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Small tweaks to nutrition made a big difference for these pros.
There’s a reason nutrition is known as the “fourth discipline” of triathlon—what an athlete eats in and out of training directly impacts swim, bike and run performance. Though some nutritional advice is obvious (drinking water, for example), many triathletes fail to see how certain foods (or lack thereof) limit athletic capacity—that is, until an “ah-ha!” moment takes place.
Some “ah-ha!” moments are subtle, gradual realizations, while others come in the form of a brick wall mid-race. Regardless, one common thread is clear: small changes to nutrition can yield big results in performance. Today, five pros share their nutritional “ah-ha!” moments with Triathlete, along with how you can benefit from their breakthroughs.
“My “ah-ha!” moment was pretty epic. During Kona 2013, I took no salt at all—not even the electrolyte drink on the course—because it made me very sick. I had a headache for the last 90 km on the bike, and my head felt like it was exploding on the run. I collapsed with hyponatremia at 20km on the run.
“I kicked myself and thought, ‘Why in the hell has salt NEVER been mentioned to me in my whole career?’ Today, I train and race with salt, and my nutrition company 32Gi has evolved a specific salt tablet for me.”
Triathlete Takeaway: In hot, humid conditions, like those Swallow experienced in Kona, a large amount of sweat is lost. This can disturb sodium and water balance. Sodium intake (either via sports drinks, supplements, or food) is vitally important during long training sessions and races.
Though salt is important for every triathlete, the way it should be consumed varies from person to person and even day to day. Some authorities recommend drinking less water to re-balance sodium and water intake, while others suggest taking in more salt to help water be absorbed in the bloodstream. The best way for a triathlete to determine optimal salt consumption is to try a variety of products in training, then dial in amount and frequency well before race day.
“After a disappointing ninth place finish at the 2004 Athens Olympics, I realized that I should take my nutrition a lot more seriously. I used to believe that because I trained all day with my job as a professional triathlete, I could eat whatever I wanted. My “ah-ha!” moment came when I started seeing noticeable results by eating a lot more whole foods, fruits and vegetables throughout the day.
“Not only did I change my nutrition to be more focused on nutrient rich foods, but I also focused on the timing of when I ate. I took the philosophy that I read in an article, ‘never go hungry, never go thirsty,’ and lived it. I began eating small meals consistently throughout the day, maybe every couple of hours or so. I was no longer eating lunch at noon, then waiting 5 hours (with two training sessions in between) before I ate dinner.
“After changing my thought process with my nutrition in 2005, I finished the season ITU world ranked #1.”
Triathlete takeaway: Eating light, small meals and snacks throughout the day ensures you are getting enough nutrition, eating consistently, balancing blood sugar, and maximizing recovery post-workout.
To break the habit of infrequent, unhealthy meals, try keeping a food log. Detailed recording of what you eat, when you eat it, and how it made you feel can provide quantifiable data on the link between food and performance.
“About once a week, my parents help me watch my daughter while I go on a hard interval run outside. This is often after I have a taught a 6 a.m. spin class, fed the kids breakfast, and gotten my son off to school. Frequently, I forget to eat amongst the chaos. One time, I decided to have a cup of coffee and cereal from my parents’ house: All Bran buds.
“About 30 minutes later, I started my run and immediately had to stop to use the restroom. This pattern proceeded trough my whole run, the swim workout afterwards, and for two days following! Suffice to say, large amounts of fiber, while very important, need to have the proper timing.”
Triathlete takeaway: Fiber occurs naturally in most foods, and can provide many benefits to the athlete. However, poorly timed fiber intake can lead to unfortunate and embarrassing consequences.
Adjust your training schedule so you finish your day’s workouts before eating a large meal; if that is not possible, give yourself at least two hours to digest a fiber-rich meal before a workout.
“The only real ‘ah-ha!’ moment I’ve had was with alcohol. I never was much of a drinker, but I remember I’d gone a particularly long stretch without having a drink and decided—for some reason I can’t remember—to have a glass of wine with dinner. The next morning, I really noticed the difference in my recovery. I think most people just sort of lump it in with the stress of training, but alcohol is hard on your system. That was the moment when I really noticed that even a single drink can impact your ability to bounce back the next day. I now basically don’t drink at all, except maybe if celebrating after a big race.”
Triathlete takeaway: A post-ride beer sure is delicious, but it also has the potential to undo training gains. Alcohol prevents REM sleep, impairs muscle recovery, contributes to dehydration and inhibits the absorption of essential nutrients.
Though alcohol metabolizes differently in each person, many symptoms of overtraining—muscle soreness, persistent fatigue, and susceptibility to illness— overlap (and even exacerbate) day-after effects of alcohol consumption. Experts suggest keeping alcohol to a minimum during periods of heavy training.
“During long training days or heavy training blocks, I noticed that it’s key for me to have protein before bed. I will see an impact on my body if I miss the 20g of whey protein before bed that seems to help me stabilize my blood sugar overnight and rebuild muscle mass that was torn down during a day of hard workouts.
“My coach and I generally communicate on the things I should be doing and we both notice if I start to slip that I’m not doing a good job. I’ve tried to put habits into place that don’t allow me to fail, like preparing recovery drinks ahead of time and carrying protein powder with me (even in my purse at times if necessary).”
Triathlete takeaway: When it comes to protein, timing is everything. Though it’s important to get a little bit of protein at every meal, the most critical windows for consuming protein are post-workout, to speed recovery, and before bed. During slumber, the body repairs itself using the essential amino acids found in protein-rich foods. Consuming a protein drink, low-fat dairy, or other nutrient-dense protein source before bed is a great way to “top off the tank” before the repair process begins.