Whether you’re just starting out in triathlon or are heading towards your 100th Ironman, your diet is a key piece of the performance puzzle. Getting your nutrition right on a day-to-day basis will help maximise your energy levels and improve recovery so you can train harder and race faster.
There are four main components to nutrition you need to master to fuel your body properly. Just as you put a swim, ride and run together in triathlon; you need to eat the right mix of carbs, protein, fats and fluids as well as enough food overall to give your body what it needs to PB.
Carbohydrates: premium fuel
Carbohydrate is your body’s first choice for fuel during exercise. Think of it as the petrol you put in your car. The body stores carbohydrate as glycogen in the muscles and liver, but there is a limited amount that can be stored at once. When there isn’t enough stored carbohydrate to meet the demands of your training program, you’ll come to a grinding halt, just like your car when you’ve played chicken with the petrol light and lost. Not only will you face fatigue, but your training will suffer, your race times will slow and your immunity will be compromised.
It’s for these reasons it’s crucial to plan how much (see below) and when you eat carbohydrate foods (more on this coming soon). Base your meals on nutrient-rich carbohydrates such as cereal, bread, pasta, rice, fruit, dairy, starchy vegetables like potato, sweet potato, corn and legumes (lentils, chickpea and beans). Foods high in refined sugar, such as lollies, soft drink, honey and jam, also contain carbohydrate and can be useful in certain situations like racing or during long training sessions but shouldn’t be the base of your daily diet.
Protein – the building blocks
Remember that car? Protein is the chassis, the engine, the body and the nuts and bolts that hold it together – without it your car simply wouldn’t exist. Protein is the fundamental building block of muscle, hormones, and enzymes, so it’s crucial to growth, immunity and the day-to-day running of your body. Protein can also be used during exercise as an energy source when carbohydrate stores are very low, and is essential to recovery as it helps to repair the damage you’ve done to your muscles in training.
Endurance athletes need a little more protein (see below) than your average Joe, but most can get enough by eating a well-balanced diet that includes a wide variety of protein foods such as chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, pork, fish, eggs, dairy foods, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Fats – the reserve fuel tank
Fat provides the main fuel source for long duration, low to moderate intensity exercise such as Long Course or Ironman. Even during high intensity exercise, where carbohydrate is the main fuel source, fat is needed to help access the stored carbohydrate. Fat is also essential for the formation of hormones, carries fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) and is high in energy to support your training load.
It’s best to choose foods such as nuts, seeds, oily fish, dairy foods, lean meat and avocados which contain fat but also contain lots of other nutrients, too. Cook with ‘heart-healthy’, vegetable-based oils such as olive, sesame, macadamia or avocado. Stay away from processed foods high in ‘unhealthy’ fats (saturated or trans fats), salt and sugar such as biscuits, pastries, chips and deep fried foods.
Fluids – lubricant and coolant
Water is essential for the human body, especially during exercise. Think of water like coolant in your car. While you’re pedalling away, water plays a big role in temperature regulation so you don’t overheat and blow up your radiator. Water is also crucial for digestion, nutrient transportation and blood circulation so your muscles can access the fuel they need.
Dehydration during exercise will lead to a decrease in performance and can even lead to nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea during and after exercise (not pretty!). Drinking fluid before, during and after your sessions is necessary to replace fluids lost in sweat. However, how much and the type of fluid you should drink varies from person to person.
Staying hydrated outside of your exercise sessions also strengthens your immune system and is a key component to recovery, so you can back up with your next session sooner and improve faster.
So how much do you need?