Sports Nutrition

Understanding your nutritional needs is critical to both performance and recovery. Athletes involved in endurance racing face extreme physiological demands that put a strain on the body in both training and racing so keeping your fuel needs at optimal levels is critical. This is complex article with excellent references for further reading available in our online bookshop.

Perfecting your training diet

Athletes follow a busy schedule through the week, training for multiple disciplines, often with two training sessions a day. This requires plenty of discipline in order to meet nutrition requirements at the right time. The balance of macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, water) in your diet has a direct impact on how well tuned your body is to train, race, recover and repair.

It is important to understand that everyday foods are vital and cannot be substituted entirely for supplements such as sports bars, gels, electrolytes and sports drinks. Although, for ideal race preparation, a combination of both provides the perfect levels of nutrition and during the race you should depend more on supplements like sports bars and gels for sound practical reasons. The science of food technology has been welcomed in the sports industry and is far more than just fads and clever marketing as we'll explain later.

Vital Proteins

Proteins are essential to assist in muscular repair, manufacture hormones, replace red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles, and supplement energy intake. But the role of protein as a sports fuel in the athlete diet wasn't fully appreciated until fairly recently (post 1990), when it was realised that if an athlete's diet lacked protein, they were likely to experience a breakdown of muscle tissue, "muscle wasting".

The daily protein requirement of an athlete is known to range somewhere from 1 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Determining how much protein each individual actually requires is a bit of mystery to food scientists and a little personal trial and error is ok. Thankfully, any "overload" is not harmful, provided you drink plenty of water daily to help with the removal of nitrogen, a by-product of protein metabolism.

Among the best sources of protein are lean meats. Animal foods are undoubtedly the most efficient and effective way to get the nine essential amino acids, and they are richer in protein by weight than plant sources. It actually requires smart combining of foods and large quantities to meet your protein needs on a vegetarian diet. Plant based proteins lack absorbable iron and zinc, whereas animal proteins contain important B vitamins and minerals. However - beware of of saturated fats when consuming animal proteins - hence only opt for "lean" sources, which are best derived from seafood, poultry, egg whites, and lean pork.

Additonal sources of quality proteins (with low saturated fat content) can be found in almonds, peas, beans, and low-fat/no fat dairy foods (hi-low or skim milk, no-fat natural yoghurt, and you can even find very low-fat cheeses if you check the labels carefully).

Vitamins and Minerals

For the right amount of vitamins and minerals, a high intake of fruit and vegetables is important. This will also ensure that your body gets enough supply of antioxidants and phytoestrogens. Eat fruits in any form including fresh fruit, dried fruit, fruit juices and smoothies. However, don’t opt for artificially sweetened juices. Bananas are an ideal accompaniment at breakfast, and are a unique food that is easily digestive, high in dietry fibre, low fat, high in potassium (great for reducing onset of cramps), and packed with easily digestible carbohydrates. Vegetables must be included at both lunch and dinner (try raw at lunch, and cooked at night for variety and aim for "rainbow" food). Whilst high fibre intake of food such as spinach is recommended during training it will compromise your racing so avoid fibre in the 24 hour period prior to an event.


Carbohydrates are undoubtedly a major source of fuel to the endurance athlete, however understanding how, when and which type of carbohydrate is essential for optimal performance.

There has been a major shift in our understanding of the role of carbohydrate in our diets, no more so than in the field of weight management and the growing problem of diabetes in the Australian population. When you eat a high-carbohydrate meal, insulin is released to regulate blood sugar. Insulin remains in the blood for up to 2 hours when the sudden drop in insulin triggers a hunger response demanding more sugar - if in doubt over this, try eating a carbohydrate ladden foccacia for lunch and see your body crave for sweets or more starches by mid-afternoon! That's the body's automatic response to the overload of insulin.

Whilst we are beginning to see more mainstream discussion about types of carbohydrates - complex, simple, wholesome, refined etc, an athlete will consider more than just weight management issues. Food is the essential fuel for our bodies and for high performance athletes such as triathletes, you need to understand the role that your current training plays in determining your daily training diet. Fat and glycogen are the main fuels that you body uses for energy production during training, however it is the intensity and duration of your training that will determine which of these two fuels your body prefers. Your nutritional requirements will actually shift based on changes in intensity and volume in your training programe, any injuries or illness, and the climate in which you train/race.

It is not unusual for the novice triathlete to be somewhat overweight, and "race day" seen as the finish line, which can only be reached through a radical change in a long-term diet and fitness training plan. There's nothing wrong with that, but if crossing the finish line leaner than you started is the ultimate aim, then "performance" aims are less important, which means a totally different approach to your training diet than for a lean, high-performance athlete whose aim is to reduce race time by a certain number of minutes. When we overload our body with more carbohydrates than we require for the level of activity we perform, we prevent our body from utilizing stored fat to convert to carbohydrate to burn as fuel and end up training our body to use only the easily-derived carbohydrates as the main energy source. For an athlete to lose body fat requires a carefully considered diet that balances the consumption of carbohydrates, proteins, water, and fats to maximise the utilsation of stored body fat for fuel. Refer to our article How the body uses food for fuel, for more information, or any of the highly recommended books in the section below "Related Shop Items".

Fluid needs

With today's abundance of sports drinks on the market, it may be surprising to learn that maintaining hydration throughout a competition still remains one of the biggest challenges for a triathlete. In Australia, most places may be humid or very hot so it is easy to become mildly dehydrated without having completed any training exertion! Understanding your daily water requirements can make a huge difference on your ability to cope with the additional stress that training and racing will place on your body's hydration systems. The average lean adult will lose about 2L of water of body fluids per day just through living. Add an intense training session and you can lose up to 8L through heavy sweating. Keeping well hydrated through drinking lots of water through each and every day is the key - not just on race day.

The simple process of sweating through exercise exertion results in the loss of water. This is the body's natural way of cooling itself. Dehydration occurs when you lose more water than you replace and can quickly cause servere symptoms. Due to the well-trained athlete's ability to ignore the body's normal warning signs to "stop", there is a real danger of heat exhaustion and event heat stroke, which is a life-threatening situation where once the body's cooling system has failed the brain overheats and the person suffers major episodes of confusion, seizure, or even coma.

Whilst water is the most important nutrient to ward off dehydration, simple measures such as consuming fluids that contain electrolytes during endurance or high intensity training sessions are appparently more effective in controlling the body's response to fluid loss and results in improved utilisation of fluid intake both during and after high intensity exertion. Given that most athletes would consider consume sports drinks during racing for optimum performance it is necessary to train using the same fluids that you intend to use when race. Consuming drinks with electrolytes during training enables you asses your response to these drinks and to assess your intake requirements in readiness for race day.

Post Race Nutrition (Recovery)

Given that the main reason for training is to create a stress response where our body learns to adapt, in order to "improve", we need to appreciate the science behind how our body actually achieves that. Put simply by Joel Friels in the Triathlete's Training Bible, "training builds up fitness by first tearing it down". However, we can assist the body response to the training stress by giving adequate rest but also adequate fuel to assist with the rapid process of recovery.

Scientists have learned that the optimum time for effective recovery occurs within the first 30 minutes after an intense workout. During this time, the body is highly efficient at refueling lost glycogen stores and it is during this stage of recovery that you should not only replace lost fluids, but eat a mix of quality carbohydrate and proteins.

Protein is an important fuel that builds muscles. During recovery, eat plenty of nuts, beans, lean meat and whey protein. As much as 35% of your calories must come from proteins during the recovery period. This allows for faster healing as well. Some foods reduce inflammation, so you could add tofu, beans, yogurt, avocado, asparagus, almonds, broccoli, egg whites, cauliflower, onions, oatmeal, and legumes, to your recovery plan to meet your nutrition requirements.

Recovery foods ought to be consumed immediately after training, especially when there is another session within the next 12 hours. Approximately 40 – 50 grams of carbohydrates and a protein intake of 100 grams is sufficient. You will need adapt your nutrition intake according to your current training requirements and make appropriate changes when injuries occur.

What to consume during training?

For training sessions that are of low intensity and for short durations of less than 1 hour, no supplemential nutrition should be required to adequately fuel your body for its essential needs and performance. However, if your workout exceeds 1 - 1.5 hours duration, your body will deplete its reserves of glycogen stores and without supplemention, will be unable to sustain high intensity performance. This occurs due to a shift in fuel system used for creating energy to sustain movement. (See our article on How the Body Uses Food for Energy).

Understanding this then, you need to plan your nutrition for long or high intensity training sessions by supplying the body with its essential fuel needs in the most readily absorbable form - simple carbohydrates. Whilst you can eat foods to obtain that requirement, sports science has developed gels and bars which are quickly absorbed into the blood without loading the digestive system. So, always take an energy bar and a gel for those long rides, and experiement with various forms of easy to consumer gels, carb drinks, and energy chews for long runs (usually only required for distances over 15km).

Pre-event Nutrition

For long distance endurance racing, your pre-event nutrient starts days before the race. For a half ironman distance event, a carbohydrate and protein rich diet for at least three days prior to the event will benefit your nutrition requirement during the race.

The night before the race is an important meal, and for many years the trend has been to advise "carbo-loading". Science and experience now tells us that that this is less important that we once thought, probably due to the ease of using carb bars and gels during the race but also due to our better understanding of the role of proteins and fats in combination with carbohydrates in a well balanced athlete's diet. For many athletes who have adopted a low GI diet, we are seeing less reliance on big plates of pasta for the "last supper" and as a result, less bloated, upset stomachs caused from too much fibre on race day. Eat what feels right for you, and what you are accustomed to in your training. However, the focus for endurance athletes is to maxmise your glycogen stores and fluid levels before going into an event. A drink bottle of water mixed with an electrolyte is best sipped throughout the night - ideally drink until your urine is clear. This indicates the correct level of hydration.

On the morning of an endurance race, eat a full carbohydrate and protein rich meal around two hours before the event. Again, limit fibre at this stage, to avoid an upset stomach. It would be prudent to include fruit and low fat fruit yogurt, baked beans on toast, or eggs on toast, banana and porridge, almonds and honey, and smoothies to your pre-event meal. You could practice this frequently during your training sessions to determine if your body is comfortable with this type of pre-event meal.

To continue to keep your hydration stabilsed, drink another 500 ml of fluids two hours before the race. If you are competing in hotter environments, then increase fluid consumption up to the start.

Race Nutrition

Your race meals/snacks are something you can plan during longer training sessions. Extreme sports are demanding where you need to rehydrate and refuel at the appropriate time. For Adventure Racing for example, it can be a major challenge when sleep deprivation takes place. However, it is essential to follow a regular pattern of food and fluid intake. Carbohydrate intake may vary depending on the nature of the event however in general, most athletes require around 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour during a race of moderate intensity. Transition areas and stops for repairs are the ideal places to refuel for long, multistage racing, however for most triathlons you will carry a sports bar, and gel in a fuel box mounted to the top tube of your bike. In half ironman to ironman distance events, you will be topping up your carbohydrate and fluids continuously on the bike in preparation for the run where liquid gels and fluids are about all that is practical to consume whilst running.

For your carbohydrate intake sports bars, gels, dried fruits, almonds, sandwiches, breads, porridge, breakfast cereals and sweets are recommended depending on the nature of your event. For racing, choose sports drinks which include added carbohydrates. Monitor your fluid intake in conjunction with the colour and frequency of your urine. If you pass pale urine at regular intervals then you are well hydrated. However, remember your fluid intake will depend on the weather conditions and can vary based on the time of day.

For multi-day races it is important to include energy rich foods like potato crisps, chocolate bars, gels and bars filled with nuts. Test some freeze dried meals during training and then use them in a competition. These foods require the addition of hot or cold water. Add dried fruit and nuts, sports drink powders, muesli bars, high carb bars and tinned food. If you are racing over several days then gel type foods are also recommended. These are easy on the mouth and can prevent any ulcerations or sores that appear from constantly keeping food in your mouth.

Additional Nutrition Tips

Nutritional plans must be perfected under training conditions. You cannot afford to test nutrition needs during a competition. Make sure to test-pack your food, fluids, and equipment and even practice eating during longer training sessions.

Check with the organisers about the supply of drinking water along the course, particuarly if competiting in Adventure Races. In some places you may need to treat the water with chorine or iodine tablets. Taste fatigue is a common complaint amongst Adventure Racers. Make sure you have a wide range of energy bars during a competition to avoid this.

Finally, during training, it is advisable to practice eating while on your bike or kayaking - the two optimum situations for eating during racing.


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Created: August 2011
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