Triathletes need to pay attention to their diet, says nutritionist to the pros and Triathlon Plus contributor Sally Pinnegar. See how many of these fuelling traps you fall into – your worst enemy might be on your plate.
Many triathletes don’t realise what a huge part their diets play in their training and racing. It’s a cliché, but when it comes to sports you are what you eat. And if you’re out there swimming, cycling and running every day, you really can’t afford to get it wrong.
A good diet is about more than just staying slim. Yes, body composition is important in triathlon, but it’s also about fuelling yourself correctly and eating the right blend of nutrients so that your body can recover and grow stronger after each training session. If you make too many mistakes with your diet, you’ll undermine all the hard work you’ve been putting in.
I work with the pro triathlete Emma- Kate Lidbury and she’s seen a significant improvement in her race results over the last few months. She’s started winning Ironman 70.3 triathlons and she puts a lot of her improvements down to her good diet. She used to think she was eating well, but now realises she was getting it wrong a lot of the time. For example, she was often under-eating on her hard training days, and then eating the same amount on her rest days despite burning far fewer calories. Over a period of a few months we improved her diet so that she felt she had more energy during her tough workouts. Although she was often eating more, her body fat also got lower so she was leaner, lighter and faster.
Maybe you think you’re eating well already, or you know you’re getting it wrong, but don’t know how to fix it. Either way, now’s the time to find out with my list of the top ten diet mistakes that triathletes make. The more of them you ditch, the faster and stronger you’ll be.
Not eating before early training
Your body has been without food for several hours overnight, so you can’t expect to get the best out of it in your training or racing if you are under-fuelling the session.
Eat enough carbohydrates the day before and find things that are easy to eat or drink and sit well in your stomach in the morning. This could be a yoghurt smoothie, half a banana sandwich or a slice of toast with peanut butter and a glass of fresh juice mixed with water.
Eating foods that cause stomach problems
Here we’re talking essentially about ‘runners trots’ – this is a really common problem in runners that can also happen during any exercise when blood is diverted from the digestive system to the working muscles.
Eat bland, non-spicy, nonfibrous foods the night and hours before training. Stick to meals such as white pasta with plain tomato sauce the night before, and in the morning have something like a small bowl of porridge or easily digestible cereal or some white toast with peanut butter.
Not taking on fuel during long training sessions
This is very common during runs when people don’t want to carry food or gels. They often go without anything and wonder why they slow down towards the end of a long session.
Work out how much carbohydrate and fluid you need and know how much is in the drinks and foods you’re consuming. You should aim for 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour, and it follows that the smaller you are, the less you will need.
Bingeing after training and racing
Sometimes the last thing you want to do after a long session is to eat. If you don’t, then subsequent training sessions will suffer and you’ll feel tired with heavy muscles. The other side of the coin is people who eat everything in sight, using the fact that they’ve done a hard session as an excuse to hoover up anything that falls in their path!
Plan your post-training and racing eating and make sure you have the right nutrition to hand at the finish. Chocolate milk is superb and slips down very nicely; have about 300ml with some salted nuts or a peanut butter sandwich and that should see you through until the next meal. If you sit straight down to a meal then have something like spaghetti bolognese made with lean beef or Quorn mince.
Eating big meals after late training
When you train in the evening you might not get home until after 8pm. A big meal afterwards will still be churning away when you go to bed and can affect your sleep and increase fat storage.
Have your main meal at lunch and a small post-training meal. This could be beans or eggs on toast or homemade bean and vegetable soup with bread; sushi with a fruit smoothie or one of the good one-pot ready meals such as Innocent Veg Pots or a pot of Stewed!
Leaving too long between meals
This sets up a starve-binge eating pattern. By the time the athlete gets food they are ravenous and more likely to overeat the wrong things. This creates an insulin surge, which sends fat storage into overdrive.
Plan your snacks so you never go without food or drink for longer than four hours. Good snacks include a pot of low fat yoghurt, a small handful of mixed nuts, fruit smoothies, fruit salad, good-quality bars such as Eat Natural or Nature Valley Chewy bars, malt loaf or Ryvita with cottage cheese and tomato.
Over-eating carbs, especially bread
Many triathletes overestimate their food needs and eat vast amounts of cereal, pasta, rice, potatoes and bread. Bread is a particular problem because it is made with fat and the gluten can cause bloating.
Calculate your daily calorie requirement, taking your training and normal daily activity into account. There are several tools on the internet for this. Looking specifically at bread, try to eat less than four slices a day because it has more calories than other starchy carbs.
Using caffeine products randomly
While caffeine has a proven positive effect on performance, it needs careful management. It can act as a gut stimulant and cause stomach issues.
Work out your exact caffeine needs and take it before the session; its effects last for a few hours. Test in training and ease back on caffeinated drinks for a couple of weeks before a key race to increase its effects when you take it on race day.
Eating too much fat
Giving the body fat makes it very happy – it doesn’t have to do much to it apart from hide it away in the fat cells for storage. Fat is easy money for your body. It’s not quite as happy to spend that money though – the body is quite reluctant to let go of it.
Melt your butter or margarine a little before spreading it so it spreads more thinly. Eat hard cheese only once or twice a week and even then only about a small matchbox-size piece. Don’t glug olive oil over everything. Stay away from things like crisps and biscuits.
Not knowing your body fat percentage
Fat percentage is a better indicator of how lean you are than weight or Body Mass Index. To be as competitive as possible a male recreational triathlete in his 30s should aim for a fat percentage of less than 10%. A female of the same age should aim for around 18-20%.
Measure your fat, weekly, when you’re at your most hydrated, using a body composition monitor (bear in mind it takes several months for fat percentage to show any realistic change). You can get these from any chemist. Boots have a selection.
This article was first published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe.