Most athletes know that nutrition can make or break a race, but the eating habits of triathletes are especially important to achieving optimal results. Because triathlons are an intense multi-sport activity, successful participants need endurance, and strength—characteristics that are highly dependent on what you eat and drink! If you are triathlete, InsideTracker can provide you with great advice on your unique nutrition needs, but here are a few insider tips for successful fueling to get you started.
Be aware of your energy intake
It’s pretty easy to miscalculate your energy needs while you’re training. It can be difficult to stick to a training schedule, manage the rest of your life, and keep track of your calories at the same time! You may be so busy training that you feel you don’t have enough time to eat the amount your body needs. Unfortunately, not having enough fuel in your body can really slow you down and even increase your risk for injury. A general rule of thumb is that you should aim to consume 16-30 calories per pound of lean body weight—men and endurance athletes generally require the upper end of that scale.
Conversely, some triathletes may eat too much, especially after heavy workouts. Sports drinks can contain more than 100 calories per serving, which adds up quickly if you drink several of them! It’s very common for people to overestimate how many calories they have burned during exercise, and consequently eat more than they need. To figure out how many calories you expended during your workout, click here to learn how much you burn doing various types of exercises.
However, if you are looking to drop a few pounds in the weeks leading up to race day, you should never restrict by more than 1,000 calories per day because this can result in muscle and protein breakdown. Overly restrictive eating patterns can cause lethargy and injury, so aim to reduce calories by 250-500 per day to lose about ½ - 1 pound per week. Similarly, if you want to gain weight, increase your energy intake by about 250 calories per day.
How to fuel for your workout
If you plan on doing a high-intensity or long workout (over 90 minutes), it’s important to eat some carbohydrates beforehand to ensure that your energy level stays high. Carbs provide your body with an excellent energy source during long workouts because they use less oxygen for every kilocalorie of energy produced than either fats or proteins. As a result, carbohydrates are an important source of fuel for your muscles during exercise. After about 90 minutes of working out, your body’s supply of carbohydrates, which is stored in the form of glycogen, is exhausted. A depleted store of glycogen can put you at risk for feeling tired during your workout.
To ensure that you have enough glycogen for your workout, eat some easily digestible carbohydrates like a banana, toast, or some cereal about an hour before starting. Female triathletes should consume about 200-250 calories of carbohydrates, while men should aim for between 250-300. Keep in mind that fat, protein, and fiber slow down digestion and can make you feel bloated while you exercise, so try to minimize these nutrients in your pre-workout meal.
What Triathletes Should Eat
Triathletes often exercise for longer than an hour, so pay close attention to how you’re fueling up during a workout. If your body doesn’t have enough glycogen to get you through a workout or an event, it will start to burn fat for energy. Fat burns at a much slower rate than carbohydrates, which will slow you down. For every hour of intense exercise beyond 90 minutes, women should eat 45-60 grams of carbs and men should aim for 60-75 grams. A peanut butter sandwich, orange, or smoothie will give you the energy you need.
Since most triathlons are endurance events, athletes should plan meals that contain mostly carbohydrates. The energy ratio should be roughly 60% carbohydrates (think fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), 15-20% lean protein (such as fish, chicken breast, low-fat dairy products, and turkey), and 20-25% healthy fats (like olive oil, avocado, and nuts). If you don’t like to eat large meals, try eating 4-6 smaller meals a day that contain 400-600 calories each.
A typical daily menu for a triathlete might include the following:
Breakfast: Oatmeal with granola, almonds, and blueberries with a glass of orange juice
Lunch: Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with tomato, low-fat cheese, and lettuce; a side salad, low-fat milk, and a piece of fruit
Snack: Fruit and vegetable smoothie with yogurt
Dinner: Tofu stir-fry with a side salad
Snack: Peanut butter crackers and a piece of fruit
Don’t forget the fluids
When you are training for a triathlon or an endurance event, aim to drink half your body weight in fluid ounces each day. One to two hours prior to your workout, try to consume roughly one water bottle’s worth of fluids (about 16-24 ounces) so your body is adequately prepared to sweat. During a workout, drink 5-12 ounces every 20 minutes, and if your workout exceeds 90 minutes, opt for an electrolyte-enhanced beverage.
Chloride, sodium, and potassium are minerals in your blood, urine, and bodily fluids that contain an electric charge. Your body’s cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses. These charges help your cells communicate with each other and give you the ability to taste, see, smell, touch, hear… and move! If you sweat heavily during intense exercise, you lose these minerals through your sweat. If you notice that your urine has a darker color or you have lost 1 pound or more after exercise, it means that you’re dehydrated and losing electrolytes. So be sure to drink plenty of fluids!
If you find it difficult to start your workout without a cup of Joe, a study has shown that drinking a caffeinated beverage immediately before exercise will help maintain adequate potassium levels in your blood and delay fatigue during your workout. Good news for coffee lovers!
If you’re interested in customizing your meal plan to fit your triathlete nutrition needs, InsideTracker can provide food suggestions and nutrient recommendations that can help you overcome any course—whether you’re training for an Ironman competition or a shorter triathlon.