One of the topics I find myself talking about over and over again with athletes is nutrition. Nutrition is complicated. Most adults come to this sport with years of media-supplied information, emotions, experiences, psychology, habits, cultural influences related to their nutritional beliefs and behavior. There’s a lot of stuff out there and a lot of stuff behind why we eat the way we do. Nutrition gets even more complicated when you take on endurance sports. You cannot finish these events on willpower alone. You need calories.
For that reason, nutrition is really the first discipline of triathlon. Yes, it’s more important than even the swim, bike and run. Especially if you’re doing Ironman. You not only need a fuel plan for training and racing but for every day!
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about nutrition. But first, a disclaimer. I am not a nutritionist. There are no letters behind my name that say I am qualified to dispense advice on nutrition. I only know what I’ve read, what I’ve been told, what has worked for me, what has not worked for me and what I’ve seen in coaching athletes.
There are a lot of sources of information out there about nutrition. Before you make any changes based on them, consult with a sports nutritionist. This is something I’ve done every year since 2005. It’s highly affordable and one of the best investments you’ll make. Because like any athlete knows – you can hire the best coach, have the best equipment and do the best training. But if you get nutrition wrong – you’re not going anywhere.
My approach to nutrition is fairly simple. It includes a lot of good stuff but balances out with the not so good stuff. Why? Because I am a normal person with a husband, child, business and other obligations. While I understand the importance of food for performance, I cannot obsess about it. I don’t have time. I cannot be overly awkward or picky about it because it creates unnecessary stress, social tension when I go out and makes home life more complicated. Spend a day trying to feed yourself and your child 3-6x a day and you might just shove some macaroni and cheese into your mouth occasionally. Not because you like it but because you are busy and HUNGRY. To me, any “benefits” I might receive from being “perfect” with my nutrition are not worth what I mentioned above. Which brings me to a finer point about nutrition that people forget about:
You don’t need to be perfect every single day about your eating but the overall trend should be healthy.
That said, let’s start from scratch. Forget everything you know about eating. Change your mindset, attitudes and feelings about food. From here on out, you are an athlete. And food is your fuel. It is not meant to be restricted, manipulated or forgotten. You cannot run your car on milk or on closing your eyes and wishing hard enough, right? Same with your body. Food is fuel! Not only that but it’s used to enhance your recovery, performance and fitness. Without it, you will not recover. Without recovery, you will not gain fitness. Without fitness, you will not perform well.
There’s a lot of information out there on how to eat. No one has the time to filter through all of it. Over the years, I’ve read dozens of books on nutrition. Most are mind-boggling with formulas, numbers, too much information. Go back to the basics. Simple is doable. Here’s how to keep your daily nutrition easy:
-Eat well (eat wholesome, high quality, nutrient dense foods)
-Eat often (when you first wake up, every 3-4 hours, right before you go to bed)
-Eat real food (eat real food first, then go to other stuff if you still have room)
That’s how to eat. Now, what to eat? One of the most challenging things with nutrition is how to create “good” meals and snacks. Do we need carbs? Protein? What about all the numbers? Here’s one of the best pieces of advice that a nutritionist gave me that involves no calculations:
-Aim for three food groups per meal/snack with one always being a source of protein
-For example: source of wholesome grain + protein + fruit
-What’s a food group? Grains, fruits, meats/nuts, dairy, vegetables
More than just your daily fuel, food is also critical for recovery (and fitness, and performance, and…). The recovery window is the 30 minute period after a workout when your muscles are most susceptible to being repaired. No need to overcomplicate it with numbers or formulas – my general rule is within 30 minutes of finishing your workout – put something in your mouth. Don’t obsess about what it is – just eat well and rehydrate. Keep it simple and quick. Throw 1-2 scoops of Endurox in a water bottle in your gym bag, fill it up after swim practice – recovery in a bottle. Stop at the gas station on the way home from your run, grab a “chug” of chocolate milk.
What happens when you miss that 30 minute window? For the first few times it’s not a big deal. Your body gets by. But do it repeatedly and you go towards a place I call “the hole”. How do you get there? Nutritional under-recovery. Of course through long course training you will often flirt with the edge of the hole as over-reaching is sometimes part of the fitness gaining process. But overtraining is not. And as you get closer to the hole, you approach overtraining. Once you are in the hole, it takes an undetermined amount of time to get out. You just sit and wait until your body is ready.
The smart athlete knows to watch for the signs of approaching the hole. First, if you are hungry, that is your body’s way of saying EAT! You are not meeting your caloric needs. If your heart rate seems unusually high or low for the effort, you might be approaching the hole. If you have trouble sleeping – this is a huge red flag. Especially the 1 am wake up call, when you wake up and your brain is saying: danger – LOW ON GLYCOGEN, FEED ME! Insomnia is a huge stress response – and caloric deprivation (coupled with endurance training) is hugely stressful! Extreme thirst, headaches, and excessive weight gain after big workouts are also signs that you’re nutritionally not meeting your recovery needs.
This brings me to my next point: it is very difficult to mix weight loss with long course training. It is difficult to restrict calories and get the recovery carbohydrate you need to repair you body and stock up for tomorrow’s workouts. And this is also why we never want a nutritionally impaired workout – because if you underfuel before/during/after today’s workout, you are inevitably going to impair tomorrow’s workout. The load of training is generally so high with long course training that you cannot get behind with fueling – it’s all connected.
Sometimes, though, we all get it wrong. Every so often, I might ask an athlete to record what they’re eating for 3 days so we can check in with their diet. Sometimes this comes after I see a string of workouts where they’re feeling tired, crabby, low motivation or not hitting their usual paces. Most of the time, I find that athletes simply do not eat enough of the right foods at the right time. They’re eating – stuff – but it’s usually not enough and not when their body needs it most. And it is usually lacking in carbohydrate. If you are training 6+ hours a day, you are ripping through carbohydrate. You’ve got to replace this to recover well.
(interesting tidbit: did you know that the “Paleo” era women experienced diminished fertility because of their low carbohydrate diet and extensive endurance exercise? This is why I feel a low carbohydrate diet is not appropriate for endurance sports – our ultimate goal in this sport is longevity and hormonal health, remember)
From time to time, athletes tell me they have trouble with digestion. Especially women, especially training for long course triathlon. Remember, digestion is closely linked to hormones. Hormones take a long time to burn down. There are two major signs that you are burning your hormones down at a rate quicker than they can rebalance: depressed immune function (sinus infections, illness, inflammatory conditions) and impaired digestive function. Prolonged stress makes your gut more sensitive to bacteria and illness. This can cause problems with nutritional uptake which drains your energy and then causes more stress! While impaired digestion may be due a food sensitivity (ie., gluten, dairy), do not overlook the importance of better managing your stress levels, especially the stress of endurance training, to improve digestion.
Recently, I sent out a list of my daily eating pattern during half and full Ironman training. Not because it’s perfect, just because it’s one example of how to do it. Last year, I stayed injury free. I stayed healthy. I hit my race goals. I set PRs. To me, that’s proof that my way of eating worked for me. On a typical day, I eat 3 meals plus 1 to 2 snacks. I eat most everything with no restrictions. My diet includes grains, fats and all types of meat. I do a full fuel plan in every workout lasting over 60 minutes. I take in 1 to 2 scoops of Endurox after every training session. Honestly, this is how I eat throughout the year. The only thing that changes is what I eat in the recovery window. A bigger workout gets a bigger meal in the recovery window (and I count the window as the duration of the workout; so if you did a 6 hour ride, your recovery window is actually 6 hours where you should be focusing on replenishing calories, especially carbohydrate).
Like with training, a lot of athletes think there is some secret way to eating to be healthy and lean. If there is, I haven’t found it yet. When trying to drop weight after baby (because – huh – it didn’t just magically melt off like everyone said it would!), I realized that dieting is not fun. It involves restriction of fun things in life – desert, wine. While I include these things weekly in moderation, they are definitely not part of my every day. Same goes for eating out. It’s these little things that add up to keeping those final pounds above race weight on your frame. And that is why I try not to get too “picky” about what I’m eating until 4-6 weeks prior to my peak race. Until then, I give myself one ‘cheat’ day a week where I don’t think about what I eat. I’m off the leash.
As I get closer to a peak race (within 4-6 weeks), I take out the cheat day. At that point, every little thing matters. To me, it’s all part of the mindset of sacrifice. If you want something bad enough, you’ll do anything, give up anything for it. So when you arrive on race day, you can say to yourself, I did ____ for this – I’m not going to give up or back down. That’s how bad I want it.
Now, I can only sustain that for 4-6 weeks. You should arrive at race weight on race day – and ideally not too much sooner! If you do, you tend to teeter on that edge of hormonal imbalance. Remember, being lean is very stressful on the body. Staying at race weight too long is not only risky to my immune system and hormonal balance but also interferes with the other parts of my life. Turning down a wine tasting, skipping cake at a family gathering – this is fun stuff that should be part of life. I don’t want to be the “unfun” person all year ‘round. But for a few weeks each year, it is worth it (to me).
That covers daily nutrition. What about during training and racing?
There are basic guidelines for fueling for the bike and run in long course training and racing. There is a range of numbers that your coach (or nutritionist) should give you for each segment for calories, grams of carbohydrate, fluid consumption and sodium. Note that there is no exact number or magic formula. What works for you is based on these ranges but only confirmed through consistent practice in a variety of conditions and venues. Through practice, you can refine your plan. This requires having a plan for every workout lasting over 60 minutes and then keeping meticulous notes.
Get in the habit of writing down exactly what you’re doing before every workout or race. That way, you can revisit it when something goes awry. If you got tired at the 2 hour mark, you can go back to your notes, view exactly what you did for calories, fluid, carbohydrates and know that the number was simply not enough.
Your notes should contain the following:
What you will be using (product name, flavor)
When you will be using it (for example: @ :20, :50 into the ride)
How much you will be using(for example: ½ a bar, 1 gel)
For example, my fuel plan might look like this:
@ :20: 1 strawberry banana gel
@ :30: 2 Salt Stick salt tabs
@ 1:00: must be through 20 ounces of Accelerade made with 1.5 scoop per bottle
Get in the habit of knowing exactly what is in your products (calories, grams of carbohydrate, sodium) and even measure out your bottles. Leave nothing to chance. When it comes to long course racing, the best thing you can do is: control the controllables. There is so much we cannot control in long course racing/training, take charge of what you can control and eliminate some risk of things going wrong.
Through practice, your fuel plan should feel like clockwork. In fact, it will be one of the most reliable ways of passing time on the bike. If you like to keep your mind busy, break your fuel plan down into as many small segments as possible so you are keeping yourself engaged and alert, knowing you need to “do” something every 20 minutes (or whatever). If you have a hard time focusing, keep it simple: do something every 60 minutes.
Another critical piece of fueling properly during workouts and training is to know the distress signals of an improper fuel plan. I give my athletes a chart of over a dozen symptoms they might experience – from bloating, to headache – the possible reason why it’s occurring and how to fix it. Part of racing well is knowing how to “troubleshoot” your fuel plan. Knowledge is power (and speed) in endurance racing.
In conclusion, proper nutrition is free speed.
Athletes will spend thousands of dollars on wheels, helmets, fancy shoes, gadgets yet when it comes to something that all around will improve your speed with very little effort, they find themselves flailing. Implementing change and committing to it is not easy. But none of this is. If you want to perform at your best, stay healthy and look good – it requires some attention to what you’re eating before, during and after training. You don’t have to be perfect but if you want to be at your best, you do need to be good – most of the time. I find that the more I maintain the habit of good eating, the harder it is to break the pattern. I just feel “off” when I don’t eat right. This gives me more incentive to do it right. Above all, feeling good and staying healthy is what life is all about. Not to mention that it also helps with your athletic performance!