Ask the Coach – The Six Pack

Ask the Coach – The Six Pack

Dutch (aka @RangerDutch) asked me an interesting question today, one that many endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts probably think about: How much should I be eating to support my endurance training AND get those sweet 6 pack abs?  (In fact, it’s such a popular topic, WebMD even has an article on it.)

I’ll start off by saying that the “six pack” isn’t for everyone. Genetics have some role in your physical appearance, and what your ideal body composition is meant to be. A lot of athletes have the six pack, but it is quietly hidden under a thin layer of fat. They are no less “fit” or have less core strength, it just isn’t as visible. To get the 6-pack abs (or at least as close as you are able to genetically get) you need to pay attention to:

  • Nutrition
  • Core strengthening
  • Aerobic Exercise

As Dutch indicates in his question, he’s interested in the nutrition aspect of it. I’ll point out now that I am neither a dietitian nor nutritionist so these are just general suggestions based on my reading and understanding of sports nutrition information, as well as my personal experience.

Nutrition: To answer “How much” you should eat is straightforward. Eat so that you are satisfied. You should not go hungry, nor should you eat until you get the “stuffed” feeling. You should eat enough to last you about three hours. But that doesn’t mean eat even if you are not hungry three hours later. It also doesn’t mean to wait an hour to eat if you get hungry after two hours. Just adjust your portions so that you can last about three hours between meals. This might take some time to figure out and learn how your body operates, but it is achievable. If you exercise more, you will probably eat more, but don’t use exercise to justify eating more. Use your hunger signals to justify what you eat.

More important to Dutch’s question is “what” you should eat.  In order to manage your appetite, it’s best to stabilize your blood sugar by eating meals with good carbohydrate sources and balance them with protein and healthy fats. (Cutting out as much refined sugar should be obvious.) Don’t eat a carbohydrate source by itself, and make sure to eat lean protein and some healthy (Omega-3) fats. A lot of endurance athletes go a bit overboard with breads, pastas, and other carbohydrate sources – taking in significantly more than they need. If carbohydrate sources are too high in percentage, insulin production increases. When insulin is released, fat oxidation (fat burning) is suppressed. If you are trying to alter body composition, we want to stabilize blood sugar to keep too much insulin being released so that we can maximize fat oxidation. To do this I suggest replacing grain-based carbohydrate sources with fruits, vegetables, and beans. So instead of reaching for that side dish of pasta, add a couple extra servings of fruits and veggies to your plate. Of course, the more intense your training, the more carbohydrates you will likely need, and more calories. You’ll know if you need more carbs, as you won’t have the energy for your endurance workouts. But remember to balance it with a lean protein! If possible, schedule your workouts for between meals, so your next meal is essentially your “recovery meal.” 

Core strengthening: The six pack is defined abdominal muscles, and in order to get the definition, you’ve got to strengthen them. The best core exercises can work other muscle groups as well (so you get a more efficient, more complete strength training session). There are tons of core exercises out there. 10-15 minutes, two to three times a week should be plenty. You might even need less if you are doing other strength training exercises that are total body and engage the core.

Aerobic Exercise: Get moving! Aerobic exercise helps the body burn fat. If you’re training for endurance events, you have this covered so I won’t go in to any details. 

In summary, the best way to six-pack abs if you are genetically inclined to have them, is to eat a balanced diet of fruits, veggies, lean proteins and healthy fats. Learn to eat to your specific physiological needs. Get in a few extra core strength training sessions, and don’t forget the aerobic workouts! However, if you don’t want to do what I mention above, you can always try professional triathlete Joanna Zeiger’s method of getting a six-pack.

Coach Nicole is the author of The Triathlete’s Guide to Race Week. She is also the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at You can contact Coach Nicole on facebooktwitter or via email at

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Nicole Odell


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