The Starving Triathlete

By Matt Fitzgerald

Sept. 12, 2007 — Most Americans have one major nutritional concern: trying not to eat too much.  However, there are at least three classes of Americans who sometimes struggle to get enough daily calories to meet their needs: the very poor, persons with eating disorders, and endurance athletes—especially female endurance athletes.

There are, of course, endurance athletes with eating disorders, but much more common are runners, cyclists, and triathletes who burn a lot of calories in training, are careful but not pathological in their eating habits, and live in a chronic state of mild undernourishment.

I am not a practicing clinical sports nutritionist, but I have been assured by practicing clinical sports nutritionists that they more often have to increase the food intake of their female competitive endurance athletes than help them eat less. Recently, Paul Goldberg, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., who is the strength and conditioning coach for the Colorado Avalanche and who also works with individual clients at a facility in Evergreen, Colo., described one such case to me. Here’s what he said:

Stephanie was a 24-year-old recreational triathlete when I started working with her. She was already fit and healthy, with solid dietary habits and a low, 16-percent body fat measurement. Her one complaint was that she was experiencing a lack of energy that was affecting her training. I looked into the timing of her meals and quickly saw that she was not getting enough calories before and during her workouts, to fuel performance, nor after workouts, to speed her body’s recovery from training. So we moved roughly 300 total calories from her lunch and dinner and added them back during and after her training sessions.

After two weeks on this regimen, Stephanie came back to me and reported that she felt better during training and had even lost two pounds and one percent body fat. However, she was now feeling especially fatigued in the evening. After giving this information some thought, I came to the conclusion that Stephanie’s body had probably adapted to the poor nutrient timing of her past regimen by slowing her metabolism during and after workouts (that is, by capping her muscles’ rate of energy use), which is probably why she felt lethargic in training. When we started fueling her workouts and recovery processes better, her body started burning all of the extra energy during her training, allowing her to perform better, and during the post-workout recovery period. But this left her in a state of energy deficit during the rest of the day, which is why she lost weight and felt fatigued late in the day.

So, we added the 300 calories back to her lunch and dinner without removing them from the workout period. And what happened? She felt great during her training and all day, in fact, but she lost another two pounds in the next two weeks, as well as another one percent body fat. My final conclusion was that Stephanie had not been able to work to her full metabolic capacity due to poor nutrient timing and a slight but significant energy deficit. Two-years-later she still feels great and remains at 16 percent body fat.

Fatigue is the universal symptom. It may result from literally hundreds of different causes in athletes and non-athletes. But, in otherwise healthy endurance athletes, persistent fatigue coupled with poor workout performance most often indicates one of two problems: overtraining or undernourishment.

Overtraining, or inadequate rest, is more common. Thus, if you begin to experience nagging fatigue and training staleness during a period of increasing training, the first thing you should do is reduce your training for a few days and then try ramping up more conservatively. If the problem does not return, it was surely a matter of overtraining. If it does return, you’re probably running an energy deficit.

When you suspect an energy deficit, your best course of action is the two-step process Paul Goldberg went through with Stephanie.  First, make any dietary changes that may be needed to ensure that your body is well supplied with energy for performance during workouts and for recovery afterwards.  Ideally, you will eat a full, high-carbohydrate meal four to three hours before your workout and consume a sports drink during the workout.  In the first hour after the workout, take in plenty more carbs, a little protein, and fluid for rehydration.

If these changes fail to cure your fatigue completely, try adding slightly more calories to your regular meals, but without ever forcing yourself to eat more than you’re comfortable eating. This measure will definitely put an end to your fatigue, if an energy deficit is indeed its root cause.

Energy needs naturally fluctuate as your training workload changes. Your appetite should automatically adjust for these fluctuations. Research has shown that ultra-endurance athletes, who burn upwards of 5,000 calories, experience a level of hunger that drives them to consume an equal number of calories and thus remain in perfect energy balance without having to think about it. Appetite is intelligent.

An energy deficit is not always a bad thing, of course. If you could stand to lose a few pounds and you increase your training, you will probably experience an energy deficit that will cause you to shed body fat. This deficit will not render you under-fueled for workouts, however, because your shrinking fat stores themselves will make up the energy gap between the calories supplied by your diet and the calories your body burns in workouts and throughout the day. 

Even lean, high-level endurance athletes may experience a non-problematic energy deficit of this sort during peak training. A recent study found that a group of Kenyan runners consumed fewer calories than they burned during the final weeks of training before a marathon. This was surely not a matter of under-fueling. Rather, their bodies were simply “choosing” to become even leaner in preparation for peak performance on race day.

Due to the intelligence of appetite, endurance athletes seldom experience the bad sort of energy deficit, unless they strictly control their food intake. So, if you’re a lean, competitive endurance athlete, my advice for you is this: stop thinking like a fat person!

Matt Fitzgerald is editor of, an online sports nutrition information resource for athletes..

Two Triathlons in 18 hours

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) U.S. photographer

“In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”

Aeschylus (525-456 BC) Greek playwright

“The reward of suffering is experience.”

Photos, articles, and results 
Both of these quotes sing to me.  I enjoy Ansel’s quote because I love to explore the possibilities within myself, within others, and discover a little more about what it means to be alive.  Sometimes, forcing some ‘hardship’ or taking on a challenge is a good way to find out more about who you are.  I like Aeschylus’s quote as I’d like to think that suffering can be some of the best lessons in life.  I signed up for and competed in both the Pacific Grove and LA Triathlons (18 hours apart) as a way to garner experience.  I love to race, and since both of these events were only 5 hours drive apart….why not do them both?

I could not have done this on my own.  With out the tremendous support from Hortense, I would not have competed on day 2.  I know that her weekend was every bit as tiring as mine.

We booked a round-trip ticket to LAX and then had to drive 6+ hours up to Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula.  Hortense was awesome and wouldn’t let me drive.  Even when she started cursing all the drivers and was getting agitated with all the traffic; she drove the whole way.  Thank you!

Wes Brown was nice enough to put us up for the night as he lived just a few minutes away from Lovers Lane.  I was able to sleep in the next day and had a few hours to prepare for my noon start time.  Meanwhile, Wes was out on the course tearing it up to a new PR, while Hortense and some friends enjoyed some of the shops in the area. 

In lieu of the 4 previous days being too busy to do much training, I arrived with plenty of time to get a fair warm up in.  As usual I was the first guy in the water.  Not only is it good for me to get warmed up well for a fast swim but it is also peaceful.  It’s a wonderful time for quiet reflection and focus.  Although, being that there was a recent shark attack near by, I was a little leery about the deep blue water staring up at me.  This kept me from swimming too far out in the kelp, instead doing some laps by the shore.

I was calm and content before the start; enjoying the moment and my good health.  The race started with a dash from the beach and the kelp quickly forced some to the right and others to the left.  The kelp was in our way frequently as it would slow your progress, push you high up in the water and force the ‘kelp crawl’ on you.  I did my best not to fight it, but rather relax, accept that it was slowing me down and slither my way through it.  The first lap was easy as I stayed near the front and was in 3rd position starting the second lap.

I made my move quickly at the start of the 2nd lap and took the lead.  I kept the pace honest but stayed comfortable.  I also swerved my way through the open water as much as possible, avoiding the beds of kelp that slow and tire.  This is definitely one of the harder swims in the sport.  I held the lead for the entire second lap and posted the fastest swim time on the day.  I felt good coming into T1 and my F2R wetsuit came off quickly putting me in the all important lead group on the bike.

Before the race started, I had decided that I would not do any attacking while biking.  My goal was to stay in the draft pack.  I had a few options to attack with some guys that ended up in a 4 man break-away but I played it conservative, as much as I wanted to go.  I did not think that the 4 guys would stay away but they ended up with a 30 second lead on my pack coming into T2.  However, I had a lot of energy to burn for the run.

My second transition was slow and ended up costing me in the end; it took a couple attempts to slip my shoes on.  By the time I was running I had lost an astounding minute to some of the riders in my peloton.  Ouch!  Luckily, some of the other guys didn’t fair so well either in T2.  It worked out very well for me that Adam Truex and I started the run near each other.  He passed me but I held on.  The mile coming back in each of our three loops was very windy and we took turns pulling in it.  I must say Adam did more than me and it was an advantage to tuck in behind him and out of the wind. 

We ended up running down 3 of the 4 guys in the bike break-away.  Unfortunately, Luke McKenzie and Brian Lavelle got second winds and passed us back.  Brian just nipped me by 10 seconds for tenth place and some prize money…bummer. 

I was elated to later find out that I had run a 33:39 10k!  A PR and a time I had wanted to run for a while had finally materialized.  I am still excited about that split.

After the finish I needed some sustenance quickly.  I was staggering about and feeling woozy.  My cognitive abilities were limited as my body struggled to recover.  I felt hot so I took a cool, refreshing dip in the Pacific.  Moments, later I emptied the contents of my stomach in the sea.  While doing this my stomach also cramped up.  I was in sorry shape and probably a sorry site for the other people on the beach.  I couldn’t help but think I had ruined my chance to compete the next morning in the LA Triathlon.  I felt awful and had to do this again in a short few hours!?  The way I was feeling it just didn’t seem possible or like a smart thing to do.

Fortunately, after a lot of fluids and nutrition I began feeling much better.  I think dehydration was what ailed me at the finish as I should have drunk more during the race. 

It was close to 4 o’clock in the afternoon by the time Hortense and I had stocked the van with healthy fluids and food from Trader Joe’s.  Again, my lovely wife drove the 5 hours back to Los Angles.  I had to meet Sharon, one of the race officials downtown to pick up my race packet and give her my T2 stuff.  My shoes were stinky and soaking wet and this undoubtedly contributed to my blisters the next day.  (Mental note: if I ever compete in 2 Triathlons back to back again…bring 2 sets of running flats). 

It was now 10 pm and Hortense and I had to back track up to Venice Beach where our Hotel was.  Of course we get lost and my wife and I tiredly check in around 11 pm.  Then I had to get my other bike, my SCOTT Plasma ready for the non-drafting race.  I have one set of race wheels but each of my bikes requires different rear cogs.  So after changing the cog on the race wheels and putting my bike together from the bike box, I was finally ready to put the race numbers on my bike and helmet.  Phew… at last, everything was in order and I was now prepared to race the next morning.

It was now 12:30 am.  Wake up time:  4:30 am.

After a 4 hour nap, where sleep came quickly and ended abruptly, I awoke feeling surprisingly refreshed. 

Our hotel was close enough that I only had to bike about 8 minutes to get to the start of the Los Angles Triathlon which was at Venice Beach.  This counted as my bike warm-up.  As usual I was the first one to get in the water.  It took me a bit as the morning light was just starting to illuminate the sea and both the air and water felt a little cool whilst in my bathing suit.  The cold water juiced me up and any tiredness in my head and body seemed to give way to a measure of alertness.  All alone in the ocean at sunrise….isn’t that one of the times that sharks like to feed?  This kept me from going out too far.  But I had a much better idea anyway.  The waves were breaking just right for some nice body surfing.

I must have caught a good 10 waves.  This counted as my swim warm-up.  The most fun I’ve had warming up for a triathlon to date. 

They lined us up far back on the beach; about 100 meter run before we entered the water.  Déjà vu.  Hadn’t I just done this?  We entered the Pacific and encountered some modest 2 – 3 foot waves and began ducking and diving.  After the group had ducked under the first wave and came up briefly before going under the next wave, it seemed like everything slowed down.  Errr… wait, maybe that was just me.  I remember thinking, “what’s the rush guys.”  Maybe I pondered as a spectator for a moment, or more likely, maybe I was just missing some of the speed and power I am accustomed to.  But I found myself quickly leading the chase group in a frugal effort to catch the lead group. 

I ended the swim feeling pretty good and still near the front of the race.  Out on the bike I felt surprisingly good…for the first 3 – 4 miles.  It wasn’t long before I noticed the lack of power and the fine line I was walking from blowing up.  However, I paced myself, holding back but still moving along well.  Then my chain dropped!  Ahhh, you got to be kidding me…not today.  I tried to get it to catch while still riding but it wouldn’t and I was wasting more time.  I stopped, 3 or 4 riders pass me, and I got back up to speed having lost some valuable time.  Time I didn’t have the power to get back. 

My first time riding the LA bike course proved to be an eye-opener as it was hillier than I had expected.  I made another gaffe, forgetting to take my bike shoes off before the mount line.  I’ll know next time.  Not wanting to run in my bike shoes, I had to stop and take them off, then run to T2. 

The hill on the run was a surprise too.  It was a steep, tough, calve killing hill.  I was running alone with no one to run down (even if I could) and no one pressuring me from behind.  I tried to keep an honest pace but it was comfortable.  I finished in much better shape than I had the day before.  No staggering or vomiting this time.  Yeah! 

It was an enormous relief to be done.  Not to mention Hortense and I were now going to celebrate our upcoming anniversary with a few days of California beach and sun. 

The past two days had been a blur of activity with many logistics.  A challenge I’m glad to have tackled but one I don’t think I’ll try again.  The races themselves were OK…but all the driving and the lack of sleep and hauling around 2 bikes all the while getting a ton of help from my wife was a big task.  I’m grateful and fortunate to have such a supportive wife.  I wouldn’t be half as good with out her.

It turned out to be a wonderful weekend of exploration and I learned much from the experience.  The suffering endured will certainly make some of my other races feel like a day at the beach. 


Boise Becomes Home to Newest Ironman 70.3

New Ironman 70.3 event scheduled for June 1, 2008


New Ironman 70.3 event scheduled for June 1, 2008

Ironman announces more growth of the Ironman 70.3 Series with the addition of a new event, Ironman 70.3 Boise. The inaugural event is scheduled for June 1, 2008 and will utilize a variety of Boise’s scenic areas to include: Lucky Peak Reservoir, Sandy Point Beach, the Boise Greenbelt and the downtown area. Ironman 70.3 Boise will serve as one of more than 26 worldwide qualifying events for next year’s Ironman World Championship 70.3.

“We are excited to be working with the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau to create the latest addition to the Ironman 70.3 Event Series. The new race demonstrates our interest in selecting Ironman 70.3 venues that are not only large markets and capital cities, but also those that offer a variety of natural beauty and eco-friendly sites such as the Boise greenbelt,” says Ironman 70.3 Events Director, Steve Meckfessel. The swim will be held at Lucky Peak Reservoir and athletes will then transition from swim-to-bike, also referred to as T1, at the parking lot at Barclay Bay. The bike course will leave Barclay Bay, cross Lucky Peak Dam and head north. A challenging climb will greet athletes until approximately mile 20, where they will encounter an out-and-back section along the north side of the Lucky Peak Reservoir. Toward the last section of the bike, athletes will enjoy a 24 mile downhill ride to Federal Way into downtown Boise. The bike-to-run transition, known as T2, will be located on Front Street and the half-marathon run course will take athletes throughout downtown and on to the Boise Greenbelt. The finish line celebration will take place in the heart of Boise’s Bodo District, on 8th Street.

Ironman 70.3 Boise will take athletes on a 70.3 mile journey, in Southwest Idaho, that consists of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile run. There will be a professional prize purse of $25,000 and 50 qualifying slots for pro and age group athletes to the 2008 Ironman World Championship 70.3 taking place on November 8, 2008 Clearwater, FL.

Registration for the inaugural event will open on Saturday, October 13, 2:00 p.m. ET. Please log on to  for additional details.

Triathlete Magazine article.