Nutrition is without a doubt one of the most overlooked aspects of any triathlon training program. We tend to focus a lot on conditioning and not fully optimizing our training. We’ve all heard the saying “work smarter, not harder.” Well, to some extent, that saying can be applied to your training program. We can tell ourselves “I burn X amount of calories a day, I can eat what I want when I want” or “I need to eat less to lose weight for my event.” Both may be true in some respects, but without the proper structure, these thoughts can prevent you from getting the most out of your training.
As a result of your training, you may be able to load your body with a lot of calories during the day. If you are preparing for an Ironman Triathlon, you are likely burning 2-5,000 calories a day or more during training. And yes, you have room for a lot of intake. However, how, when and what you eat can make a difference in your training results.
If you’re going to load up on empty calories i.e junk food and the like, do it earlier in the day. Training has a snowball effect, the more you train your body, the more calories you burn in a sedimentary state. This means that the further you go through your training, the more calories your body can burn just by doing your day-to-day activities. However, as your day slows down and your body prepares to rest, calorie burning will also slow down. So load up or eat more during the first part of the day and decrease as the day goes on and try to avoid single large meals, especially at night. Little Debbies in the morning can get burned; Little Debbies at 10pm will probably be sleeping with you all night and will still be there in the morning.
Note here that I will not go into detail about the idea of 5 to 6 smaller meals throughout the day instead of 2 to 3 large meals because entire books have been written on this topic. However, it is a great concept if it can be incorporated into your lifestyle and it has huge benefits. If nothing else, try incorporating healthy snacks between meals to keep your metabolism high and adequate fuel throughout the day.
Study after study has shown that for maximum weight loss it is best to exercise on an empty stomach. Simply put, your body will search for the fuel it needs, and with nothing readily available, it will use stored fat for fuel. This is fine, we are all looking for less fat and more lean muscle mass, however with just a little proper nutrition in the stomach for immediate availability, you will really be able to perform better during your workout. Maybe try a small, healthy 100-200 calorie snack before your workout and then a sensible snack or meal afterward to recover. The result is better performance and a better gain from the training session.
Along the same lines, it is very important for endurance athletes to understand good fat vs. bad fat. As mentioned above, our bodies will search for stored fat to use as fuel during training. We are asking a lot from our bodies and it is important to keep this supply in store for our bodies as we go through these rigorous activities. Learn to understand good fuel: more nuts, olive oil, salmon, peanut butter on the bagel, fatty fish and less fried foods, saturated fat, bacon, butter, etc., etc.
Learn to control how and when calories are eaten. A long day at work and / or triple training can result in severe hunger at the end of the day. Try to charge earlier in the day to avoid the urge to go to the pantry late at night. Chances are, you’re not looking for that healthy snack that you convinced yourself to eat at night. If you do, great, but that willpower needs to stay strong. Heavier during the first part of the day and decreasing as the day progresses by maintaining a constant flow of fuel for your calorie-burning machine. Keep fuel available for your workouts for maximum benefit. Exercising on an empty stomach can lead to early exhaustion and poor performance. Right now you need to get the most out of your investment during training.
To lose weight, focus on a 1 to 300 calorie deficit throughout the day. No crash diets, just noticeable weight loss as a result of burning just a few more calories than you eat. It’s pretty simple math. And the earlier in the day you put in those calories, the better.
You committed to completing a triathlon, give your body the best available opportunity to live up to that commitment. It’s not just about fitness when it comes to training. Providing proper nutrition will provide better efficiency and allow you to fully optimize your training sessions. Give your body what it needs and it will be there for you when you need it most. Stay focused, train hard, and train smart.