Triathlon Nutrition 101


Ask any professional athlete and they will tell you that eating the right foods, in the right quantities will go a long way in helping you perform the best you can on race day. Joe Friel, author of "The Triathletes Training Bible" confirms that diet, along with adequate training, make up 99.9 percent of your performance capacity. To have a successful nutritional plan, you need foods that will provide you with adequate energy and other nutrients needed for peak performance, proper recovery and optimal health.


Energy Requirements

Energy demands -- measured in calories -- increase with the additional exercise required for triathlon training. Having a reasonable estimate of how many calories you actually need will aid in guiding your nutritional habits. Based on the United States Department of Agriculture estimates, excluding additional exercise, a moderately active adult female requires about 1,800 to 2,200 calories per day and a male about 2,200 to 2,800. Adding the calories from training activity, the coauthor of "Physical Fitness for Practically Everybody" Ivan Kusinitz suggests cycling at a vigorous intensity level will burn .071 calories per minute/per pound of body weight with running and swimming burning .104 and .088, respectively. Another method, a continuous feed heart rate monitor, will base your calories burned during your training on effort levels, as they will vary based on terrain, distance, environment and type of workouts.


Energy Ratios

Just like you can't run a car on an empty fuel tank, the same principle applies to your body. The three forms of energy obtained through food -- carbohydrates, fats and proteins -- should be consumed in the recommended ratios to fuel your engine. For endurance athletes, carbohydrates are the primary energy source needed to fuel activity. The American Dietetic Association recommends that 60 to 65 percent of all of the calories you consume daily should come from carbohydrate sources while fats should take up 20 to 30 percent, and proteins 10 to 15 percent.


Energy Types

Eating, or adding fuel, is generally not a problem for triathletes. But, why dilute your fuel with "unleaded" when you can have premium? In other words, eating complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, will give you the energy you need as well as other vital nutrients such as B vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, and minerals such as iron. Protein consumption should include lean meats, such as fish and poultry, while limiting red meat consumption. With fats, focus on unsaturated fats found in olive or canola oils for cooking, fish, avocados, and nuts and seeds.


Specific Nutrients

Making fuel readily accessible for use during training or a race depends on availability of essential vitamins and minerals, called micronutrients. The Food and Nutrition Board reports B complex vitamins such as thiamin, niacin and riboflavin aid in converting energy sources into usable energy while others participate in protein and fat synthesis. Minerals such as potassium, sodium and calcium all play vital roles in muscular contraction, nerve function and fluid balance. These vital nutrients can be obtained through eating a well balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy and meat.



While water doesn't provide energy, vitamins or minerals, it is vital to athletic performance. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking 2 to 3 milliters of fluid per pound of body weight four hours before the event, enough to compensate for fluid loss during the event, and 16 to 24 oz. for every pound of weight loss after exercise. For events lasting longer than one hour, drinking sports drinks will help provide energy, electrolytes and hydration.