The Triathlete's Perfect Diet

Knowing what to eat and drink, and when, is vital for both newcomers to triathlon and experienced athletes. It's simple: if you don't use the right fuel, you won't function properly


Posted: 18 November 2009

You've probably had a busy start to the year. Not only do you have to fit training around your work commitments, family and social life, but you also have to decide what training to do, when, for how long and how hard. With so much to occupy your brain, a proper nutrition plan may take a back seat.

But proper nutrition is central to your training and to race success. By fuelling correctly and ensuring you're hydrated before, during and after training, you will perform and feel better and still have enough energy for those tasks you have to squeeze in around triathlon.

The first thing you need to remember is that fuelling your body for training and recovery is not an exact science - a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. There are a huge number of variables that will affect what your body needs for training and recovery and it may take some time to figure them out. The 2008 Sprint Triathlon Age Group (50-54) World Champion Jane Bell says her nutrition plan for her first year of triathlon was guesswork. "It was tough enough sorting out what training to do and how much, let alone what to eat and drink. It took me almost a year to figure things out for myself; but now when I'm training I know my body and can respond to how I feel, and eat or drink accordingly," she says.

Gender, age, body weight, experience of training, intensity of training, and individual metabolism all affect your nutrition requirements. A sports nutritionist can give you specific advice tailored to your needs.

Before a training session

Eating before you train means the stores of carbohydrate in your muscles (glycogen) will last longer so you can train for longer. The more intense or the longer your session, the more you need to eat beforehand. If you know you are not going to eat during a long training session, the need to eat beforehand is even more important. Stephen Slay, who competed in the 2008 Ironman France, recalls the mistakes he made early in his triathlon career. "I missed breakfast and didn't have a snack before a sprint triathlon. Part of the way round I completely ran out of energy and my time was terrible. For my next race I had porridge for breakfast and finished in a great time."

There are certain things to bear in mind with regard to eating before training. Wait two to four hours after eating a full meal before you begin training. Your meal should be low in fat, contain carbohydrates (such as pasta, potato or bread), a small amount of protein (meat, fish or pulses) and plenty of vegetables or salad. Avoid bulky, high-fibre foods before a run or swim as these can cause abdominal discomfort.

If you want a snack, eat one with a medium to high glycaemic index, such as a cereal bar, a glass
of fruit smoothie, a banana or a small box of raisins 30-60 minutes before training. A snack will be very important if you have missed your main meal. It will be quickly converted into fuel.

As for hydration, sip 400-600ml of water or sports drink in the two hours before training, as this will help you to stay hydrated. An isotonic sports drink may be a better option if you don't like to eat solid food before training.

During training

Eating and drinking during training means you can train harder and for longer before getting tired. Fuelling during training also helps limit damage to your immune system.

If your session lasts less than 30 minutes you only need to sip water; if you're training for more than an hour you may benefit from an isotonic drink. You certainly need to be fuelling if your session is 90 minutes or longer.

Carbohydrate, fluids and, potentially, sodium are the most important elements to focus on during training. The body can absorb 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour - so there is no point taking on fuel any faster than this - it will sit in your stomach and may make you feel nauseous. Experiment to find the right amount of fuel for you.

The huge variability in sweat rates means that it's hard to generalise about fluid intake. Again you must experiment to see what works for you. To get a rough idea of your fluid losses - and therefore replacement requirements - try the 'sweat test.' Weigh yourself naked before you train, then weigh yourself again naked afterward. If you start at, say, 60kg and finish up weighing 59kg, you've lost 1,000ml of fluid. Aim aim to replace twice the fluid that you lose in a session. If you drink during a session, keep a note of the amount and factor this into your calculations.

Your drink should include sodium if the weather is hot, if you sweat a lot or if your training session is longer than 60-90 minutes. Using a drink that contains carbohydrate and sodium (if needed) is the most efficient way to meet your fuel and hydration needs during training. You could go for ready-made isotonic drinks, such as Lucozade Sport, or make your own from powders such as SIS Go.

But Fiona Moorehead-Lane, a level two British Triathlon Federation (BTF) coach and founder of triathloneurope.com, believes most triathletes can get the correct nutrition by using real foods and water. Make your own isotonic drink by combining equal parts orange juice and water, plus a pinch of salt.

Drink 100-200ml of an isotonic solution every 10-15 minutes; a standard 750ml bottle containing an isotonic drink should see most people through 50-75 minutes of training. You can have solid food while training but try to restrict this to cycling sessions, because food could cause abdominal discomfort during running and swimming (not to mention the practical difficulties of eating during a swim session).  Try a banana, cereal bar or a small box of raisins; any of these should see most people through 50-75 minutes of training.

After training

Steve Trew, who coached the British triathlon team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and is the founder of health and fitness company Personal Best, believes many athletes don't appreciate the importance of recovery nutrition.  "In my experience many athletes overlook the importance of nutrition after training and are constantly in a state of semi-fatigue," he says. Fiona Moorehead-Lane agrees that many athletes have the wrong attitude when it comes to recovery nutrition.

"Some people see it as a time for reward. They've done a 45-minute training session and think they deserve a huge cake or a burger as a reward," she says. "But this undoes all their work during the session." Trew and Moorehead-Lane believe that many newcomers to triathlon pile on weight because they think they can eat what they want.

Recovery is a key aspect of training because it replenishes muscle glycogen stores and helps you prepare for the next session. You need specific recovery nutrition if: you train twice a day, for longer than 30 minutes each session; your next training session is less than eight hours away; the session you have just completed lasted more than two hours; you didn't fuel during a session lasting 90 minutes or more; you're exhausted at the end of a session

Try to eat within 30 minutes of finishing your session, and no more than two hours later. Remember to keep drinking to replace your fluid loss - water is fine. Studies have shown that low-fat milk or milkshakes are good recovery foods, both for nutrient and fluid content, since they contain carbs and protein. A fruit smoothie containing low-fat milk or yoghurt is equally effective.

If your session lasts less than 90 minutes or you fuelled during training you probably don't need to eat anything extra for recovery, but make sure you keep drinking to stay hydrated and eat your next meal or snack when it's due.


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