Nutrition for triathletes in real life
Whether you’re an age-group competitor or a long-time professional, you know the importance of fuel for triathlon. Nutrition is incredibly important both pre, during and post race in order for you to perform and recover optimally. With so much information about nutrition available, it can be difficult to know what to do to fuel for success. Most triathletes are pretty busy often balancing family life, training and work, making it challenging to fuel properly on a day-to-day basis. While race-day nutrition is incredibly important, managing your meals and snacks everyday leads to successful training and race preparation. A good balance of protein, healthy fats, fibre and carbohydrates are necessary everyday to keep energy levels up, enhance recovery and improve performance.
Protein requirements are quite high for endurance athletes. Triathletes, runners, cyclists and distance swimmers actually require more protein than some body builders. The general recommendation for triathletes is 1.1-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, per day. Protein requirements are higher for longer-distance athletes and slightly lower for short-course athletes, depending on training volume. In general, for a 150lb triathlete 75-109g of protein per day should be sufficient. Now, what does that look like in REAL life? Let’s pretend you had a bowl of cereal with milk for breakfast. Depending on your cereal, that’s about 5g of protein. If lunch is a sub sandwich with turkey breast that’s about 15-20g of protein. If supper is a chicken breast with broccoli and potatoes, that’s another 20g of protein. So with a pretty standard diet, you’re sitting at about 45g of protein for the day. That’s HALF of the daily recommendation for triathletes.
Increasing your protein intake is quite simple. Snacks are super important to maintain your energy levels and to keep protein levels up. Increasing protein at breakfast is also beneficial. I often recommend eggs for breakfast which can pack about 6g of protein per egg, or if you opt for egg whites there are 22g of protein per cup. A smoothie with a scoop of protein powder will give you about 20g of protein (depending on your protein powder of choice). For snacks throughout the day hardboiled eggs, mini cans of tuna, greek yoghurt, cottage cheese, and/or shaved turkey breast are all options for a protein boost. In terms of timing, recent research shows that athletes benefit from protein up to 3 hours post workout. I usually recommend taking a protein shake immediately post-workout (even if you’re not hungry right away!) as this can help prevent energy levels from crashing later in the day and can enhance muscular recovery.
Healthy fats are important for triathletes because they are the building blocks of hormones, they help to keep your cell membranes healthy and they keep you full by slowing the rate at which the stomach empties. When your training volume increases, it’s likely that your appetite increases. To satisfy your appetite (without feeling like you’re eating ALL THE TIME) it’s important to consume healthy fats (as well as protein and fibre) to keep your blood sugar steady and your energy levels up. Fats (and protein) are particularly important for female athletes to maintain healthy hormone status and prevent stress fractures, menstrual irregularities and other hormonal issues.
A source of healthy fats at each meal can be enough. If you find you’re super hungry all the time, try having some fat with your snacks. Eggs for breakfast are full of healthy fats. Adding a tablespoon of ground flaxseed or coconut oil to your smoothie can boost morning fat consumption as well. Half an avocado with lunch or olive-oil based salad dressings are both options to satisfy your appetite. Red meats generally have enough fat in them that you don’t need to add extra fat sources. Salmon is an excellent source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. If you find you’re craving sugar or snacks at night, sometimes that can be a sign that you haven’t consumed enough calories or fats throughout the day. A tablespoon of almond butter can do the trick to prevent excessive snacking and curb sugar cravings.
Fibre is incredibly important to help keep blood sugar levels steady, slow stomach emptying time and keep you feeling full. A lot of people tend to think of cereal grains like oats and wheat when they think about fibre. Vegetables are actually your best source of dietary fibre. At each full meal I typically recommend half a plate of vegetables, cooked or raw. Fibre is also important for healthy bowel movements. Technically the bowels should move once after every full meal (so ideally 3 times a day!). Most people are going a minimum of once a day, which is adequate to ensure elimination of cholesterol and hormones.
The challenge with nutrition for a lot of athletes is how to stay full when training volume ramps up. By pairing protein with healthy fats and fibre, you’ll stay full, your energy levels will be steady AND you’ll recover well. Remember to re-fuel within 3 hours of your workout with a minimum of 20g of protein for optimal recovery. It’s important to consider that each individual has unique requirements for nutrition and no single approach will work perfectly for everyone. Some athletes will require more carbohydrate to maintain weight and perform well, while others will have a lower requirement to shed body fat and improve muscle composition. A consultation with a local dietician, naturopathic doctor or nutritionist can help you design a unique plan tailored to your needs.
Bio: Dr. Briana Botsford, BSc, BPHE, ND, is naturopathic doctor practicing in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Dr. Botsford is an ironman triathlete and practices family medicine with a focus in sports medicine, women’s health and mental well-being. She has been racing primarily long-course triathlon for almost 10 years and is excited to be participating in her first ITU long-course world championship in Penticton this year. You can find Dr. Botsford online at www.drbrianabotsford.com, www.greenapplehealthcare.ca and on Facebook and Instagram.