This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Triathlete.
The primary goal of your diet as an athlete is to provide the body with the necessary energy and nutrients to support your training and healthy lifestyle. If your body is not well fueled, you won’t meet your performance goals and you may be compromising your health. It’s critical that you embrace an eating style that is nutritionally smart but also sustainable. Consider these five common nutritional concerns to see if your fueling strategy (or lack thereof) is affecting your performance and health goals.
Note that the following information should help you decide if you need to speak to your doctor about current health concerns and/or work with a board-certified sports dietitian to identify the best strategies to meet your energy, health, and performance needs.
I have no time to cook
Everyone has heard that you cannot out-train a poorly planned diet, yet far too many athletes put way more time and energy into training compared to healthy eating. Meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking are not nearly as fun as riding your bike for three hours, but it’s counterproductive to be devoted to your training plan but nonchalant about what you eat.
We all know what happens to your mood and food choices when you go into a meal or workout hungry. Considering that your training intensity and volume will increase throughout the season, thus leaving less time and energy for meal prepping, it’s important to find ways to eat healthy even when you think you have no time (or don’t like) to cook.
Some simple guidelines:
– Meal planning is the foundation of a healthy diet. Plan your meals and snacks, grocery shop, then prep. Eating is much easier, healthier and affordable in this order.
– Batch cooking is a game-changer for athletes. Why cook one chicken breast when you can cook five? Instead of making one salad a day for lunch, create a salad bar of ingredients in your fridge and pantry for easy meal prep.
– Consider a meal planning or food delivery service to ensure that healthy eating is not an afterthought.
– Select a theme meal—e.g., meatless Monday, taco Tuesday—each night of the week to make planning and shopping easy.
– Simplify the meal to include at least four healthy components: plants, protein, starch/grain and fat. Whether it’s two slices of bread with scrambled eggs and sautéed spinach and mushrooms, or wild rice with tempeh or beef with sautéed mixed root veggies, you’ve covered the basics.
I’m trying to lose weight
Any dieter knows that long-term compliance, and not the diet itself, brings success. But unlike the average population, your triathlete body turns into a calorie-burning machine as you follow a periodized training plan to prepare for race day. This means your eating should change throughout the season in order to supply sufficient energy and nutrients to support your training load.
Weight loss does not always translate to performance improvements, especially when an extreme calorie reduction starves the body of available energy, is restrictive of essential nutrients and suppresses the immune system.
If your goal is to change your body composition, you should not use limited or strict methods. Allow for gradual weight loss without excessive exercising, unsafe behaviors or use of weight-loss supplements.
Athletes looking for a 5- to 10-pound weight loss will likely lean up as training advances, but athletes can rev the metabolism with functional strength training 2–3 times per week, proper hydration (at minimum 0.5 ounces per pound of body weight) and suitable timing of carbs and protein, especially post-workout (e.g., 50–90g carbs and 25–30g protein). Athletes who desire to lose more than 15 pounds should increase protein intake to 1.5–1.7g per kilogram per day, while in a slight negative energy balance (consuming less than you are burning) to help with satiety and to spare lean muscle mass. Be patient. A realistic, safe weight loss goal is 1 pound per week.
Most athletes will find it easy to lose weight by simply eliminating reward junk food and prepping food ahead of time to prevent overeating.
Ironically, when athletes place emphasis on how to train and eat in order to optimize performance, favorable body composition changes occur naturally.
I’m (going) gluten-free
There is a good chance you know an athlete who is gluten-free, and digestive troubles linked to gluten inspired the change. If the athlete suffered from inflammation, joint pain, itchy skin and headaches in the hours after eating gluten (non-celiac gluten sensitivity) or suffered from IBS symptoms after eating FODMAP’s (poorly digested carbohydrates), a new dietary approach was likely needed to restore gut health, as the immune system could be compromised.
Celiac disease is life-changing and does not allow for cheat days, as exposure to gluten can worsen the effects. It’s not a gluten-free fad diet—it’s forever. Due to prior intestinal damage from gluten (especially if recently diagnosed) and elimination of many fortified foods, malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies are concerns to athletes.
If you feel that something is off in your body, consult with your physician for further testing and if you’ve made a recent dietary change, seek out a sports dietitian for guidance.
It’s not uncommon that athletes will experience GI symptoms, like bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea or constipation. However, the root of your problems may not be from gluten. For example, do you experience gas, constipation or bloating when you eat an apple, beans, tomatoes, broccoli, peanut butter or dairy too close to a workout? (Note that all of these foods are gluten-free.)
Before blaming and eliminating gluten, be mindful that timing of food in relation to your workout routine plays a big role in digestive health. Also, dietary habits, stress, training, gut bacteria, digestive enzyme activity and personal food intolerances/sensitivities may affect how certain foods are absorbed and digested.
After determining your nutritional and energy needs to promote optimal health and performance, you then have the freedom to develop an eating plan with taste, preferences, tolerances and convenience influencing your food choices. Gluten-free pancakes versus an English muffin? Every athlete should develop a list of his or her best tolerated and preferred foods to meet energy needs to fuel workouts and race-day efforts without GI distress.
I’m a female athlete
We know so much more today about how training and nutrition affect a woman’s unique physiology.
Insufficient nutrition can increase the risk for a wide range of medical issues including everything from menstrual dysfunction to hypoglycemia and many more.
Female athletes need to determine an appropriate range for total calorie and key micronutrient needs to support training, as food has a very important role in hormonal, metabolic and bone health. Women also need to create a personalized eating and fueling plan taking into account training volume, timing and intensity and menstrual cycle/hormonal changes.
It’s not uncommon for female athletes to be chronically underfueled and poorly nourished due to a dieting mentality or from poor food selection/planning. Chronic low energy availability can disturb menstruation, negatively affect bone mineral density and impair metabolism. Female athletes should aim for 5–7g per kilogram per day of carbs for moderate-duration activity and up to 7–10g per kilogram per day of carbs for high-intensity/long workouts. Protein intake is recommended at 1.2–1.8g per kilogram per day and fat should account for 25–30 percent of total energy intake. Assuming that the lighter the body weighs, the better the performance is misleading—especially when many females fight too hard for a lower body fat beyond biological disposition, natural body shape or genetics. Thankfully, triathlon is not a weight class or judged sport. You will see bodies of all shapes and sizes excelling in our three-discipline sport.
I bonk in workouts
You may know the bonking symptoms all too well—hunger (or no appetite), headache, fatigue, confusion, disorientation and irritability. When glycogen stores are depleted and a continuous supply of glucose is not present, the brain receives a warning signal, and the body begins to slow down for protective measures.
Many bonking episodes, if caught early on, can be relieved by slowing down (or stopping) and ingesting carbohydrates that can enter into your bloodstream quickly. For your own safety, don’t try to push through bonking, especially while cycling. Always carry extra fuel with you when you train. Be mindful of the timing of carbohydrates before workouts and learn to tolerate frequent carbohydrate consumption during workouts. Some athletes will find no issues in consuming simple sugar carbs in the 5–20 minutes before a workout for a boost in energy, like juice, a banana, dates or a sport drink, whereas other athletes will benefit from a few grams of protein/fat added to a carb-dense pre-workout snack (banana with nut butter) in the 20–30 minutes before a workout. .
If you are experiencing bonky symptoms at rest, blood sugar swings may result from hyperinsulinemia (due to insulin resistance) or severe calorie or carbohydrate restriction. Aim for around 10–15g of fat and 25–30g of protein with your carbohydrates (50–70g) at meal time for balanced, sufficient nutrition.
How To Be Race Day Ready
Use your training sessions to fine-tune your nutrition plan.
– Trust your gut: Bring extra confidence to race day by practicing eating similar foods on the day before and morning of long workouts.
– Avoid flavor fatigue: Does your favorite sports nutrition product turn your stomach hours into your training? With so many sports nutrition companies offering different flavors of the same product (powder, gels, chews, bars), it’s easy to change up the flavor of your bike and run nutrition throughout training (vary every 1–2 hours) and on race day. Also, consider adding a little solid food, a lick of salt or the occasional savory flavor (bacon, salted caramel, peanut butter) to stimulate the taste buds.
– Don’t skimp: In training, it’s often easy to “get through” long runs with the occasional drink of water, chomp of a block or swig of gel. But on race day, your gut must be comfortable consuming and digesting nutrition while running (after swimming and cycling the full distances). Invest in a hydration belt, or plan loops or out-and-backs for workouts so that you can refuel and rehydrate every 45–75 minutes.
– Stash a flask: When racing, are there times when you need a quick jolt of energy but despise the hassle, texture or taste of a viscous gel? A gel flask may be a great solution. Fill a gel flask with 1–2 gels and dilute with water. Then shake and take a swig as needed (recommend with additional water from aid stations). A gel flask can be a saving grace on race day, as many athletes find it easier to digest and absorb a small amount of carbohydrates frequently throughout a race rather than a large dose of sugar every 45–60 minutes.