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Nutrition is often referenced as the fourth discipline of triathlon. Filling your body with the right fuel is paramount, not only in preventing the infamous bonk, but to power you through your workouts and build the strength you will need to get to the start line. Everywhere you look these days there seems to be another diet making the headlines. With regimens ranging from Paleo to raw vegan and everything in between how do you fuel your swim, bike, and run?
#1 Give Your Body Quality Fuel
The most important diet consideration for endurance athletes is improving diet quality. This means prioritizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, and good fats. While eliminating processed foods should be your goal, you may find more success with focusing on adding these healthy mainstays to your plate. It is easier to add a behavior than it is to remove one. Fill up on nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods and you’ll have less room for the junk. To insure that you meet your micronutrient needs aim to eat the rainbow every day. By eating a variety of fruits and vegetables you insure a wide range of phytochemicals and antioxidants to help combat inflammation and oxidative stress accrued from training.
#2 Carbohydrates Are Your Friends
Endurance athletes have different nutritional needs than their coach potato counter parts. While a low carb diet may meet your needs if the most strenuous part of your day is reaching for a cup of coffee, fueling a long bike ride is an entirely different story. Your carbohydrate needs will vary depending on what distance you are training for, Ironman athletes with heavier training loads will need more carbohydrates than short course athletes. Aim to get 45-65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates. Before you celebrate with a cupcake, when we talk about carbs we’re not saying you should load up on sugars and refined grains. With intense training your body needs high quality fuel. These extra carbohydrates should come in the form of whole grains and vegetables, not potato chips and beer.
#3 Protein Power
Adequate protein intake is essential for muscle repair and proper recovery. While triathletes have slightly higher protein needs than sedentary individuals you don’t have to overload on steak and protein shakes to get your daily dose of amino acids. Eating a well-balanced diet that includes lean meats, dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds easily provides you with the 0.5-0.8 grams per pound of body weight, which is the American College of Sports Medicine recommendation.
#4 Eat Soon to Recover, Repair, and Store Up for the Next Workout
Recovering from workouts is key to improved performance. During the 20-60 minute window following a workout your muscles are particularly receptive to taking in nutrients. During your training session you have accumulated muscle damage and depleted glycogen stores. Stored glycogen in the muscle is your bodies’ primary source of fuel during exercise lasting under 2 hours. Repairing damaged tissue and restoring glycogen is the name of the recovery game. Studies have shown that taking in a combination of carbohydrates and protein, in a 4:1 ratio, right after a workout is the most efficient way to speed recovery and get your body ready for your next workout.
#5 Weight Loss Considerations
It’s hard to focus on weight loss and peak performance at the same time. If your main goal is to shed those extra pounds consider shifting your macronutrient intake to 30% calories from protein. Studies have shown that a high protein diet helps to maintain muscle mass while you focus on burning off that extra fat layer. It is important to realize while you are focused on shedding excess body weight your training sessions will be effected. For a more detailed plan on how to jump start weight loss for endurance athletes take a look at Matt Fitzgeralds’ book “Racing Weight.”
#6 Tailor Your Nutrition to Your Workouts
If your triathlon training session is under an hour your primary concern should be hydration. Insure that you drink plenty of water and pass on the sugary sports drinks. If it is particularly hot, or you are someone who sweats a lot throughout your workouts, consider adding an electrolyte tablet to your water bottle. For sessions lasting longer than an hour use your workouts as a chance to try out nutrition options for your race. There is a wide variety of options from sports drinks and gels, to beans and chews. Everyone handles nutrition during exercise differently; try out a few options to see what works best for you.
#7 Triathlon Day! – Key Pre-Race Meals
On race day make sure you wake up early enough to take in a hardy breakfast. You should aim to eat your pre-race meal 2-3 hours before the starting gun fires. With early start times it is not uncommon for competitive athletes to wake up for breakfast, then catch another hour or two of sleep before the race. On race day skip on fiber and fats which could spell gastrointestinal distress later in the race. Instead, insure you take in plenty of carbohydrates. Oatmeal topped with a banana, a bagel smeared with peanut butter or even last night’s pasta makes for a great pre-race meal.
#8 Fueling To The Finish
You should already know what nutrition works best for your body from your experimenting during your long training sessions. Aim to take in 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour racing. This would mean that a 150lb athlete would need approximately 68g of carbohydrate, or 272 calories per hour. Based on your race distance you can then decide how many gels to stuff your jersey pockets with. Also remember to hydrate throughout the race, but be cautious. Hyponatremia, caused by excessive water intake without electrolyte replacement, can be extremely dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to drink when you are thirsty.
#9 Post-Race Nutrition
Congratulations, you made it to the finish line! Now is the time to indulge. After intense exercises your body is taking up calories to repair damage and return to homeostasis. This is the time you are least likely to add to fat stores. So enjoy that big juicy burger and a cold brew, you’ve earned it.
*As with any new exercise or nutrition regimen, check with your doctor first if you have concerns. The idea is to do good, not harm.
Read Part 1 of our Triathlon Training Tips Series here, and check back in soon for Part 3!