COMMON DIETARY MISTAKES MADE BY TRIATHLETES AND HOW TO OVERCOME THEM.
by Rod Cedaro (M. App. Sc.) Consultant Exercise Physiologist ACC Accredited Level III Triathlon Coach
Without a shadow of a doubt, every endurance athlete I’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) others on the other hand are somewhat more serious and offer serious nutritional problems (e.g. Eating a large proportion of total energy intake from sports bars).
It’s interesting, 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 “get away” 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 that is propagated by some supplement manufacturers, which encourages the restriction of certain macronutrients (e.g. Low carb diets) borders on criminal! I’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 not only on multi-sport goals, but they can also tire you out, and even make you sick. What follows is a listing of the more common nutritional mistakes I’ve encountered over the years – you may even notice trends you’ve been sucked into in one or two of them. I’ve also offered some strategies to help you deal with them.
EATING TOO LATE.
There’s a nutritional rule of thumb that you want to have about 70% 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 don’t eat much during the day then load up at night it’s similar to filling up your petrol tank after you’ve arrived at your destination.
Triathletes that eat like this (a) are generally wasted for evening training sessions, (ii) don’t recover well after morning workouts and (iii) don’t sleep as soundly as they could because of having 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 you’re never ravenous come mealtime. Plan your training around your meals and vice versa. This’ll help significantly with your recovery.
Too much of a good thing. I’m talking about energy bars like Powerbars, etc. These have a role to play for the hard training triathlete; HOWEVER they shouldn’t form the basis of your diet! I’ve known some triathletes to eat 8-12 energy bars a day and get majority of their daily total energy intake from these products.
Not a good idea!
By becoming overly dependent sports bars means you’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? Don’t eat sports bars as “meal-replacements”. Rather, use them as the manufacturers intended – to compliment your daily eating habits and provide additional calories and/or as a convenient food during training/competition.
BURNING THE CANDLE BOTH ENDS.
Triathletes – particularly post race – are some of the hardest partiers I’ve ever seen. I’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 indicates 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 you’re doing damage to yourself, particularly triathletes who have to try and maintain adequate hydration.
What can you do? Don’t binge drink by saving up all your drinks during the week and having one big night on the weekend. Mix and match – 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 1-2 alcoholic drinks per session. Have a water post race and save the beer for later.
THE JUNK FOOD JUNKY.
I remember standing in stunned silence when a certain top triathlete told age-group triathletes he was speaking to at a seminar that “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 to do?
Substitute something healthier for the junk food you crave. If you want chocolate, try some strawberries dipped in chocolate syrup. Remember, there’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 – eat plenty of variety and, if you have to (yuck!) eat junk food do so rarely.
CULLING ALL FAT.
For every junk food junky you’ll find another triathlete who is fat phobic. Here’s the truth, once and for all:
We need fat in our diet!
Good fats lower cholesterol, aid vitamin absorption, provide certain necessary nutrients and regulate our metabolisms. There is no scientific evidence to show that consuming a diet with less than 20 percent of total calories from fat improves health or endurance exercise performance. Conversely, eating too little fat can increase the risk of injury and suppress your immune system function. What to do? Know the difference between good (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3s) and bad fats that can harm your health (saturated and trans fats). Add good fats to the naturally low-fat foods you already eat (e.g. Olive oil dressing on top of a salad).
Some triathletes think they perform better on an empty stomach. They get up the morning before a big race and skip breakfast – big mistake. Over night your body chews through blood glucose stores, which are topped up by liver glycogen breakdown. If you don’t eat before a race chances are your blood glucose levels will eventually bottom out and you’ll feel really light-headed and weak. Not how you want to feel when you’re racing.
What to do?
If you’re racing/training in the afternoon have a low fat snack containing 60 to 100 grams of carbohydrate about 1.5 to 2 hours before training/competition. This could be as simple as a banana sandwich. Same thing applies of a morning before a race. If you can’t handle solid foods blend up a smoothie and drink it about 90 minutes before competing. Remember to ALWAYS try this in training before doing it before an important race.
TOO MUCH PROTEIN.
This topic barely requires comment because we’ve covered it so many times before in TMSM. However, some fools, in spite of the literature to the contrary, persist in eating way more protein than they need and lowering their carbohydrate intake to make room for this excessive protein intake.
Here are the facts – again.
Whilst endurance athletes need more protein than their sedentary counterparts, this elevated requirement is only marginal. Eating a lot more protein will NOT build extra muscle or help you recover faster. In fact it can place additional stress on your liver and kidneys to excrete it and this creates problems. Carbohydrate is the main nutrient required by hard training triathletes – forget about all the other hype and nonsense.
What to do? Protein only needs to make up about 10 to 15 percent of your energy intake. Time your protein intake so that will best help you recover (i.e. Consume it after training – for example a milk on your cereal). Pick lean sources of protein to avoid additional fat intake (e.g. Lean cuts of red meat, turkey breast, tuna packed in water, etc.)THE SUPPLEMENT PSYCHO.
I recently had a triathlete come through the Peak Performance Lab up here in Brisbane that was consuming $300 worth of supplements per month! I couldn’t believe what he was telling me, nor could my wife who performed his nutrition assessment. Unfortunately some triathletes are of the mentality that “if some is good more is better” in regards to vitamins and minerals. Sorry to burst your bubble but the only people benefiting from this are the supplement manufacturers who are pocketing your hard earned cash while you urinate their products down the tubes – literally.
The fact of the matter is that vitamin/mineral supplements of any kind will only improve performance in those individuals who are deficient, and few of us actually are. In fact most triathletes who eat a good variety of foods and base their diets on complex carbohydrates are exceeding their vitamin and mineral RDI’s (recommended dietary intakes) across the board. Mega-dosing can actually be detrimental by creating imbalances that can lead to health problems (e.g. A client I was recently dealing with through the lab was consuming excessive amounts of vitamin C. It ends up his iron stores were through the roof and he has a family history of hemochromatosis (excessive iron storage) which can be fatal. Vitamin C actually increases the uptake of iron. This is but one interaction you need to be aware of.
What to do?
“Supplements” are there to do just that: Something that should be used to “supplement” an already healthy diet of whole foods. If you want some “insurance” pick a broad range low dosage multivitamin-mineral supplement. Look for something that offers 100 to 200% of your RDI for water-soluble vitamins, no more that 100% of the RDI for fat soluble vitamins and no more than 100% percent of the RDI’s for trace minerals like iron, zinc, etc. The fact of the matter is, if you’re eating well you simply don’t need them anyway. What’s “eating well”? Speak to a qualified accredited practicing dietitian, someone with “APD” after their name, not a “naturopath” or a “nutritionist”, rather a university qualified and registered “dietitian“.