Written by Rod Cedaro
“Without a shadow of a doubt, every endurance athlete Iâ€™ve ever dealt with has had some sort of quirky eating habit. Some have been pretty harmless (a compulsion to eat chocolate every night before going to bed), while others have been somewhat more serious, involving nutritional problems (e.g. eating a large proportion of their total energy intake from sports bars).
Interestingly, my wife works as a dietitian and she has commented that endurance athletes as a whole are more inclined toward food fetishes than the sedentary population. This is probably caused by two factors (i) a little information is dangerous and they think that just because a little of something has been shown to be good, then heaps of it must be a lot better and (ii) because hard training endurance athletes burn energy so much more effectively than the sedentary population they think they can â€˜get awayâ€™ with less than ideal dietary habits.
As any sports dietitian worth their consultancy fee will tell you, the ideal diet which will produce your best triathlon performance is all about balance and variety.
The nonsense propagated by some people in the industry that encourages the restriction of certain macronutrients (e.g. low carb diets) borders on criminal! Iâ€™ve known some triathletes to even develop a fear of a particular food (e.g. red meat) or food groups (carbohydrates) all on the spiels of nutritional quacks. The fact is that such obsessive, restrictive eating patterns can wreak havoc on not only multi-sport goals, but they can tire you out, and lead to illness.
What follows is a listing of the more common nutritional mistakes Iâ€™ve encountered over the years â€“ you may even notice some trends youâ€™ve been sucked into. Iâ€™ve also offered some strategies to help you deal with these mistakes.
Eating too late
Thereâ€™s a nutritional rule of thumb that you want to have about 70 per cent of your total caloric/energy intake consumed by between 3-4pm in the afternoon. Your evening meal and evening snacks should be your lightest of the day. Unfortunately some triathletes eat too few calories during the day, then gorge at dinner and late into the night.
Think of it like a car analogy. If you donâ€™t eat much during the day then load up at night itâ€™s similar to filling up your petrol tank after youâ€™ve arrived at your destination.
Triathletes that eat like this (a) are generally wasted for evening training sessions, (b) donâ€™t recover well after morning workouts and (c) donâ€™t sleep as soundly as they could, because they have a full stomach.
What can you do?
Eat a balanced meal with a mix of carbs, protein and fats every three to five hours.
Plan two small snacks each day between main meals (a handful of nuts or some cheese and crackers), so that youâ€™re never ravenous come mealtime.
Plan your training around your meals and vice versa. This will help significantly with your recovery.
Too much of a good thing. Iâ€™m talking about energy bars here, not your typical muesli bar. Energy bars have a role to play for the hard training triathlete, however they shouldnâ€™t form the basis of your diet. Iâ€™ve known some triathletes to eat eight-to-12 energy bars a day and they get the majority of their daily total energy intake from these products. Itâ€™s really not a good idea!
Becoming overly dependent on sports bars means youâ€™re missing out on the benefits of whole foods. You end up sacrificing things such as fibre, nutrient-rich health-protective phytochemicals, etc. found in fruits, veggies and whole grains. Additionally, many of these bars are fortified with certain nutrients that, if you eat too much of them, can cause serious mineral imbalances.
What can you do?
Donâ€™t eat sports bars as meal-replacements. Rather, use them as the manufacturers intended â€“ to compliment your daily eating habits and provide additional calories and/or as a convenient food during training/competition.
Burning the candle at both ends
Triathletes â€“ particularly post race â€“ are some of the hardest partiers Iâ€™ve ever seen. Iâ€™ve seen a number of top age-group and even some elite triathletes justify a big night out on the town as a reward for hard training or a good race. In fact, research conducted by The American College of Sports Medicine found that serious recreational endurance athletes actually drink more alcohol than their sedentary counterparts.
The fact of the matter is, no matter how much you train the guidelines are clear: The health benefits of alcohol are reaped from one-to-two drinks a day. More than that and youâ€™re doing damage to yourself, particularly if youâ€™re a triathlete who has to try and maintain adequate hydration.
What can you do?
Donâ€™t binge drink by saving up all your drinks during the week and having one big night on the weekend. Mix and match â€“ have one alcoholic drink followed by a non-alcoholic drink during the course of the night. Have at least two alcohol free days per week and limit yourself to one-to-two alcoholic drinks per session. Have a water post race and save the beer for later.
The junk food junkie
I remember standing in stunned silence when a certain top triathlete told age group triathletes he was speaking to at a seminar to, ‘eat what you want, you need the energy.’
Unfortunately this mentality seems to stand firm in the multi-sport community because of the ill-founded belief that training and racing will keep you fit and trim.
Poor food choices have a huge impact on your performance and long term health. Breaking bad food habits is tough and is something best dealt with via a personalised consultation with a dietitian, however there are some simple things you can do.
What can you do?
Substitute something healthier for the junk food you crave. If you want chocolate, try some strawberries dipped in chocolate syrup. Remember, thereâ€™s no such thing as good and bad foods, only good and bad uses of food. A diet based solely on fruit and yoghurt is as bad as one based on McDonalds â€“ eat plenty of variety and, if you have to eat junk food, do so rarely.”