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Triathlon: Nutrition advice from the professionals

Nigel Mitchell
Article written by Nigel Mitchell

Date published 17 July 2019

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Triathlon is considered by many to be the ultimate endurance sport. Combining three disciplines; swimming, cycling and running, even so called 'sprint distance' races require a great feat of endurance.

In the months and weeks leading up to race day a fourth discipline enters the fray: nutrition. If the right nutrition practices are not implemented, training adaptations can become blunted, the immune system depressed and fatigue can set in; meaning that even making it to the start line can become a challenge.

Here, performance nutritionist Nigel Mitchell joins professional triathlete Holly Lawrence to give advice on eating for endurance in the countdown to race day.

Two months to race day

'Focus on real food' is the advice that Nigel Mitchell gives. 'Sports supplements are exactly that: get the basics right first then turn to supplements for help. Look to achieve a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and try to make them as colourful as possible. This will ensure that you are getting a wide range of nutrients and will help to repair the oxidative damage which occurs during training'.

'Fruit and vegetables are also an excellent source of carbohydrates so will provide you with the energy your body needs as your training sessions begin to intensify. To ensure you don't have any gaps in your nutrition consider adding a daily multivitamin to your regime as well.'

Holly agrees; 'It can be difficult to get in enough fruit and vegetables in between training sessions. My top tip would be to incorporate a smoothie into your diet once a day, I usually make a recovery smoothie after big training days which include things like a banana, berries, almond milk and protein powder. It also provides valuable hydration.'

One month to race day

Your body naturally stores about 90 minutes to 2 hours of glycogen (the fuel your muscles burn for energy) and this can quickly become depleted as your training intensifies and peaks a month out from race day.

Nigel elaborates 'carbohydrates should remain the focus of your diet, but don't neglect protein altogether, it is protein which helps your muscles to repair. You also need to consider your immune system, intense periods of exercise can leave the immune system depleted and susceptible to illness and infection'

'The last thing I want is to miss training through illness' Holly explains 'I turn to supplements at this stage in my training, I take a daily dose of vitamin C, multivitamin, omega 3 and probiotics, I introduce zinc and up my vitamin C dose at the first signs of illness'

'I recommend omega 3 to all athletes I work with, aiming for a dose of 1.5-2.0g of EPA per day. The essential fatty acid EPA has an inflammatory effect and our modern diets are naturally low in omega 3' comments Nigel.

Hydration and gut health

'Hydration is key and often overlooked. If you're not suitably hydrated your performance will suffer, you will become fatigued and you will lose motivation. Monitoring your hydration is quite simple, weigh yourself before and after each session. A litre of water is a kilogram in weight, so by weighing yourself you can hydrate accordingly' says Nigel.

'Another side effect of not being properly hydrated is that your gut will become distressed, this can hamper nutrient absorption and digestion. The riders are all given a daily probiotic supplement to provide additional support for the gut. Probiotics help to fight off harmful bacteria and aid the immune system'

Race day rehearsal

'The last thing you want on race day is to be worrying about your nutrition' Holly advises. 'Plan well in advance and don't introduce new things to your regime in the run up to the race. A month or so out from the race, begin to rehearse your race day routine. How will you replenish your energy stores during the race? What supplements, gels etc will you be taking? What brand of sports drink will you use? You don't want to introduce something that isn't going to agree with you'.

A week to go

'With a week to go, carbs are king. Carb loading is an age-old tradition that has its merits. But it's important to choose your carbohydrates wisely. Complex carbohydrates are slower to break down and help to build your glycogen stores in the lead up to a race. Good sources include sweet potatoes, rice and green vegetables so you shouldn't need to make any major changes. Making big changes to your diet at this stage can cause gastrointestinal distress' advises Nigel

Race day

Professional triathlete Holly Lawrence explains 'Often people are too nervous to eat on race day so the focus must turn to hydration. I usually start thinking about my hydration the day before a race, but during the race it is vitally important that you don't miss an opportunity to rehydrate. I usually start race day with oatmeal topped with a banana and honey 3 hours before the race to ensure it's digested properly.'

Nigel continues 'It is essential that you rehearse your race day pre-race meal whilst training so you are well prepared on the day. Bananas are a great race day option as they are energy dense and don't contain too much fibre. The timing of your food intake is also important, I wouldn't recommend any heavy meals any closer than 2 hours before a race.'

During the race

'If your race lasts more than two hours you should consider how you are going to replenish your glycogen stores during the race. Riders will quite often have a sandwich (panini) containing energy dense ingredients such as peanut butter or banana, but this may not be practical during a triathlon. Carbohydrate sports gels or energy drinks are good alternatives. Aim to get about 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour during the race', recommends Nigel.

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Nigel Mitchell

About Nigel Mitchell

Nigel Mitchell is Technical Lead for the English Institute of Sport, nutritionist for British Sailing and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.