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Chris Carmichael Diary: Nutrition Periodization – The Right Fuel For Going Fast

Weight has always played an important role in cycling. Whether it’s bike parts or body weight, cyclists seem to be on a never-ending quest to lighten the total load they have to carry uphill. Yet, before cutting calories you should be aware that the relationship between body weight and performance is not as simple as it seems. Using power meters, it quickly becomes clear that reducing a rider’s weight, while retaining or improving his ability to produce power, leads to better performance in the mountains. However, being lighter isn’t always better. At a certain point, riders begin to lose

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By Chris Carmichael

Weight has always played an important role in cycling. Whether it’s bike parts or body weight, cyclists seem to be on a never-ending quest to lighten the total load they have to carry uphill. Yet, before cutting calories you should be aware that the relationship between body weight and performance is not as simple as it seems.

Using power meters, it quickly becomes clear that reducing a rider’s weight, while retaining or improving his ability to produce power, leads to better performance in the mountains. However, being lighter isn’t always better. At a certain point, riders begin to lose power as they lose body weight. Each rider, therefore, has an optimal body weight that allows for maximum performance. Below this weight, performance suffers and the additional strain on the body increases the chances of getting sick. I’d rather see Lance or any other athlete a few pounds above his optimal weight than below it. Carrying a few extra pounds can be far less detrimental to performance compared to being too light.

The process of reaching your optimal body weight can also be detrimental to your performance. In order to lose weight, you need to expend more calories than you ingest, but to support your training and recover from your workouts, you need to eat enough calories to match, if not slightly exceed the amount of energy you expend. When you don’t have much weight to lose in the first place, say less than ten pounds, it gets very difficult to both support your training and lose weight at the same time.

The old method for getting an athlete to his optimal competition weight involved either restricting calories or increasing training load, and sometimes both. What we saw, though, was that this method hindered the athlete’s ability to make progress in training. In some senses, the weeks when an athlete was actively trying to lose weight were wasted. Their body weight came down, but there was little or no improvement in fitness during that time. With Lance Armstrong working to achieve the fitness level necessary to win the Tour de France, there is no time in the year to waste in this fashion.

The New Model: Nutrition Periodizatio
One way to get around this problem is to eliminate the need to proactively lose weight, and the key to doing this is to avoid gaining a great deal of weight during the course of the year. Since the periodization of training calls for changing the demands of training as an athlete progresses through the training year, I applied the same periodization concept to Lance’s nutrition program.

The amount and type of fuel Lance needs to power his workouts in January are different than they are in June. In the winter, his workouts are long, but they are not very intense. In June, the intensity of his training is very high and he’s competing in races as well. If he was eating the same way throughout the year, there would be a portion of the year when he was consuming more calories than he needed to meet the energy demands of his training, and he would gain weight. Likewise, he would likely be eating too little to adequately support his training and racing in the late spring and summer. While he would lose weight during this time, it would be at the expense of his performance.

How Nutrition Periodization Works
In order to apply periodization to nutrition, you have to understand the relationship between exercise intensity and fuel use. When you are riding at a moderate, aerobic pace, you are burning a balanced mixture of carbohydrate and fat. Protein is burned for energy as well, but it only contributes 10-15% of your energy and it stays relatively consistent with changes in exercise intensity. As you increase the intensity of exercise, the aerobic system reaches its maximum rate of energy production. If you need energy more quickly than your aerobic engine can supply it, your body calls upon the anaerobic system to bridge the gap. Since the anaerobic system burns primarily carbohydrate and cannot burn fat, the overall percentage of energy coming from carbohydrate increases drastically as exercise intensity approaches maximum. To put it simply, the harder you exercise, the more carbohydrate you burn.

To ensure Lance has enough carbohydrate to support high quality training sessions, I have him consume 2.5-3.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight during the Foundation Period (winter). During this time, his training is focused on building his aerobic engine and the intensity of his workouts is generally low to moderate. Since he is relying on his aerobic system for the vast majority of the energy he needs for training, I know he’s burning a mixture of carbohydrate and fat, and as a result his carbohydrate intake does not need to be very high. During the Foundation Period, carbohydrate represents 65% of his total caloric intake, protein represents about 12-13% (0.5-0.6 grams per pound of bodyweight), and fat takes up the rest.

As Lance moves into the Preparation Period, I start adding workouts that stress the upper end of his aerobic engine and develop his ability to produce power at or near his lactate threshold. Since there is an increased energy contribution from his anaerobic system during this period, and his training volume is high, I increase his caloric intake and the amount of carbohydrate he consumes. The ratio of carbohydrate to protein to fat stays roughly the same, but the total caloric intake increases about 15% from the Foundation Period.

Total calories and carbohydrate intake peak during the Specialization Period, during which the intensity of Lance’s training is at its highest. This time period, mid-May through the Tour de France, includes hard interval training as well as racing, and additional carbohydrate is necessary because of the increased reliance on the anaerobic system for energy. Daily carbohydrate intake during training weeks is over 4.0 gm/lb (it reaches about 6-6.5 gm/lb during the Tour), and protein intake increases as well. This is the period of the year when there is a concerted effort to reduce fat intake, but since this program keeps his bodyweight under control throughout the year, he doesn’t have to take drastic measures to reduce calories from fat.

The most important aspects of The Carmichael Nutrition Program are that by matching nutrient intake to the demands of training, you eliminate the need to proactively lose weight and preserve the quality of your training. Lance’s bodyweight naturally increases slightly through the fall and winter, but never gets out of control. As his training prepares him for the Tour de France, his body weight gradually comes down through the spring and early summer. He doesn’t have to weigh his food the way he did five years ago, he can give himself the luxury of having a beer or dessert now and then, and perhaps most important, he doesn’t have to add losing weight to the extremely long list of things that need to get done in order to win the Tour de France.

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Lance Armstrong’s training and racing schedules may put him in a different league than the rest of us, but you can use the same nutrition program he does to improve your performance, achieve your optimal weight, and support your healthy and active lifestyle. For more details on applying the Carmichael Nutrition Program to your training and active lifestyle, please visit www.foodforfitness.net.