One often overlooked part of triathlon training is diet. This is like trying to a run a race car and ignoring the engine. Diet plays an important roll in triathlon, including what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat.
What you eat has become so confusing in America that people are trying to tax so-called bad foods. As an athlete it is important that you have a basic understanding of nutrition. Your body burns the fuels you put into it, and the higher the quality the food, the more efficient the engine. First it is important to separate the American obsession with calories with the far more important categories of foods that athletes must become familiar with: protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Protein, which is contained in meats and beans as well as other foods is necessary for muscle growth. You cannot grow the necessary muscles to compete in triathlon without protein. Protein is especially necessary after workouts. There is a window of about an hour after working out when the body is looking for the parts to repair the damage a workout does. Those parts include a healthy dose of protein. Post-fuel protein can take many forms, expensive shakes, a ham sandwich or chocolate milk. But without this post workout protein your body will be starved of the components necessary to build muscle.
Carbohydrates, which are essentially sugars, have gone through waves of being called ‘bad’. Get the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods out of your mind. Food provides fuel, and there are certainly richer and poorer fuels, but there are hardly any ‘bad’ fuels. Like protein, carbohydrates are imperative for an athlete’s body to function. Carbohydrates are your body’s number one fuel source. Without enough of them your body has nothing left to burn and your exercise suffers. Not only are carbohydrates absolutely necessary for your post work out just like protein, but they are necessary during and before your workout. Proper fueling during a workout will keep you from failing to finish. Whether you get your carbohydrates from your bottle or from solid foods, they keep you going throughout your workout. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains keep you fueled more evenly than do simple carbohydrates such as fruits and sugary foods. Fueling during exercise requires simple sugars.
The last element is fats. Fats are another maligned nutrient. However they are an important fuel and one that your body can tap either when the carbohydrate stores are exhausted or if the exercise is slow enough. They are also necessary for brain function and are part of a healthy balanced diet.
This is the key; balance. A variety of foods, vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and meats, is what the body wants. And whether you adhere to the food pyramid or the multicolored food theory, the fact is that the broader your list of foods, the healthier you are likely to be. Eat too much of one thing and you will miss the nutrients in other things. Therefore, a varied diet of whole and lightly processed foods will keep you healthier than worrying endlessly about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for you this week.
Calories are the elephant in the room, and no discussion of nutrition is complete without touching on calories. Calories are a unit of measure of energy. Energy is what you will need if you want to succeed as an athlete. Do not attempt to limit your caloric intake while you are training or you will crash and burn. Your workouts will feel like drudgery and you will never fully recover between them. Additionally, do not use your triathlon training as a freebie to eat whatever you like. Many beginning triathletes gain weight at first because they think they are burning far more calories than they are. Additionally, the act of keeping the body warm in the pool makes your body crave food post swim workout. Use caution in adding too many calories, and be extremely leery of removing too many.
Many athletes fall for a whole slew of vitamin ads. Vitamins have been scientifically proven to be unnecessary in healthy adults who eat a varied and balanced diet. If there is a hole in your diet, such as a loathing for fish and the essential fatty acids they contain, then by all means, supplement, otherwise, save your money for something made of carbon.
There is no need to make nutrition insanely complicated. You know the difference between a high quality diet and one that isn’t. Trust yourself, make the right choices most of the time and your performance will reflect your effort.