So You Want to be a Triathlon Coach? Here’s your Reading List…

Triathlon Coaching - Steel City Endurance The most common question I get from folks wanting to increase their knowledge is, “What triathlon coaching books should I read?”

While it’s certainly hard to whittle down the list, these were the first handful of books & scientific papers to come to mind.  As they say, always go with your initial instincts!

Caveat…I have an entire bookshelf of coaching books plus many I haven’t read yet, but these are the books & articles I would START with.  They will help the aspiring triathlon coach or self-coached athlete form a solid foundation upon which they can begin filling in with no end of online-self-coaching articles.

There may be some notable absences from this list…it’s not necessarily intentional, but if you would like to add a book to the list, please leave a comment!

Scientific Training for Triathletes, Phil Skiba, MD, $20

The Triathletes Guide to Training with Power, Phil Skiba, MD, $20

Training and Racing with a Power Meter, 2nd Ed, Hunter Allen & Andy Coggan, 2010  $24.95

Triathlon Swimming Made Easy, Terry Laughlin (Discount 10%  “coachsuzanne” at checkout) $9.95 E-book, In Paperback $33 new.

Daniels’ Running Formula-3rd Edition, Jack Daniels, 2013, $21.95

Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance:  the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training, 2009.  Free Download

Endurance exercise performance: the physiology of champions, Michael Joyner & Edward Coyle, 2008, Free Download


So for about $100 you can have 7 excellent coaching & self-coaching references that cover essentials of endurance physiology, high intensity training, run training, bike training, swim training & fitness from some of the most notable and knowledable authors.

One of the fantastic aspects of triathlon is that all of these authors are alive & well and accessible by email, webinar or by corning them at a conference on endurance sports.

What are some of your favorites?



Threshold Testing with Power –  File and Performance Analysis

Threshold Testing with Power – File and Performance Analysis



I tend to be very analytical with my athletes training files, which is part of my job as a coach. I provide supplemental training and guidance on analyzing files to my associate coaches as well.  If you train with Steel City Endurance, you can expect to get feedback like this on a routine basis, but especially around testing periods.

This specific example is a power profile analysis that I annotated and sent to my athlete. The workout was a 5 minute & 20 minute time trial both performed in the same setting, similar to what is recommended by Allen & Coggen in Training and Racing with a power meter.

I’m sharing it  here in full with the exception of the final link at the end as that contains personal information.   Hopefully you can see how the email is somewhat conversational, and I reflect on what I as a coach can do better on as well.   The tone overall is or should be positive and encouraging…after all this was hard work!   I want my athlete to know where he currently stands and how well the testing was performed in order for him to make improvements as we go.

I know I”ve done my job as a coach well when my athletes become their won best self-coaches!  (It must be working well because two current or former Steel City Endurance athletes are now coaching with us as associates! )  Enjoy, and I appreciate any comments or feedback.


Threshold Testing Power Summary Analysis – Coach to Athlete

Overall really nice effort.  Noting the laps with your bike computer is helpful for me and saves me some time.  I’ve noted some features I look at on the graph.  The warmup is nice and easy and follows the protocol I wrote well. In looking at the effort, I’d like to see the HR climb just a little higher, close to your threshold at the end of 15 or so minutes. This lets us know your muscles are “primed” for a good effort, and that you’re not still warming up into a hard effort when you start the first interval.

You noted that the you felt like you were saving something during the 5 minute for the 20 minute effort.  You can see that here in the stepped appearance of the power line.   This 5 min & 20 min test serves several purposes. one of them is to “blow out” your anaerobic energy stores so that the 20 minute effort is more reflective of your true aerobic effort.  I don’t expect that you could go as hard for the 20 minute after  an all out 5 as you could in a standalone 20 minute effort.

The other thing this test does is simultaneously give us a 5 minute best power, reflective of your maximum aerobic capacity (VO2 max).

So this is a good start and we’ll adjust your zones based on it, and retest in a few weeks with the notes I made taken into account:
Let the warm up effort climb to just below threshold effort, before the 5 min easy spin
Go all out on the 5 minute aiming for an even power application
The 20 minute looks great here, again, go for best even effort for duration.

Here are your averages for the 5 & 20 minute sections

5 minute all out effort: 

Heart Rate Power Cadence Power:weight(kg)
Average 153 282 82 3.65
Max 165 323 107 NA

20 minute all out effort: 

Heart Rate Power Cadence Power:Weight(kg)
Average 162 255 78 3.14
Max 173 307 83 NA

5 min Heart Rate
I follow the HR trend as an indicator of how close you are to your potential in performing this test.

Your 5 minute avg HR should be at or near your max Heart Rate. Since your max HR for the 20min was 173, your avg HR for the 5 minute, when done well, should be pretty close to that.  If you were significantly dehydrated by the end of the 20 min that could account for a few heart beats.

Next time around, or whenever you are doing long VO2 max type sessions, see if you can target a HR of 170 as an indicator you are going “hard enough”.  Power may continue to climb higher even if HR is maxed out due to anaerobic energy. That is, the heart doesn’t need to beat faster to deliver more oxygen because there are non-oxygen based energy sources.  Over time I really want to see what you can produce for a 5 minute max in terms of Wattage!  My guess is that a sustained 300W is in you now, possibly much higher since max was 323 and HR was still 5-10 beats below your max.

5 minute Power
Avg power of 282 is most likely below what you’re capable of just judging by the stepped appearance of the graph. We don’t need to worry about the values for now, but just something to keep an eye on for your next test is to really try to get your HR up a bit before the 5 minute effort, then nail a steady hard effort for 5 minutes with HR btwn 160 & 170 as a signal you’ve got it going hard enough. Then let the power be what it is! (can you hit 290-300 steady watts or higher?)

20 minute HR & Power
Your graph shows a general trend higher for each of these and not an abrupt jump at the end which is good.  Overall this looks like a good effort and once you get back into training I think these numbers will “nudge” higher bit by bit.

To calculate your power training zones, I’ll use 95% of this 20 minute average as the basis for your “threshold power”.  Over time the main goal is to improve your threshold power with training.  If this number isn’t getting higher then we need to look at reasons why…it may be OK because you may be getting faster for longer durations even though this value doesn’t move…or you may be getting more efficient by executing this effort at a lower HR value.

A good metric to follow is your “power to weight” ratio.

You can see that your 20 min power to weight ratio  of 3.14 & your 5 min ration of 3.65 puts you right at a “cat 4” cycling level, which is fine, and again over time we want to try and nudge this upwards. As a long course athlete, the 20 minute (& longer duration) power numbers are more important.

At this point I mostly want to make sure that you have a general idea of what the numbers mean and what I’m looking at…that will help you execute your workouts better and know what’s important and what’s less important.

Finally I created a chart with printable zones for your training zones based on this test that you can see here:

The Perfect Ironman Taper ? Following the little blue line

Performance Mangement Chart for a 1 year build to Ironman Arizona occuring 5 days out from the end of the "blue line".   ~10 % reduction from the peak with a positive stress balance is an "idealized" shape of the curve for physical preparedness and an ideal taper.

Performance Mangement Chart for a 1 year build to Ironman Arizona occuring 5 days out from the end of the “blue line”. ~10 % reduction from the peak with a positive stress balance is an “idealized” shape of the curve for physical preparedness and an ideal taper.

Ironman Arizona is a late season race. By the time athletes have arrived in Arizona the months upon months of training have often taken an emotional toll, even if the physical preparation is perfect.

Finding that blend of building fitness, maintaining motivation, postitive mindset and visualization, just enough rest without getting stale…that’s the art of tapering.

The performance management chart is one way of viewing the physical stresses of training and looking at how well an athlete is recovering.

By correlating dips in the chronic training load (the “little blue line”) with the bounce in the balance of acute & chronic stress (the yellow zone or the “training stress balance” or TSB), we can prepare an athlete for an idealized race.

There is more to it for sure, but seeing these shapes emerging the week before Ironman Arizona is reassuring for me as a coach as well as for my athlete. No wondering how well the training prepared him. he is well prepared.

From here to Sunday, it’s all about positive visualization, staying limber, managing emotions and energy, and staying organized and out of the fray of race week.

What’s your interpretation of the “little blue line”?

Steel City Ironman Triathletes Cross the Kona Finish Line

Three Steel City Endurance athletes crossed the finish line at the Ironman World Championships on October 11, 2014.  Each of our three athletes has had their own journey to make it to the starting line, and each of them experienced their race day unfold over the blisteringly hot and windy 140.6 mile course.

We are very proud of…

  • Kirsten Sass, 35, McKenzie, TN
  • David Wirth, 25, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Gregory Christiansen, 48, Pittsburgh, PA

Kirsten Sass of McKenzie, TN qualified at IM Louisville this year.    Kirsten grew up watching her father train and enter innumerable running & triathlon races.   His dream of nearly 20 years to race in Kona became a reality this year when he won a legacy spot.   Kirsten immediately added IM Louisville to the 2 other IM races she’d already registered for in an attempt to qualify.  She ended up winning  her age group and taking 4th place female overall.


David Wirth of Pittsburgh, PA qualified at IM Arizona in 2013, taking 3rd in his age group after an all day battle among the top 5 men in the competitive 25-29 year old category.   He ended up 85th overall in that race and qualified as a 2013 Silver All-World athlete.  David’s build up to Kona for 2014 was planned to include racing at several shorter distances, earning him several podium spots along the way as well as a PR at the Boston marathon (again) in 2014.


Gregory Christiansen of Pittsburgh, PA won a lottery spot after competing in Syracuse 70.3 as well as Ironman Lake Placid for 2014, with a respectable first time Ironman finish in the upper 5th of his age group during a treacherous weather-filled day.   With about 8 weeks of recovery & build between Lake Placid and Kona, Greg maintained excellent fitness. Given the severe heat and winds of Kona as compared to Lake Placid, Greg’s finish was superb.


All three athletes are coached by Steel City Endurance head coach Suzanne Atkinson, MD.  If you are interest in seeing if you might have the potential to qualify for Kona in the next few years, please contact us for a consultation.

**Photos coming**

Kirsten Kona Bike

Kirsten Sass along the hot bike course at Ironman World Championships, Kona, Hawaii October 12, 2014




KIrsten Sass hydrates and refuels at the aid station on Palani hill between miles 10 & 11 as the run course climbs from Ali'i drive up to the Queen K

Kirsten Sass hydrates and refuels at the aid station on Palani hill between miles 10 & 11 as the run course climbs from Ali’i drive up to the Queen K


Greg Kona Bike


Greg Kona Run 2


Greg Run Alii


Greg Kona Finish 2


Greg Kona Finish


David Swim Finish - Kona






David Finish Kona funny

Life in Balance: Triathlon Training Volume and Race Performances – Part 1

Today I was chatting with one of my athletes getting his post-race recap of the Rev 3 Cedar Point Half distance triathlon.   He was thrilled with his performance, his ability to overcome many hardships and mishaps during the race (who hasn’t taken a wrong turn in the heat of a race? ) and was most pleased at how his training consistency has led to a 45 minute improvement in his Half distance since last year.

Yet his training volume is still less than that of his training partner (who remains uncoached).  His partner and he used to ride at the same pace and now my athlete (I’ll refer to him as Paul) is so much faster than his friend, that often he “pulls him along” on training rides.   His friend (I’ll call him Peter) has been a bit baffled by Paul’s reduced training volume until the results of yesterday’s race in which Paul took 2nd place in his age group.

PMC - Performance Management Chart

Why bring this up? It’s not for me to sit here and write that less training time is better for you. It may be , but without knowing what you are currently doing, your recent improvements (or declines or plateaus) and what your goals are, you could need more training, less training or just different training.

Contrast this with another athlete of mine who did the exact same race who is doing not quite twice as much training volume as Paul.

Let’s put some numbers and figures to all of this…

His 4 key Endurance races this year are

  • Pittsburgh Marathon 5/4/2014 – DONE
  • Eagleman 6/8/2014 – DONE
  • Rev 3 Cedar Point Half 9/8/14 – DONE
  • IM Arizona 11/16/14  – 8 Weeks to go

That’s a long season and a lot of long racing.  He’s got a family and it’s vital that he remain in good health and balanced thorughotu the year.  That means that when we can afford to trainig wise, we back way off, allow him to recovery, let fatigue go away and let him spend time with family & work related priorities.   Nearing these final 2 races (Rev 3 Cedar Point and IM Arizona) it is becoming more important to get in adequate volume for muscle endurance, while maximizing his speed potential for those distances.

The question is how much is enough? Where’s the threshold of too much training?

There are two (ok, maybe 3) key elements to look at and still keep the formula simple.

  1. What’s his prior training volume/ training stress been like? 
  2. How much time can he currently commit to training
  3. How is he feeling physically, emotionally & in relation to his other commitments? 

I’ll make this a 2 part writeup and continue the discussion in Part 2. There is a lot ot consider and digest here, and it’s important as a coach and an athlete to keep a holistic approach to training volume and not simply fill all available time with training.

Let me know in the comments what questions have come up so far in reading part 1.


Modular Running Sets – Fitting more quality into your run training

IKIrsten Sass- Best of US - Win just returned from an incredible week of coaching as the head coach of Triathlon Research’s inaugural weeklong triathlon training camp.  I had the honor of welcoming other world class coaches such as Jay Johnson, Bobby McGee (saturday special!), Terry Laughlin, Kim Schwabenbauer, Celeste St. Pierre, Shane Eversfield and 6 Time Ironman World Champion, Mark Allen.

In addition we had presentations at two world class training facilities, Retul Headquarters with lead instructor Ivan O’Gorman and Boulder Center for Sports Medicine with Robert Pickels and Adam St. Pierre (no relation to Celeste!)

Needless to say amongst us over the week a lot of information  was passed along.

Now that I am at home, I am reviewing new material that I picked up, especially from coach Jay Johnson, who focuses primarily on the running chassis as well as training stress for his runners.    I’ve already been incorporating Muscle Activation, Dynamic warmups and Biomechanical Drills that I learned from Bobby McGee.

In fact, during camp Jay and I both presented a 90 minute run session in which neither of us overlapped any information taht I can tell.  That adds up to 3 hours of ancillary run training presented at camp, without including running itself!

So I am contemplating now the idea of “Modular Run Training”.  it’s a simple way for me to compartmentalize all the knowledge withotu getting a) overwhelmed or b) paralysis by analysis.

It’s easy to just not know what to do when presented with so much information.  So here is how I structured my run wen I got back from altitude this past Monday.  I chose to do three “modules” prior to the actual run and allotted 5 minutes for each one.   This constituted my total warmup of 15 minutes.   (the 2nd module expanded to 10 minutes for a 20 minute warmup, but once conditioned, doing it in only 3 minutes is very doable).

This plannign allowed me to fit in the most vital elements to help improve my own running, provided a suitable and ample physical and mental warmup, and covered a few essential biomechanical drills and dynamic movements.  The quality of hte following run/walk was outstanding and the total session lasted 1:30 (one hour & thirty minutes) following which I used my TP Massage kit to roll out my calf muscles as well as doing some dynamic post run stretching.

Here was my modular plan:

  • 5 minutes “Muscle Activations” ala Bobby McGee
  • 5 minutes “Lunge Matrix” ala Jay Johnson
  • 5 minutes of 3 key running drills chose by myself (Karaokes/grapevines, hamstring kick-outs & knee to chest) 

The 5 minute Lunge Matrix I expanded to 10 minutes by walking briskly between each segment (for example, 5 lunges with each leg, then walk 30-50 yards).  I found this kept my mind nicely occupied and got me to the starting point of my run very quickly

The muscle activations are stressed by Bobby as being one of the most important things a triathlete/runner can do on a  regular basis and from personal experience, the more I do them, the more they help…so I wanted to retain those.  I felt that the muscle activations made the lunge matrix less abrupt of a transition.  In addition the lunge matrix resembles some of Bobby’s dynamic warmups as well so it was a good fit.

Finally the 3 Running drills I chose were based on the fact that each of them when done well, requires a connection through the core and incorporates the full body (chest, spine, shoulders, hips & legs).

Following my run/walk into dusk I returned home and stretched out my problem areas, specifically my hip flexors using dynamic stretching techcniques and finally my achilles/soleus complex with my TP Massage Kit that I aquired last week.

Next time you are faced with an overwhelming amount of new information to incorporate into your traithlon training, simple try a “modular” approach.   While the material is fresh in your mind, write down 3-5 “modules” of related drills or activations that you think would work, then go ahead and test them out one workout or training activity at a time.

What are some of your favorite things to incorporate into your pre-run rituals?

Better Swim Drills: Arm Lead Streamline aka Skating  or Side Kick Drill

Better Swim Drills: Arm Lead Streamline aka Skating or Side Kick Drill

Suz-arm lead streamline numberedI’m fully convinced that every coach out there is doing their best to help their athletes improve. Drill recommendations are made based on their own knowledge, understanding, background and exposure to various coaching techniques. Great coaches pick up the best of what they are exposed to and add their own customizations based on their own personality.

And as we learn, we discard old ideas, ones we may have previously thought were grand…in favor of a new, better or different way that seems to work better.

SO here are my thoughts on better ways to do the freestyle swimming drill known as “side kicking drill”, “one arm extension drill”, “statue of liberty drill” or the older version of “skating drill”. all describe a similar body posture, but there are better ways for triathletes and swimmers to execute this and practice it well.

In this drill the body is rotated, head is looking down with nose/chin directed at the bottom of the pool, and the arm that is lower in the water is extended forward. This drill helps imprint the “slipperiest” streamlined position in swimming freestyle. However because full stroke freestyle is not a static activity, the most streamlined side kicking position is NOT the best position from which to initiate a freestyle stroke or recovery.

It’s best to practice a body position that is in a better dynamic position to initiate the next stroke when ready. Here are three quick checks to make sure you’re doing it better.

Rather than having the body rotated a full 90 degrees or with shoulders “stacked” one on top of the other, flatten the body’s rotational angle just a little bit so that the top shoulder comes closer to the surface.

Belly button is pointed at the corners of the pool where the side walls meet the bottom, rather than the side of the pool.

The lead arm and the head should have a small gap or separation between the shoulder and the chin rather than being resting or touching together.

These small changes may be very subtle but the approximate the posture of full stroke swimming better than the “older” versions of the drill, and help to avoid imprinting cues that may lead to errors down the road.

All drills compromise the full freestyle stroke and while understanding their benefits we should also try to minimize detrimental takeaways. By making these deliberate adjustments, flatter rotation, gap allowed between the chin & the extended arm, and fingertips/palm tipped down towards the pool bottom, you can bring focus to each of these three areas in subsequent full stroke if you choose.

Critical Swim Speed (CSS) and Total Immersion Swimming

CoachSuzanneOlympicSwimClubI was always a math geek. Way back in 2007 or 2008 I took a clinic from Dr. Phil Skiba on periodization…but it was much more than that. Phil is an experienced coach who also has a lot of expertise in physiology and testing.   Phil’s clinic was one of the first times I can recall that the formal idea of a “time-distance” relationship in endurance sports was brought up in the context of how to coach athletes and interpret their abilities.

I started experimenting with using this assessment in my own swimming & my athletes.  Several years later I began combining this idea with what I had been practicing as a Total Immersion coach.  I tried combining ideas that were well studied in traditional sports science literature with what I’d been doing in developing better swimming agility on my onw.

Shortly after experimenting with these ideas…in fact the very first day I used it in a  group of triathlete swimmers, many of my swimmers set PRs for 50 & 100m swims just by refining and defining their control over their stroke.

in 2012 I shared some of my thoughts on the total immersion website. I have often gone back to that thread to review what I wrote at the time as well as revisit the thoughts of another coach, Charles Couturier of Montreal, Canada. Charles is an outstanding coach at the University of Montreal and runs a large tri training program for people of all abilities.

Here is the largely unedited text of what I shared that day in response to using CSS to train speed and pace. CSS is concept that dates back to at least 1965 when a distance-time model was prposed by Monod and Scherrer as they evaluated world records in swimming, running, speed skating and cycling.

Since that time many sports scientists have examined and used the model to try and define specific stroke rates and stroke lengths in swimming, resulting paces, power targets for cycling and running paces. Swim coaches began using “Critical Swim Speed” as measured by using either a 400m & 50m swim test or a 400m & 200m swim test. The choice of distances affects the resulting slope & intercept (speed and anaerobic work capacity) as calculated by the model.

In theory the shorter test, which taps into anaerobic energy stores, helps to “strip out” the anaerobic contribution from the longer test. The resulting pace represents an aerobic swimming speed that can be sustained for long durations by trained swimmers.

I use the CSS concept to establish initial goals along with tempo & SPL targets for my masters swimmers who are new to pacing, or have not trained with me long enough to have a feel of their targets or points of improvement.

About once a quarter I’ll have my swimmers do the following:

Assessment Set

10 minute warmup
300-500yd/m time trial (this should be at  least at least 5 minutes)
8 minutes of active recovery in the pool
50m-100 yd/m all out sprint (this should be 90 seconds or less)

The critical swim speed plots the time vs. the distance of each of the two swims. A line drawn between the two is described by the basic algebraic equation:
y = mx + b

m is equal to the theoretical critical speed (or power in the case of cyclists)
b is the intercept and represents the anaerobic work capacity

by plotting a “long” and a “short” time trial test, the anaerobic and aerobic capacities for each effort are normalized. The above equation to determine the slope, removes the anaerobic component from the longer time trial (whether it is 300, 400 or 500yd or longer TT).

Here is the easy way to calculate it Critical speed = [long distance – short distance] / [long time – short time]

400yd TT: 8 minutes
50yd TT: 35 seconds

critical speed = 400 – 50 / 8 * 60sec – 35sec
critical speed = .78 yds/second

Even in a yard pool, I like to normalize in meters per second as a lot of the literature is written that way. Just 1.1 yards = 1 meter so .78 yd/sec = .78/1.1 m/s = .71 m/s

.71 meters/second (or .78 yards/second) is the critical swim speed for that swimmer, or 2:08/100 yards

Why is the critical speed slower than the 400 yard time trial speed?

In an activity lasting 8 minutes, even 20-30 minutes or more, a component of the speed comes from anaerobic muscle activity…brute force.

The comparison between the long time trial where the aerobic system makes a significant contribution and the SHORT time trial which is primarily anaerobic, allows you to subtract the brute force component out of the longer time trial speed.

This leaves us with what should in theory be completely aerobic training.

In the Total Immersion approach to swimming, this is vital because the intensity level is low enough to allow us to focus on technique improvements while swimming at a pace that isn’t “too slow” by anyone’s standards as long as the CSS was calculated from two recent time trials.

We are left with what in theory, represents the highest aerobic speed a swimmer can swim, meaning that at this pace and anything slower we should be able to more easily implement technique changes and adjustments.

Just as you would practice a new or challenging passage of a piano piece or any other musical instrument slowly enough to allow you to learn proper timing & finger placement, an aerobic pace in swimming allows you to learn and imprint new and better neuromuscular pathways to make your swimming faster and more streamlined.

Here is where the Total Immersion twist comes in….

With Total Immersion we focus on the neuro-muscular connections and movement pathways from brain to muscle. We can swim at the critical speed in many different “gears”, but we want to find the optimal gear, or stroke length and rate, that will allow the swimmer to work in a comfortable capacity while leaving ample room to grow in speed and get faster.

Once I’ve calculated the speed with a spreadsheet I’ve set up to do that, I”ll give my swimmers a test set of 10×50 at critical speed + 5 seconds rest. Again I have this already set up in a spreadsheet so the set is ready to hand to them when they finish the test and I put the numbers into a calculator on my ipad.

While they are swimming their 10×50 they count their average SPL. For some this the first time they have every done that, but it’s in the context of a familiar type of training…a time trial followed by sets at a prescribed pace. This helps people understand that counting strokes is not the same thing as aiming for lowest stroke count…we are just collecting information at this point.

With this 2nd data points, average stroke count per 50 at their CSS pace, they are now honing in on a really valuable set of training parameters…not JUST critical speed, which can be swum at many tempos and stroke lengths (ie many different stroke techniques or GEARS) , but they are establishing an average SPL, which turns into as well as a target for improvement.

After the 10×50 counting strokes, their next set (on a subsequent day perhaps), will be to use that SPL and the critical swim speed, and swim the long set again, but with focus on holding SPL at that average number and not exceeding it.

What we’ve done is used the swimmers current fitness & ability to give them a starting point, without placing any specific focus on the swimmer adhering to SPL or tempo constraints while swimming the initial time trial. This allows anyone to do the set, not just people who are math inclined.

I can take any of my swimmers with any level of experience, have them do the assessment set, plug their times in and my spreadsheet does the calculations, recommends the 10×50 pacing and the swimmer then begins their journey!

Carbs, Blood Sugar, and Balancing Macronutrients (Metabolic Efficiency Series Part 2)

My last post ended with the promise that the next post in this Metabolic Efficiency series would discuss how excess carbs and sugar in the diet can lead to health issues and weight gain. So, let’s pick up where we left off…

Carbohydrates are rapidly broken down into sugars in the digestion process. Carbohydrate digestion actually begins in the mouth via enzymes in saliva called salivary amylases. Regardless of whether the carbohydrates come from a whole-wheat bagel, an apple, or a candy bar – they are broken down to sugars in the digestion process. What happens when sugar reaches the bloodstream? Your body has homeostatic mechanisms (“internal control systems”) to maintain a comfortable blood sugar level.

Think of it like the thermostat in your house in the summer: You set the thermostat to tell it what your upper comfort level is for the inside temperature – let’s say that is 72 degrees. When the thermostat detects that the temperature inside the house has reached 72, what happens? The air conditioning kicks on to bring the temperature back to the desired range – less than 72 degrees – where you are comfortable again.

Like the house analogy, your body has a set “comfort level” for blood sugar. When your blood sugar exceeds its upper “comfort limit” following a meal high in carbs/sugars, the body’s homeostatic mechanisms kick in and signal the pancreas, an organ found below the stomach, to secrete insulin. Simply put, insulin is a hormone whose primary function is to help maintain healthy levels of blood sugar with which your body is comfortable. Insulin is released into the blood in response to high levels of blood sugar and it can transport the sugar out of the blood and into 3 main storage locations in the body.

What are those 3 storage locations? Sugar can be transported into the liver and muscle tissue to be stored as glycogen, which serves as your body’s go-to fuel for higher intensity physical activity and for keeping specific systems running efficiently all day (central nervous system, kidneys, red blood cells). This is good, right? Well, sort of. The liver and muscles have a finite storage capacity: only about 1200-2000 calories, depending on gender and body size. Once they’re topped off, they can’t take any more sugar in. Here’s an analogy to illustrate: If your car has a 14 gallon gas tank, you won’t be able to cram 15 gallons of gas into that tank, no matter what you try.

Ready for the bad news? Unlike the liver and muscles, fat cells have an indefinite storage capacity for sugar, so they are able to absorb any of the sugar that wasn’t stored in the liver/muscles. In fat cells, sugar is stored as triglycerides.  It is through this mechanism that excessive consumption of carbs and sugars leads to accumulation of body fat.

Eating a high-carbohydrate diet means the pancreas is constantly secreting insulin to try to bring blood sugar level back to its “comfort zone”. This puts a huge strain on the pancreas to produce insulin, and leads to the possibility of a condition known as “insulin resistance”, which means that the body’s cells have become desensitized to insulin, and more insulin is required to have the same effect and transport sugar out of the blood and into storage. Eventually, the pancreas won’t be able to keep up with demand which may lead to excessive sugar building up in the blood and the onset of Type II Diabetes. Another negative impact of chronically elevated insulin levels is that insulin turns off your body’s fat-burning mechanisms. Insulin is known as the “fat storage” hormone, and it actually inhibits the breakdown of stored body fat.

The main idea behind this post is not that all carbs are bad for you, nor is the main idea that insulin is bad. Carbs are required by the body for all kinds of functions, from providing fuel for movement and exercise to providing fuel for the brain, organs, etc to function. Rather, the take-home message here is to be cognizant of carbohydrate choices and portions, and to be aware that excessive levels of insulin for prolonged periods of time is not conducive to overall health and well-being.

To minimize the impact of carbohydrates on blood sugar, there are several things you can do:

The first is to consume carbs with the other macronutrients (see “Golden Rule” below), and not by themselves.

The second is choosing carbohydrates that have a lower glycemic index and therefore enter the bloodstream more slowly (I’m not going to discuss the glycemic index/glycemic load in this post, since it’s already long enough, but information about these can be found through google searches).

Lastly, timing of carbohydrate relative to physical activity is key in preventing excessive carbohydrate storage in fat cells. Physical activity will cause stored glycogen to be broken down for energy; the more intense and longer the duration of activity/exercise, the more glycogen that will be used. Carbs consumed when the muscle tissues and liver are depleted will be converted to glycogen to refill those storage vessels, and carbs in excess of what the liver/muscles can hold will be stored as body fat. So, eating a meal higher in carbs following a workout is better timing, than say, a day you’ve spent sitting at a computer with minimal physical activity (walking to the office printer or to grab your lunch from the fridge doesn’t count as exercise!).  In the latter scenario, desk work and minimal physical activity don’t lead to glycogen depletion.  Eating a high amount of carbohydrates (whether it’s in the forms of grains or sugars) on a day like this will lead to most of the carbs being stored as body fat since the liver and muscle glycogen stores are pretty much full.

This brings us to what I refer to as the Golden Rule of Metabolic Efficiency: To stabilize blood sugar, think “Protein + Fat^ + Fiber* (carb)” every time: meal or snack.

^Fat has taken a bad rap over the years, but it should not be avoided. Fat has many important functions in our bodies: it serves a hormone precursor, controls the inflammatory response, makes up the cellular membrane of all of our cells, and promotes satiety, just to name a few. Good sources of fat include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, full-fat organic dairy products, butter (especially grass-fed butter), eggs, quality meats, nuts, and nut butters. Any man-made fat (ie, “partially hydrogenated anything-oil”) should be avoided, as should high-in-omega-6 plant-based oils (cottonseed, canola, soybean, vegetable, safflower, sunflower, etc) because they promote inflammation in the body.

*I’ve chosen to use “Fiber” instead of “carb” here because the former invokes thoughts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, whereas the latter is often assumed to mean processed grains (pasta, bread, snack bars, candy, etc) – which lead to a bigger spike in blood sugar and are not as nutrient-dense.

Let’s look at a few examples. An apple isn’t a bad afternoon snack, but it’s not very balanced in terms of protein, fat, and fiber. Sugars, albeit naturally occurring ones, make up the majority of calories in the apple. If you add some cheese slices** or slather some nut butter on those apple slices, you’ve now got a snack with protein, fat and fiber. The protein and fat in the cheese or nut butter will slow down the absorption of the natural sugars, leaving you feeling satisfied longer and with a more stable blood sugar level.

**Just for the record: We’re talking “real” cheese here, like a nice cheddar or jarlsberg or gouda or pepperjack (can you tell I love cheese?!); no overly-processed “reduced fat” cheeses or individually-wrapped Kraft singles (which technically don’t even contain enough real cheese to be labeled as such; this is why the label says “prepared cheese product”!)

Another example: Oatmeal is touted as a great heart-healthy breakfast, but like the apple example above, it’s primarily carbs with minimal protein/fat. Many people choose to wash it down with a glass of fruit juice, which may seem healthy, but juice presents a very high sugar load to the blood stream (yes, even the “all natural, no sugar added” varieties). Let’s give this oatmeal breakfast a make-over! If you’re eating a flavored oatmeal (ie, most likely harboring much more added sugar than your body is comfortable with), switch to plain rolled or steel-cut oats. Ditch the fruit juice – and toss some berries or other fruit (fiber!) of choice onto your plain oatmeal along with chopped nuts, ground flaxseed or chia seed, and cinnamon. Top it off with some real butter. Now… how about adding a hard-boiled egg (or two) for some extra protein and healthy fat? This breakfast will be considerably more filling — no mid-morning energy crash here! — and will keep blood sugar stable, providing you with a constant supply of energy until lunch time and fewer cravings for junk food.

Here’s your homework assignment: Think of the meals and snacks you’re currently eating and identify the protein, fat, and fiber component. If something is missing, what are some ways you can make it more balanced and “metabolically efficient”?

Anne-Marie Alderson is an ITCA-certified Triathlon Coach and certified Metabolic Efficiency Training Specialist. Metabolic Efficiency workshops will be listed on the Steel City Endurance Events Page when they are scheduled. One-on-one or small group consults can be scheduled upon request.

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