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May 13, 2011 | Triathlon Training Blog

The Secret Behind Coach Gordo’s Name—And Nutrition Tips You can Use

With his slim, sculpted physique, 43-year old Coach Gordo (Gordon Byrn) certainly looks the part of an elite triathlete. But peel back the layers, and you’ll discover that even a smart finance guy crowned Ultra Distance World Champion, turned full-time coach, had to negotiate nutritional barriers. 

At age 23, Gordo was working for a private equity firm and living in London, England. His lifestyle evolved around working long hours, followed by story-telling over beers, Shepherd’s pie, Bangers and Mash and other pub food. Exercise wasn’t on the agenda. When his weight ballooned to 200 pounds (being 6 feet tall), he decided to continue his unhealthy lifestyle and stopped weighing himself.

It wasn’t until two years later with a job transfer to Hong Kong, where his work load and stress lessened, that he rediscovered his joy of movement, particularly hiking.

He also befriended a group of ultra-runners and started training with them. On the weekends, two to four- hour run-hikes became the norm, and during the week, they’d go on one-to-two hour long run-hikes. He also embarked on mountaineering and rock climbing expeditions. After spending five days a week in the gym to build up needed muscle strength to endure the rigors of his newly found passions, his fitness skyrocketed. His physique also changed completely. He became a lean endurance machine.   

“I still hadn’t learned anything useful about nutrition,” Byrn recalled. His diet consisted of pizza, French fries and other types of unhealthy, fatty foods.” But with the ratio of expended calories being higher than calories taken in, he looked healthy and lean.

Triathlete Yes, Healthy Not Really

It wasn’t until he met his wife, Monica, also a former Pro triathlete, that Gordo became aware of his dietary habits. By then, Byrn had already completed his first Ironman  (IM Canada 1998). He was prone to overeating, consumed too much sugar and ate the wrong types of foods at the wrong time.

“A lot of people who look healthy in triathlon have disordered eating habits,” Byrn said.

Looking back at his eight-year-long career as an elite triathlete after moving to Boulder in 2000, Byrn reaped multiple successes, including the World Championship title in the Ultra Distance in 2002 and a personal best of 8:29 hours at Ironman Canada in 2004.

He also learned a lot from the pioneers in the sport, Scott Molina, Dave Scott and Mark Allen, and co-authored the triathlon book “Going Long” with his friend Joe Friel.

Learning About the Athlete’s Diet

Byrn credits Friel for teaching him about a proper endurance athlete’s diet.

Ironically, when Byrn’s life was focused on training and racing, he became obsessive with reaching a weight goal. Restricting his diet became such a major stress factor in his life, that it actually held him back from racing his best.

Mark Allen analyzed Byrn’s ideal race weight and advised him to never dip below 163 pounds. That’s when Byrn realized that being “super light” doesn’t always equal “faster times.”

Today, Bryn no longer deprives himself of the foods he loves during the regular season, which has helped him avoid weight-gain during the off-season.

“I would puff up during the off-season and it was really embarrassing,” Byrn remembered. “Being lean is stressful, so now I’m shooting for a safe, stable training weight. I fine-tune my diet for competition by eating a few less muffins and eating no mayonnaise three weeks prior to the race and I’m ready.”

It seems to work for him.

At the Rohto Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside in 2010, Byrn won the 40-44 age group division finishing the race in 4:24:11 hours. His splits: Swim (1.2 miles) 25:53; bike (56 miles) 2:30:20; run (13.1 miles) 1:19:28.

Of course, Byrn is a far cry from your average age-grouper. He spent eight years as an elite athlete, scheduling his part-time jobs around his racing schedule. He finds that most top age-groupers and Kona qualifiers today also don’t work full-time, have lots of flexibility to train and race on top of being gifted athletes. Practicing good nutrition can help any athlete step it up a notch.

Here are Byrn’s 5 top nutrition tips for age-groupers:

  1. If you train less than 18 hours a week, stick with water and real foods. Your stomach will feel fuller eating apples and bananas rather than sports nutrition. Specialized sports nutrition should be reserved for longer sessions and post-workout.
  2. Stay away from hydrogenated oils.
  3. Be aware of sources of sugar and try to limit your intake. Love smoothies made with soy milk? Soy milk tends to be high in sugar
  4. Look at the triggers that cause you to overeat, such as lack of sleep and stress. A lot of working triathletes tend to be overscheduled. If you want to make a positive change in that area, you need to create the space to bring that in. When we’re fatigued, we tend to make poor decisions.
  5. If you want to manage hunger and weight, eat consistently. Fasting is not effective—you’ll likely overeat or don’t eat enough, which will have a negative effect on your health and training.

There is much debate over identifying your ideal “race weight.”

For Byrn, the secret to “race weight” isn’t so hard at all: Find a stable weight where you perform well in training and can recover quickly. One trick to avoid overeating is to pause for 15 minutes and just reassess, if you are really still hungry or just trying to satisfy a craving.

Byrn had to learn that too. Back in the old days, Byrn would gobble up a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream without thinking about it much. Today, he seeks to enjoy servings one serving at a time.

He goes by Gordo, but this coach is far from being ‘gordo’—which translates to “fat’’in Spanish.


By Marion Webb
Marion Webb

Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Webb has worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete and two-time ITU Long Distance World Championship qualifier, Webb competes mostly in the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (140.6 miles) Ironman distances.

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