Tri-athletes and Nutrition

by July Rogan

cyclist A triathlon consists of three disciplines: swimming, biking, and running. An individual who trains for triathlons will often average 11 hours of training per week, often having multiple trainings each day, which means that s/he needs to consume an increased amount of kcalories (kcals) in order to sustain his/her endurance, replenish his/her body with what he/she has used, and be attentive to his/her possible nutrient and mineral deficiencies. The effort to maintain the training regimen and to construct a dietary plan may influence the trend of becoming a life-long tri-athlete, but how does this work for those who are one-time triathlon competitors?

Where is the balance?

The idea behind nutrition and training is to find the ideal balance for optimal performance, a place where one can sustain energy and enhance overall performance, while supporting a healthy system. Female and male tri-athletes require a different amount of kcal intake; for example, prior to a long workout of high intensity, it is suggested that a male consume approximately 250 – 300 kcals consisting of 60 – 75 grams of carbohydrate per hour before training while the recommended amount for a female is approximately 200 – 250 kcals, consisting of 45 – 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. The general reference for this is one-half lean body weight in carbohydrate grams each hour prior to these longer workouts. Tip: reduce the amount of fat, fiber, and protein in this snack to help ease digestion and prevent diarrhea during the workout.

In order to refuel the body properly during a 90-minute or longer workout, the kcal/carbohydrate recommendation is the same as the “prior to workout” snack; however, the consideration of ½ gram of carbohydrate and a 1/8 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight is used to create the balance of kcals. The intention of this is to burn fat while sparing carbohydrate stores. An example for a female would be 1 energy gel and an electrolyte-enhanced water for each 30-minute interval after 90-minutes.

Following a workout, to properly replenish the body, it is suggested that the kcal intake remain the same (200 – 250) for females while it increases to 300+ for males. The equation used for refueling is the same for replenishing.

The kcal breakdown for training is as follows: 55 – 60% for healthy carbohydrates (fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains), 15 – 20% for lean proteins (low fat dairy, fish, chicken breast, and soy), and 20 – 25% of healthy fats (avocado, nuts, and olives). It is suggested to split the kcal intake amongst 4 – 6 balanced meals per day which will help encourage an even and consistent glycemic reaction. The next component in the balance is water. The recommendation for water consumption is half one’s body weight each day. For workouts, drink 16 – 24 ounces, 1 – 2 hours prior to the workout; drink 5 – 12 ounces every 20 minutes during the session, using an electrolyte-enhanced drink when the workout is 90-minutes or longer, and use a sports drink following the session if the urine is bright yellow or if 1 pound was lost during the workout.
For those who will return to a “normal” way of life, following the intense triathlon training and competition, slowly reducing the daily kcal intake over a couple of weeks…while continuing an exercise routine that is less rigorous until the “normal” recommended daily kcal intake is reached…would be a positive way to regain their pre-triathlon training routine.

What health problems are possible?
Based on a study that used 50 male and 21 female tri-athletes, males consumed 11,591 kcals a day, and females consumed 9,058 kcals a day; on average 54% of these kcals consumed were carbohydrates. Most participants exceeded the amount recommended for vitamin and mineral intake; however, 60% of them were low in zinc and copper. Approximately 8 of the women were low in iron. Some of the participants tested their stools for occult (blood): 27% were positive out of the 30% who tested. It was inconclusive if this was due to training or not; however, 50% of the athletes complained of bloating, gas, and other digestive problems.

Other things to keep an eye on during training are as follows:
- Overall sugar intake: Make sure that the majority of sugars are coming from fruits and milk (fructose and lactose), and make sure that only
10% of daily kcals come from sugar.
- Supplement use: If using for a deficiency, make sure to analyze food intake before taking a supplement and follow recommended dosage;
“more is not always better.” Work with a medical professional before taking supplements.

Helpful Links:
"The Beginners Guide to Triathlon Nutrition"

"Dietary patterns, gastrointestinal complaints, and nutrition knowledge of recreational triathletes"

"Sifting through Sugars"

"Triathlon Nutrition: Concerns About Supplements"

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