Finding time for cooking can be complicated for athletes with tight schedules. Fitting the extra time for cooking into a day already busy with training, work, family and life can be a lot of work. Meal prepping can becoming a wonderful ally for triathletes and runners.
Preparing food in advance is a great way of adding quality and variety to your diet. Taking extra time one day a week can lower the stress around mealtime and increase your ability to enjoy nutritious and delicious food while saving time and money.
When it comes to meal prepping, the first image that comes to mind for most people is a fridge full of containers with meals individually packed for the whole week. However, I see some downsides to this method:
Having the same meal every single day can become very monotonous.
The chance is high that towards the end of the week the food will become less appealing, either because it has been sitting there for a while or because you have had enough of it.
If some elements in the container go off quicker than others the whole meal can go to waste.
The method that I like and often recommend is to prepare a few individual items. This allows you to build different meals and snacks around those items. Here are some additional benefits of doing this:
It adds variety to your meals.
They can be stored for longer than a week. Some things can be cooked in bulk and portions frozen for another time.
It is easier to store these elements in ways that will increase their storage life.
With this in mind, here are my top 5 tips for nailing your meal prep as a busy triathlete or runner.
1. Get some gear
You will need to store food so make sure you have adequate containers, and ensure they are freezer friendly.
Silicone freezer bags are great to storing food or taking snacks with you without using disposable plastics such as Ziploc bags.
Having gadgets such a rice cooker or multi-function cooker can be handy too. Rice cookers are relatively affordable and, as someone who used to either overcook or undercook her rice, this gadget has been truly appreciated in my house.
2. The art of batch cooking
If possible, try to cook in batches things that you know can work well in different dishes or formats. For example, one of my favourites is cooking 1 kg of chicken breast at once. I add some seasoning such as salt, pepper or BBQ seasoning before cooking them, then I split them in individual portions and freeze them in silicone bags.
From here I can either a) add them to my lunchbox the night before with some salad and pasta or rice so they are defrosted and ready to eat the next day or b) have them available to add to soups, make as sandwiches, or mix with different type of sauces to add to dishes.
Other things that I love cooking in batches are roasted vegetables, soups, mince meat, dressings and sauces.
3. Clever storage
Probably one of the most frustrating things to prepare in advance are salads. It's often hard to store them in the fridge without them wilting very quickly. Even though they are still unlikely to last the whole week, I have found that chopping different veggies in advance and storing them in individual containers increases the likelihood of them staying nicer for longer.
I still recommend that, whenever possible, you chop your vegetables closer to the time you will eat them so they can be as fresh as possible.
4. Think outside the fridge
There are some pantry essentials with a long storage life that can become the perfect companions to some meals. These are particularly handy when you have 3/4 of a meal ready but you are missing the carbohydrate or protein. I always have these available in my pantry: tinned tuna, tomatoes, beans, corn kernels and chickpeas.
5. Have a plan
Look at the week ahead and plan in advance to ensure you have everything you need. This also includes your time - having big plans and finding out halfway through you don’t have enough time to execute them can become very frustrating.
Lock some time in your schedule when you think it is going to be most convenient for you to spend 1-2 hours in the kitchen.
Make a list of the things you would like to cook and the order you are going to cook them.
Get all ingredients and gear required.
Set good music (recommended)
There is something that every endurance athlete knows. To achieve results, you have to put the work in. It is almost impossible to be successful at an endurance event without doing the training beforehand. Now, here’s something that not everybody understands, the nutrition for each of those training sessions has a direct impact on how efficient those sessions are.
It is not just about the fuel
Food is fuel. That’s something that most athletes understand. For a car to move, it needs to have petrol, just as your body needs food. However, it doesn’t stop there. Continuing with the car analogy, food is also the lubricant, the cleaning agent and all the tiny elements that keep your machine running smoothly and efficiently. So, if you want your body to operate as efficiently as possible, you don’t only need energy. You also need the nutrients for it.
When you get the energy and nutrients also makes a difference
Even though it is crucial, it’s not only sufficient to get the energy and nutrients in. When you get them plays a key role in how your body utilises them. It’s not the same eating an energy gel while you’re madly sending emails from your desk than eating it in the middle of a run.
Eating the right type of energy at the right time can make a big difference in supporting the objectives of your training session.
The purpose behind training
So we know that to get results, we need to train. But how does that work? The main purpose of training is to trigger physiological adaptations in your body, which eventually will translate into improved performance. In other words, training tells your body that something needs to change, and the physiological adaptations make the change happen. As a result, the next time you attempt the same stimuli, your body is more efficient, stronger and faster.
Now, we know that different training sessions trigger various adaptations. That’s why your coach has you doing long, steady runs or rides, intervals, hill repeats and much more. Each of these sessions has a different purpose in promoting a specific change in your body.
The role nutrition plays in
When it comes to training, there are two objectives that nutrition needs to meet:
- Allow the session to be effective.
- Allow the session to be efficient.
Getting the session done and doing the session as requested are two different things. An effective training session is one you can complete according to plan. This means that if you were supposed to run ten sets of 1km at 5 min/km, you could complete each set as requested, with set number 10 being as good as number 1.
To achieve this, your body needs to have the right energy. Without this, it will be hard for the training session to be of optimal quality.
An efficient session achieves the purpose it was set to accomplish. This is when the training adaptations commence. For these adaptations to occur, your body needs both energy and nutrients. These are the critical building blocks allowing your body to operate adequately. Without them, rather than training being an enabler, it becomes a burden.
Key nutrition considerations for training
A training strategy considers three critical moments in the training process. These are what you eat before, during and after training.
Nutrition before training
As an endurance athlete, your body relies on carbohydrate and fat as fuel sources. The higher the intensity and the longer the training session duration, your body will utilise more carbohydrate. This is why your body needs enough glycogen before the session starts.
These are some essential key points to consider:
- Fasted training. Your body uses some of your glycogen while sleeping, which means your fuel may be a bit low by the time you are heading to your session. Avoid fasted training if you plan to exercise longer than 1 hour or have an interval training session.
- Gut comfort. Keep fat and fibre low in the lead-up to your session to avoid stomach upset while training.
- Hydration. To support your performance, it is essential to ensure your body is well hydrated before starting your session.
Nutrition during training
For training sessions longer than 1 hour, considering additional fuel while exercising is important to allow your body to sustain the effort. The longer the activity, the more critical it will be to consume energy. In most cases, this energy should predominantly come from low-fibre, low-fat carbohydrate foods or products.
Nutrition after training
This is when your body is the most receptive to replenishing what you have used during your training and to support the training adaptations. Including carbohydrate, protein, and fluid is critical to assist with this recovery.
The final remarks
As you can see, developing a plan that allows you to fuel effectively to support the effort you’re already putting into training is important for each of those sessions to pay off and get the most out of them.
Most people think of their nutrition as what they will need to consume during the race and dedicate considerable time and effort to putting a plan together for it. However, they’re leaving a lot on the table by ignoring the huge benefit they can get by planning their nutrition for optimal training.
Join me at my upcoming workshop
I’m hosting a virtual workshop where I will teach a group of endurance athletes how to plan their nutrition for optimal training.
In this 90-minute session, you will understand exactly how to fuel your body to get the most benefit from the many hours you are already investing in training.
How to stop stomach problems from sabotaging your race
Gut issues are reasonably common among endurance athletes. More than 60% of athletes report gastrointestinal symptoms in longer, ultra-endurance events. Symptoms like nausea, cramping, bloating, side stitches, and frequent toilet stops can negatively impact an athlete’s performance. Avoid these mistakes to minimise your risk of gut distress sabotaging your race.
Mistake #1 - Not training the gut
Just like your legs, lungs and heart, your gut is trainable. You can train your stomach to tolerate, absorb and digest food more efficiently while moving.
To achieve this, it is crucial to practice and get used to consuming the same type, quantity and frequency of food you’re planning to eat on race day. It’s not only about trying an energy gel during a run and assuming that eating five will also work.
Mistake #2 - Not hydrating well
Your gut needs water to assist with nutrient absorption and digestion. By being severely dehydrated, you’re compromising your performance and ability to tolerate food. So it’s no surprise that gut issues tend to exacerbate during races conducted in hot conditions.
Ensure you drink fluids regularly, especially when eating energy-dense foods like gels or bars.
Mistake #3 - Using the wrong type of carbohydrate
There are different types of carbohydrates or sugars, each of which your body absorbs differently—some at a slower rate than others. On average, your gut can absorb 1 g of glucose per minute. This is why many nutrition recommendations suggest staying around 60g of carbohydrates per hour so your consumption matches your absorption rate. However, it’s been shown that combining different types of carbohydrates can increase the absorption rate to up to 1.5 g/min. Using a ratio of 2:1 glucose: fructose. Being aware of this, many sports products are now developed using this ratio to enhance gut absorption but not all of them.
If you have this ratio out of balance and consume more carbohydrates than your gut can absorb, your stomach will likely suffer.
Mistake #4 - Consuming sodium in inadequate quantities
Besides supporting electrolyte balance and hydration, sodium plays a role in food absorption. However, too little or too much can be distressful for your gut and cause issues on race day.
Mistake #5 - Eating the wrong food before the event
Fibre and fat are elements you must keep in check in the lead-up to your main event. They both slow gut transit, and eating them too close to the race can mean that your body will still be processing them while trying to go on with your event.
If you struggle with food allergies or intolerances or still haven’t figured out what is causing your gut upset, I encourage you to seek professional help. Understanding the cause of these issues and implementing a plan to manage them will make your training and race experience more enjoyable.
The final remarks
You can reduce the likelihood of stomach problems ruining your race. As an endurance athlete, planning and practising your nutrition benefits your performance and reduces the risk of gut issues interfering with your race.
Burke, Louise, Vicki Deakin, and Michelle Minehan. "Exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders, food intolerance and allergies." Clinical Sports Nutrition. (2021).
Costa, Ricardo JS, et al. "Gut-training: The impact of two weeks repetitive gut-challenge during exercise on gastrointestinal status, glucose availability, fuel kinetics, and running performance." Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 42.5 (2017): 547-557.
Your complete guide to a successful pre-race carbohydrate loading
As an endurance athlete, carbohydrates are your primary fuel. Just as you want to top up your fuel tank before a long trip, you also want to top up your carbohydrate reserves before an important event. You need to increase your fuel reserves by following a successful carbohydrate loading protocol as part of your pre-race fuelling.
Is carb loading necessary for endurance athletes?
Following a carb loading protocol for at least 24 hours before an endurance event with a duration of at least 90 minutes is necessary to maximise the glycogen reserves in your body. Besides, carbohydrate loading for endurance athletes increases time to exhaustion by about 20% on average and improves time trial results by about 2 to 3%.
How to carb load correctly
You need to consider three key elements for a successful carbohydrate loading: Type of food, quantity and duration.
Type of food
You guessed it, carbohydrates are the focus of a carb-loading protocol. Choosing the correct type of carbohydrates is essential. You need to select food options high in carbohydrates but low in fat and fibre. Relying on donuts or creamy pasta as your main foods during this loading period is unlikely to be helpful.
It is also essential to choose foods you are familiar with. Now it’s not the time to experiment with new dishes or cuisines.
You need to consume 8-10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. This means that a 65kg athlete will need to consume 520 - 650 grams of carbohydrate per day—the equivalent of more than 10 cups of cooked rice, to give you an idea.
The carbohydrate loading needs to occur at least 24 hours before events of a maximum of 90 minutes and up to 48 hours before those longer than 90 minutes. A big pasta dinner the night before your race is helpful but insufficient for topping your tank reserves.
Example of a carbohydrate loading meal plan
Below are some examples of foods to include as part of your carb loading.
Hot tips for a successful carb loading for endurance athletes
- Choose compact sources of energy to make it easier to increase your intake. Options like rice, pasta, bread and potatoes are excellent as the base of your main meals.
- Include carbohydrate-rich foods such as jam, honey, fruit juice, energy bars, or sports drinks to increase your carb intake without adding too much volume.
- Include small regular snacks to spread the intake across the day and keep your gut comfortable.
- Stay well hydrated since glycogen needs water to be stored in your muscles.
- Plan what you will eat. The days before a race are often hectic. Therefore, consider the logistics and schedule for the days before the event when putting your carb-loading plan together.
- Try the carb loading plan before race day. Don’t wait to test the food on race week. Instead, choose a big training session to test the carb loading and confirm you are happy with your plan.
The final remarks
When done right, carbohydrate loading is an effective strategy to increase fuel reserves and support a successful result on race day for endurance athletes.
What are the most effective supplements for triathletes and runners?
For many athletes, it’s hard to think of nutrition without supplements. Unfortunately, the use of supplements across the athletic population is significantly larger than the number of proven effective supplements. That’s why here’s a summary of those supplements with enough evidence of enhancing performance for endurance athletes.
As an endurance dietitian, I think of supplements as the ‘cherry on top. It doesn’t matter how many cherries you put on your cake, it is half-baked, and some key ingredients are missing, neither the taste nor consistency will be appealing. Relying on supplements to make up for a poor diet is the same. Without the nourishing environment of a solid nutrition and training foundation, most supplements will be useless.
Products such as sports drinks, energy gels, chews, bars and electrolyte mixes fall within this category.
The purpose of these products is to supply the athlete with a convenient form to consume a particular nutrient. In many cases, this nutrient is carbohydrates.
Since endurance athletes rely on carbohydrates as their primary fuel source, these supplements are very relevant. Some key aspects to consider when choosing these products are:
- Amount of carbohydrates per serving.
- Amount of calories per serving.
- Type of carbohydrate used (e.g. single or multiple transportable carbohydrates)
- Flavour and palatability
- Individual athlete preference.
- Consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour for activities of up to 2.5 hours.
- Consume up to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour for activities longer than 2.5 hours.
Events that benefit the most:
- Events with a longer than 1-hour duration.
- For about 60g per hour intakes, include products with multiple transportable carbohydrates.
- Review the list of ingredients if you are gluten or fructose intolerant.
Caffeine is a well-known stimulant with well-established benefits in sports performance. For endurance, caffeine supplements support alertness and decrease perceived effort. Additionally, caffeine promotes fatty acid oxidation helping the body use fat as an energy source.
- 3-6 mg/kg of body weight, consumed 60 minutes before the activity and lower doses of 3 mg/kg or less during the exercise with a carbohydrate source.
Events that benefit the most:
- More is not better. Larger doses of caffeine do not have an increased effect and are more likely to have a negative impact by increasing the likelihood of side effects.
- Caffeine affects sleep. If you are exercising in the evening, re-consider if the benefit outweighs the cost of not supporting adequate recovery due to a lack of quality sleep.
- If you do not react well to caffeine, avoiding its inclusion during exercise is better.
Dietary nitrate enhances nitric oxide availability. This, in turn, supports exercise performance by improving muscle economy, mitigating fatigue and positively impacting cardiorespiratory performance.
Supplementation with nitrate has been associated with improvements of 4-25% in exercise time to exhaustion and 1-3% in time trials with less than 40 min duration.
- 300–600 mg of nitrate (up to 10 mg/kg or 0.1 mmol/kg) or 500 mL beetroot juice or 3–6 whole beets within 90 min of exercise onset
- Consider multi-day dosing, e.g., six days of a high-nitrate diet before the event.
- High nitrate-containing foods include leafy green and root vegetables, including spinach, rocket, celery and beetroot.
Events that benefit the most:
- Events with 2h or less duration.
- 500 ml of beetroot juice before a race can cause significant gastrointestinal distress in some athletes. Some beet-root concentrates and “shots” have been developed as an alternative.
- Dietary nitrate supplements mildly lower diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure, which may be an issue for those with low blood pressure, orthostasis, or at risk of hypotension.
By now, you may be wondering, “is that it?”. “Why does my supplement shop has many more items than you just mentioned?”.
Unfortunately, the world of nutrition supplements is inundated with products that rarely offer the benefits listed on their labels. Many of these products go to market with little to no evidence of their efficacy, putting the athlete’s wallet and, most importantly, their health at risk.
Remember, always consult with your health or nutrition professional before using any supplement and only consume products that have been batch tested for banned substances.
Female representation in sport has increased in the last few decades. For example, 49% of the athletes participating in the 2021 Olympic Games were female compared to only 2% of participants in the 1900 Olympic Games or 13% in 1964. However, even though we've seen this improvement at the elite level, female athletes continue to be misrepresented in many areas of sport, including sports, exercise and nutrition research.
So far, most sports nutrition research and subsequent nutrition guidelines have been based on studies with primarily male participants. It was not until the last 5 to 10 years that we saw increased interest and demand for research on female athletes.
Women's hormonal cycles mean that estrogen and progesterone fluctuations affect metabolism and fluid retention differently. Here I summarise the top female-specific nutrition considerations for endurance athletes highlighted across the limited research available.
Consuming enough calories needs to be the female athlete's #1 nutrition priority. Not consuming enough energy to meet the body's metabolic and activity demands can disrupt menstruation, decrease performance, cause loss of bone mass and increase the risk for injury and osteoporosis. Unfortunately, previous data evaluating the dietary intake of female athletes reported that most athletes didn't consume enough calories.
Making specific adjustments based on the menstrual cycle becomes irrelevant without adequate energy intake.
Carbohydrates are considered vital during endurance activities, especially those of moderate to high intensity. Therefore, strategic consumption of carbohydrates around physical activity is beneficial for ensuring their availability.
Pre-exercise carbohydrate intake
Pre-training carbohydrate intake is more critical during the follicular phase when carbohydrate oxidation increases and glycogen reserves are reduced.
Female athletes can also benefit from a carbohydrate-loading nutrition protocol ahead of their most important races. This is because the capacity to "load" muscle glycogen is not sex-dependent as long as enough carbohydrate is consumed (8-12 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight).
Carbohydrate during exercise
Consumption of carbohydrates during prolonged exercise is beneficial regardless of the menstrual cycle phase. However, female athletes appear to have a lower capacity to oxidise carbohydrates compared to males. With guidelines suggesting an intake of 30 to 90 g of carbohydrates per hour during prolonged endurance activity, it may be beneficial to consider a quantity at the lower end of the bracket and adjust according to tolerance and ability to sustain the effort.
It is essential to consume carbohydrates immediately after prolonged exercise to restore the muscle glycogen used during the activity. Post-training carbohydrate ingestion can be more critical during the follicular phase since glycogen storage may be reduced. An intake of 1.2 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour in the first 1-4 hours after training is recommended.
Overall, females seem to rely more on fat oxidation as a source of energy than men. Additionally, fat oxidation appears to be higher during the luteal phase. Therefore, adequate fat intake (at least 20% of total energy intake) is necessary to meet the demands of sex hormone regulation, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the increased reliance on fat oxidation.
Recent research into active female protein requirements suggests that protein intake should be at least 1.6 g/kg of body weight per day during the follicular phase. This requirement may be higher during the luteal phase due to increased muscle protein breakdown rates.
Consuming 4 to 5 meals spread throughout the day with a total of 0.3 g of protein per kg body weight is recommended to maximise muscle protein synthesis.
Consuming protein after training is essential to support muscle protein repair and remodelling. Therefore, female athletes should aim to consume a source of high-quality protein as soon as possible as part of their post-training recovery meal.
Deficiencies in iron, vitamin D and calcium are common in female athletes.
Female athletes at higher risk of iron deficiency include those following vegan or vegetarian diets, those with high amounts of repetitive ground strikes (e.g. runners), and those with heavy menstrual bleeding.
Calcium and vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for immunity and injury prevention and works closely with calcium to promote bone health. Calcium is also vital to muscle contraction and relaxation.
During the luteal phase, under the influence of high progesterone levels, body temperature can increase by 0.5–1.0 °C. Despite this increase, current evidence does not suggest an increased risk for heat illness (often secondary to dehydration) in women compared to men.
Female athletes should aim to start the activity in a hydrated state. In the case of hydration during exercise consuming 0.4 to 0.8 L per hour is sufficient for most athletes. However, understanding the athlete's sweat rate makes it easier to plan a more personalised hydration strategy.
More research exploring the specific effects of women's physiology on nutrition and hydration needs is still necessary to produce robust sports nutrition recommendations for female athletes. Fortunately, recent years have seen more female researchers and athletes advocating and working on this change... watch this space!
- Holtzman, Bryan, and Kathryn E. Ackerman. "Recommendations and nutritional considerations for female athletes: health and performance." Sports Medicine 51.1 (2021): 43-57.
- Moore, Daniel R., Jennifer Sygo, and James P. Morton. "Fuelling the female athlete: Carbohydrate and protein recommendations." European Journal of Sport Science 22.5 (2022): 684-696.
- Rodriguez-Giustiniani, Paola, Nidia Rodriguez-Sanchez, and Stuart DR Galloway. "Fluid and electrolyte balance considerations for female athletes." European Journal of Sport Science 22.5 (2022): 697-708.
- Wohlgemuth, Kealey J., et al. "Sex differences and considerations for female specific nutritional strategies: a narrative review." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 18.1 (2021): 27.
There’s an equation that I love referring to when I think of endurance nutrition and performance.
QT x PA = IP
where QT = Quality training sessions, PA = Physiological adaptations and IP = Improved Performance
At its core, the purpose of training is to stimulate physiological adaptations in your body, such as developing muscle mass, increasing pulmonary capacity, improving blood flow, developing resistance, etc. These adaptations allow your body to be more efficient, faster and stronger, which translates into better performance and results.
This means that targeting your endurance nutrition into completing quality training sessions and promoting your body’s training adaptations will bring more benefit to your performance in the long term.
Fuelling quality training sessions
I don’t know about you, but my ideal training session looks something like this: Even before the warm-up, my body feels ready to get going, I’m able to meet the targets for each of the sets, and even though they don’t feel easy, I’m able to stay consistent throughout the session. Then, when I’m done with the cool-down, I’m ready to go home, enjoy a nice shower and get on with my day.
Whereas on the opposite side, my worst training sessions had looked something like this: I felt sluggish during the warm-up, I even needed the first set to get into the pace required, and by the time I was on the second last set, I was already struggling and have dropped the pace significantly, the cool-down feels more like dragging my body to the car and by the time I get home I’m only looking forward to being on the couch.
The main difference between one session and the other is that my body was well-recovered and energised in the first one. Whereas in the second, I didn’t have enough energy, and my body was not fully recovered.
You must ensure your body is well-nourished and energised to get quality training sessions. This is not something that drinking a Red Bull thirty minutes before warm-up will fix.
What you eat before, during and after your training session directly impacts the quality of that training session. Not all sessions have the same objective. Therefore you should not fuel all sessions the same way. Download my free fuelling guide with specific endurance nutrition recommendations for different training sessions.
Promoting the training adaptations
Above else, your body prioritises survival. This means that the body uses the energy you consume for core functions and uses whatever is left for non-essential activities such as your daily run or your time at work.
When the energy is insufficient, your body tries to spare as much as possible for essential functions and finds ways to save energy from the non-essential ones. Have you ever felt unable to concentrate at work, sleepy, or unwilling to train at all? These are examples of your body’s attempts at saving energy.
A well-nourished and energised body is a body that is consistently fuelled throughout the day, receives vital nutrients when they are needed the most and has all essential nutrients available to thrive.
When the energy is sufficient, and all the essential nutrients are present in your diet, your body can target non-essential functions, such as promoting the training adaptations that allow your body to become more efficient, faster and stronger.
As you can see, what you eat on race day is very important for that day to be successful. However, you are leaving a lot on the table by not looking at your sports nutrition months ahead of your main event. What you do day by day, week by week, will give you the most significant advantage.
What are the key nutrition considerations for a full-distance triathlon?
There is no doubt that adequate training preparation is required to be successful at completing an Ironman. However, having the right amount and type of fuel is equally essential for this preparation and for the race day to be successful. I’ve seen how poor nutrition decisions have ruined races for many athletes wasting all the time, energy and money they invested as part of this preparation, and I don’t want that to be your case. This is why I have decided to put this Ironman Nutrition Guide together with the key nutrition considerations for your full distance triathlon to be successful.
Nutrition for Ironman Training
Before we jump ahead and talk about what you’ll need on race day, it is essential to talk about how you will fuel the preparation and why this is important.
The purpose of training is to trigger physiological adaptations in your body that eventually will translate into better performance. Many people don’t understand that nutrition during training goes beyond eating enough calories. The nutrients in those calories are also critical for those physiological adaptations to occur. Therefore the purpose of food during this stage is for your training to be as efficient as possible.
These are the key considerations so nutrition can support your training.
Now is not the time to go on a new diet or try to lose weight. Restricting your energy intake while your training volume increases will only result in catastrophe. Poor performance, higher risk of illness or injury and lack of energy are only a few of the consequences of not getting sufficient calories.
Getting all essential nutrients
Carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals are all essential for your body to fulfil its core functions, and they all have a role to play in performance enhancement. This is why beyond looking at calories, it is vital to ensure that your diet is well balanced and varied, so all essential nutrients are present.
Eating at the right time
There are critical moments in your day when nutrition becomes even more important. That is before, during and after training.
You want to ensure that your body has sufficient energy to commence the activity so your body doesn’t need to go under unnecessary stress as part of completing that training session. Carbohydrates are your friends and you will need them at this stage.
Some level of nutrition will likely be required for activities with a duration longer than 90 minutes. The longer the duration and the higher the intensity, the more you will need. This is also the perfect time to try the foods and products you intend to use during your race to get familiar with them and decide which ones work better for you.
The nutrients you consume after your training go straight to where your body needs them the most to stimulate the post-training recovery and start working on those adaptations. Both carbohydrates and protein are necessary during this stage. It is also important that you remember to rehydrate, especially if you’ve been training in the heat.
Nutrition for Ironman Racing
Now that the training is covered, it’s time to guide your Ironman nutrition on the day of the event. The goal is to keep your body energised without disturbing your gut. Easier said than done. Here’s what you need to consider.
Fuelling up your tank
Before heading on to race day, you must ensure that your fuel reserves are full. The best way to achieve this is by following a carbohydrate-loading protocol. I know that pasta parties are pretty popular to increase carbohydrate intake before a race. However, eating pasta the night before your race will not be sufficient to fuel up your tank.
For the carb-loading to be effective, you will need to increase your carbohydrate intake at least two days before your race and preferably three. The guidelines suggest an intake of 7-10g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. This means that if you are a 70kg athlete, you will need to consume between 490 and 700 grams of carbohydrate per day. In case you were wondering, the equivalent is at least 30 slices of bread or 8 cups of rice.
Now, before you go and stuff your mouth with rice or bread (please don’t), here are some ways to help you increase your carbohydrate intake without drastically increasing the volume of food you consume.
- Split your meals into three main meals and three snacks. In each of these, ensure you have high carbohydrate foods (fruits, rice, pasta, bread, wraps, oats, etc.).
- Adding energy-dense options such as sugar, jam, or honey to your meals helps increase your carb intake.
- Drinks are pretty helpful as well. These days, you can have a glass of juice or sugar-sweetened tea and some Gatorade/Powerade throughout the day.
- Try having 1 to 2 extra servings of carbohydrates per meal (i.e. if you usually eat half a cup of rice, try having a full cup).
- Reduce your fat and fibre intake to avoid any stomach upset.
Race day morning meal
This is the moment when you finish topping up your fuel reserves. Overnight your body uses glucose from your liver as energy while you’re sleeping, so the purpose of that meal is to replenish those energy losses. Ideally, you want to have a meal with 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight one to four hours before your race starts. As a rule of thumb, I like matching them. One gram if eating 1 hour before, two if 2, etc.
Here are some options to guide your nutrition choices on the morning of your Ironman. Always make sure you’ve tried this meal before during training.
Race day nutrition
Alright, now that we know what you eat months and days before the event matters, it’s time to talk about what you will eat and drink on race day. During the race, we want your body to stay energised for as long as possible and keep your gut from suffering.
While moving, your body is using both carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates are your primary energy source, and your body is very efficient at using them. However, you can run out of them very quickly. Therefore, even after following a carb-loading, you still need to eat carbs during your race.
The guidelines suggest that for ultra-distance races such as the Ironman, the carbohydrate intake must be between 60-90 grams per hour. This can come from various sources such as sports drinks, energy gels, energy bars, chews or homemade food. For many people, relying on a single energy source (e.g. getting all carbohydrate from gels or drink) doesn’t go well, but some athletes prefer this method. I recommend choosing a baseline sports drink, gels and a solid option and rotating through them with most energy coming from the drink and gels.
To decide which mix works best, you need to try these combinations and quantities ahead of the race. The long training sessions are ideal for doing this. This takes me to the next point.
Dehydration can seriously affect performance and your body’s ability to handle the heat. However, overhydration is equally important and severe, with some athletes developing exercise-associated hyponatraemia due to poor hydration. This is why being aware of your sweat rate ahead of race day will help you plan an adequate hydration strategy that allows you to consume sufficient fluids to keep your dehydration levels within healthy ranges.
Avoiding gut upset
Gut issues during ultra-endurance events are relatively common. Having the proper nutrition strategy and gut adaptation is critical for minimising the risk of this being your case.
Not all foods are created equal, and for those athletes above the 60g per hour intake, looking at the carbohydrate ratio of the food they are consuming is essential to ensure the gut can handle the absorption.
Hydration also plays a significant role in supporting food absorption. It is not uncommon that the prevalence of gut issues increases in races with high temperatures and high levels of humidity. This is due to dehydration's impact on the gut’s ability to absorb food.
Gut adaptation needs to occur during the training stage. To be successful, you will need to practice your nutrition using the type, quantity and frequency you intend to do on race day.
The final remarks
An Ironman is a big commitment. Therefore, working on your nutrition alongside your training preparation and planning a strategy well ahead of the event is indispensable to achieving a successful race.
“Eat like an athlete” is often confused with a diet with an abundance of fruits and vegetables and minimally processed food. However, after close to 10 years of working with athletes of all levels, I can tell you that “eating like an athlete” is nowhere near that.
Since most of the athletes I deal with are endurance athletes, their energy requirements are often high. Meeting these energy needs relying primarily on fruits and vegetables is nearly impossible. Those who dare to try it are likely to spend most of their day visiting the toilet… yikes!
Due to their convenience and energy density, energy gels, sports drinks and bars (aka processed foods) are also part of an athlete's regular diet.
However, due to this belief attached to what “eating like an athlete” should look like, many endurance athletes find themselves not fuelling correctly in their attempt to eat as clean as possible.
Even recently, in an interview for 220 Triathlon, professional triathlete Lucy Charles-Barclay shared her experience dealing with her nutrition. She mentioned how her need to be as professional as possible in every aspect of her life forced her to restrict her diet and not fuel properly. Lucy shared that she now understands the role nutrition plays and that energy restriction will keep her from becoming the world's best Ironman triathlete.
In contrast, Michael Phelps’ diet became very popular a few years ago. He regularly ate hamburgers and fried food to meet his 10,000 kcal needs and keep up with his daily 6 hours of training.
So, what does eating like an athlete actually look like? There is no particular food list you need to follow to ensure you are eating like an athlete. What you need is that your food choices help you achieve the following:
- Include sufficient energy to meet your caloric needs for optimal health and performance.
- Add enough protein to spread out your protein intake throughout the day.
- Include enough variety to assist with essential nutrient intake.
- Prioritise key fuelling times to support training adaptations.
- Be easy to absorb and digest when consumed close to training.
There is no single food that ticks off each of the points above, and that is not the intention. For example, a high in fibre food won’t be as easy to absorb and digest as a refined grain or sugar.
An example of a day of an athlete’s diet meeting these requirements is outlined below.
- 4:50 am - Pre-training meal: Toast with jam and fruit
- 5:30 am - Swim session
- 7:30 am - Post-training meal: Eggs on toast with spinach and a fruit smoothie
- 10:00 am - Morning snack: Fruit, greek yogurt and granola bowl.
- 1:00 pm - Lunch: Mixed greens, pasta and chicken breast with a glass of lemonade
- 3:30 pm - Afternoon snack: Fruit and nuts
- 5:30 pm - Pre-training snack: Muesli bar and fruit
- 6:00 pm - Run session
- 7:30 pm - Dinner: Salmon fillet, a bowl of rice and roasted veggies followed by sweets: ice-cream scoop
- 9:00 pm - Bedtime
As you can tell, the majority of the foods are those included in a regular “healthy/balanced diet”, but there is room for energy-dense foods. The meal frequency spreads energy intake throughout the day while including energy at key times near the training sessions.
Eating like an athlete does not mean restriction. Before you go on cutting things from your diet, have a look at what could possibly be missing. Focusing on what you need to add rather than remove will bring you far better results.
Racing weight is a term a lot of endurance athletes are familiar with. It is based on the premise that racing at a lower body weight will improve sports performance and achieve faster times.
Because of this principle, many endurance athletes frequently find themselves restricting their food intake in the hopes of getting leaner to achieve peak performance.
Thankfully, current sports nutrition evidence demonstrates that food’s true benefit lies in what we need to add and not so much in what needs to be subtracted.
These are the main reasons why achieving a racing weight shouldn’t be your top priority:
1. There is no evidence of a real benefit
This one shocked me. For years we’ve been told that leaner and lighter athletes achieve better results than their heavier counterparts. However, no data demonstrate that getting an athlete to drop weight and fat ahead of the competition is beneficial. In other words, Joe at 60kg may perform better than Peter at 65 kilograms, but nothing is demonstrating that asking Peter to aim for a racing weight 5kg lighter will improve his sports performance.
There is, however, plenty of evidence demonstrating the harmful impact energy restriction has on performance and health.
2. Losing weight requires a caloric deficit
This is achieved by either reducing energy intake, increasing energy expenditure or both. However, restricting energy intake can put the athlete at risk of developing energy deficiency, ultimately significantly compromising their performance.
3. Underminishes other nutrition benefits
Someone concerned with looking after their weight is less likely to do carb-loading, include nutrition during long training sessions and prioritise recovery after training. As a consequence, they are missing meaningful opportunities for supporting training adaptations and getting the most out of training.
4. Leads to frustration
Often, racing weight goals don't consider the athlete’s body composition, body weight fluctuations, and overall individual circumstances, making these goals very unrealistic.
Additionally, restricting calories does not always translate into weight loss. Your body’s priority is survival. When energy is missing, it conducts adaptations to preserve energy. Therefore, you are constantly tired and cranky, craving high-calorie foods and struggling to perform at the expected level.
5. Poses a health risk
Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is a severe problem. Consequences include impairments of metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis and cardiovascular health. In addition, weight-loss attempts and the desire to be leaner are risk factors for RED-S.
Health (left) and performance (right) consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) Source: IOC consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update
What can you do instead?
I’m not saying that weight loss can’t happen. What I’m saying is that it needs to stop being your focus. Fuelling your body right, getting quality training sessions and prioritising your body’s overall recovery and ability to support the training adaptations will bring you better results than keeping a close eye on the scale.
I love the way Jesse Thomas talks about this after overcoming an eating disorder that put his career and life at risk. “Don’t aim for a number on the scale. Aim for consistently healthy habits (...) If you eat consistently healthy, sleep well, and get your workouts in, your body will adjust to the appropriate weight, and that is your ideal race weight.”
Mountjoy, M., Sundgot-Borgen, J., Burke, L., Ackerman, K. E., Blauwet, C., Constantini, N., ... & Budgett, R. (2018). International Olympic Committee (IOC) consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 28(4), 316-331.
Tomiyama, A. J., Ahlstrom, B., & Mann, T. (2013). Long‐term effects of dieting: Is weight loss related to health?. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(12), 861-877.
Hicks, L. (2020, July 29). For young female athletes, losing weight may not improve performance. Retrieved from https://www.science.org/content/article/young-female-athletes-losing-weight-may-not-improve-performance
Tornberg, Å. B., Melin, A., Koivula, F. M., Johansson, A., Skouby, S., Faber, J., & Sjödin, A. (2017). Reduced neuromuscular performance in amenorrheic elite endurance athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 49(12), 2478-2485.