In the third of the series, Race Space team member and passionate triathlete and coach Chris Wallace discusses one of the keys to improved performance: nutrition – and how athletes can maximise their performance through fuelling themselves effectively…
Everyday nutrition is a key facet of training that is often neglected by triathletes. An athlete can be diligently pushing themselves in training in the water, on the bike and on the run, yet undermining their efforts through poor every-day nutrition.
Over the past few years of training and competing, the nutritional aspect of the sport is one I’ve really looked to improve upon in order to maximise training gains. Every athlete’s body is different, and will have different requirements. However, hopefully the few insights I have shared below will help you to hone in on your optimal nutritional plan…
I’ve often seen nutritional advice recommending ratios of the key macronutrients for training: carbohydrates, proteins and fats, assuming there exists some perfect balance for endurance training. I don’t adhere to this approach, as I firmly believe that each athlete is different, with different requirements, and their nutritional requirements will also depend on each day’s training volume and intensity. The key for me is to ensure that I take on enough of these key macronutrients to properly fuel my training and recovery, irrespective of the ratio!
Much has been made recently of the high-fat, low-carb diet, and while I have heard that this can work for some athletes as they become fat-adapted, I have found personally that I perform better with good quality carbohydrates providing an effective source of energy. Unlike fats and proteins, carbohydrates are not used structurally in the body, but instead simply provide a source of fuel. I have found that typically my carbohydrate needs will range between 5 and 10g per kg body weight, with the lower end of spectrum equating to an easy training day (e.g. 45 mins of easy swimming), and the higher end equating to a heavy training day (e.g. a 5 hour tempo cycle). These measurements act as rough guide, and you won’t find me with a calculator and scales in the kitchen! However, they allow me to keep a good check that I’m not under-fuelling.
In terms of sources of carbohydrates, I try to get these from good whole foods: wholegrains, brown rice, legumes, and fruit and vegetables. My key aim is to try and avoid processed or refined foods which have been stripped of their original nutrient content and fibre. If I’m undertaking a particularly hard or long session (e.g. a track intervals session or four hour endurance ride), I may take on a gel or sports drink which contain more simple sugars (fructose and glucose) which can be more immediately used by my body. However, unless I’m pushing into the red in workouts, I usually find that the wholefoods above give me a ready source of energy.
The inevitable consequence of pushing yourself in training is muscle damage. Protein is the crucial macronutrient in allowing your muscles to recover and grow stronger, allowing you to push harder in future sessions. Much has been made of the ideal amount of protein that an athlete should be taking on. Again, I don’t believe that there is a magic sweet spot that every athlete should be aiming for. The usual recommendations are for between 1g protein per kg body weight (1g/kg) (for recreational athletes) to 1.5g/kg for more serious competitors. However, some professional athletes have been known to go up above 2g/kg during serious training volumes. Again, it is about listening to your body and noting how your body recovers, and adapting accordingly. For me personally, I have found aiming for around 1.5g/kg allows me to ensure quick recovery and training improvements.
More important, I feel, is the timing of protein intake. Your body cannot store protein and so it is crucial that after training sessions, you ensure that you provide your body quickly with the building blocks it needs to begin rebuilding and allowing you to recover ahead of your next session. Within the first 30 minutes or so after exercise your muscles are particularly receptive to protein and carbohydrate feeding – the so-called ‘window of opportunity’. I will therefore look to fuel recovery with rapidly-assimilated proteins that can be rapidly broken down to their constituent amino acids and assimilated by recovering muscles. The ideal source for me is a whey protein drink.
Aside from this immediate window, I will then look to include a good mixture of healthy proteins in each of my daily meals which allow me to provide my body with a consistent supply of good proteins throughout the day. These proteins could include a mixture of lean meats, fish and seafood, eggs, milk, yoghurt, soya/tofu, nuts, beans and pulses, all depending on a person’s dietary preferences/intolerances.
Despite it’s often bad press, fat is also an essential macronutrient for training! The stress of training releases harmful compounds known as free radicals which can lead to damage and inflammation. The latest thinking is that a diet rich in plant-based fats may reduce inflammation, lower disease risk, and aid recovery from sport. The most recent dietary guidelines focus less on required fat intake and instead on rather on consuming the right types of fats – i.e. reducing consumption of trans fats (often found in processed foods) and consuming healthy plant-based fats, which contain essential unsaturated fats and fatty acids.
I try and incorporate these into my own diet through seeds (flax and chia), nuts (walnuts, almonds, and brazils) avocado, and flax, olive and coconut oils. Through including a mixture of these in my daily meals, I can ensure that I’m getting a good mixture of healthy fats to compliment my carbohydrate and protein intake.
In addition to the above macronutrients, it is also crucial to ensure that you’re getting all of the requisite micronutrients to enable your body to function optimally and to cope with the added training stress. I’m a firm believer that a healthy balanced diet will include all of the required micronutrients, and I’ll try to ensure that I’m getting the required micronutrients from source, rather than requiring separate supplements. While there are a whole host of micronutrients that all athletes should be consuming, I’ve focussed below on the three main groups that are key to a triathlete’s performance and recovery, and which foods I try and source these from:
Trace minerals such as zinc, iron, copper, selenium and chromium are essential in very small amounts for the effective functioning of biological processes such as muscle contraction, bone health, nerve conduction, hormone production and energy metabolism. While these are only required in tiny quantities, their importance should not be discounted, particularly when triathletes put their bodies through the stress of training. Indeed, these minerals are often lost through sweat and from the increased production of free radicals resulting from the stress of training! Athletes can get these trace minerals from a range of food sources including nuts, legumes, wholegrain, seeds, seafood, and red meat (for iron).
While plants and vegetables are an excellent source of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, they are also packed full of micronutrients called phytonutrients. There exist thousands of phytonutrients, with scientists discovering more and more all of the time. These nutrients, which are unrelated to other macro and micronutrients, provide fruit and vegetables with their unique colours. For triathletes, they are crucial in allowing for optimal cell function and and communication, leading to benefits such as the creation of healthier tissues and organ systems, detoxification of foreign systems, a strong immune system and muscles that will perform effectively when required!
I try to ensure that I get these essential phytonutrients through eating a good range of fruit and vegetables of lots of different colours: peppers, avocados, blueberries, mushrooms, and green, cruciferous vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli to name but a few!
Essential fatty acids- classified as omega 3 (alpha linolenic) and omega 6 (alpha linoleic) – cannot be synthesized by the body itself and must be sourced from our diets. These essential fatty acids are needed for the synthesis of prostaglandins, which help regulate certain aspects of metabolism, such as blood viscosity, inflammatory processes, blood cholesterol and fat levels, and water balance. Omega 3 fatty acids in particular are essential for triathletes, since they reduce inflammation, while also increasing oxygen delivery to the heart muscle.
Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in the oils of flaxseed, walnut, and fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and anchovies), whereas omega 6’s can be found in the oils of corn, soy, canola, safflower and sunflower. Often individuals have more than enough omega 6’s, but have a shortage of omega 3 fatty acids, an imbalance which can increase inflammation and so great focus should be made on ensuring that omega 3’s are included as part of a healthy diet!
Hopefully these nutritional tips can help you make healthy choices in your own diet, allowing you to improve even further in your training! As with any change you make, it’s always recommended to seek the guidance of an expert, and so working with a qualified dietician or sports nutritionist could be a valuable asset in allowing you to optimise your nutrition plan!
Next time we’ll be diving in to look at the tri discipline that can often seem the most daunting for newcomers to the sport, the swim. Hopefully with my advice, you’ll be able to take those first strokes with confidence…