Over the recent years, triathlon popularity has rapidly increased, with the International Triathlon Union (ITU) sanctioning over 100 events worldwide annually.
There are presumably a number of reasons behind its rapidly increasing popularity and what we are seeing, is that more and more people are investing their time and money into training and participating in events all around the world. Also, the number of professional triathletes has noticeably increased and many brands have seen the industry grow as a result of this.
This is great news for the sport, nonetheless training and competing for triathlons requires commitment, hard work, time and also a healthy lifestyle. This is where the key word comes in: nutrition.
Maybe you started training for a triathlon for a new training experience and to lose some fat. Perhaps you are training for one because you are about to sign a great contract to become a pro athlete. In all cases, triathletes can’t cope with all the training and competing without good nutritional guidance. Why? Because in endurance sports, such as triathlon, food is your fuel, and whatever you eat has the potential to make the biggest difference between success and breaking down.
Two things have to be considered when thinking about optimal nutrition for triathletes:
- The athlete as an individual, which is determined by genetics, nutritional status, physical condition and their health history
- The specific requirements of the sport itself, like the morphology of the sport, training plan and the competition calendar
Taking these into account, the goal will be to encourage all of the major muscles to work in an efficient and balanced way, helping you optimize your potential. As important as it is to ensure you have a enough energy to fuel your performance, it is just as vital to have the perfect level of hydration, along with a healthy meal plan. This should consist of a balanced intake of carbs, protein, fat, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
The key to successfully sustaining your training and competition goals is good hydration. Not just through the consumption of water, but also of water with electrolytes, that you lose through sweating. As a general rule, you should consume 0.8 mL/Kg in body weight of water 15 minutes before you begin your training. During your training, it is advised to drink 150-250 mL every 20-30 minutes to facilitate gastric emptying and the absorption of water. If your training session lasts longer than an hour, the consumption of special drinks with carbs and electrolytes (4-8% of carbs and 40-50 g of sodium) is advised, or the consumption of water along with food considering that the suggested concentration is to maintain the gastric volume and avoid GI distress or bloating.
Throughout your day, the well-known 2 liters of water per day rule should apply, but also pay attention to the water you lose and your thirst. You know yourself when you are thirsty and when you are not. For a healthy meal plan, try to eat foods with fluids such as fruits, vegetables, juices and soups. Also, forget about the sweetened drinks and opt for a low sugar electrolyte drinks or water instead.
2. GO BACK TO FOOD
As a triathlete, you can’t spend your life eating just energy bars and drinks. If you dedicate time to train, you should also dedicate time to prepare and eat real, homemade food in order to get a varied and complete fuelling. Avoid using the ‘I’m doing so much training I don’t have time to eat healthy’ excuse. This can really limit your progress. Cook your food or make the arrangements to have someone to cook it for you, with the necessary adjustments that include a variety of healthy food. Try to establish your healthy meal plan for the whole week in order to do the necessary shopping or tell the person that will cook for you what will you want to eat that week.
Avoid junk food and pre-packaged food. Also plan the snacks you will have during the day or during your training. Use real food like; fruits, nuts, vegetables, healthy grains and easy to digest protein sources. This is the best way to get all the healthy macro and micronutrients into your body, for you to optimize your training.
3. DON’T STARVE YOURSELF AND DON’T OVER-EAT
The new trend of “staying away from carbs” has even caught some triathletes with intentions of getting leaner. Despite knowing that they need carbs for energy, some have adopted this concept and felt guilty if they’ve “over-eaten” on the carb front. This is the reason why you might see them struggling to get through a race or even a training session. You, as a triathlete, have to know that these anti-carb diets may be a healthy meal plan for sedentary people that consume excessive amounts of sweets and other kinds of carbs. Athletes can metabolize carbs better than sedentary people. This means that the carbs in your body will be used, and they will not cause sugar crashes or fat gain.
On the other hand, there are triathletes that tend to over-eat with the excuse that “they are training for a triathlon”. Training for a triathlon itself helps with the weight management, but you can’t just eat whatever you want because of this. An active effort to avoid eating more than you should is required, as in any sport.
So there is truly a thin line between not eating enough or eating more than you should. This is something you should be aware of. How will you know? Firstly, trust your appetite, not your cravings. Your appetite will increase if your training increases, so take this as your indicator. Secondly, as said before, opt for natural foods as opposed to processed pre-packaged food. Lastly, be mindful when it comes to eating, since this is the fuel you’re giving to your body for it to work efficiently.
But if you, as most of the triathletes, are a bit obsessive, the best way to avoid under-fueling or over-eating is to consult a specialized sports nutritionist to design you a personalized plan, based on your requirements and training.
4. CARBS ARE NOT ONLY IN PASTA
Most triathletes, when they think about carbs, think about pasta, energy bars, gels and drinks, so they tend to over eat them. However there’s a whole world of less processed grains or cereals that gives you the complex carbs you need, as well as more nutrients. Try out brown rice, chickpeas, lentils, beans, quinoa, cous-cous, sweet potato, pumpkin, etc.
5. DON’T FORGET THE PROTEIN
Triathletes tend to forget about protein because they only think about carbs. This is a common mistake that needs to be corrected. Despite carbs being the foundations of nutrition and building a healthy meal plan for resistance athletes, proteins are needed to recover your muscles, to help your immune system, to keep you in full control your weight. Always choose lean protein sources, since they will provide you the protein you need with less unhealthy fat.
6. Make a healthy meal plan
What you eat before and after training really matters. Many athletes worry about what to eat before but forget about the post recovery and some athletes are the other way round. It’s important to take this into consideration, as well as what you eat during the whole day and the times at which you eat. For example, if you had a late breakfast because of morning training, and then a late lunch, what do you do if you have your afternoon training session not long after? Triathletes can’t go around just eating when they have time. Your muscles have to recover and be ready for your next training session, and with no GI complain as well. This is why you need to take time to plan your meals.
Your main goal should be to get through your training sessions without any GI distress and no feelings of hunger, but also, to feel light and full of energy. That’s why you have to be very careful of what and how much you eat before training. Your second main goal is just as important as the first. This is to recover your muscles and replenish your glycogen stores therefore it’s essential to plan beforehand what to eat right after training.
6. PRACTICE FOR COMPETITION
There are still triathletes that experiment with food that they are not used to on race day. The adrenaline and other hormones, plus things that could accidentally happen right before or during the race could make doing that a big mistake.
The best way to avoid this happening is to plan a race-meal protocol beforehand, using familiar food, especially throughout your training. This protocol should include the meals and drinks you will have in the days leading up to the competition, the breakfast of the race day, what you will eat during the competition (and the timing), and the meals after the race, for recovering. You have to plan this very carefully and it might change race to race, especially if you compete in different places and conditions.