“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.
The Ironman 70.3 is an endurance event with an approximate duration of 4 to 7 hours. Your body undergoes a constant effort, so physical and mental preparation are vital to achieving a successful result. In addition to proper training, nutrition plays a fundamental role in this physical preparation. Whether this is the first time you will compete at this distance or already have accumulated experience, mastering your nutrition strategy for an Ironman 70.3 will help you achieve the best outcome.
Days before the race… Let the feast begin!
Properly executed carbohydrate loading is essential, and its positive impact on performance during long-distance events such as an Ironman 70.3 is well-proven. However, there are particular guidelines you need to follow to ensure you maximise your fuel stores without compromising your gut comfort.
For an event such as the half ironman, the carb-loading needs to start 36 to 48 hours before the competition. This means that if your race is on Sunday, your carb-loading should start Friday and continue through Saturday.
Carbohydrates should be the priority for your meals. The trick is increasing carbohydrates without significantly increasing fat or fibre since this can cause stomach upset.
An intake of 7 to 10 g of carbohydrate/kg of body weight is recommended. This means that if you’re a 70 kg athlete, you should be having 490-700 g of carbohydrate per day.
Protein and fat intake should remain the same and, if possible, decrease a little bit.
“Thanks for the numbers, Gaby, but I don’t want to count grams for everything I eat”… alright, alright… here are some practical tips:
Split your meals into three main meals and three snacks. In each of these, make sure you’re having 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. During these days, you can have a glass of juice or sugar-sweetened tea and have some Gatorade/Powerade throughout the day.
Try having 1 to 2 extra serves of carbohydrates per meal (i.e. if you usually eat half a cup of rice, try having a full cup).
This is an example of what your day would look like
Example of a day of carbohydrate loading for an Ironman 70.3
Well done! You completed your carb-load with success, but this is just the beginning… Today is the day! Breakfast is vital for your nutrition to ensure you start your Ironman 70.3 with your fuel tank full (you’ll need it, trust me).
Eat your breakfast 2 to 4 hours before the race. The advantage of triathlons (I see it as an advantage) is that usually 2 hours before the race starts, you need to be in transition getting all your gear ready, so the chances of being awake 3 hours before your start are relatively high… take advantage of it! I usually suggest that my clients have breakfast as soon as they wake up; that way, you have enough time for processing your breakfast.
Don’t, I repeat, DON’T eat something you’re not used to. Make sure you try your breakfast before with training.
The guidelines suggest having 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilo of body weight. So if you’re 70 kg, you’ll be having 70-280g 2 to 4 hours before the event.
Avoid fat intake as much as possible and keep your fibre intake low.
During the event… Avoid hitting the wall!
Have you heard this expression before? In Mexico, we sometimes say “se me acabó el Gansito” which translates to something like “I ran out of Twinkies”! And yes, it precisely means that you run out of fuel. You have your fat stores, but the body can’t burn these stores as quickly as it burns carbs, so performance starts decreasing significantly. To avoid this, it is necessary to include carbohydrate consumption during the race, and the recommendation is to have 30-90 g of carbohydrate per hour.
There is an excellent range of products you can have, such as gels, jelly beans, and high carbohydrate bars. If you have the talent and inclination, you can also make your snacks with bread, honey, jam or dried fruit. I usually recommend getting pre-packaged products as I find them easier to carry, but that’s your own choice. As long as you get your carbs in, there’s no big deal. Sports drinks are also beneficial since they help you stay hydrated and carb-ed at the same time.
Here’s a table with high-carbohydrate foods that can help you plan your nutrition for your Ironman 70.3:
||Grams of carb
|Honey stinger waffle
After the event… you crossed the finish line, but this is not over yet.
Congratulations! You crossed that finish line. What a tremendous accomplishment after all those hours of effort, not only during the race but during training as well… Well done! But guess what? Your race is not over yet, at least not nutritionally speaking. Recovery is essential! (No, I don’t mean beer.) Even though you executed your carb load, you had a great breakfast, and you topped up your carbs during the race, your body is running on empty, and you must recover those nutrients ASAP.
After such a considerable effort, you often don’t feel that hungry, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat – it’s the opposite! This is when your body is ready to get those nutrients and send them straight to your muscles so they can recover properly. So take advantage of what is offered to you at the recovery zone, eat that fruit, drink the choc-milk and gobble down a sandwich or an energy bar.
Just as you need the right nutrition for an Ironman 70.3, hydration is critical. Losing as little as 2% of your body weight in water can significantly negatively impact your performance, so make sure you drink water before, during, and after your race.
Other general tips for long-distance triathlons
Caffeine intake has been shown to impact athletes’ performances positively. Therefore, having your breakfast with a strong cup of coffee with sugar/honey (carbs!) could be beneficial. Of course, this is without even mentioning the other great benefit of having coffee in the morning.
Don’t try anything new during the race. This is very important. Make sure you try all that I’ve mentioned before during training to know how your body reacts to it.
More is not always better. Yes, 60 grams of carbohydrate can help you perform better, but this doesn’t mean that 120 grams will give you superpowers… don’t do it! Your gut has an absorption tolerance of ~60 grams of glucose per hour, so having more than this increases your chances of having gastrointestinal discomfort.
Do you have any questions? Would you like to share your experience with me? I would love to hear it! firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck at your race!
Cermak, Naomi M., and Luc JC van Loon. “The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid.” Sports Medicine 43.11 (2013): 1139-1155.
Higgins, Simon, Chad R. Straight, and Richard D. Lewis. “The Effects of Pre exercise Caffeinated Coffee Ingestion on Endurance Performance: An Evidence-Based Review.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 26.3 (2016): 221-239.
Jeukendrup, Asker E. “Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling.” Journal of sports sciences 29.sup1 (2011): S91-S99.
Rankin, Janet Walberg. “Dietary Carbohydrate as an Ergogenic Aid for Prolonged and Brief Competitions in Sport.” IJSNEM 5 (1995).