Whether you are new to the sport or a seasoned multi-sport athlete, training for a triathlon quickly takes over your life. As well as fitting in regular training for three sports, you need to consider triathlon nutrition. Energy intake is key to maintaining your training schedule without fatigue whilst balancing work, family life and other commitments. So, we’ve rounded up the best tips and tricks from reliable sources. Find out what to eat when, and how your diet will benefit you on race day.
Why is triathlon nutrition important?
Whilst training for any sport is intense at an elite level, triathlon is a little different. Even those of us entering our first event will need to train for a demanding race. Three different disciplines, each asking different things from different muscles. Swimming is well known for being one of the only sports to use virtually all your muscles. So after a third of your race, you’ve had a full body workout. And now you’ve got to cycle.
To have a good cycle leg, you need to have your wits about you. A quick transition from the swim, make sure you’re in the right gear and following the racing line. Then of course, there’s the legs. There’s nothing quite like cycling for a full on leg workout. Except, of course, for running. And you’ve got to do that next. So now, your legs need to adapt to a different motion, and keep doing it.
Just reading that takes up a fair amount of energy doesn’t it? So, taking part in a triathlon requires proper fuelling. The same goes for training. Even training for one of those disciplines at a time requires the right sort of energy available at the right time. Combine two or more of them and you can understand why triathlon nutrition is such a big deal. And before you ask, fuelling for triathlon is not just about eating carbs before the race. For a complex sport, you need complex nutrition.
Tailoring triathlon nutrition to your own goals
Whilst triathlon is relatively easy to define in terms of swimming, cycling and running, no two races are the same. Neither are our training aims. Some athletes will be looking to gain muscle or body weight or lose body fat as a by-product of a triathlon. Others will be focussed on time and most first-timers are content with finishing the race. Let’s look at the different types of race to start with. As you can imagine, these varying distances do NOT require the same sort of diet and energy intake.
- Super Sprint Triathlon: 400 metre swim, 10 kilometre cycle and 2.5 kilometre run.
- Sprint Triathlon: 750 metre swim, 20 kilometre cycle and 5 kilometre run.
- Olympic (also known as Standard Distance) Triathlon: 1500 metre swim, 40 kilometre cycle and 10 kilometre run
- Half Ironman (also known as 70.3 or Middle Distance) Triathlon: 1.9 kilometre swim, 90 kilometre cycle and 21 kilometre run
- Ironman (also known as Full or Long Distance): 3.8 kilometre swim, 180 kilometre cycle and 42 kilometre run.
These are the normal distances, but then there are the outliers for serious endurance athletes. Like a Slateman (up and around the Welsh mountains), a SavageMan around the Allegheny mountains of Maryland and even a Double Ironman. When you look at the variety of events, it is easy to understand why you need to tailor your nutrition to your own goals.
In general, the NHS recommend a calorie intake of 2000 per day for women and 2500 per day for men who are not aiming to achieve weight loss. This is a great guide, but when you’re exercising there are two important things to bear in mind. Firstly, if you are doing vast amounts of exercise like training for an ironman, 2000 to 2500 calories per day is going to be nowhere near enough. Secondly, not all calories are equal. There is a fascinating article from professional triathlete Cody Beals where he explains his diet, macronutrient profile and issues he has had with food in the past. He tends to consume around 6000 good quality calories every day to keep up with his demanding training sessions.
What does a balanced diet look like?
We are often told to “eat a balanced diet”. But that’s easier said than done, particularly if you are unsure as to what that actually means. It goes without saying that the more whole foods and the less processed, high sugar, high saturated fat foods you consume, the better. Interestingly though, when you look at advice around a balanced diet, most of it focusses on what you should eat, rather than what you shouldn’t. Because if you are getting enough of the good stuff, cravings for junk food are bound to decrease.
Before throwing exercise into the equation, the NHS Eatwell guide is a useful resource. They say that fruit and vegetables should make up over a third of all the food we eat, averaging at at least five portions a day. The next third of our food should be made up of starchy food. Preferably wholegrain and high fibre options such as wholemeal bread, potatoes with the skins on and brown rice. We should have some dairy or dairy alternatives each day including milk, yoghurt and cheese. Aim for low fat and sugar options. Our protein can come from pulses like lentils, peas and beans or from nuts, lean meat and fish. We should aim to use oils and spreads that are low in saturated fat. Water is important too, with six to eight glasses a day recommended.
Of course, when you throw in high intensity training for an event like a triathlon, your consumption of all food groups will need to increase. So, the British Triathlon Society has a dedicated nutrition hub all about eating for triathlon. They have some suggestions about what to eat when and why it will benefit your training. They break it down into breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks with serving suggestions for each. Additionally, you’ll find advice on meal planning, nutrient intake and variety.
The importance of protein for triathlon nutrition
According to 220 Triathlon, protein helps with carbohydrate storage, muscle repair, growth and maintenance and immune health. Consumed after a workout, it helps muscles to repair and recover faster. As a triathlete, you won’t be looking to bulk up like a body builder, but that doesn’t decrease the importance of muscle recovery. Because technically, it’s not training that makes your muscles better at what you want them to do. It’s recovery. Training in any capacity damages your muscles, causing your immune system to repair them. And when they recover from each session, they become just a little bit fitter than they were before. Protein helps with and speeds up that process.
With 20.6 grams of protein, ROAR protein desserts are a great way to up your protein intake. Consumed after exercise, they aid the recovery process, enhancing performance. Better still, they are low in sugar and saturated fats, vegetarian and contain just 245 calories per delicious pot. Try our delicious Jaffa Break, Raspberry Blondie and Double Chocolate protein desserts to help you increase your protein intake today.
If you are interested in trying triathlon, head to the GO TRI website for lots of helpful tips to get you ready for your first race day.