An easy to understand, no nonsense guide to triathlon nutrition...
As an online triathlon coach, one of the questions I'm most commonly asked is "which energy products should I use?".
I can understand people's confusion with triathlon nutrition, because when I was a rookie triathlete I had no clue about nutrition either. I once did a Powerman Duathlon (10km run/60km bike/10km run) with nothing but a small bottle of Coke to get me through. By the halfway point I was so low on energy that I could barely cycle or run.
It was only after I did a University degree in Sport Science that I started to fully understand sports nutrition. I'm still no expert, but I certainly know more than I did before. It's a such a big and complex subject, so it's no wonder that people find it hard to make the right choices.
With all that in mind, the idea behind this blog is to explain three key things:
1. The difference between fat and carbohydrate
2. What to eat before and during a race
3. The difference between energy gels, bars and drinks
1. The Difference Between Carbohydrate and Fat
During a triathlon you’ll use two main types of fuel - carbohydrate and fat. Every decision you make about race-day nutrition will boil down to these two things.
Carbohydrates include a whole range of food types, from simple sugars like Coke all the way through to things like rice and pasta. Fats are found in a range of foods such as fish, butter, meat, avocado and olive oil.
Carbohydrate and fat both give you fuel, but not in the same way. Let me explain...
Phil's Toyota Fuel Analogy
Imagine a Toyota Prius car. In case you don't know, it's one of those environmentally friendly "hybrid" cars that use both petrol AND electric power.
When you drive a Prius slowly around town, you'll notice it's the electric motor that does all the driving. However, when you get out on the open roads the petrol engine kicks in, powering you to faster speeds.
Well, your body is a bit like that Toyota Prius.
For all the slow stuff like long distance cycling you use more fat as a fuel. And for higher intensities such as a 5km run race, you'll use more carbohydrate.
That's how our bodies work. Fat is our long lasting, slow fuel. Whereas carbohydrate is our fast fuel that runs out quickly.
Our bodies know this. So for short, fast triathlons you'll use a higher ratio of carbohydrate versus fat.
On the other hand, for long triathlons or training sessions, you'll use a greater ratio of fat to carbohydrate.
Still with me?
I remember my University nutrition lecturer telling us that the average human has enough stored body fat to walk 40,000 miles! I don't know if that's true, but I do know that we all have plenty enough fat to get us through an Ironman triathlon.
On the other hand, I know that our carbohydrate stores will run out after around 70 to 90 minutes of intense exercise. And therefore we need to supplement them during a race or a hard training session if we're to perform at our best. Here’s how...
2. What To Eat Before And During A Race
The Evening Before
The evening before a race you’ll need to eat a carbohydrate-based dinner - something easy like pasta and sauce. Do not be tempted to eat lots of meat and vegetables, because the meat won't provide any meaningful race-fuel and the vegetables might give you stomach upsets when you run. Normally meat and vegetables are fine, just not right now.
Also, don’t eat more than usual, just your normal plateful is fine. Just a plate full of pasta and tomato sauce. No need for gluttony.
The Morning Before
On race morning consume a carbohydrate-based breakfast 3-4 hours before the start, such as a big bowl of oatmeal porridge and honey, or three to four slices of toast. You could also sip a carbohydrate energy drink throughout the morning.
Personally, I eat three PowerBar Energize bars instead. It just saves me worrying about preparing breakfast. But that's just me.
During The Event
What you consume during a triathlon depends on the event you're doing.
If you’re racing a sprint triathlon, you don’t need much carbohydrate because it’s so short. You might benefit from sipping an energy drink on the bike and having a gel on the run.
For longer events you’ll need to sip water regularly (particularly if you’re sweating a lot) and consume 40-70g of carbohydrate per hour. The bigger you are, the more you should consume within that 40-70g range. To give you some idea, 40g equates to two energy gels.
The best way to consume carbohydrate is little and often, so that it's more palatable. Try setting a countdown alarm to remind you every 10-minutes so that you don’t forget to eat in the excitement of the race.
3. The Difference Between Energy Gels, Bars and Drinks
When it comes to triathlon nutrition, there's nothing magic about energy drinks, bars and gels. Their main ingredients are carbohydrate and water, and you can normally make your own homemade versions. However, they do offer a convenient and well-packaged way to stay fuelled during a race.
Here are six common types:
A sweet gel in a convenient packet, typically containing 100 calories and 22 grams of carbohydrate. Some contain salts, vitamins and caffeine, although the carbohydrate is the important bit. Gels labelled “isotonic” are more watery and easier to consume with a dry mouth, but contain less carbohydrate per gram. Caffeine gels often taste bitter, but there are proven performance gains to be had.
Powdered or pre-made drinks containing predominantly water and carbohydrate. Some contain electrolytes (salts), vitamins, caffeine and even protein. Remember that on race day your main requirements are water and carbohydrate, although for long races or hot days, electrolytes may prove beneficial. Most of the other magic ingredients (aside from caffeine) have no proven endurance performance benefit.
These are simply chewy sweets or jelly blocks containing mostly carbohydrate. They are often more palatable than energy gels and don’t leave you with such sticky fingers. Personally I use Clif Shot Bloks, as I enjoy them more than gels. One pack contains six blocks - the equivalent of two energy gels.
The main ingredients in a recovery drink are carbohydrate and protein. Some also contain fat, electrolytes and vitamins. Research indicates that the optimal ratio for a post-endurance recovery drink is four parts carbohydrate and one part protein. Interestingly, plain milk contains a similar ratio. These drinks are convenient when you don't have a chance to eat immediately after a tough workout.
These are dense pre-packaged cereal bars, containing mainly carbohydrate. They are great on race morning or while training, but can be difficult to digest during a short, fast race. Some bars have relatively high fat contents, so read the labels first.
Tasty bars containing a mix of carbohydrate, fat and protein. These often taste as good as chocolate bars like Snickers and Mars, so it’s tempting to eat lots. Eating foods like these straight after exercise is shown to heighten recovery, although you could get the same effect from a home made smoothie for example. Just be careful not to eat too many if you're not training hard - triathlon nutrition never tasted so good.
That's all for this fortnight folks. For more information on triathlon nutrition, check out my previous blog: 5 Triathlete Diet Tricks
Introducing the simple triathlete diet tricks that will help you train harder, stay leaner and recover quicker...
During my 20 years as a triathlete, I've come to realise that diet really does make a difference to your triathlon performance - but not always in the way you'd think.
My conclusion is this: You don't need to eat like a saint all the time, but you do need to make sure you're consuming the right kinds of fuel at the right times.
The triathlete diet tips in this blog will help you get this right. They are largely inspired by Dr Kevin Currell, Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport. I have worked extensively with Dr Currell at Triathlon Plus magazine and I've put most of his suggestions into practice over the last few years.
Tip number one (see below) about eating before early morning swims was something of a revelation to me. Not only did I swim better, but I was happier before and during my swim workouts. No more lane rage! Hopefully you'll get the same benefits...
1. Breakfast before morning swims
Sleeping during the night depletes your liver's store of glycogen - the fuel you need as a triathlete. When this is depleted your blood sugar starts to drop and fatigue sets in. Early morning swimming in this fasted state can be a bad idea for three reasons...
1. It leads to poor concentration levels. If you are trying to improve your technique you will struggle.
2. You will be low on energy, so you will find it harder to swim at a high intensity.
3. It will lead to you feeling tired and hungry all day. And hence eating more than you might normally.
To avoid this happening, you should have a light breakfast before all morning swims. Go for foods high in carbohydrate, low in protein and low in fat. You don't even need to compromise your sleep. Simply choose foods you can eat on the go such as jam sandwiches, flapjacks or a sports bar.
2. Protein after runs
Running is the discipline that leads to most injuries for triathletes. A simple diet trick to help reduce the muscle damage caused by running is to consume a good source of protein straight after each run workout. If you are doing an easy run, have a yogurt when you get in. For longer or harder runs, have a milkshake or carbohydrate protein recovery drink
3. Fish Oils 3 Times Per Week
When our ancestors lived in caves and hunted for food they ate the healthy fats omega 3 and omega 6 in a ratio of approximately 2:1. These days that ratio is more like 1:20. The consequences of this are a form of inflammation which the body finds difficult to cope with. For a triathlete who's hard in training this means slower recovery and increased fatigue.
Simply taking a fish oil supplement or making sure you get a good source of oily fish 3-4 times per week can get your body back to how it should be.
4. Swill A Carbohydrate Gel
There are carbohydrate sensors in the mouth which stimulate the brain into working harder. Using a carbohydrate mouth rinse has been shown to increase 40 km cycling time trial time by over a minute. It works in training too. Just swilling a gel around your mouth to help you maintain your intensity during tough workouts.
5. Start drinking early on the bike
The timing of fluid and fuel intake on the bike leg of an Olympic distance race can affect run performance. A recent study compared triathletes drinking at 8, 16, 24 and 32 km into the bike with drinking at 10, 20, 30 and 40 km. When subjects started drinking early they ran the 10 km 3% faster than when they started drinking later in the bike. It could help you knock a minute more off your run splits.
That's all for now. Hopefully you will benefit from these tips as much as I have. If you enjoyed this blog, please share it.
It may also interest you to know that I've just finished designing my latest triathlon training plan. This is available via Training Peaks online training software. If you're not already a Training Peaks member, you can sign up for a free account when you choose one of my training plans.
NEW: "24 Week Advanced Olympic Triathlon Plan. 8-14 Hours Training Per Week".
Will Cutting Carbohydrates Improve Your Triathlon Performance? We Ask An Expert...
This blog is taken from a feature I commissioned and edited for Triathlon Plus magazine with Dr Kevin Currell - Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport and author of Performance Nutrition. He is also an Ironman triathlete.
For endurance athletes, eating a paleo based diet seems to be very fashionable these days, with many blog, books and websites dedicated to the subject, The general principle is to eat like we would have when we were simple hunter gatherer animals or “cavemen”. During this time we would potentially have only eaten meat, fish and vegetables, and of course we certainly wouldn’t have been able to walk to shops and buy a quick burger and chips or pop to the supermarket and buy a microwave meal.
The scientific argument for a paleo diet is made on some significant circumstantial evidence around studies of other primate diets, studies of fossils, anthropology and understanding our own metabolic pathways.
If you were to eat like a caveman, what would you need to do? Well let’s start with those foods which are off the list. It includes anything pre-prepared such as pasta, rice and quinoa as well as other cereals and whole grains (like porridge), dairy, legumes (e.g lentils and chickpeas), bread, sausages, most sandwich meats, alcohol and even the humble potato.
What can you eat? Meat, fish, nuts, fruit and vegetables. But not any old meat and fish, just those which are organic and grass fed. No tinned fish, just those caught naturally out in the ocean. So pretty simple really.
If you make these changes to your diet what is likely to happen? Well firstly, you will reduce the carbohydrate content of your diet, while increasing the protein and fat intake you have. Most of the fat is likely to come from “healthy” fat sources too. The carbohydrates you do eat will be “slow release” carbohydrates, which is generally a good thing and research would support the majority of your diet coming from these types of carbohydrates.
Alongside this, you will certainly eat more fibre in your diet. Which again is seen as a good thing in terms of health. You will also consume far more micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. You will increase your potassium intake and decrease your sodium intake too.
So far not too bad. However, the word health has been mentioned a lot, with not much mention of performance. We know that restoring and maintaining muscle glycogen post exercise is key to recovery and optimal performance. We know that if you remove carbohydrates from your diet and replace them with fat then your endurance improves, but your time trial performance doesn’t change and you lose the ability to go fast.
Is salt also that bad for an athlete? We certainly lose a lot during training, so maybe we need to replace some in our diet too.
The paleo diet idea is based on significant circumstantial evidence and as such is not based on too much science. There is good evidence that low carbohydrate high protein diets aid weight loss, but not much about the long term adherence to them. I would also question the idea that the humble potato is not a natural food - if a caveman saw a potato I think he would have eaten it. We also know the Inca’s ate the grain quinoa too.
So is the Paleo diet a good thing for an athlete? Certainly some of the principles are. Such as the idea of eating real food and avoiding processed junk. And trying to find natural carbohydrate sources like sweet potato. The protein intake is good too - as eating protein in every meal is essential for athletes. Research shows that 20 grams in each meal is optimal.
However, there are times when an athlete is going to need a more carbohydrate based meal like pasta or bread such as after a long bike ride or during periods of really heavy training. It can sometimes be hard to achieve this when following a paleo diet for athletes. So in conclusion, eating real fresh, good quality food is essential, but don’t get too obsessed - I don’t think our cave man ancestors would have.
Check out Phil Mosley's triathlon & duathlon training plans at TrainingPeaks.com. There are seventy different training plans to cater for all your triathlon needs. Now with Ironman Winter Base training plans.
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Phil Mosley is a triathlon coach and writer.