HomeNutritionUltimate Guide to Nutrition and Diet for Triathletes

Ultimate Guide to Nutrition and Diet for Triathletes

To be a successful athlete (you can determine your personal definition of successful), there must exist a balance of physiological, psychological and nutritional variables. This article will address the latter and how nutrition plays into a well-balanced training plan and consequently, your overall triathlon performance.

Percentage of Diet by Macro-nutrient

Macro-nutrient% of Diet
Carbohydrates50% – 60%
Protein15% – 20%
Fat20 %- 30%

Carbohydrates Should be the Focus

In brief, carbohydrates should be the focal point of your diet for they provide you with the bulk of  the energy needed to sustain exercise. Thee are low amounts stored in your muscles and liver so it is important to constantly replenish them. (I will discuss this in more detail later).

A good rule of thumb is to try to consume 50-65% of your total daily calories from carbohydrates.  There is such a wide range because every person is different and prescribing a good eating plan is as individual as training programs. Find what works for you.

Protein for Rebuilding

Protein is the next important macro-nutrient for it will aid in replenishing lost stores that happen during exercise and will provide the amino acids that the muscles need to “rebuild.”

It is important to understand that consuming protein does NOT build muscles. For example, if you to consume high protein products such as meats, cheeses, protein powders, etc. while remaining sedentary (ie. Couch potato), your body would not increase its fat-free mass. It would, however, increase fat mass and body weight. During intense, long duration exercise, the body will depend on a little protein as fuel, but it is not a significant source of energy.

A good rule of thumb is to consume between 15-20% of your total daily calories from protein sources (lean is a better choice).

Fat is also Important

Fat is more important than people believe. Neglecting fat in your diet can lead to very serious consequences. Fat is needed in the body to absorb fat soluble vitamins, cushion the organs, insulate the body and make sure nerve impulses are efficiently sent and received, just to name a few functions.

Try to keep fat at about 20-30% of your total daily calories for optimal health and performance.

Maintaining Proper Mix is Important

So the key to optimal performance is to maintain a good balance of the three macronutrients described previously. Making sure you have adequate stores of carbohydrate (glycogen) and making sure your muscles are replenished with the right amounts of amino acids from proteins on a daily basis will ensure good health and training/racing. I did not mention fat because it is often disguised. By this I mean you will probably consume adequate amounts of fat without making a conscious effort.

Besides maintaining a “healthy” (remember, it depends on your individual preferences and what works for you) eating plan there are specific times you can ingest certain macro nutrients to ensure good performance.

When to Eat

Nutrition Before Training

Before training or competition, it is advisable to consume about 200-400 calories about 2-4 hours before. It is important to consume familiar foods and to focus mostly on carbohydrates since it takes them shorter digest. Protein and fat take longer to digest, thus they will stay in your system longer and you may fell a heavy, full sensation when you begin exercise.

If solid foods simply do not agree with your system pre-exercise, try a liquid meal or sports drink. Remember, the most important thing is to experiment with different foods and combinations during training, never right before a race.

Nutrition During Training

During exercise, it is important to maintain blood glucose levels by ingesting 30-60 grams of carbohydrate (120-240 calories) per hour. As I mentioned previously, our bodies do not store many carbohydrates so it is important to constantly replenish them. Energy gels or sports drinks are very easy for the body to digest during exercise (or soft foods such as bananas).

Nutrition After Training

Post exercise is also crucial for nutrition. There is a 2-hour “window of replenishment” at which time it is critical to ingest carbohydrates and protein. Even more important is the first 30 minutes following exercise. Focus on eating foods (carbohydrates) that have a high glycemic index, meaning they are more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Sports drinks are great for this since it is sometimes hard to eat solid foods after exercise. Fruits are also a great choice and also supply much needed fluid. So the bottom line is to ingest more carbohydrates than protein (about a 3:1 ration per gram) and adequate amounts of fluids. This will ensure a faster recovery, which will allow you to exercise sooner after your event.

In Conclusion

Nutrition for enhancing athletic performance can be tricky but with the basic knowledge provided in this article, you should be able to eat for good health and performance. 

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Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, LD/N, CSCS
Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, LD/N, CSCS

Bob Seebohar is a Registered Dietitian specializing in sports nutrition for endurance athletes.  He is also an exercise physiologist and USA Triathlon Certified Level III Elite Coach.  Bob has completed over 100 endurance events including five Ironman races, the Boston Marathon, the Leadville 100 mile mountain bike race and the Leadville 100 mile trail run.  He was also a member of the 1996 US National Duathlon Team and competed in the World Championships in Ferrara, Italy.  He is also the author of the book, “Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes: Taking Sports Nutrition to the Next Level” (Bull Publishing, 2004).

Bob provides sports nutrition consulting and coaching to all ages, types and abilities of endurance athletes. 


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