Hey, Triathletes: Eat More Food

It’s that time of year where lots of people commit to new health goals, and for many, this means new diets and new exercise routines. There’s lots of different routes available on both the workout and diet front: keto, Whole 30, 75 Hard, juice cleanse, fasting, you name it. A common theme amongst these methods of dieting are strict rules and restriction of food groups (or all foods in the case of fasting).

It makes sense to want to improve your health, or become a better athlete. But when it comes to restrictive diets or overly regimented workouts, while some people may achieve short term success, most will have given up by early February. And even more will fail over the long-term, with the most common figure cited that 95% of all diets fail.

So what if there was a way to improve your triathlon performance in the New Year that didn’t involve taking away food? It’s simple: Eat more food in and around your training. Now, I understand the skepticism around this idea. It’s counterintuitive to the common messages we get about being fitter, stronger, and leaner, but hear me out. There’s a few key areas where more food will affect your fitness:

Enhance Recovery
By not totally depleting glycogen stores means you’ll bounce back quicker from sessions . It’s normal to feel tired at the end of a hard workout. It’s not normal to feel like you’ve crashed into the wall.

Give Yourself The Ability to Train Harder
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source during moderate to intense training sessions. Being adequately fueled allows you to hit those last few reps on a long ride, or descend the last few miles of the run.

Decrease Risk of Injury
Less time of extreme calorie deficits (post exercise) means less time the body is in catabolism. Not to mention the negative effect that low energy availability has on coordination and concentration, which also attributes to higher injury risk. You can read more about those issues here.

Avoid Extreme Hunger
Ever get to the end of the day and end up eating every snack in the pantry? This can happen because we haven’t eaten enough earlier in the day. Your body, not wanting to starve, signals extreme rebound hunger to try to make up the deficit, and often leads to eating more that you would’ve had you just eaten more during the day. Fueling adequately through your workouts and avoiding extreme calorie deficits from training, can attenuate hunger sensations at night.

Train your Gut to Tolerate Calories For Better Racing Performance
In the same way that we train our muscles to perform on race day, we must also train our gut to perform on race day. In order to adequately ingest calories on race day, it’s important to practice taking in calories so the gut can absorb fuel in racing. It takes the gut 6-10 weeks to get used to a fueling practice. This becomes more important as the race distance increases. A practiced fueling plan, with a stomach that can tolerate calories reduces the risk of GI distress during a race. Struggling to eat enough? Gradually increase calories over time, and stick with foods that provide simple sugars along with fluids.

So how much food are we really talking about here during these workout windows?

If it’s been a few hours since your last meal, a small carbohydrate rich snack in the hour before starting a session can be beneficial. Choose easily digestible, carbohydrate-rich foods such as toast with jam, a granola bar, banana, or a handful of pretzels.

During Training Sessions
For easy sessions under 90 minutes in duration, you can get away with little to no fuel. As we add intensity and duration, you’ll see a benefit from adding 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour, which equates to 120-240 calories per hour from carbs. Anything over the two and a half hour mark would benefit from 60g up to 90g carb per hour (240-360 calories). As you may have read in Dr. Alex Harrison’s Sports Nutrition Series, it’s possible to go higher than this amount, and, anecdotally, many people successfully do. However, this range is a good place to start especially if you’re used to eating less. Again, it’s important to choose foods that provide easily digestible carbs and limited fat, fiber, and protein. Examples of foods to eat during training include sports drinks, gels, chews, applesauce packets, or fruit snacks.

Post Training
In order to recover most efficiently, both carbs and protein are necessary. Carbs replenish muscle glycogen while protein helps repair muscle damage. Have a small snack of foods that contain both such as chocolate milk, a smoothie w/ protein powder, cheese stick + granola bar, or egg(s) on toast.

There’s lots of ways to improve your health and athletic performance. That said, I hope your 2023 is filled with success and tasty pretzels by, in part, eating more food.

Megan Foley is a consult sports dietitian and professional triathlete based out of Salt Lake City, UT. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition, with a specialty in Sports Nutrition. Her passion to help others comes from her own experience in high level sport and struggles of fueling. She’s competed in both short course and long course triathlon events and has multiple professional podium finishes.