Triathlon is a demanding sport, of your time, energy, focus and money. I have been involved in the sport both as a competitor and as a nutritionist for well over 14 years. One thing that always amazes me is the time and effort people go to with their training and equipment selection but they often forget to focus on their ‘fuel’.
Nutrition should really be seen as another discipline in triathlon, as should sleep, so really there are 5 disciplines! It is vital for a good performance but it is also necessary to keep the body going year after year with heavy training loads and is especially important for good recovery between sessions and on race day!
The internet is now full of information for you to read about sports nutrition, some of the information is cutting edge research and other info is tried and tested plans and some is just nutritional folklore. Most information can be useful if you know how to interpret it, but therein is the problem. People are often looking for the ‘quick fix’, that 3% more power output or cutting 10 minutes off their PB that they are willing to try anything. With new information there needs to be a period of time where one practices new nutrition strategies and see’s if this latest change works for them, if their digestive system can handle it.
Research in sports nutrition at the moment is amazing. Some of the great minds in sports science are focused on endurance sport specifically and this is a great help for those competing in triathlon. Researchers are testing the bounds of performance and how to fuel the body so as to get the optimum performance. But the question still remains, can these new ideas be translated into real life racing plans and who will this work for?
For years we have been told (and been telling people) to ingest about 1 gram per kilo of body weight per hour or thereabouts (obviously a wee bit lower if you run above the 100 kg mark). In fact in my clinical practice I still start with this formula just to see how their digestive system handles it. More recent research tells us that we should all (no matter size or sex) be trying to ingest up to 90 grams hour for optimum performance if possible. The second part of the research says that to ingest over 60 grams and to get closer to 90, the carbohydrates ingested need to be from MULTIPLE sources not just a single source of carbs.
So what does that mean? First I would like to point out that the large majority of triathletes weigh between 60 and 90 kilos so these new guidelines are not that different from the old ideas (unless you are a tiny pixie or a 110kg guy). Let me explain further.
Research in the last decade has focused on the fact that our intestines max out on glucose absorption at 60gm/hour, so to get around this you must ingest multiple carbohydrates as this way you are absorbing through multiple pathways (like you have different doors in your intestines for different carbs to go through) and thus can potentially ingest more carb per hour. This means taking in glucose and fructose or sucrose or maltodextrin etc. at the same time. This is pretty phenomenal research and has really changed the way we should be thinking about fuelling during endurance events, to a point!
Many sports products (gels and drinks) have adjusted their formulas because of this research and you will often find multiple carb sources in products these days. Let’s be clear though, if you are going to try and ingest this amount of carbohydrate per hour you will potentially need to ingest more water as well. Sports drinks are made in what is known as a 6-8% solution, this means they contain 6 to 8 grams of carbohydrate per 100 ml of fluid as this is known to be an amount that does not inhibit gastric emptying. When ingesting a carbohydrate gel, you are ingesting a very concentrated source of carb and need to dilute it to a lower concentration in your stomach with the ingestion of water. Once the amount of carbohydrate sitting in the stomach goes above about 9% the rate at which fluid (and fuel) will leave your digestive tract becomes much slower.
So if you are attempting to go by the new guidelines and ingest up to 90 grams hour of multiple carb sources that means you also need to be ingesting more fluid per hour. There appears to be a better absorption with a higher concentration of carb if there are multiple sources available but you still need to consider your individual digestive capacity and tolerance. As Professor Asker Jeukendrup, one of the most knowledgeable endurance sports Nutritionists in the world says (see article link below) ‘Ingesting a carbohydrate solution that is very concentrated and/or has a high osmolality is likely to cause gastrointestinal discomfort.’
Now I don’t know about you, but for many people this is a volume that is very hard to consume. In fact if a very small person who does not have a high sweat rate, this could potentially cause a few problems. Over hydration is a serious issue in endurance sport, (hyponatraemia) and can land you in the medical tent or hospital for a few days. Most athletes I know struggle to ingest above the 1 litre mark and above this feel uncomfortable and also complain about how much they will need to pee.
Everyone has a different digestive sensitivity to racing. Some people it appears can eat almost anything and get away with it while others suffer terrible digestive issues that can lead to problems such as: vomiting, sloshy stomach, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and what many refer to as a stomach plug, none of which is fun and all of which can be experienced by someone while racing.
You must remember that your ability to absorb carbohydrates and fluids goes down if you…..
Are dehydrated, as you race harder ( intensity goes up), if the outside temperature is hot , the duration of exercise gets longer, if you over ingest carbohydrate without enough fluid to take the carbohydrate through at a good osmolality.
Are you getting my point? I think to get through an Ironman without any digestive trouble is a miracle (or at least half a miracle) and you should thank the triathlon GODS every time you pull this off.
Just because a Professional triathlete says that they consume a ‘set’ amount of carb from a certain brand doesn’t mean that your digestive system can do the same thing, sometimes it can and sometimes it won’t and more often than not it NEVER will. You see we are all different, whether you are a Pro or an age grouper it simply comes down to your own body, its physiology and its limits of digestive capacity while racing.
You need to approach your fuelling in triathlon, or any sport with trial and error, practice, change and then some more trial and error. If you perchance come upon a formula that works for you, personally I would say STAY WITH IT, if it’s not broken, don’t mess with it no matter what others may tell you, marketing may say or your training buddy may be doing. Don’t get me wrong it’s great to discuss nutrition tactics with training buddies, what else are you going to talk about on 100+km rides?
So to put an end to my story, please be aware that we are all different and you may be fine on 60 grams an hour while racing and someone else may be great on 90. Sports nutrition is not a one size fits all and you need to consider your size, digestive ability, sex, sweat rate, power output, ambient temperature during a race and probably 10 other things I can’t think of. If all else fails just remember the more expensive your bike, the better your digestive system will be!
Upgrade Snacks to Mini-Meals During Training
Anyone who does a lot of fitness training will know that they’re burning up the food they eat more efficiently and quickly than when they’re in an inactive phase, and there’s a tendency to think that as long as you’re exercising you can eat what you like, as you’ll soon be getting rid of those calories.
While this is true to a certain extent if you snack on anything you feel like, you may not be getting the best results from those foods. For instance, a doughnut might taste good, but it’s likely just to give you a quick sugar-rush burst of energy, rather than providing you with the slow-release energy that will see you through your next training session.
Snacking itself isn’t a problem, though, and can actually be a good way of providing you with sustained amounts of energy through the day, as long as you pick the right things to snack on. Some triathletes aim for six mini-meals a day, rather than three big ones. It depends on how much time you have available, of course, but remember you don’t need to cook each time you need to eat. You can include some raw snack options and also fit meals in after a training session. For instance, if you start the day with a training session before work, there’s nothing to stop you ordering breakfast to be delivered to your desk. The evolution of take-out and delivered foods means that today, take-out can be just as healthy as something you’d prepare yourself at home – there’s no limit on what you can order in if you’re short of time.
By having a range of nutrient-dense snacks to eat in between the classic meal times of breakfast, lunch and dinner, you can keep your glycogen levels up and ready for training sessions, and keep your appetite at bay, so you don’t end up bingeing on junk. A healthy snack doesn’t have to be hard to throw together.
Go-to mini-meals or snacks
To maintain blood sugar levels, an ideal training snack will contain both protein and fibre. Proteins are good for muscle mass but also satisfying your appetite. Eating fibre-rich foods allows your blood sugar to rise steadily and fibre provides volume to make you feel satisfied. It also aids digestion and encourages regular bowel movements.
Simple snacks that fit the bill might include a handful of almonds and a sliced apple, or a plate of carrot sticks and a portion of hummus. Sweeten things up with a Greek yoghurt, topped with raspberries and a few walnuts or pumpkin seeds. If you’re in a savoury mood cold roast beef slices layered with cheese slices and cherry tomatoes can be made into an appetising snack in seconds if you’ve got a well-stocked fridge. Baked potatoes can be cooked the night before and eaten cold, or reheated in a microwave, and adding cheese or tuna will provide the protein.
Punctuate your day with a snack like those described above an hour and a half after each main meal, and you’ll avoid hunger pangs and keep your body fuel
Recovery Smoothie – Supercharged Green and Berry Smoothie
After a long hard workout I like to get fueled right away. I find it easiest for me to get down a smoothie rather than solid food. By making a smoothie I am able to pack it full of nutrient dense foods. Below is my “go to” –
Green & Berry Super Smoothie
- 16 oz Coconut water
- 8 oz Hemp milk
- 1 Banana
- 2 cups Baby Spinach
- 1 cup Frozen Blueberries
- 6 leaves Tuscan Kale
- ½ Gold beet large
- ½ nugget of fresh turmeric root
- 1 serving Favorite plant based protein powder I use Vega Performance protein berry flavor for this
- 2 tbsp Chia seed
- 1 tbsp Acai powder
- 1 tbsp Maca powder
- 1 tbsp Spirulina
- 4 large ice cubes
Place all ingredients into a high power blender such as Vita mix. Process until smooth. Consistency can be adjusted with cold water as you are processing.
A Healthy Spin on a BLT
- 4 Tomatoes Heirloom variety
- 1 Japanese eggplant Large
- 3 heads baby frisee
- ½ Maui Onion
- ½ bunch Red Radish
- ½ cup Vegan Mayonnaise Hampton creek, which can be purchased at local markets
- 2 Lemon
- Cayenne Pepper
- 2 tbsp Amino acids
- 1 tbsp Brown sugar
- 1 tsp Maple syrup
- ¾ tsp Liquid smoke
- ¼ tsp Cayenne
For the Eggplant
It is best to prepare the eggplant 1 day in advance using a dehydrator. If a dehydrator is unavailable eggplant can be prepared in oven.
Remove stem and slice eggplant approximately 1/8 -1/4 inch thick on mandolin. Place eggplant in marinade and be sure each slice is well coated. set aside for 30 minutes.
Place eggplant slices on dehydrator racks and begin drying. 125 degrees for approximately 12-14 hours. The eggplant should be almost crisp. Once removed from heat and cool the eggplant should crisp through. If it is not crispy continue drying checking every hour.
Alternately this can be done in an oven. 225 degrees for 1.5-2 hours
For the dressing
Mix mayonnaise with lemon juice to taste and thin slightly with cold water so dressing is pourable. Season with salt and just a touch of cayenne to taste.
For the salad
Clean baby frisee and clip edges of any discolored leaves.
Slice maui onion paper thin using mandolin.
Slice radish paper thin using mandolin
Remove stem and core from tomatoes. The tomatoes can be cut into bite size pieces. Place tomatoes on plate. Seasing with salt and cracked pepper.
Dress baby frisee in lemon dressing and place on top of tomatoes.
Garnish salad with maui onion and sliced red radish.
The eggplant “bacon” can be broken into pieces and placed over top. Enjoy.
- 1 cup Red quinoa uncooked
- 1 ¼ cup Water + ½ cup
- 1 white onion large
- 1 cup Tomato based salsa
- 2 cloves Garlic
- 2 tbsp Olive oil
- 1 tbsp Smoked Paprika
- 1 tbsp Chile powder
- 1 Tsp Cumin
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- 1 dozen Corn tortillas
- 2 Vine ripe Tomatos
- 1 bunch Kale stemmed and washed
- 2 Avocado
Optional Cashew Crema
- 1 cup Raw Cashews
- 1 tbsp Nutritional Yeast
- 1 tbsp Cider Vinegar
- 1 tsp Lemon Juice
- salt to taste
Bring 1 ¼ cup water to a boil. Season with 1 heavy pinch of salt. Once boiling add quinoa and reduce heat. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Remove heat and set aside 5 minutes.
While quinoa is cooking prepare garnish. Cut tomato medium dice. Chiffonade kale. Slice avocados.
Cut onion small dice reserving ½ cup for garnish. Mince garlic. Sweat onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent.
Add paprika, chile powder, and cumin to onions and mix on low heat.
Add cooked quinoa, ½ cup water and 1 cup salsa. Heat mixture through and keep warm.
Assemble Tacos. Warm tortillas over open stove flame. Add avocado, spponful of quinoa, kale, tomato & onion. Top with your favorite salsa and cashew crema.
Cover cashew with boiling water by 1 inch. Let stand 30 minutes – 1 hour
Drain and reserve liquid
Place in blender with remaining ingridients. Blend until SMOOTH adding the reserved liquid until desired consistency (It should look like siur cream)
Chill until cool. Adjust acidity and seasoning with lemon and salt.
3 Key Tips for Race Day and Recovery Nutrition
Most triathletes, at every level, spend a great deal of time tweaking their gear and tweaking their training programs. But I’m amazed by the number of athletes who neglect an area of preparation that can potentially have more impact on their performance and results than any other, especially on race day – nutrition.
The effect nutrition can have on performance was highlighted when I was competing in Ironman 70.3 Cairns. Normally I use a Bento box to carry my nutrition, but since Cairns was a 70.3 I decided to try taping my gels to the top tube of my bike. It seemed like a good idea, until the rain came down and I lost all five gels. When you’re burning more than 700 calories an hour you need all the calories you can get and there’s no way you can give your best when you’re running on empty. I ended up coming in fourth. I learnt two important lessons in Cairns – don’t trust tape on a rainy day and take your nutrition seriously if you want to succeed.
Nutrition is a massive topic, so rather than try and cover everything I want to give you my own ‘Bento box’ of ideas, information and tips. Here’s some wisdom that comes out of my own experience and research. Dip into it and grab whatever is helpful. I’ve broken it down into tips that will help you with your nutrition before the race, during the race and after the race. Enjoy!
Before the race
When you are tapering your training load before a race, you’ll need to carefully watch your food intake and reduce it accordingly. Less training means you need less calories, so try to balance your calorie input with energy output. Concentrate on eating healthy, nutritious, balanced meals. Eat clean!
- 7 days out from a race – continue to eat well, stay with foods you’re used to and don’t overdo the carbs at this point. Sleep is really important, so avoid too much caffeine.
- 3 days before the race – it’s time to increase your carb intake (by 50% or so) and start loading. Magnesium loading will reduce the likelihood of cramps on race day. Cut down on fibre to lessen the chances of gastric upset and definitely steer clear of the spicy stuff. Keep it simple.
- The day before the race it’s time for some final carb loading, especially at lunchtime. Your evening meal shouldn’t be too heavy – you definitely want it to be digested before race time in the morning and you want a good night’s sleep – eat earlier rather than later.
Be aware that as you carb-load your weight will increase slightly – your body stores 3g of water for every 1g of glycogen it has stored. You will lose this during the course of the race.
Your body can store roughly 2000 calories in your muscles and liver as glycogen and in your bloodstream as glucose. When you wake up, you will need to top up the energy you’ve burned overnight. That’s going to be an early breakfast. Experts suggest that you need to consume roughly 2g of carbs per kg of body weight and recommend eating it at least two hours before the race – which makes for a very early start! Keep your breakfast low in fibre, low in fat and easily digestible.
- Whatever you’re going to eat pre-race, make sure you have ‘road-tested’ it beforehand so you know that your stomach is going to be okay with it. Take into account the pre-race nerves too.
- Your body can store enough carbs for roughly 60 – 90 minutes of racing, depending on the intensity. That means that when you come out of the water after the swim you’re already heading into calorie deficit and will need to start refueling straight away. You may feel hungry, but eat something anyway – a gel, small snack or sports drink.
- The bike leg is the best opportunity to get some calories into your body. Most athletes use gels and fluids as their primary source of carbs on the ride. Stick with whatever is kind to your stomach and ensure that you are getting enough energy each hour to set you up for the run.
- Remember eating isn’t just about providing the required calories. I know some Aussie athletes who love Vegemite sandwiches – they are tasty, high in easily digested carbs and have plenty of salt to help reduce the risk of cramps. I like to carry some treats in my special needs bag. Sometimes a Mars Bar is a good treat which helps me stay positive as well.
After a race nothing hits the spot like a cold beer! But it’s important to realise that an Ironman event places a massive strain on your body and recovery is as important as preparation for a triathlete. So, before you drink alcohol, carefully consider how you can quickly begin the refuelling and repairing process. Here are some tips to aid your post-race recovery:
- Your key goals are to restore your liver and muscle glycogen stores and replace the fluid and electrolytes that you have lost through sweating. Obviously, the extent of these deficits will depend on the intensity of the racing and the conditions you’ve been racing in. For example, Kona is an intense race and even on a good day the heat and humidity are tough. When you cross the finish line your glycogen levels are depleted and you are significantly dehydrated. A cold beer is not going to be enough!
- It may take up to 24 hours to restore your muscle glycogen levels. Current research indicates that immediately beginning to consume carbs, in the form of high GI foods can help with this process. How much should you eat? The experts suggest consuming 1 -1.5g per kg of body weight of carbs in the first few hours is optimal and about 6 -10g per kg of body weight in total over the first 24 hours will significantly aid recovery.
- You will also need to rehydrate and replace the sodium lost through sweat. Most sports drinks don’t have quite enough salt, since this can affect the taste, so you can add this in through what you eat.
- Coffee, caffeine-rich energy drinks and alcoholic beverages may make you feel better, but they’re all diuretics, so they’re not going to help with the rehydration process. Enjoy them sparingly if you want to recover quickly and effectively.
- Recognise that deliberately and sensibly eating and drinking may be the last two things you feel like doing, so plan for your post-race recovery beforehand and then stick to the plan – your body will thank you and you will recover much quicker after the race.
A final word
I know many triathletes who are more concerned about the fuel they put into their cars than what they put into their bodies. You need to take nutrition seriously – the time and energy you put into developing a nutrition plan that effectively and comprehensively covers training, racing and recovery is a great investment. And it’s an investment that will pay off in helping you achieve your best both on and off the course. Eat healthy, eat right and reap the benefits!
Healthy and Fast – How to keep your immune system strong
Why it is so important to keep your immune system strong & why it will help you go faster!
We’ve all heard it before – ‘eat more fruit and veg’, ‘sleep more’ blah blah…. But as endurance athletes and mostly as age group athletes who work and have many other commitments other than training, it is often these points that are ignored for ‘more kms’ in the strive to get faster. In this article, and in following ones, I am going to explain to you why it is vital that you listen to these messages and why there is far more to getting ‘fit’ (& then faster) than just training.
When we train, we are putting our bodies under stress. This stress is designed to break our bodies down slightly, so that when we are recovering from training, we rebuild stronger and faster than before. Sounds simple right???
If we don’t give our body the right conditions to rebuild, or don’t allow it the time to recover, we will end up just breaking it down bit by bit. This so often ends in illness or injury, which is so common in the build up to Ironman race day.
Many studies have shown that ‘moderate’ exercise improves our immune system, giving us greater ability to ward off bugs and prevent injury. However, I don’t consider training for an Ironman, a half ironman or training seriously for shorter races to be ‘moderate’! Above this moderate level of exercise, our bodies immune systems are actually weakened by the long hours we are spending trying to get faster.
To me, a fit athlete is not necessarily a healthy one. So often people will arrive at their ‘A’ race either sick, having been sick or injured. The healthier you can keep yourself and your immune system during the build up to your big race, the more likely you will be able to get through the training and be able to peak at the right time! While it is always a tough juggle, especially for those time poor athletes, try to avoid being one of those athletes with their eyes hanging out of their heads!
There are several key areas that will help you keep that immune system strong and your body absorbing all the training you are putting it through.
Our bodies naturally produce free radicals, which for the chemically minded, are molecules which lead to destruction inside our bodies. These have been shown to deplete our immune system and can contribute to injury or sickness. When our bodies are under stress, especially during intense exercise, their production is increased.
Anti-oxidants are the saviours, as they pair with free radicals to stop them being destructive. While our bodies produce some anti-oxidants, during times of stress or high training load, supplementation is vital to keep this balance under control. Foods such as beetroot, sweet potato, berries, red capsicum, oranges and broccoli contain high levels of anti-oxidants. The other way to combat these free radicals is supplementation with Vitamin A, C and E and minerals zinc and iron , which are all high in anti-oxidants. Alternatively several vitamin manufacturers make a stand alone anti-oxidant supplement. Many leading nutritionists recommend however that you get these from whole foods, as they contain other vitamins and minerals which are essential for good health.
Additionally the typical ‘more is better’ attitude that so many athletes employ has been recently shown not to work with anti-oxidants, (with the exception of Vit. C). Thus a diet rich in whole foods can help to moderate this and give our bodies the required levels and may even help you in the quest to become leaner for that big race.
A more recently researched mineral or flavonoid is Quercetin, which is also a powerful anti-oxidant. Early research has shown this to also be very supportive of our immune system by fighting virus’, have strong anti-inflammatory properties and support cardio-vascular health. Quercetin is found richly in blueberries, apples, red onions, tea and broccoli. While early studies are limited, it has also been shown so far to improve endurance capacity.
When we are asleep our bodies are repairing and rebuilding from the damage we do to them every day by normal life and training. During our sleep our bodies are reaping the rewards of training, not during the actual training itself. Training puts stress on many of our bodies systems and breaks us down slightly, with the effect of this being our bodies ‘super compensating’ and rebuilding stronger and faster than before. Additionally, during our sleep is also the only time our bodies are producing Human Growth Hormone, which is vital for us as athletes to get stronger and quicker.
Considering these facts, if we cut our sleep short, we are not only limiting the amount we absorb from our training, we are also risking injury and illness. This then has a two-fold negative effect on our performance.
It is vital that while we train and immediately following training that we eat something which contains carbohydrates and ideally protein (especially post exercise). While many of us recognise the importance of this on immediate performance, it is also very important for our immune systems. This is because when our blood glucose levels are low, it triggers our bodies to release stress hormones, which suppress the immune system. Additionally when our bodies don’t have the required protein to ‘rebuild’ post exercise, it makes our immune system further susceptible, as our bodies require protein to build the necessary cells, antibodies and cytokines to fight illness.
An important thing to remember also is that every cell in our bodies is replaced every 6 weeks and during heavy training, even less. Therefore the quality of these cells is highly dependent upon what we give our bodies to produce these cells (nutrition, hydration) and the conditions we expose our bodies to (sleep, stress, training). The higher quality these are, the higher quality the cells will be and therefore the better you will feel and the better you will perform!
So in the lead up to the last races of the season, whether you are just looking to finish or to win, there is far more to performance than just the hours or kilometres. Don’t lose sight of the ‘small things’ which are vital for performance.
The simple message is; if you treat your body well, it will treat you well when it really counts.
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