on the knowledge from the prior grades. If you can get the information outlined here correct though, you’re going to be doing pretty well. Then if you want to continue to learn more, that’s great too!


Common Misconceptions: Fad Diets

We need to be careful about chasing fad diets. Fad diets typically follow the outline of, “Only eat this, never eat that.” Typically, what happens with fad diets is that when someone starts the diet they see initial success and weight loss. This is primarily because of the ‘never eat that’ part of the diet’s rules. By cutting out a significant part of the dieter’s food intake, the diet will be successful in getting that individual to initially lose weight. In the long term though, many people end up struggling with fad diets because the diet is either too restrictive or because the person finds replacement foods that technically follow the guidelines of the diet but still end up giving the person too many calories overall.

Common Misconceptions: Calories

“Counting calories alone is not enough” vs “Calories don’t matter” / “Calories aren’t a thing”

It is absolutely correct that counting calories alone is not enough if you are trying to watch your weight. Countless individuals struggle to lose weight even after significantly reducing their caloric intake because they still have a poor mix of macronutrients or are eating lots of simple carbs.

However, “Counting calories alone is not enough” is a very different statement than, “Calories don’t matter.” The first is correct while the second (calories don’t matter) is most definitely not correct. This is an important distinction to keep in mind for two reasons. First, an endurance athlete (and by endurance athlete, I don’t just mean professionals – I mean anyone completing and training for runs, bike rides, triathlons, etc. at any pace) typically follows a training plan that consists of both an off season where your volume is relatively lower (say 20-30 miles per week for a runner) and peak training season where your volume gets significantly higher (40, 50, or even more miles per week). With this type of training, your body needs fewer calories during the off season and more calories during peak training. If you aren’t able to adjust throughout the year, you’re going to find yourself either gaining weight in the offseason because you’re eating too much or struggling through workouts during peak season because you’re eating too little and your body is out of energy. Second, even if you are eating an appropriate diet of the right foods (complex carbs, healthy fats from plants, etc.) you can still gain weight if you’re eating too much of it and your caloric intake exceeds your caloric expenditure.

Common Misconceptions: Carbohydrates are the enemy

The trend right now is that carbs are the enemy. Carbohydrates are not the enemy and not all carbohydrates are bad for you. You need to include complex carbohydrates in your diet – especially if you are an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athletes, not just the pros). You do need to keep in mind your overall balance of macronutrients to make sure you’re not getting more carbohydrates than you need, but carbohydrates are a part of that balance.

Simple carbohydrates are the enemy. This is true and this is what experts actually mean – it just gets misstated by many other individuals. Unfortunately, simple carbohydrates are abundant in our culture. They’re hard to avoid if you eat out much, so you’re better off preparing your own meals where you can ensure you’re not dumping extra sugar in everything like many restaurants do. If you do eat out, try to be conscious of where you go and what you order.

Low carb and no carb diets are also catching on right now because the average American leads a pretty sedentary lifestyle – they drive everywhere instead of walking, they don’t get much or any exercise, and they sit in an office job all day. If you’re an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athlete), you’re not the average American leading that sedentary lifestyle. The average American does not run marathons, complete Ironmans, or participate in century rides. Endurance athletes of all ability levels need carbs – you don’t need to go overboard with them, but you do need them.

 

Sources: USA Triathlon, RRCA, Jesse Kropelnicki

How Fast Should I Run?

One of the first questions I get from many of my runners is, “How fast should I run?” Running at the right training paces for you is one of the most important ways to train smart so that you get the most benefit out of your training.  

How to find your training paces 

In order to find appropriate training paces, we can use recent race results or the results from a recent fitness test to determine something called a VDOT or VO2 max. VDOT is simply a measure of your fitness level. If you want to get specific and into the science of it, it is literally a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can process in one minute. Higher numbers correspond to higher and faster fitness levels.  

There are a couple ways to measure VDOT. The first and most accurate way is to go to a sports science lab and measure VDOT. These tests can be expensive and hard to find though. The second way is to estimate VDOT based on recent race or fitness testing results. This is cheaper, more accessible, and arguably just as effective.  

Take a look at the table below and find the VDOT for a recent race or fitness test that you completed. Then look across that row at the training paces for that ability level. Those are the paces you should target on your training runs.  

VDOT Race Times and Training Intensities Handout 

You can also use this calculator to find your training paces. 

A common mistake that I see in experienced and new runners alike is that they try to run fast all the time. Looking at this table should be eye-opening for many of you because there is a drastic difference in pace from conversation to tempo pace and because the conversation pace is slow – embarrassingly slow. 

If you recently did races or tests of different lengths – say a 1 mile and 10k – and they equate to different VDOT values, that’s ok! Based on your 1 mile time, you might have a VDOT of 47 and based on your 10k time you might have a VDOT of 45. Determine the appropriate training paces based on the highest VDOT you get.  

If races/fitness tests of different lengths indicate different VDOT values, that also may be an indication of a limiter for you. Continuing with the same example, those results may indicate that the runner is better at shorter distances (the 1 mile) than longer distances (the 10k). This runner would have an opportunity to improve and more closely reach their full potential by focusing their training on building endurance for their longer distances. You could also look at that from a different angle and say that this runner is better at shorter distances and would be better served by focusing their goals on racing shorter distances and sticking with their strengths. Either way, whatever you decide helps us customize our training approach for you.  

What are the benefits to running at these paces? 

There are two big benefits to running at the appropriate paces for your fitness level – the body system you are stressing and the energy system you are using.  

Workouts at a conversation pace primarily stress the cardiopulmonary system and teach your body to burn fat for energy. Basically, conversation pace runs make your heart and lungs stronger and teach your body to burn fat for fuel which makes you more efficient over long runs. This is crucial for long distance athletes.  

Workouts at a tempo pace or faster primarily stress the muscular system and rely more heavily on the glycolytic system for energy (burns a higher amount of glycogen/carbohydrates). In short, that means that tempo pace runs help improve your leg strength and increase your top speed.  

Nutrition in Action

One of the most common topics of concern from athletes doing long distance events is nutrition. Athletes constantly come to me asking questions about what to eat, what to drink, and how much to eat and drink. Let’s start to answer some of those questions.

The most important part of a complete training and racing nutrition plan is actually the hydration. Water. A lot of people skip over that and go straight to the latest and greatest bars, gels, gummies, or whatever else is out there. Water! Water by itself, or water in a sports drink. It has been shown that your central nervous system actually fatigues before your muscles fatigue. That means that your brain sending a message to your legs telling them to run breaks down before the muscles in your legs are actually tired. Proper hydration allows the signals in your CNS to continue to function. For more on hydration, check out this article on sweat rates to figure out how much you need to be drinking.

The second piece of a complete nutrition plan for training and racing is calories. Calories provide the energy that your body burns for fuel during exercise. During an endurance event, your body primarily relies on fat for fuel. This fat is already stored on your body – and yes, even the leanest endurance athletes have fat to burn. In order to access those fat stores, your body first needs to have some carbohydrates (stored in your muscles as glycogen) to burn. What that means for you is that you need to eat a little bit of food during exercise that is entirely made of carbohydrates and that will allow your body to burn its fat stores for the rest of the energy it needs. If you’re getting into ultra-distances, you can also add a little protein to that (5-10%).

For more on the differences between fats and carbs as well as protein – the third macronutrient – check out this article.

How many calories to eat

The number of calories to shoot for is dependent on your body weight. Smaller athletes need to consume fewer calories and bigger athletes need to consume more. Also, ultra-distance athletes can try increasing their consumption. Follow these guidelines.

Most race distances:

1.3 x Body weight in lbs. = calories per hr.

Ultra-distance:

1.8 x Body weight in lbs. = calories per hr.

Once you get these numbers for your weight, compare that to the number of calories you’re burning per hour during exercise. Most people can find that pretty easily by using any of the many workout trackers that are out there. Make sure that the number you’re targeting to eat is less than half of the total number of calories that you’re burning. If you’re on the slower side, you may be able to cut back on the number of calories these equations predict.

What to eat

What to eat is an extremely personal question. I say that because what your stomach can tolerate is different than what my stomach can tolerate and is different than what your friend’s stomach can tolerate. As long as you follow the guidelines above in terms of carbohydrates and the number of calories, the rest is up to you when it comes to what to eat. In fact, Sarah often jokes with me that she’s going to try eating Nerds on her long runs. I don’t think she’s actually tried it yet, but at a basic level Nerds are really not that different than some of the sports drinks out there. You can probably pick something a little better than Nerds, but you get the idea.

Also keep in mind that I say this as an athlete and coach with no affiliation to any sports products. I don’t have any sponsors whose products I’ve agreed to promote and I don’t sell any products myself. There are a lot of sale reps out there that will tell you their product is the best for you and have a lot of reasons why. Try their samples, try some other samples, and figure out what works for you. The key is to find something your stomach tolerates and also tastes good to you.

Modifying the Plan for the Conditions

Fast forward to race day. You’ve been training and practicing with the nutrition plan and things are going great. Now you find yourself on race day and it’s 20 degrees hotter than what you’re used to, what do you do? This is the most common scenario that I see with endurance and ultra-endurance athletes. Especially for those of you doing Ironman, it’s going to be hot by the time you start that run. What do you do?

The most important thing is to drink more water (and more sodium in proportion). In extreme heat, you’re going to be sweating more and you need to stay hydrated.

You do NOT need to eat more calories. There is a limit to the rate that your body can metabolize calories. Do not eat more calories than what we already planned on. In fact, if it’s so hot that you find yourself slowing down and slowing down significantly to the point where you’re walking on the run, you can cut back on the number of calories you’re eating. At that slower pace, you’re burning fewer calories so you can cut back on your intake as well.

The final thing that I want to say about a nutrition plan is that all of this data and all these calculations gives us a starting point. It’s important that you find this starting point and then start experimenting with it during your longer workouts. What works, what doesn’t work? What changes can you make? Listen to your body and watch for the signals that it’s sending you and you’ll be ready for race day!

Summer is Coming!

As the weather warms up, we can finally stop worrying about freezing in the cold and shift our focus to getting in longer workouts outside in the sunshine. For anyone training for a race that lasts longer than about an hour and a half, it is extremely important to stay hydrated. Not only that, but the longer the race, the more important hydration becomes – marathon, half Ironman, and Ironman people I’m talking to you! There’s more to staying hydrated than just drinking water. You need to consider your sweat rate and sodium intake in addition to the water that you drink. Here’s a breakdown of how it all works.

Sweat

Your sweat rate is simply how much you sweat during your workouts. If you know how much you’re sweating (water out), you can figure out how much water you need to drink (water in) to stay hydrated. It varies depending on how hot it is, how hard you’re working, the sport you’re doing, and the weather conditions (sunny/cloudy, hot/cool, calm/windy). Not only does it vary depending on external variables, but it also varies by internal variables – you! Sweat rates vary tremendously from one athlete to another. In fact, if you compared sweat rates to shoe sizes, it’d be like shoe stores having to carry size 2 to 200 to accommodate everyone! Because of this, I highly recommend doing a sweat rate test. If you can do multiple tests in varying conditions, it’s even better.

A sweat rate test will tell you how much you sweat. With this info, you can figure out how much you need to drink so that your performance doesn’t suffer from dehydration. All you have to do is weigh yourself before and after a workout to see how much weight you lose. Make sure you weigh yourself right before you start and right after you finish. It also works best to take off any sweaty, wet clothes. 16 oz. of water weighs 1 lb. So, if you weigh 153 lbs. at the start of a 40 min run and 152 at the end, that means that you lost 1 lb or 16 oz of water and that your sweat rate is 24 oz of water per hour running. Repeat the test in different conditions and for different types of workouts to get an idea of how much your sweat rate varies and so that you can better predict what your sweat rate will be on race day.

Drink Water

Now that you know how much you’re sweating, you need to replenish most of that with water. Water from sports drinks like Gatorade, Infinit, or Skratch counts too. You don’t actually need to replenish all of it though. You can lose around 2-3% of your body weight to dehydration before it starts to impact your performance (some studies show even more). That means you can compare your sweat rate to how much you’re drinking and aim to be 2-3% lighter at the end of the race and you’ll be great. That also means that you might have different hydration plans for races of different durations.

Role of Electrolytes

The last thing to consider is the role that electrolytes – particularly sodium – play in hydration. Proper sodium levels allow your body to absorb the water that you drink. Too much or too little can cause issues. There are two ways to determine the right amount of sodium for you. The first is to get a test done that measures the sodium concentration in your sweat. You can get great info from an official test, but it will cost around $100 depending on where you go. The second way is to estimate it based on your own observations like whether you crave salty foods when you finish a workout or notice your skin covered in salt crystals after working out. Put yourself on the range of high, medium, or low saltiness and pick 500-1500 mg of sodium per hour accordingly. This is what you should shoot for in terms of sodium intake. You can get sodium from your sports drinks, salt pills, or solids like granola bars during your workouts and races.

Put it All Together

Now you should know how much to drink and how much sodium to consume to make sure you absorb the water appropriately. Keep in mind that since your sweat rate varies based on the conditions, you may need to adjust things on the fly. For example, if it’s really hot on race day, you’ll want to drink more water than usual. Not only that but you’ll want to increase your sodium intake proportionally along with it.

Keep this all in mind and take the time to do a sweat rate test. It truly is priceless information to have and can make the difference between a great race and a terrible race. I speak from experience. There was one 50k that I ran where I was fighting serious stomach pain the last 8 miles of the race. I finished and literally lay in the fetal position in the finish area for over an hour. Finally, I ate some potato chips that they had in the finish area for the runners and immediately started to feel better. I ate 3 more bags and was back to normal within minutes. My sodium intake was off, I wasn’t absorbing the water I was drinking, and it was causing serious gut rot. If I had had that dialed in better during the race, I probably could have finished 20-30 minutes faster.

Recovery

Stretching, Compression, Rolling, and Massage

Your muscles are made up of numerous thin muscle fibers bound together to form larger muscles. You can think of them almost like a stereo cable where there are many individual wires bound together to form a larger cable. When we workout and apply stress to our muscles, those muscle fibers basically get shortened and tangled up like a girl’s ponytail blowing in the wind during a long run. Just like that girl needs to brush her hair to remove the tangles, we need to “brush” our muscles to untangle the muscle fibers and elongate them back to their normal state. Here’s how to brush them:

Stretching

Long, slow stretching after a workout can help your muscles recover because it stimulates blood flow and also elongates the muscles. Try to target your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors especially. Also make sure you get any other areas where you are particularly sore. If you have the opportunity, check out a restorative yoga class for a great recovery and other ideas for stretches. There are lots of great yoga studios out there. You can also try yoga videos on YouTube. One channel that I’ve found to be especially good is Tara Stiles. She has a lot of great videos that are only 5-10 minutes long to help you get started.

Compression

Compression apparel promotes active recovery because the compression increases blood flow and helps to flush toxins from your system. At Endurance House, we carry compression socks, calf sleeves, shorts, and tights. The compression equipment that we carry is tight enough to stimulate blood flow and is also graduated (the amount of pressure changes farther away from the heart). Be wary of ‘fashionable’ compression equipment that does not have these features. There is a lot of fashionable compression equipment out there that is little more than a tall sock. Good compression clothing should be tight and tough to get on and off.

Massage/Rolling

There are a variety of massaging and rolling tools for you to try including the stick, foam rollers, cold rollers, the R8, and Moji rollers. At a basic level, these all work the same – they apply pressure to your muscles and physically straighten those muscle fibers back out. There are pros and cons to each tool. The handhelds can be easier to apply a variety of pressure since it is entirely dependent on how hard you press down. At the same time, it can be hard to reach the right muscles and keep them relaxed while rolling it. The foam rollers make it easier to relax the muscles because your body weight applies the force, but it can be a little harder to get at all of your body parts and apply just the right amount of pressure. Some tools are also nice because they’re small enough to travel with or even stick in your race bag. The other great massage option of course is to go to a professional masseuse.

These techniques will help you recover from tough workouts faster. By decreasing your recovery time, you’ll be putting yourself in a better position for that next workout. Start adding some of these suggestions to your daily routine and you’ll feel the improvements quickly.

Why am I doing this?

You’re at mile 19. Your heart is pounding, legs are throbbing, and the thought crosses your mind, “Why am I doing this?”

It’s 5:30am and you’re already halfway through your trainer ride. The rest of the house is quiet, it’s dark outside, and the thought crosses your mind, “Why am I doing this?”

It’s 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon. Your co-workers are going out for a drink after a long week at work, but you’re on the way to the gym and the thought crosses your mind, “Why am I doing this?”

Why are you doing this? Do you have a good answer? Inevitably, most – if not all – of us have reached or will reach a point in our training or during a race when we raise the question. It helps to have a good answer.

Start thinking about what your answer is. Why are you doing this? Why is finishing this race important to you? What does it mean to you to set a new PR, place in your age group, qualify for nations/Kona/Boston? Start thinking about it now. I encourage all of the athletes I work with to set goals for themselves because it helps them stay focused during training and it provides an answer to the inevitable question, “Why am I doing this?”

That’s right, goals with an ‘s.’ Multiple goals. And only one can be time related. Try to come up with three goals that you hope to accomplish this year. Make them genuine and make them important to you. Maybe you want to improve your nutrition plan, learn more about training with a heart rate monitor, explore new running trails. Whatever they are, make them important to you. After you come up with each goal, think of three specific things that you can do to reach that goal. The more specific you can be the better.

Now that you have your goals, get to work on achieving them! As you go through training, check in on your progress. Make sure you are doing what it takes to meet each goal. Good luck!