Race season is in full swing now. And this is the time of the year when the majority of my athletes get more and more concerned about their nutrition needs.
Nutrition can be a minefield, particularly if you start googling the best nutrition practices. The risk is that you’ll end up in a classic internet black hole with a lot of conflicting theories and recommendations.
Instead, what follows are the suggestions I give to my athletes who train for middle and long-distance triathlons. These guidelines help them to implement their training with a proper fueling strategy specific to their goals. Athletes that train for shorter courses would have a different nutrition approach, although not completely different.
But don't forget: if your physiological parameters are already where we want them to be with your everyday diet, there is no need to change that completely. We DON'T train more in order to be able to eat more. Instead, we train hard in order to improve our fitness – and nutrition is one of the crucial tools to change certain physiological adaptations that will help us get there.
Try to do your bike and run without eating before the sessions – and this applies both for short and long sessions performed and low and/or high intensities up to threshold. If you eat something, limit the amount of carbohydrates and get in some food that is higher on fat. Even a coffee with a bit of cream will do the trick: caffeine will give you a push and the cream will activate the fat metabolism even more. This is not a torture scheme, but a science-based methodology that will target your fat metabolism, making your body more and more efficient in burning fats (and using carbs more efficiently for races).
If you swim, it’s necessary to eat more carbs around these sessions. It doesn’t matter what kind of carbs you eat and how much, but just make sure you eat something that you can tolerate during your swim session (especially when you tumble turn!).
My swim sessions are different to the run and bike sessions and I often plan race-pace or harder workouts at high intensities for the swim. That is when you need more carbs, because carbs will give you more energy in less time and activate the specific body metabolism to use them. Avoiding carbohydrates completely is detrimental for your racing goals (in racing you will consume carbs, so you want your body to be able to use them) and that is why we suggest our athletes to eat more carbs around the swim sessions – as these are normally harder and performed at higher intensities.
It doesn’t matter if you cycle or run, or how long or hard these sessions are: only consume water and don’t eat anything – but if you do have to eat something, then limit the amount of carbs. The goal for long-distance triathlons is always to become more efficient at using fats (and oxygen) as the primary sources of energy. If you swim, on the other hand, don’t drink or eat. The idea behind this is simple: if you get your body used to drinking during swim sessions, then during a race you would feel the need for that too. But as we all know, during the swim leg of a triathlon there are no aid stations available, and drinking is not possible. As above, this is NOT a “no pain, no gain” philosophy, but a strategy that has been proven successful over the years.
After bike and run sessions it’s okay to reduce carbohydrates (especially if you’re working on improving your fat metabolism), but after the swim, which normally drains the body more than the other sessions, here’s where you need your carbohydrates. Not only do you need to replenish the carbohydrate storages you just consumed, but you also want to avoid bringing fatigue into the run and bike session.
Fuelling for training is completely different to eating for racing as the goals are also different. In training, the goal is to improve certain physiological parameters, not to go from A to B in the fastest time – that is the goal of racing. And you can achieve that with a specific (and different) nutritional approach.
Although in training you train your body to use more fat – and have a more efficient fat combustion rate – in a race you normally want to be able to sustain a higher speed and intensity. And that will only be possible with a carb-load before the race and carbohydrate intake during the race.
The physiological adaptations you have developed during your training by improving your fat metabolism will also result in an improved capacity to use the carbs you’ll take in during the race. In other words, the more your fat metabolism is developed, the more sparingly your body will use the carbs available. That means that for a given speed or power output, your body will be more efficient in burning both fats and carbohydrates.
And that is exactly what we aim for in order to race fast.