The Beauty of Simplicity
By Justin Park-Professional Triathlete
If you are inclined to read all of the books, articles and additional forms of print media out there, you will quickly discover that the concept of endurance performance nutrition is a complex and often difficult to understand topic.
How many calories do I need per hour?
Should I consume my calories in liquid, gel or solid form? Or a combination of all three?
Am I a heavy sweater? How much water do I need to stay hydrated?
Do I need to supplement with additional electrolytes, such as sodium?
How many grams of carbohydrates do I need per hour?
Should I also consume protein during exercise?
I have a sensitive stomach, so how do I go about fueling without the added risk of gastro-intestinal distress?
Just listing these types of questions can often overwhelm athletes and leave them frustrated and confused before they even begin to determine what fueling strategy works best for them. Yet I am here to tell you that endurance performance nutrition does not have to be this complex.
In fact, it can be incredibly simple.
For those that don’t know, over the better part of the last year and a half I have suffered from an unknown medical problem that confounded my doctors for many months. Strange symptoms – such as elevated thyroid stress hormone, atrial fibrillation (and subsequent cardioversion…an electric shock I don’t wish upon anyone) and rapid but largely unexplained weight loss – left physicians wondering where to start, much less how to combat the illness. And as you can imagine, this type of problem dramatically affected my training and racing performance.
After months and months of frustration and my own recurrent emotional struggles of whether to continue my pursuit of professional triathlon, doctors finally determined the cause of my issues. Simply put, I had been suffering from an infection that severely compromised the health of my digestive system and had been doing so for several YEARS. All of those symptoms that, at first glance, appear not to have anything to do with the health (or lack thereof) of the gut were largely just long-term effects of my body slowly falling apart due to the duration of the infection.
Think of it in this way: Severe infection of the digestive system compromises the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Lack of nutrient absorption compromises the body’s ability to recover from strenuous activity (such as 25-30 hours of training per week) and maintain the overall health of all other systems of the body (cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous, etc.). Long-term inability to sustain health leads to the gradual deterioration of other parts of the body – in my case, thyroid, heart, and so on.
As my doctor aptly put it, “If you drive for years with incredibly low oil levels in your engine, eventually other parts of the engine are going to stop working.”
Tremendously thankful to finally have an answer, I nevertheless remained incredibly daunted by not only the level of destruction I had done to my body but also the amount of treatment that would be necessary to restore my overall health. After all, bringing the body back to a respectable level of health was one thing. Getting it back to the level of performance to compete with some of the best athletes on the planet was an entirely different thing.
But so began the task of ridding my body of infection and restoring me to full health. As you can imagine, much of the treatment focused on the digestive system and overall recovery of the gut – a process that was both painful and unpleasant. Yet, slowly but surely, my situation started to improve. I was able to resume some light training but not permitted to complete anything of such duration so as to require fueling for sustainability. At that point in time, trying to get my body to both exercise (regardless of intensity) and try to digest nutrition would prove a futile task.
Believe it or not, those restrictions existed as recently as early January 2012. Over the next several weeks, I was gradually able to extend the duration of my training, supplementing with nutrition only to the barest extent necessary. Finally, my health (although far from fully restored) was going to be repaired sufficiently enough for me to handle the heavier volume of a training camp in Tucson, Arizona in mid-February.
Nevertheless, my digestive system would still be severely compromised. Therefore, doctors informed me that any nutrition I utilized during exercise would have to be, in their words, “as simple as possible.” Just hearing my doctors say that – um, a simple nutrition plan? – almost made me laugh at them on the spot. Given that they controlled the dosages of my medications, however, I felt that to be a somewhat inane response. So I kept my mouth shut.
So what did I find at my training camp? Low and behold…and I can’t believe I am even saying this…performance nutrition is incredibly simple. No guesswork, no over-thinking and no problems. All I needed was the First Endurance line of nutrition.
Keep in mind, with the slow return of my gut health, I was only in the early stages of again starting to absorb calories and nutrients in my training. And as a larger triathlete (6ft 3in and 170lbs) with the added difficulty of having a high metabolism, the idea of dialing in my nutrition (especially at this point in time) had seemed somewhat of a fleeting concept.
But perhaps the simplicity of it all is best revealed through one sample day of volume during the camp: a brutal 6-hour 30-minute training day consisting of a 5-hour 15-minute bike, a 30-minute transition run off the bike, and a 45-minute light aerobic swim to finish off the day.
Believe it or not, I completed the entire day of training using only First Endurance’s EFS Electrolyte Drink (fruit punch flavor) and EFS Liquid Shot (vanilla flavor). I had a solid and substantial breakfast in the morning before beginning the day’s training and then fueled my way through all of the workouts with only those two products. No over-thinking, no additional supplementation of electrolytes, and no worries. To top it off, I felt almost as good at the end of the day as I did before the workouts even started.
Incredibly simple nutrition, and incredibly effective. With my calorie needs and a truly compromised digestive system, you would never think it could be that easy. But it is.
Now, imagine how easy fueling can be for an athlete with a normal digestive system.