As every triathlon and multisport athlete knows, food and nutrition play a huge part in your life. While burning hundreds or thousands of calories a day from training you are constantly looking to replenish your fuel stores so you can recover quickly and hit the next workout hard. The sad truth to all of that is that most of us get lazy and reach for the quickest thing which is usually not the best choice. You don’t need to eat some super organic free-range home cooked meal that is going to take 4 hours to make. But you shouldn’t reach in the cookie jar or tear open that ultra processed sugary snack bar either.
Being the nerd that I am, I went through a lot of scientific journals and research articles so that I can give you the clif-notes version of what I have found regarding triathlon nutrition. Reminder: the stats and data that I present here are not my own ideas. They are facts that came out of studies and experiments conducted by people way smarter than myself. I am simply decoding their writings.
If you think of yourself like a race car this entire article will be way easier to understand. What makes a car run? Fuel, right? Yes, fuel is the primary source of energy that is used by the race car to move forward at high speeds. However, there are a lot of other things that are needed for that race car to perform right? Transmission fluid, brake fluid, engine oil, and many other things have to be “ingested” by the race car for it to perform at peak performance. Don’t let me forget, it also matters what type of all these energy inducers you put in the race car. You can’t just throw some local unleaded gasoline from Wawa into a Formula 1 car and expect it to work properly. Your body is no different. It needs many different things to perform properly and it needs the right types of these things to perform at peak performance.
The Big 3 Calorie Providers for Triathlon Nutrition
Every single one of you knows that the food or drink we consume contains a combination of these three things (unless it’s water): carbohydrates, protein, and fat. However, some of you may not know exactly what they do or what they are used for. So here is the quick and dirty version. They are all fuel sources that contain calories. So what are calories? Yes, they are the thing on every food label but you don’t really need to know that. All you need to know is that a calorie is a single unit of energy. Calories are the gasoline to your race car. They are the rawest form of fuel for your body.
In simple terms, Carbs are a molecule (consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) that provide calories to you. In specific, a single gram of carb provides an average of 4 calories to your body. This number can vary between 3.5 to 4.1 but you don’t need to worry about that. Generally, carbs will be your body’s main fuel source during training. While technically your body doesn’t need carbs for energy, I am not going to go into this topic because I don’t believe that it has been studied enough. So, because you will be consuming carbs in your diet, your body will utilize carbs for about 50% of its energy requirement during moderate exercise and that percentage will get higher and higher as your intensity climbs. The reason behind carbs being utilized as fuel so much during exercise is because the energy (calories) that come from carbs require the least amount of oxygen to be expended. Since this entire system is super complex to explain, just think of your body like a fire. A fire needs oxygen right? Well, imagine that different woods require less oxygen to keep the fire burning. If you only had a certain amount of oxygen and needed to keep that fire going which wood would you choose to burn? That is essentially what happens to your body except you don’t really get a choice. Your body chooses for you.
Athletes should look at carbohydrates in 3 main groups: simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. Fiber is important because it is indigestible, meaning it doesn’t result in any calories (energy). It also plays an important role in a healthy GI but I don’t want to get into bowel science so we will skip that. So that leaves me with the two carb classes that you should focus on: simple and complex. While the government has tried to draw clear distinctions between the two, the line is a little more blurry. But the easiest way to think of them is this:
- Simple carbohydrates come from simple things like fruit, honey, candy, milk, bread, energy gels, sports drinks, etc.
- Complex carbs come from whole grains, potatoes, vegetables, etc.
So why the hell do you need to know about those two classes of carbs? While they are both carbohydrates and provide calories to your body in the same fashion, they are different types. Remember the race car example? These 2 things are the same fuel source but they will each affect performance differently. Simple carbs will spike your blood sugar and studies have shown that athletes with high blood sugar spikes have reduced performance in the long term. You can google things like insulin and glycemic index and read more for yourself but that is too much to explain here. Just know that unless you are in the middle of exercise, simple carbohydrates are usually something you should avoid. Complex carbohydrates provide a more spread out blood sugar response which is beneficial to both performance (energy expenditure) and energy storage.
So how much do you need?
Now that I have just dropped all this info on you, how much do you need to consume? The short answer is that it depends on how much you are doing and how intense you are doing it. But in general, aim for anywhere between 6-10 grams of carbohydrates per 2.2 pounds of bodyweight. Why is it 2.2 pounds? Well, because the geniuses who figured that out weren’t from America so it is 6-10 grams per kilogram of bodyweight and that is roughly 2.2 pounds. You are welcome for doing that math for you.
Should I carboload?
Contrary to popular belief, if your race is under 2 hours then you don’t need to carboload. Your normal energy storage levels will be enough. However, if you are doing an event that will last longer than that amount of time, the research seems to suggest that having your energy stores at maximum capacity is recommended. So all you Ironmen athletes out there – chug that Olive Garden!
Alright everyone, if you are still with me let’s dive into a topic a lot of people know about and think is needed way more than it is: protein. I am sure all of you have seen high protein fad diets and super jacked athletes who consume protein like I consume cookies (hint: this is a lot…I have an addiction). Let me be perfectly clear. THIS IS NOT NECESSARY. Protein is not used as an energy source by the body unless it is a last resort. Yes, protein does contain calories (4 calories per gram just like carbs) but it requires a ton of oxygen to use so the body doesn’t want to use it. Instead, the benefit of protein comes from the amino acids that it contains. Amino acids are like all those random oils and fluids for the race car. They strengthen and keep your muscles performing at peak condition. Protein is probably the most important energy source yet the least understood by athletes. Any excess protein gets stored as energy or converted to fat. Also, if your body resorts to breaking down protein then that is very bad. I won’t go into detail but just know that you don’t want that. So view protein as a tool to build and keep your body going. Not as energy.
So how much do you need?
Aim for 1.2-1.4 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight and you will be good to go. Considering 1 chicken breast is about 40 grams of protein you can see that you don’t really need a lot.
When should I consume protein?
My wife Taylor (super rad Nurse) covers this topic in great detail but just know that you should try to consume protein within 30 minutes of your workout. Ideally that protein should be whey protein as this is the best type of protein supplement for multisport athletes.
Ah, fat. The wonderful thing that makes your ice cream taste so good, your potatoes so delicious, and your steak divine. The fat genre itself is highly misunderstood in the triathlon nutrition world which is concerning because as endurance athletes, fat is extremely important. It just depends on what type of fat.
Fats can be broken out into three main types to make your life a little easier. They are trans fats, saturated fats, and unsaturated fats. There is more sub categories within those but don’t worry about them. Trans fats should be avoided at all costs. Not because they are good for one sport and not multisport athletes. Just because they are terrible for you. Trans fats are a group of fats that are concocted in a lab somewhere. Yes, I am 100% serious. When you buy a twinkie you don’t want that twinkie to get soggy in the packaging right? You want that twinkie to be fluffy and delicious. That is the work of trans fats.
Vegetable oils are the cheapest form of fats but they are liquid at room temperature. That’s no good for massive snack food makers who want a consistent product that can hold up no matter what the conditions. So they add hydrogen to the oil which makes it solid at room temperature. If you see “hydrogenated ___ oil” anywhere on a food label avoid it.
Saturated fats can be beneficial if consumed in small amounts but should be primarily avoided by endurance athletes. Saturated fats can help in testosterone production and various other things but should really only be embraced by powerlifters or bodybuilders. Due to the effect saturated fats have on our vascular system, it’s best to keep dietary saturated fats at a minimum.
Unsaturated fats are every fat that is liquid at room temperature. So basically all oils. The thing to note here is that a lot of things have unsaturated fats in them but aren’t just oils obviously. Things like chia seeds, nuts, and avocados are all high in unsaturated fats.
If you are an ultra endurance athlete (ironman, ultra runner, etc.) then fats should be an important part of your diet, especially on race day. During ultra events that last 6 or more hours, your body uses fat for about 60-70% of its energy requirements. Ideally an endurance athlete should aim for 20% of their daily calories to come from fats – preferably unsaturated. Besides the energy requirement need here fats also play an important role in the processing of vitamins since vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble. That means that your body needs fat for these vitamins.
Everything that doesn’t provide calories for triathlon nutrition
Going back to my analogy at the start of this article, every race-car needs more than just fuel. Similarly, every multisport athlete needs more than just calories. Multisport athletes need a variety of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that help the engine run efficiently and let you get the most out of those calories and your body.
This may come as a “no-brainer” to some of you, but you would be surprised at the number of people that don’t hydrate properly before, during, or after a training workout or race. For example, did you know that triathletes in general should consume anywhere from 400-600mL of water 2 hours prior to exercise? That is about 2-2.5 cups of water for those of you who aren’t as nerdy as me. During exercise you should also be consuming about 10 ounces (a little over a cup) of water for every 20 minutes of activity. So how do you do that on race day?
Multisport events in general pose a certain tricky scenario to adequate hydration during a performance. A prime example is the swimming portion of a multisport event. If your event includes a swim then you obviously are aware that you can’t consume water (besides swallowing the course) to re-hydrate. The other part of the equation is the run. A lot of people can’t consume water on the run because it messes up their GI system. So is consuming water only on the bike good enough? Technically, no.
A lot of people in the triathlon world will go through something called hyponatremia, or water intoxication, during a race. Essentially what happens is that you don’t consume enough liquid during the swim portion (because you can’t) and you think you need to pump your body full of water to replenish itself. Unfortunately that is not what you want to do. Becuase you intake so much liquid so fast, your kidneys and body doesn’t know how to respond during the exercise. Since the body can’t rid the excess through urination or sweating, your sodium levels get extremely low. The resulting experience from this can range from headaches to vomiting and seizures to even death.
The moral of the story here is to not chug water the minute you get on the bike. Pace your fluid intake on the bike and you will be fine. This problem also usually only pops up in multisport events longer than 2 hours.
TLDR: Water and hydration is extremely important for triathlon nutrition just don’t overdo it.
Ah, the magical and mysterious word, electrolyte. As multisport athletes, every one of you has heard of electrolytes before. The pre-race booths are littered with companies selling various powders, gels, drinks, and snacks with electrolytes. Your sports drink that you nervously sip prior to the race probably has a spot on the label advertising them. But what exactly are they? And why do you need them?
Scientifically, an electrolyte is simply a substance that produces an electrically charged solution when dissolved in water. This covers all areas of science, not just the human body. However, the human body’s electrolyte needs are what we are focusing so I will only geek out about that.
The main electrolytes that are needed in the human body is sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), chloride (Cl−), hydrogen phosphate (HPO42−), and hydrogen carbonate (HCO3−). Sodium and potassium are main ones that most people know and they are definitely is the most important ones. Both are responsible for fluid balance and blood pressure control. Obviously these are important processes during training and racing since you are sweating, consuming things, and pumping blood. But they do even more than that.
Electrolytes control your muscles. Yes, it might sound insane that the things found in table salt and bananas control your muscles, but its true. While the brain is responsible for signaling and triggering your muscles, if there are no electrolytes, it won’t matter. Have you ever seen an elite athlete just collapse around the finish line (Jonny Brownlee)? Brain was working but no electrolytes.
Muscles and your brain are controlled by a series of complex electrical networks. The electrical charges that control your muscles are created by the positive and negative charges from electrolytes. Imagine two people playing catch. One person is a muscle contraction and the other is the muscle release. The ball is an electrically charged electrolyte. Throw the ball to the muscle contraction guy and your muscles contract. It is a really complex chemical pathway but that gives you the idea.
How much of these little electro chemicals do you need as a multisport athlete? Well, it completely depends on your sweat rate. If you sweat more you will be on the higher end of the electrolyte needs. That means around 3000-4000mg of sodium per hour of exercise. If you don’t sweat a lot then you are probably in the 800-1500mg/hour range. Most people don’t focus on the other electrolytes because all the supplements, powders, gels, and drinks with electrolytes will contain the right ratios. Just focus on the sodium number and you will be adequately getting the rest of them.