Triathlon is a challenging and time consuming sport, with three different disciplines to prepare for you will frequently be training twice a day.
It's therefore important to fuel your triathlon training by eating the right foods, at the right times, to ensure you recover sufficiently between sessions and achieve a healthy body weight and the right amount of daily calories.
With so much of your time taken up with training, your triathlete diet and nutrition needs to be simple and effective so you are ready for your next training session and can perform at your best on race day.
What nutrients do you need in a triathlete diet?
We spoke with Olympic athlete, Emma Davis who represented Ireland at the 2008 Summer Olympics, she raced extensively in triathlon all over the world. No longer a professional athlete Davis is focusing her attentions on marathon running.
“When I was racing I was frequently told I needed to be lighter. My daily meal pattern was to have a good breakfast, small lunch, and dinner was usually a salad. In hindsight I don’t think I was consuming enough calories."
"Now I am older and wiser, my focus is on eating more varied food, a mixed diet that includes healthy amounts of protein but also some fat and carbohydrates.
I only eat organic meat and red meat just once a week, I normally have fish three times a week and chicken occasionally. I am gluten intolerant but I regularly eat rice and potatoes. Carbs shouldn’t be avoided, particularly if you are training hard."
Carbohydrate is the fuel that your body prefers to run on.
Your body stores carbohydrate in the form of glycogen in your muscles and your liver, ready for use during exercise, but these stores need to be maintained, especially if you are training and racing hard. If you feel yourself running low on energy during the race or training, have become more susceptible to colds and illnesses or are struggling to recover after training it could be that you are not eating enough carbs to balance your energy expenditure.
Your daily carbohydrate intake needs to be between 5-10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight; it changes slightly depending on your training intensity and where you are in your training program.
Aim to get your carbohydrates from natural sources rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals that are beneficial to your body. Fruit, whole grains, beans and vegetables have a better nutritional spectrum than processed white pasta, rice or relying on mass-produced convenience energy foods.
Endurance athletes tend to focus a lot of their diet on carbohydrates, as it is fuel for exercise, but protein intake should not be neglected.
Protein provides a pool of amino acids essential for muscle repair and as a regular exerciser you will need more protein than the normal population.
1.4grams - 1.7 grams per kilogram body weight is needed by endurance athletes
If you are regularly exercising for more than four hours per day then you are at the upper end of this scale. Eating a lot of protein does not give you big muscles, unless you are also doing very specific heavy weight lifting, so don’t worry that eating more protein will cause you to ‘bulk-up’, you need it to repair the muscles that you are working hard, often several times per day.
Aim to eat a small carb and protein snack immediately after a training session to kick start your recovery and include protein with every main meal. Protein helps make you feel more full, so is also useful when trying to lose weight. Lean meats such as chicken breast or fish are great sources of protein as are eggs, some dairy products and beans.
Fat is not something to be feared; it is essential for good health.
Essential fatty acids do many key jobs in the body, including creating and maintaining cell walls. Key fat-soluble vitamins can only be absorbed by your body if there is some fat in your diet. Cutting fat completely is a recipe for ill-health and underperformance.
Instead of avoiding all fats, look for the healthy ones. Fats from natural sources such as olive oil, avocado, fatty fish, nuts and seeds are fantastic to add to your diet as they add flavour and texture to your food and leave you feeling fuller for longer.
Fat is also a great source of energy in ultra-long distance endurance events.
A varied diet is super important, “if your diet is too repetitive and restrictive you can develop intolerances to certain foods,” Davis explains. “I used to have the same meals almost every day (porridge for breakfast, soup and crackers for lunch and salad for dinner) when I was competing but now I have a much more varied diet and I feel better for it.
Planning a meal and choosing fresh ingredients can be very fulfilling and enjoyable. Think about what to include, not what to avoid. Meals need to be nutrient dense, rather than calorie dense, to ensure that you are getting all the vitamins and minerals you need to recover and get stronger between training sessions.”
Understanding glycogen storage
Your body stores energy as glycogen in your liver and muscles, but it only has enough for 90 minutes. Regularly training every day, or even twice a day, depletes your glycogen stores. Regular training with low glycogen has been shown to lower your immune system making you more susceptible to illness, so stores need topping up throughout the day if you are training hard.
Before you start any tough session or race it is important that your glycogen stores are full if you are to perform at your best.
Pre-event carb loading
Carb loading doesn’t mean cramming down as much pasta as you can the day before a race - this can lead to bloating, swelling and stomach cramps.
The idea of over-loading on carbs is now very much out dated. Instead in the period before a race make sure that you are fully replacing all the carbohydrate you are using during your final taper sessions and for daily living.
This may mean eating a little more carbohydrate than you normally would, particularly if you are used to running a little low as trying to cut body fat.
Davis explains, “During racing season my diet was quite restrictive, particularly with carbohydrate, but from midday the day before race day I would make sure to eat more carbs than usual so that I had enough glycogen stored for the race.”
What to eat a day before the race
The goal pre-event is to ensure your glycogen stores are as full as possible so eat little and often throughout the day and focus on healthy, fresh natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, cereals and whole grains.
Ensure that you eat a mix of protein and fat as well as carbs at your main meals, with carb based snacks in between. If you are travelling to your event the day before make sure you pack food to take with you - this is not the time to be suffering hunger pangs!
Natural food energy bars, such as Veloforte, are handy to pack in your travel bag, they have plenty of carbs from tasty, delicious dried fruit so will ensure you are also receiving plenty of vitamins and minerals as well as stocking up on energy.
Race morning – How to prepare
Race day breakfast is often tricky; early starts, nerves and unfamiliar environments can play havoc with your routine, mind and stomach. If you are travelling away from home try to take a familiar and enjoyable breakfast with you, just in case your favourite foods aren’t available.
Overnight your brain and body at rest uses your glycogen store to keep ticking over. A late night snack before you sleep, such as a bowl of cereal and milk, can help fuel your body through the night and provide a pool of amino acids for any muscular repair.
In the morning if you don’t feel able to eat then a fruit juice smoothie bulked out with banana and soaked oats will top up your glycogen reserves without upsetting a restless tummy - you can even eat this on the go if you have an early start.
For professional athletes finding the right breakfast in different parts of the world is a challenge
“I’ve raced all over the world and in some countries it can be tricky to find a breakfast that you are used to. For example when racing in South Korea and Japan I often found that the hotel breakfast would be primarily fish and rice! To combat this I would take bagels or porridge with me that I could make in my room. I would eat porridge with egg white for protein and honey, jam or raisins.”
What to eat during the event
With three different disciplines to conquer each needs a different fueling strategy.
Davis had a well-practiced strategy for her Olympic distance events which she rehearsed in training, “it is important to train the way you are going to race. If you just train on water, then consume a lot of carb (be it in an energy drink or gels) in the race your stomach will most probably struggle to cope and you will feel unwell.”
Davis stuck to her tested formula, “On the bike I would carry two drink bottles, one with water and one carb. I would usually bring my own carb powder to make up energy drinks with me. Occasionally the powder would get confiscated at the airport and in that case a flat Coke would do if I couldn’t get anything else.
I would eat at around 15km on the bike and again a few kilometers before hitting the run. During the run I would just consume water. Essentially you should be taking on some carbohydrates around every 20-30 minutes.”
What to eat during the swim
With your energy stores topped up and ready for action you don’t need to worry about fueling in the swim. A bottle of electrolyte only or light carbohydrate energy drink to swig immediately after is all you need.
What to eat on the bike
The bike leg is where your nutrition plan really kicks in.
Eating on the bike is technically easier than in the other disciplines and your body is better able to absorb and process the food you are putting in.
Depending on the length of your event whether it is a sprint, 70.3 or full Ironman you could need to carry a significant amount of food. Aim to take on board 60-90g of carbohydrate an hour ensuring you get a mix of glucose and fructose. Veloforte Bites contains the perfect balance of glucose and fructose and one every 20 minutes will work perfectly while you are on the bike.
Unlike many highly processed mass production bars they are moist and soft, making them easier to eat and digest. They are also delicious (having won Great Taste Awards) and a little bit of motivation to carry you through this long, tough section of the race and set you up for the run ahead.
Remember to stay on top of your hydration with regular swigs of water, or if you're hot a mild electrolyte or weak carb solution. You need 500ml to 1000ml of fluid per hour of exercise depending on temperature and exercise intensity.
What to eat during the run
Eating on the run is harder than on the bike, but this is the time of the race when fatigue and energy depletion sets in.
Choose foods that you can eat small amounts of at a time and that are moist, not sticky, to make them easier to chew. Dried fruit such as apricots or raisins make a great natural alternative to sweets or synthetic gels, as do Veloforte Bites.
Remember to stick to what you know, especially at this late stage when your body is beginning to feel the strain. Taking an unfamiliar gel or drink from a feed station can leave you feeling worse, not better. Stick with water and the foods that you have chosen to carry with you.
The key message from Davis is to practice your nutrition as much as you do any other areas of your fitness and racing.
“You have to practice in training, constantly looking to find the angle where you can make yourself better. Even getting your nutrition slightly wrong can completely destroy a run.” Planning is everything, having a strategy and sticking to it; “you don’t want to get to a point where you feel weak or shaky or hungry, once that happens it's over. It's very hard to get back on track.”
Even hugely successful athletes still sometimes get it wrong
“I did some races in Mexico, where it was very hot, 40 degrees, and very humid. I remember becoming very dehydrated during one race and I ended up crashing my bike. The officials would not let me get back on my bike and join the race because I had cut my chin open and it was pouring with blood.
I was so angry I walked off in a strop. One official chased me down the road on a moped to turn me around and take me to hospital!
In races just stay on top of things and stick to your nutrition plan - eat or drink before you feel you need it.”
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