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The Top 7 Fueling Mistakes Triathletes Make

Not all fueling strategies are optimized for winning performances. Here are the fuel flops that you would be wise to fix - ASAP.

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Whether you’re a sponsored pro or a weekend warrior who just wants to maximize results, how you fuel your body is a vital part of the performance equation. But when adrenaline is pumping, it can be difficult to make clear and rational fueling decisions during a training session or race. This can quickly upend your fitness goals if you aren’t careful – ask anyone who has forgotten to eat during a 70.3, and they’ll likely tell you it didn’t go very well.

That’s why it’s important to pinpoint the sports nutrition fumbles that could be knocking you off the podium – and they aren’t always as obvious as you might think. To help you train a little smarter and perform like a champ when it counts most, avoid these seven common fueling mistakes triathletes make.

RELATED: Triathlete’s Complete Guide to Nutrition and Fueling

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Triathlon fueling mistake #1: You trim recovery carbs for protein

Restocking spent carbohydrate stores (glycogen) is a major part of exercise recovery for athletes. And evidence suggests that the coingestion of carbohydrate and protein after a workout can stimulate greater glycogen synthesis during recovery compared with carbohydrate alone. How? The amino acids that make up dietary protein can encourage the pancreas to release more insulin thereby increasing muscle glucose uptake and, in turn, glycogen formation within muscle cells. But there is a catch: As reported in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise this duo only works to its full potential if the protein consumed does not replace any of the calories coming from the carbohydrates. The energy from the protein should be added to an existing amount of carbs, not as a replacement. This means that 100 grams of carbohydrate and 30 grams of protein could stimulate more glycogen synthesis than 70 grams of carbs and 30 grams of protein.

So prudent sports nutrition advice would be that if you consume 2 cups of pasta after a big workout and want to add some meat sauce for a shot of protein, don’t take away some of the noodles to make room for the Bolognese.

RELATED: How Can I Nail My Recovery Nutrition – and How is This Different for Men and Women?

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Triathlon fueling mistake #2: Waiting too long to fuel

Too often, athletes are guilty of falling into the “just one more mile and then I’ll pound a gel” mindset. You may feel like you can shave off precious seconds by resisting the urge to reach back into your pocket and grab some fuel, but if you want to keep up the pace, it’s better to give your working body calories early and often. In other words, stop delaying delivering the energy you need.

In a randomized, cross-over design study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, British researchers found that when participants consumed smaller amounts of carbohydrate in the form of sucrose at frequent intervals (15 times every 5 minutes) during an endurance exercise test they were able to go longer until exhaustion set in than when they performed a trial where the same amount of carbohydrate was provided but in this case all at once after 75 minutes of exercise. The early and frequent approach to fuelling resulted in less muscle glycogen use which spared this precious energy source during the initial phases of activity leading to performance gains. In a separate investigation published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, cyclists who consumed a gel every half hour during a two-hour steady-state ride were able to push harder during a subsequent 15 minute time trial than those who ate the fast-digesting carb every 45 minutes. Frequent fueling can also help prevent being bogged down by stomach woes – taking in fewer calories more often rather than consuming greater amounts in one or two shots should improve digestive functioning when you are pushing hard.

It’s typically recommended that athletes consume up to 60 grams of carbs for each hour of exercise. Working with the above principle, you will be better served consuming 30 grams of carbs twice during each hour of activity instead of waiting and loading up on 60 grams of carbs in a single bolus at the end of each hour. Plan to eat a specific amount of fuel at a specific time during a training session or race and stick with that plan even if you are still feeling pretty energetic when the time to feed comes.

RELATED: A Half-Iron/70.3 Nutrition Plan

If you want to keep up the pace, it’s better to give your working body calories early and often.

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Triathlon fueling mistake #3: Not eating enough

General fatigue, frequent injuries, suppressed immunity, poor mood, low libido, fitness plateaus…all conditions that have been linked to overtraining. But for some athletes not matching calorie intake with what is needed to support training is more likely the main instigator of overtraining syndrome rather than solely the volume and intensity of training. This is the conclusion of a study review in the journal Sports Medicinewhich suggests hard-charging athletes aren’t necessarily training too much – they’re simply not eating enough to properly fuel their training.This caloric deficit, which often occurs unintentionally for several reasons including hunger cues not keeping pace with energy needs, is referred to as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S. In 18 of the 21 studies included in this investigation, the overload of heavy training triggered a significant daily deficit of either calories or carbohydrates, the macronutrient most crucial for supporting exercise. In other words, the nutrition of the athletes was not keeping pace with the demands of training which, in turn, contributed to unwanted health symptoms and drops in performance. This recent study found that endurance athletes placed on a diet with insufficient amounts of carbs to support training experienced “unfavorable iron, immune, and stress responses to exercise.”

It’s important to keep in mind that this problematic caloric and/or carb deficit can also occur in non-professional athletes who are still training hard but in their busy lives of having to juggle training and race schedules with everyday work and family commitments can forget to fuel adequately with appropriate meals, snacks and post-workout nutrition.

Working with a sports dietitian can be a good step towards making sure you are fueling properly to meet the demands of your training volume and intensity.

Photo: Getty Images
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Triathlon fueling mistake #4: You’re too cautious with post-workout carbs

Triathletes who take part in multiple training sessions a day should take heed of a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition which discovered that a larger bolus of fast-digesting carb taken soon after the cessation of glycogen depleting exercise was more effective at replenishing muscle glycogen stores than consuming smaller amounts over 45 minutes. While the researchers noted that over longer time frames of 24 hours or more there is not much difference in the replenishment of muscle energy stores if post-workout carbs are delivered rapidly or more protracted, in some cases such as 2-a-day workouts an athlete needs to recover faster and getting a big dose of carbs quickly after the initial training session is the way to go.  It’s worth noting, however, that frequent smaller amounts of carb ingestion were found to be better at stocking up liver glycogen stores, which we use to fuel other parts of the body including the brain.

While this research needs to be replicated in human athletes, it does make a case for gulping back that sports drink before hitting the shower instead of nursing it slowly over time.

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Triathlon fueling mistake #5: Brushing off breakfast

Just because your workouts take place later in the day doesn’t mean you should skimp on breakfast fuel. That is because extending your night fast (hello, intermittent fasters) may slow you down. As reported in European Journal of Sports Science, British researchers asked a group of highly trained cyclists to either skip breakfast or eat breakfast as usual before performing a 20K time trial in the evening. On breakfast days, the riders consumed about 580 calories between 8 and 9 a.m. and another 875 calories at lunch. On no-breakfast days, the participants skipped breakfast and ate their first meal at noon, taking in about 1,450 calories (importantly for the study design, this was the same amount of calories as when they ate breakfast, but in this case all calories were provided in one meal). Eating breakfast helped the cyclists push more watts and finish the time trial quicker despite not consuming more calories or carbs overall during the day compared to when they fasted in the morning. Perceived effort was also less when calories were consumed in the morning. The investigators speculated that nutrient timing could influence how much glycogen is available to power a workout later in the day. The upshot is that eating a hearty morning meal is a good strategy for performing your best during a training session after a day at the office.

RELATED: I’m Terrible at Eating Breakfast. How Can I Improve?

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Triathlon fueling mistake #6: You try something new (to you)

You’ve probably heard this advice before, but it’s worth repeating: Never eat or drink something untested on race day or before an important workout. This can be hard to resist when the vendor area at an event is tempting you with free samples of tasty looking bars or your buddy is raving about his favorite chew flavor in the parking. But sticking something in your tummy that has been untested during training can be a recipe for stomach revolt and the need to make a mad dash to the nearest port-a-potty. Stick with what you know works for you to get you across the finish line and dabble in the latest, greatest sports drink during training sessions when an #epicfail is less disastrous.

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Triathlon fueling mistake #7: Your recovery foods are based on impulse, not strategy

Even if you have torched a bazillion calories, it’s still a good idea to eat mostly healthy foods as part of your recovery strategy. But that is less likely to occur if you have not given your post-workout food some forethought. Participants in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study who were asked to choose between an apple and brownie were about one-third more likely to favor the fruit when deciding what they were going to eat before versus after their workouts. The findings suggest that simply committing in advance to certain post-exercise fuel may increase the odds of eating something more nutritious, the researchers said. Making food choices when you return home after a big run or ride and your stomach is growling like a lion sets the stage for dive-bombing into a bag of chips. But set aside some healthier options before you work up a sweat and there is a better chance you’ll recover better with a bigger dose of nutrition.

RELATED: The 5 Best Foods to Eat After a Workout