Training for a triathlon or even to become a dedicated triathlete is no mean feat. Triathlons are some of the most physically gruelling athletic events, spanning three disciplines – swimming, running and cycling. A disciplined, watchful attitude towards diets and nutrition is essential in order to fuel your performance and to get into good habits prior to race meetings. For triathletes, eating enough is vital. Failure to do so will not only lead to loss of weight and strength but poor stamina and race finishes. Further still, inadequate intake of calories and fluids can lead to extensive fatigue and, worse still, potential injury – something you’ll be desperate to avoid if you’re training with a specific race in mind.
A balanced diet plan is therefore essential to any successful triathlon training regime. In the main, amateur and professional triathletes alike will want to incorporate the following nutrients into their training diet:
- Calcium – known to promote stronger bones and muscles
- Carbohydrates – the fuel your muscles need to drive your body to the finish line
- Protein – a key training component for building up and repairing muscles
- Vitamin C – important to maintaining connective tissue and strong bone health
- Vitamin E – an antioxidant that helps maintain a healthy immune system
- Vitamin B – essential to produce more red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body
- Iron – also an integral part of the red blood cell production process
- Fat – a concentrated energy source for improved stamina
- Zinc – helps to produce energy in muscle cells
- Water – prevents the body from overheating and transports nutrients throughout the body
If you are 100% serious and dedicated to doing well with your triathlon training and in any upcoming races, the two main items to focus on within your diet are carbohydrates and protein. A healthy, hydrated diet for triathlon training starts with an adequate amount of carbs and proteins. Within the remainder of this article, we will delve deeper into the truth about carbs and protein for triathletes and attempt to dispel any myths that could be holding you back in your training and dietary planning.
The truth about carbohydrates and triathlon training
According to Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D., a world-leading exercise physiologist from the University of Birmingham, UK, it’s not a question of ratios or percentages when it comes to carbohydrate intake. Mr Jeukendrup explains that it is the “absolute amount of carbohydrate and protein that [really] matters”. He adds that how much you need “depends on your goals and the amount of training you do”.
Jeukendrup suggests that a typical amount of carbohydrates for each day should vary from five to ten grams per kilogram of body weight. If you are training for one hour per day, Juekendrup believes five grams per kilogram of body weight are acceptable. However, if you are training for more than five hours a day, then ten grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight are necessary to keep you going to the end. The number-one lesson from Juekendrup is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to your carbohydrate consumption, and it should be directly linked to your own body weight – not someone else’s.
It’s important to consider carbohydrates as a form of fuel for our bodies, just like the petrol or diesel we put in our cars. Kim Mueller, a registered dietitian, claims that every gram of carbs we consume generates around four calories of fuel to power our bodies forward. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that our bodies are only capable of housing so much carbohydrate at once in the form of glycogen within our muscles and liver, which Mueller calculates at a maximum of 2,000 calories’ worth. Mueller largely agrees with Juekendrup’s view on daily carb dosages and also suggests that the majority of these carbs should be consumed in the form of starchy, sugary foods before, during and immediately after training has ceased. Only during downtime periods should triathletes switch to consuming fibre and nutrient-rich carbs.
Of course, if you’re heading out on an endurance training session, you’ll also need to consider refuelling mid-exercise. As the muscles crave more oxygen to keep your limbs moving, there is less oxygen available for your body’s digestion system. Mueller recommends eating up to 60 grams per hour of carbs that can be oxidised with haste e.g. glucose, sucrose and maltodextrin-based products. These are considered products with a high glycaemic index (GI) and deliver a rapid supply of energy and performance to the body. In short, save the sweet treats and added sugar products for when you’re planning long bursts of exercise and stick to the unrefined, nutritious carbs elsewhere in your diet plan.
The truth about protein and triathlon training
Alongside carbohydrates, protein also holds the key to enjoying the diet of a champion; one which builds and enhances your body’s response to regular triathlon training. Protein is essential for building muscle mass and is a key component in the triumvirate of macronutrients that also include carbs and fats. Combining protein with good carbs and fats is essential to a healthy and progressive triathlon training regime.
Just like your carbohydrate intake, your protein intake should be measured on a sliding scale, based on the quantity of exercise you are set to do on any given day and on your body weight. If you plan on training for longer than four hours, you will want to consume up to two grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight in a day. Timing is everything when it comes to protein consumption. It’s also a good idea to spread out your protein consumption before, during and after your exercise to help your muscles initially power through and then to recover quickly thanks to a heightened state of muscle protein synthesis.
It’s important for amateur triathletes to be aware that protein is not the be all and end all. The body does not have the capacity to store protein within our systems. So, as we’ve already discussed, a little-and-often approach is highly recommended. The Journal of Nutrition states that muscle protein synthesis is 25% faster when protein is consumed in three equal amounts during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Typical protein-based snacks for each mealtime include:
There are many cereals that are packed with protein. You can always add an extra dose of protein on top of cereals in the form of sunflower seeds for good measure. Eggs are also a high source of protein, so incorporating healthy scrambled or poached eggs into your early-morning diet is also a great idea. The healthier peanut butters (with no added sugar or syrups) are also packed with protein and fewer fats and sugars, making for an ideal breakfast snack on toast.
Fresh or tinned fish is always a winner for lunchtime snacks. Whether it’s salmon or mackerel, crab or smoked haddock, fish is highly versatile and can be enjoyed with salads, noodles, couscous or even on its own. Chicken too offers a protein punch. How about a chicken satay salad, which incorporates chicken and peanut butter and is big on flavour?
If you’re training and working during the week, the last thing you want is to spend hours in the kitchen cooking. Fortunately, there are many protein-packed evening meals that can be whipped up in no time. Chicken-based pasta dishes are particularly popular, combining your necessary carbs and protein in the same meal. You could even top your pasta dish with an oozy poached egg for an extra hit.
The final verdict
In summary, there’s no outright winner between carbohydrates and protein when it comes to the right diet plan for triathlon training. You need a healthy balance of both in order to function to the best of your abilities. Both are also needed to stabilise your body’s blood sugar levels, to stave off fatigue or, worse still, illness. A good diet of carbs and proteins will help you to build muscle faster, which in turn burns more calories, helping you to lose weight and speed up your metabolism, getting you ready for that next exciting challenge in 2018.