Nutrition is a big part of any triathlete’s repertoire. We eat our share of food to replenish what we burn in workouts and we can feel like getting race day nutrition right is more elusive than the Holy Grail. Here are a few tips for getting both correct.
In workouts it is not quite as necessary to replenish calories as immediately as it is in a race simply because you will likely have eaten a bigger meal before training than you had on race day and if you happen to misjudge your body’s needs in a workout you just slow down a bit. In a race it can be the difference between a good finish and your PR.
Daily food intake is key to making sure that you are recovering and giving your body what it needs to be fueled up for the next day’s training. In general, both in training and in races a general rule of thumb is to take in about 300-350 cal/hour to sustain your effort especially after about the first 1.5 hours of exercising. Even if you do not feel hungry research suggests that after that amount of time your performance starts to dip unless calories are replaced.
In training the source of those calories can be more varied than in a race. The reason is the stress level on the body. Training is low stress. Racing can be high stress. In low stress situations your stomach works fully and can digest and assimilate much heavier forms of calories than it can when under stress. So in training you can eat energy bars, liquids that have more than just carbs in them and still be able to break them down and deliver energy to your working muscled. In races, even maltodextrin (a complex carbohydrate that breakdown and releases its energy slowly over time) that is the base for most sports drinks it can take forever to digest and absorb. And forget about eating energy bars! A drink with a good amount of simpler sugars like glucose (the form all carbohydrates are broken down to before being absorbed) can absorb when under pressure. It isn’t the best for recovery, but can be the tops for high performance situations when your stomach is taking a sabbatical.
Post workout is the prime time to refuel in a way that will replenish your glycogen stores and give your body the best chance to utilize nutrients for recovery. In the 30 minutes or so after a workout try to take in the following in this order:
- Carbohydrate (can be either sports drink or any other form that will go in fairly easily)
- Protein and good oils.
The amount of each you need certainly depends on your workout and how much you took in during it. In hot weather take in about 1.5 times the amount of weight you lost in a workout over the few hours after you finish your training to replace lost fluids from sweating. For calories the initial carb amount can be roughly 200-400 calories and the protein a moderate amount up to about 20gm. Research suggests that more than that does not enhance muscle recovery in the immediate post workout meal.
If you are training quite a bit your need for carbohydrate goes up significantly. Someone who is fairly sedentary may need a carbohydrate: protein: fat ratio from their calories of 40:30:30. An Ironman athlete can need as much as 60:15:15 or more. This doesn’t mean that a sedentary person will be eating less total protein or fat than someone doing lots of training because their total calorie intake is much lower. In fact the protein needs of an exercising endurance athlete can go from about .8 gm/kg per day when not training up to 1.8 gm/kg/day when under high training loads.
One of the difficult parts of nutrition is that each day your body may have slightly different needs. So an eating strategy of ratios or amounts that works today may not be what you need tomorrow or the next day. It is pretty tough to be able to accurately measure and assess the calorie amounts in each food that you eat. Think of it in terms of the total amount of calories we eat. Over a year that adds up to about a million calories. How could you possibly measure out a million calories accurately enough to start and end the year at basically the same weight? That’s where your body’s innate capacity to signal you what it needs comes in. If you feed yourself wholesome foods in moderate amounts regularly throughout the day, your body will give you signals of what it requires to maintain and repair itself.
Hunger has many different subtleties to it. One craving may be saying you need more protein, another that your body is short on carbs and yet another that you are in need of good oils like omega-3’s or olive oil. But those signals lose their small differences if you drown them out with the shrieks of of junk food, simple sugars or overeating at mealtime. The choice is up to you which voice you will tune into–the one calling for a box of chocolate chip cookies or the one telling you the good foods you need to repair from today’s workouts and to be ready for tomorrows. Bon Appetite!