By Brooke Schohl, MS, RD
Feeling overwhelmed by all the information out there about how to fuel for endurance sport? Everyone has a different opinion, from paleo to carb-loading to gluten-free to vegan. How in the world do you determine the best fuel plan for you?
I like to keep things simple with my clients – focus on clean eating and fueling to promote “metabolic efficiency.” Clean eating means choosing whole, real foods whenever possible. Fueling for metabolic efficiency turns the body into a fat-burning machine thanks to the right nutrient combinations and timing of meals/snacks.
Don’t let fueling for a triathlon intimidate you. Read on for some dietary guidelines that will help you zero in on your training rather than obsess about what’s going in your mouth:
What are the best foods to eat before a morning training session?
There are two types of athletes out there and therefore two ways to answer this question:
- The Faster: Do you wake up and just want to get rolling on your workout? Food doesn’t cross your mind; in fact, it may even turn you off! For workouts up to 120 minutes in length, the activity can be done on an empty stomach in order to initiate fat burn. For anything longer than 120 minutes, please eat something pre-workout so you don’t bonk out there.
- The Fueler: Do you wake up and have to put something in that belly before a workout of any length begins? This is okay too. There is no right or wrong answer here. The Fueler can still initiate fat burn during the workout by eating a balanced (carb + fat + protein) meal before running out the door. (Note: Do not consume carbohydrate alone.)
- Examples: Kashi multigrain waffle + almond butter + hard boiled egg; two scrambled eggs + sautéed spinach + fruit; Greek plain yogurt + berries + walnuts
When do I need to fuel during a long workout?
Triathletes tend to fuel too frequently and with excessive calories. If the body is properly fueled pre-workout, you technically have 120 to 180 minutes before needing more calories. Don’t buy into the recommendation of needing simple sugars every 15 minutes during training – it couldn’t be further from the truth. This strategy repeatedly spikes blood sugar, inhibits fat burn and promotes GI issues. Conversely, you want to stabilize blood sugar and energy levels, promote fat burn, and keep GI issues at bay by fueling only when you need it. After 120 to 180 minutes, begin fueling once per hour with 100 to 150 calories.
What are the best foods to eat after a long training session (>120 minutes)?
Fuel timing and intake post-workout is very much dependent on what’s been consumed pre-workout as well as during. The Faster needs to get some nutrients back into the body sooner than the Fueler, as he/she is running close to empty. There is no need to go overboard and replace 100% of the calories you burned. The body is only equipped to replace 15 to 25% of the calories expended during activity. Balance again becomes essential here: carb + fat + protein.
- Examples: smoothie with almond butter + banana, Vega protein powder + blueberries + coconut oil + fresh spinach + almond milk; scrambled eggs + black beans + avocado + kale + tomatoes
Is it important to train with fluids?
Drinking water (and electrolytes if necessary) throughout a workout assists in preventing dehydration. However, don’t go overboard. The recommendation is 12-24 ounces per hour. Assess how much is right for you by using urine color as a guide (lemonade-colored is the goal).
What are the best foods to eat the night before a race?
Carb + protein + fat: this should be your mantra. Carb-loading isn’t necessary and in fact, it can actually hurt you. When you consume excess carbohydrate, your body stores it as glycogen. Glycogen carries with it lots of water—you can see where this is going! Don’t avoid carbohydrates the night before, just make sure the source is quality and the serving size is appropriate.
- Examples: Grilled salmon + baked sweet potato + sautéed rainbow chard; black beans + brown rice + tofu + zucchini; grilled chicken + quinoa + pesto sauce + asparagus
Are there common nutritional mistakes that triathletes make?
- Not eating breakfast before workouts that demand it (>120 minutes).
- Eating too soon into a workout or taking in too many calories per hour.
- Eating excessively for “recovery.”
- Fueling with traditional sports products that produce GI distress, energy level fluctuations, and blood sugar spikes. There are better options out there, whether it is real foods or more natural sports products.
Brooke is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having completed triathlons of all distances including 3 Ironman races. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients. Brooke and her husband, John, own Destination Kona Triathlon Store and Destination Kona/Triple Sports in Scottsdale, Arizona. For more information on her services and offerings, Brooke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.