I’ve been a dietitian for more than nine years. During this time, I’ve been a strong advocate for nutrition and how this can make a significant positive impact on endurance athletes’ sports performance and health. In addition, being a triathlete has helped me understand the main struggles endurance athletes face when it comes to improving their nutrition.
Information overload. Everybody seems to have an opinion on the best diet to follow, the new magical supplement and the #1 food you should avoid.
Constant body battle. Your body refuses to change despite how much you train or look after what you eat.
You are going nowhere. It feels like you are barely improving. You are often cranky, lacking energy and unable to bring out your best self.
Understanding how to use nutrition to your advantage is fundamental to unlocking your true potential. The following are key principles I have identified as paramount to maximise your performance and move your results from average to outstanding.
Fad diets are not sports nutrition
A common mistake I see is thinking that nutrition is a quick fix. Unfortunately, I know many people wasting time and energy finding that ‘magical supplement’ or following a trendy diet hoping it will be the solution to all their problems.
As much as we all would love a quick fix, unfortunately, that is not the case. Fuelling your core is all about getting your foundations right. Ensuring your diet has all essential nutrients that you are consistently fuelling throughout the day and paying attention to hunger and fullness cues.
Your nutrition needs to include all essential nutrients in your diet, so your body has the vital tools it needs to work as efficiently as possible and put up with the endurance demands. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients your body needs daily. When one of these nutrients lacks, the body needs to make adjustments that can ultimately create imbalances.
Diets advising against consuming any of these nutrients are likely to be unsustainable and to put both your health and performance at risk.
Burning calories is part of the activity, not the purpose
The ultimate purpose of your training sessions is to provoke a physiological adaptation that eventually will lead to improved performance. This is because your systems receive different stimuli depending on the type of training, and your body adapts in different ways. Ultimately, the idea is that you can perform the same effort faster, better or easier next time.
It turns out that nutrients and energy are critical for each step along the path. Your body needs the energy to complete that training session, but it also needs nutrients for those adaptations to occur.
Fuelling your endurance means ensuring that you can commence your training sessions feeling energised, maintain your energy levels throughout the session and optimise your recovery and performance adaptations afterwards.
A frequent error I see athletes making is underestimating their training sessions. They often think the session won’t be as hard or long, so eating before or during is unnecessary. However, even if you can complete your sessions in a fasted state, many athletes would likely benefit from consuming energy beforehand.
Another essential thing to keep in mind is the importance of prioritising post-workout recovery. Right after your training session, your body becomes very efficient at absorbing essential nutrients that will replenish your fuel stores and repair your muscles. So in the first hour after your training session, remember the following: Refuel, repair and rehydrate.
“Do not try anything new on race day” is a saying known by most athletes. As important as I think this is, I believe most people do not adequately implement this phrase. Just because you ate an energy gel while running and nothing happened, it doesn’t mean that having five while running a marathon will go as smoothly. Therefore, it is important to try things the way you intend to do them during the event.
Doing this will help you decide if what you are planning is truly going to work or if some adjustments need to get made BEFORE completely ruining a race and months of preparation for it.
Fuelling your performance is all about feeling confident at the start line, knowing you have a successful plan to ensure you will feel energised during the event. As a result, the likelihood of gut issues is low and you will be crossing that finish line feeling strong.
This principle took me the longest to understand, mainly because they don’t teach this at uni. Nutrition and sports units teach you about nutrients, pathways and systems for endurance athletes but rarely about the influence food has on mood and its cultural and social implications. All this seems secondary and irrelevant.
I thought that what was pulling me towards eating certain foods was weakness and lack of willpower. I used to think that maybe I didn’t want it bad enough. Today I understand that food is more than energy and fuel; food is connection, family, joy. Having a truly healthy and balanced diet also means embracing and accepting these other components of food.