Episode 12 - How to Lose Weight & Maintain Energy for Ironman Training

How to Lose Weight & Maintain Energy for Ironman Training

A lot of Ironman athletes want to lean up heading into their event to improve their power to weight ratio. But it can be a difficult balance between dropping body fat and still having enough energy to perform at training.

In this episode, I give you 7 tips to drop body fat without affecting performance in your next Ironman build.   

  1. Eat strategically
  2. Get a sports Dietitian Approved meal plan
  3. Let training drive the change
  4. Do it earlier rather than later
  5. You shouldn’t be race weight all year
  6. Slow and steady wins the race
  7. Track changes with skin folds - not the scales

Drop weight properly and you won’t fall into a hole, you’ll better maintain your energy levels and smash it come race day!

Triathlon Nutrition Academy Podcast

Connect with me here:

To learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy, head to www.dietitianapproved.com/academy

To work with me 1 on 1: www.dietitianapproved.com/services

See behind the scenes action on Instagram: www.instagram.com/dietitian.approved

Follow along on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DietitianApproved

Enjoying the podcast?

Let me know what you loved about it and what you learnt by tagging me @dietitian.approved on Instagram!

Subscribe & Review in Apple Podcast!

Are you subscribed to the podcast?

If not, today's the day! I'm sharing practical, evidence-based nutrition advice to help you nail your nutrition and I don't want you to miss an episode.  Click here to subscribe in iTunes!

Now if you’re feeling extra warm and fuzzy, I would be so grateful if you left me a review over on iTunes, too. Those reviews help other people find my podcast and quality nutrition advice. Plus they add a little sparkle to my day. 

CLICK HERE to review, select “Ratings and Reviews” and “Write a Review” and let me know what your favourite part of the podcast is.

You're awesome! Thank you!


Episode Transcription

EP 12 – How to Lose Weight & Maintain Energy for Ironman Training 

Taryn Richardson  00:00
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast, the show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian, and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.

Welcome to this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. How good is it that the world is starting to open up and we can get back racing again? I know it's been so hard for a lot of Ironman athletes who have had their race postponed or cancelled and it feels like you've been in a training build forever. One of the really common things I see with clients in clinic or one of the questions I get asked all the time from Ironman athletes is how to lose weight while still maintaining their energy levels through Ironman training build. I guess that's been made incredibly difficult lately when the Ironman build has potentially been twice as long as it should have been with postponements and things. So, I wanted to talk you through some of my top tips for managing that today because I think everyone wants to lean up, right? Everyone wants to be in peak physical condition for their race.

Now, I guess Ironman is particularly important for that because you've got to carry your weight across the distance all day. We always talk about power to weight; you want to be nice and light and fast. But I think it's also important to recognise that you need to still be strong. As an Advanced Sports Dietitian with more than 13 years in private practice seeing this firsthand, I think it's a really delicate balance between being light or lean, but still having strength because the message shouldn't be just get skinny. Maybe 10 years ago with athletes, the message was get as skinny as possible, be as light as possible, because that helps with power to weight. But we know more now, and I think it's really important to still have strength at that weight too.

So as a really good example, go and have a look at Flora Duffy. Have a look at her photos. So, photos of her from maybe pre-2014, have a look at that, and the change that she went through up to sort of 2018, 2019. In that time, she's put on a whole heap of muscle and once she did that she started winning. She was nice and lean, but she was still strong, and I think that's important. So, I just want to preface this episode with that. My message is not just ‘get skinny’, we want to have a nice balance between being a bit leaner potentially for some of us, but still having that strength too.

So here are my top seven tips to drop body fat, while still maintaining your energy levels and I guess performance through an Ironman training build.


  1.  Eat strategically

My number one tip is to eat strategically, and I bang on about this all the time, but you shouldn't eat the same thing each day. Your nutrition day to day really should match your training load. So, you should have some strategy around what a rest day, not that we have rest days as triathletes, but you know what a lighter training day might look like with nutrition compared to a long weekend session or a big, long brick particularly Ironman’s as you're getting into the four- or five-hour rides with run off. So those days with your nutrition should look completely different. Like compare that to a double session hard training day, where you might have to work in the middle of it too. A day like that should look different too so that you can back up and perform again to the best of your ability for that afternoon session when your window of recovery is tight and short.

I talk about this all the time, and I'm going to keep banging on about it but it's a periodised approach where you really shouldn't eat the same thing and I see that really commonly with clients in practice. They come and see me with their food diary and they have the exact same meals and snacks right across the week. Particularly for the five days where you might have work structure and then sometimes the weekends can be a bit of a free for all and that's you know the body trying to play catch up or just losing your routine. But the first thing I will do with somebody is shake up their nutrition to make sure that their nutrition matches training load. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting sick, getting injured and broken and you know potentially not even making it to the start line at the end of this whole build anyway if you get injured. It's really important that that happens, and you do build with your training build too. So, you shouldn't be eating the same sorts of things in an offseason and a training season. But also, as your training load builds, your nutrition needs to build too. What I see people really doing is just trying to constantly scale back, you know, particularly females, I'm sorry girls, we're always trying to strive to eat less. Sometimes you can actually drop body fat by eating more.


  1.  Get a Dietitian Approved Meal Plan

My number two tip, and another big one is to actually get a sports dietitian, get a dietitian approved meal plan. All of my clients get detailed meal plans, and they know what to eat for different days, like I just talked about before. So, their lighter training days looks different to a weekend day versus a double session training day. It's the first thing I'll do with somebody when they come in is I teach them how to do that. We do pre and post-training, because I think you get the best bang for your buck out of what you do around training sessions and during training sessions, but then also what you're doing for your recovery and across the whole week. So, it's one big giant melting pot picture of what your nutrition should look like. And unless we train the same every day, which triathletes we don't, then your nutrition shouldn't be the same either. That should evolve over an Ironman build.

Because there are so many things you can F up with your nutrition in an Ironman. For a sprint and Olympic distance, you can definitely get away with a bit more like it's not so important. There are definitely nutritional components that I think are really key. But you know, it's over so quickly that if you F’d up, it's all good, it will be done. 70.3 is where you start to see some of those mistakes or errors rearing their ugly head, but you know, you can still kind of get away in a 70.3. But an Ironman, you can't. You can't hide anywhere in an Ironman, anything that you've got wrong, it's going to show its head in an Ironman and in particular the run.

So, try and get a structured Dietitian Approved meal plan. And that's something that I work with people in the Triathlon Nutrition Academy, we actually build their own individualised meal plan, because you shouldn't be eating the same thing each day. You also shouldn't be eating the exact same thing as your training buddy because we're all really different and your approach needs to be individualised.

So, you can kind of think of me as your food coach, you know. You've got a coach that does your training program and puts that in Training Peaks, and I know how much triathletes like Training Peaks to go green. So, like, think of a nutrition or meal plan as your food coach, and you want to kind of tick those boxes too. So that you're being really strategic around your nutrition approach and you're not just following whatever you were doing before or what you're doing for 70.3 like Ironman, you need to kind of step up your game too, because the training volume is so much different. And you know, the metabolic adaptations that we're trying to drive are different too. So never eat the same thing each day.

Okay, my tip is get a meal plan, follow it because there's so much science that goes into it, right? There's so much stuff that I don't even tell people that goes into their meal plan. Like it might look super simple, but there is a lot of back end thought and thinking and experience that goes into a meal plan that you may not even know I'm doing.


  1.  Let training drive body composition change

I would rather you be eating well and fuelling training properly and if you do that you will naturally drop body fat without having to have a really aggressive calorie deficit. You'll have one potentially just with training volume, but it doesn't have to be sticking to a set calorie target to make sure that you hit it because if you have a sports dietitian in your corner, teaching you what to eat when and you're eating properly, then you will naturally drop body fat as you build into Ironman load anyway.

Your meal plan should be periodised. I often see people eating the same thing each day and what I tend to do with a lot of people is actually add more food, give them more food where it counts, right? So being really strategic. So, if you're eating properly and you have a strategy, then the training will drive that shift in body composition and it'll help you drop body fat and you know, either maintain or put on a little bit of muscle if you're doing a really good job of your nutrition too. So, I think that's a really important thing with Ironman. If you want to maintain your energy levels through your training build, then you can't chase it. You have to be strategic and try and eat to match training load more closely and that will help your body composition shift happen naturally just with training load.


Let me know if this sounds like you. Do you feel exhausted by the end of the training week? Do you crave sweets in the afternoon and feel like you need a nap? Training for three disciplines can be absolutely exhausting if you haven't dialled in your nutrition. It can be frustrating when you can't quite piece together the solid race performance you know you're capable of and confusing when there's so much information out there. But you're not sure what's the right method for you.

My goal for you is to unlock your true potential and feel like a supercharged triathlete, firing on all cylinders full of energy and not only smashing quality training sessions, performing in every race too. If you're finally ready to start nailing your nutrition, join a powerful community of like-minded athletes in the Triathlon Nutrition Academy Program. Head to dietitianapproved.com/academy to check it out now. For less than the cost of a coffee a day, you will finally have a plan for your nutrition instead of winging it and hoping for the best.


  1.  Do it earlier rather than later

When you are training for an Ironman, a lot of people have a sort of 20 week build as an average. So, your training changes over that build, right, and I would rather if you've got some body fat to shift, it's starting to happen earlier, rather than trying to chase your tail at the back end. Because early days, we can do some fat adaptation type training and I'm not going to get into that here, but you can teach your body to use fat more effectively. So that when you come to race day, you're not as reliant on using carbohydrate as a fuel source. Obviously, you are, depending on what intensity you're going. But you can help the body learn to use fat as a fuel source effectively alongside carbs, so you've got the use of both fuel sources. Because we've got fat stores for your days. I was going to say years, but the people I'm talking to, you probably don't have fat stores for years.

So, we do some of that fat adaptation stuff early, when your training load’s smaller you can help get some body fat loss there. But then when we're in the back end of the training load heading closer, when your loads just peaking, right? That's where I want to be throwing more fuel at you. I want you eating for performance there and fuelling for performance. I want you practicing your race nutrition and carb loading. I don't want you chasing your tail trying to starve yourself in that back end when you really should be priming the system for peak performance. So, my tip around that to maintain energy levels is to make sure you are doing it earlier. You don't need to be race weight early. I'm not saying that. But if you've got a few kilos to lose, the last one or two might come off in the back end of that load. But if you've got a big chunk of weight you need to shift, then do it earlier rather than later.


  1.  You shouldn’t be race weight all year

So, think of having a weight strategy that's periodised as well. So, you've got an approach that's different depending on where you are in the season. You want to have small fluctuations in your body composition throughout the year. So, it could be a few kilos here and there. It's not huge like I don't want to see big weight fluctuations of like five to 10 kilos or more, but a few kilos here and there is fine because you can't be race weight all year. You're not an elite athlete, and you're not racing all year. You might have one Ironman a year, maybe max two. So, you can have some flow to your body composition through the year and it can go up a couple of kilos. If you've just done an Ironman and you've dropped a few kilos like it's okay for that to climb up slowly again and sort of sit at you know, a comfortable norm.

I don't want you blowing out and having like huge shifts of 10 kilos, that's really not good for our health. It's not good for diabetes risk, heart disease risk, etc. But I see it happen commonly and it's bad, I'm trying to change it. So, I've got a client who's done two Ironman's with me, and I see him for his Ironman build and he comes in every time 10 kilos heavier and we get it off and he does his Ironman and then he ghosts me. I don't see him again until the next one and then he's 10 kilos heavier and we've got hard work to do again. So, this time we booked him a consultation after Cairns Ironman to make sure that we're actually going to break some of these habits that he has. He has a very all or none approach. A switch on switch off type approach you know, there's lots of beer, there's lots of takeaways, service station eating. There's grabbing and coffee and banana bread every day. The habits that kind of creep in that it's just a switch on-off straightaway.

So, I really challenge you to keep your body composition in a closer range. It's hard for me to say that because I don't know about you, but you will have a better year and perform better if you don't have huge shifts of you've got to drop 10 kilos in an Ironman build and part of that might be just some of your day to day habits and getting those in check so that you don't have a big all or none approach and trying to maintain a bit closer to race weight, but you don't need to be race weight all year.

Another point I want to talk on quickly there is that race weight can evolve over time. So, you don't have to constantly strive for the same number. What I see with athletes with endurance athletes is that if they're eating properly over the years. Say my clients, if I do their skinfolds, they lean up a bit for their first race and I've seen people for years, like one of my clients I've seen for maybe six years, their skin folds over time, they get leaner, but their weight doesn't always get as low. That's because they've put on muscle over that time. So, they get leaner, but their weight is heavier and that's a result of eating properly over a long period of time. Having more muscle mass is good, because our muscles are metabolically active tissue, right and our resting metabolic rate is going to be higher at rest the more muscle we've got on. So, you shouldn't be race weight all year.


  1.  Slow and steady wins the race

Always. It's really common for me to see people with really high expectations of what they want to lose. They have this weight loss trajectory of maybe like two kilos a week, like you know, everyone wants to lose 10 kilos yesterday, but we want to aim for slow and steady weight loss, because that's going to make sure that we lose fat and not muscle. It's really impossible to drop just fat only if you're aiming for that really aggressive weight loss, you're going to lose muscle. So, a really good target to aim for if we're talking about body fat loss is a 0.5-1kg a week maximum. That's also going to help you maintain your energy levels through Ironman build if you're not trying to lose a whole heap of weight quickly too.

To lose weight, you need a calorie deficit. Whether that comes from food, or it comes from training, to lose body fat, you need a deficit. We want to try and maintain energy levels by fuelling training with a little deficit driven by the training volume, rather than necessarily food calories, or being strategic around the food calories so there's a tiny deficit. So just be realistic with your expectations around what you want to lose or can lose or should lose for an Ironman build, so that you're making sure you are losing body fat and not muscle.

Because trying to drop 10 kilos in an Ironman build is not that fun. You just fall into a hole in the back end when you really should be fuelling for performance you are in a heap and that should be a red flag enough that you need to do a better job next time of maintaining your weight in your offseason.

So, I see a lot of Ironman athletes actually use Ironman training to drop weight. They do an Ironman when they're out of shape and get lean, get skinnier drop 10 kilos, and then don't do Ironman and put it back on again, because it doesn't teach you how to eat properly. It doesn't fix the day-to-day habits that you may have entrenched from childhood that haven't taught you how to eat properly to maintain so they have a very all or none mentality. A switch on and switch off like my client and we're going to try and break some of those habits now. Educate him, break some of those long-term habits he's had since childhood so that next Ironman he might only have a couple of kilos to lose. He may get even leaner this time and I reckon he'll perform better because he hasn't chased his tail through trying to drop extra weight to get to the start line and a number on a scale that feels good for him.


So have a think about if you have that all or none approach. I'd challenge you to try and have a bit more stability through your offseason so that you're not having to work so hard to drop a heap of body fat to race an Ironman. Try and break some of those habits. Come and join us in the Triathlon Nutrition Academy. I'll teach you how to do it so that you know you're not working so hard for the next one, to get to the start line in a race or you know, fit into a tri-suit that's of a certain size because you can't fit it in your offseason.


  1.  Track body composition changes with skin folds

My final tip is to actually track those changes with something like skinfolds, not the scales. Now the scales are THE crappest measure of body composition change ever. They are affected by so many different things and if somebody weighs themself every day, well one I get them to stop doing that altogether. But they will see those fluctuations day to day. It can go up by a couple of 100 grams to like a kilo on a daily basis. That's because you have changes with your hydration status, whether you're hydrated or dehydrated. You also have as an active person glycogen fluctuations. So what fuel is actually stored in your muscle, that's going to go up and go down depending on what you've eaten and what training you've been doing. You've also got the contents of your bowel like what food is in your gastrointestinal tract and you know how much fibre is still in your bowel and whether that's there still or not, that affects your weight as well.

I guess females we have hormones that create shifts in our weight on the scales across the month as well whether it's fluid retention or glycogen storage or whatever is going on. Our weight can fluctuate with a monthly cycle across the month anyway. So, it can be really disheartening. If you stand on the scales after thinking you've done a great job of your nutrition and you've been training hard and the numbers the same, like it's just crap. So, I don't like using the scales for that reason males and females, because it doesn't really show you what's going on. I've had quite a number of female athletes who will put in a good effort with their nutrition, they follow their meal plan, and we weigh them, and they're the exact same weight, but you do skinfolds and they've dropped 5 or 10mm's on their skin folds. So, they've dropped body fat, but it's not actually picked up in the scale.

So, stop weighing yourself as a measure of your body composition change, because it's not really that accurate at what's going on. The gold standard, what I like to use for body composition tracking is a DEXA scan, which measures more globally, how much muscle you've got how much fat tissue you've got, how much bone you've got, and then doing more fine-tuning tracking change with skin folds. I do those generally every sort of four weeks with my athletes so that we're tracking the subcutaneous fat and the changes at each of those sites that we do the skin folds on. So, in terms of skin folds, you're looking for somebody that's ISAK accredited, and that just means that they're accredited at the International Standard to do skin folds and that they're repeatable. I'll do a session on skin folds but making sure somebody marks you up, making sure they've got nice metal callipers, not the plastic ones that aren't as great.

There's a bunch of things that need to happen for somebody to do your skin folds to make sure that when they do them again, you're accurately tracking that change. There's always a bit of noise with any sort of body composition measure but making sure that your anthropometrist is accredited and they're keeping up their CPD. There are heaps of profiles you need to do with keeping up your accreditation to be an anthropometrist. It's crazy. I've done 1000s of skin folds. So, I'm pretty confident that when I do your skin folds four weeks later, I can tell if it's a true change or not. What we want to aim for with our skin folds is that that number goes down. That means that your subcutaneous fat is going down and making sure that your weight is not reflected in that so we're not losing muscle.

I think that's why I like to do packages with clients is that I can do all that stuff with you and give you the best possible outcomes to make sure that your race day is spot on. Okay, so we're doing all of these things that I've just talked about right through your Ironman build. My Ironman package is 20 weeks because I step through all of this stuff and make sure you turn up to the start line in the best physical, mental, performance state as you possibly can.

So, they're my top tips for trying to lose body fat during an Ironman build and just not falling into a hole through it. Making sure you keep the energy levels. So, a quick summary of those points, we've got my number one tip is making sure you eat strategically.

Number two, make sure you get a meal plan and by sports dietitian, so making sure that it's somebody that one is an endurance specialist and two is a sports dietitian, not just a regular dietitian. They don't get the intricacies of what we do as a triathlete.

Number three, let training drive that change in body composition rather than you trying to chase it and you know, a proper meal plan will help that to happen without you having to aggressively chase that shift in body comp.

Do it earlier rather than later so that you're not chasing your tail in that back end of peak performing type training sessions where you should be doing race nutrition practice and throwing heaps of fuel at the engine. You shouldn't be race weight all year, and slow and steady wins the race. Okay, we're not aiming for really quick aggressive weight drops. We want to slowly chip away at it.

Then also making sure you track those changes with something like skinfolds, maybe a DEXA depending on where you are what you've got access to, but definitely not the scales. Even for some of my athletes who are on the phone who don't come and see me in clinic, we don't use scales, we use things like a certain pair of pants or tri-suit or belt buckles. Most people have an understanding of where they are feeling good.

So that's my top tips for trying to lose body fat during an Ironman build and not falling into a hole, maintaining your energy, and smashing it come race day.

Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash it in the fourth leg - nutrition!

Looking for a community of like-minded triathletes?

Join our Dietitian Approved Crew Facebook Group