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Eating your way to faster triathlons


New England-grown fruits and vegetables are a great source
of many of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that a triathlete
needs to recover from his or her workouts.
Photo by Heydrienne

It's no secret that proper nutrition is essential to reaching your best triathlon performance. Food fuels our muscles and gives us the materials to repair soft tissue after a hard day of training. Beyond that, though, it's easy to get lost. Bursts, patches, and banners on almost every package in the supermarket boast that food's virtues: "Low fat!", "No trans fat!", "Organic!", "Healthy!", "High in dietary fiber!". General Mills would even have you believe that Count Chocula cereal is a health food because it is "Whole grain guaranteed." So how do you sort through all the conflicting messages to know how, when, and what to eat?

What to eat

To be ready for the next workout, a triathlete must be cognizant of his or her carbohydrate intake in order to replenish muscle glycogen stores between workouts. Bonking isn't just for races and long workouts. If you're burning up your glycogen stores faster than you replace them, you will feel flat and sluggish in any workout. Robert E. Kieth, a professor of nutrition at Auburn University recommends that triathletes eat between 3 and 4g of carbohydrate for every pound of body weight per day. After prolonged exercise that severely depletes glycogen (3-hour runs, 6-hour bike rides, half ironmans, etc.), a recent article in Triathlete Magazine Europe recommends eating twice that number (9-10g carbohydrate per kilogram) for the first 24 hours after exercise.

Triathletes need protein to mend the wear-and-tear on their muscles and to limit muscle loss. Triathletes who are spending the winter in the weight room need extra protein to give their bodies the amino acids that they need to build new muscle tissue. (A muscle's strength is determined by its size, so a muscle that can't grow can't get stronger.) Active people need between 0.5 and 1g of protein for every pound of body weight, according to Nancy Clark, author of Sports Nutrition Guidebook. During times of heavy training, aim for the higher end of this scale.

Triathletes need fat in their diets too, just not the saturated or hydrogenated kind. Fats are essential for healthy cell membranes, energy synthesis, hormone production, and nerve function. Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which cannot be produced by the body) also reduce inflammation. If you don't eat enough dietary fat, then your body will tend to preserve its fat stores, forcing you to rely more heavily on your precious carbohydrate stores. A study at published in the Journal of Sports Science in 1997 found that a high-fat diet could increase resistance to fatigue twofold for trained athletes at sub-maximal efforts. Fats should make up about one-quarter of your daily calories and should come from "healthy" monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources (omega-3 and omega-6 fats are kinds of polyunsaturated fats). Limit saturated (animal-based) and hydrogenated (made in a laboratory) fats as much as possible.

When to eat

You've probably heard about how important it is to eat after a workout. In the first thirty minutes after exercise your muscles store glucose more efficiently. Carbohydrate absorption slowly tapers off over the next three hours, making it harder and harder to replace the glucose you've lost. After your workout, eat a carbohydrate-rich snack to start your recovery off right. But what kind of carbohydrate? Since drinks are more quickly digested than food, start with a recovery shake that combines carbohydrates and protein right away. A 2008 study  showed that drinking a bit of protein with your post-workout carbohydrate snack improved recovery between two-a-day workouts when compared to carbohydrate-only snacks. Also, stay away from the sugary stuff post-exercise. A 2005 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism suggests that eating a low-glycermic carbohydrate snack post-exercise enhances endurance for your next workout.

However, you shouldn't finish a 6-hour bike ride and shove 1,000 calories of carbohydrate, protein, and fat into your face right away. Your body can only absorb so much at a time, after that your digestive tract throws up its hands and converts the rest into fat and feces. After a workout, eat about 1g of carbohydrate for every pound you weigh every two hours until your next meal.

Here are some more tips for when to eat what:

  • Always eat breakfast. This ensures that you already have something in your system for your morning workout. Some athletes do workouts fasting to increase fat metabolism, but these workouts should be rare.
  • Have a light snack that includes a mix of fat and carbohydrates within two hours of your workout.
  • Eat a meal with slow-digesting proteins (such as casein) close to bed time to provide your muscles with a steady supply of amino acids throughout the night.
  • Don't forget to take calories in during any workout lasting longer than 90 minutes.

How to eat

Scientists are only beginning to unravel how nutrients work together to work their magic inside the body. We're still not sure exactly what happens to vitamin supplements once inside the body, and whether they are as effective as vitamins drawn from food. For this reason, aim to get most of your nutrients from a varied diet rich in whole foods. By "whole" foods, we refer to foods that aren't processed. For example, a tomato is a whole food, ketchup is not. "Whole grain flour" is made from wheat that is ground with its hard outer coating (which contains the fiber) and the protein-rich germ. When you eat white flour, your body works hard to digest it, but draws little nutritional value for its efforts. Now you must eat something else to draw the missing protein and fiber from other sources, consuming unnecessary calories. It's like driving to a supermarket 20 miles away to buy eggs: you still have some nutrition, but you've wasted time and energy that you could have spent on something more worthwhile if you had just gone to the store down the street.

Evidence has been collecting from almost 150 scientific studies that suggests that non-organic produce grown in nutrient-depleted soils are less nutritious than organically-grown fruits and vegetables. In the few cases where non-organic farming methods won out (only 87 of 236 studies), the non-organic produce won out by a far narrower margin, clocking nutrient densities less than 10% superior to the organic produce.

To make sure that you're getting the most from your produce, buy fresh and organic. Just like you wouldn't travel to South America to get a carton of eggs, try to find produce that hasn't traveled too far to get to you. It will last longer and taste better because it was allowed to ripen on the plant, not in a truck. You can also lower your carbon footprint!

Joining a farm-share (or CSA for community-supported agriculture) will help you get local, fresh produce while also supporting New England farms. With a farm share, you pay a regular subscription cost and have a box of fresh, seasonal produce delivered to your door, usually on a weekly basis. To see a list of farm-share programs in Massachusetts and the surrounding areas, see this list of hundreds of CSA's on Local Health.

For more info: Read Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Brendan Brazer's Thrive: A Guide to Optimal Health & Performance Through Plant-Based Whole Foods, or Loren Cordain's The Paleo Diet for Athletes
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