In this guide, nutrition experts from PowerBar look at the best ways to hydrate, energize and recover from a triathlon. Good nutrition for the tri-sports event is fundamental, and this is a great insight…
Why should you use sports nutrition?
Triathletes are tough, and must be ready to give everything. A long distance triathlon is arguably one of the most challenging single-day events.
In order to keep up the pace, and finish strong, the body must be supplied with the right amount of fluid and nutrients, both during training and competition. A healthy and varied diet that is adapted to your daily needs, will give you a good foundation. Combining it with a targeted sports nutrition strategy BEFORE, DURING and AFTER training, you can get the most out of your training and improve your performance.
The following model explains training adaptation processes with or without sport nutrition usage.
Key principles of sports nutrition
The three most important principles of a sports nutrition for endurance athletes are:
- Hydration - supply of the body with sufficient fluids
- Energy - fuel for your muscles
- Recovery - nutrition strategy to optimise regeneration and help promote training adaptations
Dehydration (lack of water in the body) is one of the major causes of fatigue when taking part in sports. In general, physical and mental performance can be reduced when more than 2-3% of the pre-exercise body weight is lost as fluid.
Three simple steps to optimise your hydration level:
- Always start well hydrated
- During cycling and running drink at regular intervals
- When you have finished, rehydrate to recover faster
The longer the distance, and the higher the temperature and humidity, the greater the need for fluids.
The individual's fluid need during endurance activities depends on various factors i.e. duration and intensity, climatic conditions and sweating rates. A general hydration strategy for endurance exercise lasting more than 60 minutes, is to drink amounts of circa 400-800ml/hour - consumed regularly in small quantities over each hour (e.g. 150ml every 15 minutes). If you compete in a hot environment, you will need a little more fluid per hour than in a cold environment.
Physical activity requires energy. The more intense (higher speed), or longer the duration of the activity, the higher the rate of energy used.
Carbohydrates are the primary and fastest fuel for endurance activities, and can be stored as an energy source in our body in the form of glycogen in the liver and muscle. Muscle glycogen is a readily available carbohydrate source for the working muscle; on the other hand, the main role of glycogen in the liver is to maintain a constant blood glucose level; and as blood glucose level drops, hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) may develop, resulting for example in reduced mental alertness and an inability to concentrate.
You'll only discover how far, and how fast you can go, if your 'energy tanks in muscle and liver' are stocked-up. As a rule for pre-event meals, you should eat a low-fat, carbohydrate-rich meal, which is low in fibre and easy to digest, 3-4 hours before your exercise (e.g. pasta with low-fat tomato sauce, cold or hot cereal with banana, honey and low-fat yoghurt).
Small carbohydrate-rich snacks (e.g. PowerBar ENERGIZE Bars, or POWERGEL Shots; or a ripe banana, or toast with honey) should be taken up to 1 hour before. If you tend to suffer from pre-competition jitters and/or don't feel like eating, then try liquid carbohydrate sources instead (i.e. isotonic drink or a gel dissolved in water).
When your glycogen stores are depleted, you are not able to continue your exercise at a high intensity. Therefore, you need to provide your body with the right source, and right amount of carbohydrate, during prolonged running and cycling activities.
We recommend the following PowerBar products, as they've been developed for endurance sports, with a Dual Source Carb Mix - a special ratio of glucose and fructose sugar.
- PowerBar ISOACTIVE
- PowerBar ENERGIZE Bar
- PowerBar ENERGIZE WAFER
- PowerBar POWERGEL
- PowerBar POWERGEL SHOTS
- PowerBar PERFORMANCE SMOOTHIE
The recommended carbohydrate intake depends on duration and intensity of the activity and lasts up to 90g carbohydrates per hour:
The "Train Low" principle means training with low carbohydrate availability. Put simply, the body only has a small amount of carbohydrates available to use as a source of energy.
For intense training sessions (e.g. speed training), and during races, it's important for the glycogen stores (carbohydrate reserves) in the muscles and liver to be well filled. During prolonged endurance exercise, carbohydrates should be consumed at regular intervals throughout. Only this way can the maximal potential be eked out.
To promote endurance training specific adaptations in the body, and to optimise fat metabolism, it can however be beneficial to undertake specific training sessions, of lower intensity, with limited carbohydrate availability. Current "Train low" approaches include, for example, training in the morning after an overnight fast, i.e. without breakfast. There are also other "train low" methods, such as training with previously emptied glycogen stores: here, an intense exercise session is used to deplete the glycogen stores in the muscles and liver. In the following recovery period, the meal has to be carbohydrate-free (no bread, pasta, muesli, potatoes, etc.). On the same day, there then follows a second training session, with significantly reduced carbohydrate availability, and reduced training intensity.
In a nutshell, there are currently several different “train low” nutritional- and training strategies, and each one affects the body differently. Whether at all, and if so, which "train low" method can be integrated in the most appropriate manner into a training plan must be decided individually.
After intense endurance training or competition, recovery is key. Rapid recovery is a must during periods of heavy training and anytime you have more than one training session a day. In addition, sports nutrition strategies help promote training related adaptation processes, which helps you to get the most from one training session to the next.
It's important that you give your body the right nutrients, and in the right amounts, directly after exercise. The body needs
- Carbohydrates to refill its glycogen stores
- High-quality protein to repair the damaged muscle tissue and to build new muscle tissue
- Fluid and electrolytes (especially sodium) for efficient rehydration
As soon as possible after training – ideally before taking a shower – the body should be supplied with a combination of carbohydrates and protein, in addition to sufficient fluid.
If you don't feel like eating a meal or solid foods, try a recovery drink: PowerBar® RECOVERY Regeneration Drink is designed for immediate use after exercise - to provide your body with high quality protein, carbohydrates and minerals.
To optimise the muscle glycogen stores this should be followed by carbohydrate-rich meals; as increasing the total amount of carbs consumed after exercise is the most important factor for long-term recovery.
The 'Race Day' nutrition strategy
Try new nutrition strategies in training first; especially as factors such as training intensity and duration play a crucial role in tolerances. For example, high exercise intensity or nervousness can reduce the body's tolerance of food and drinks. Therefore, never experiment in an important race or in training the day before - you could still be suffering next day, if you experiment the day before.
If you're planning to compete in a race that will require your body's muscle glycogen stores to be at their maximum, then carbohydrate loading – a special technique in which you taper your training one or more days before a race, whilst increasing your intake of carbohydrates – might be right for you. Done correctly, the net result is a significant boost in your muscle stores of glycogen.
Carb-loading methods have changed dramatically in recent years. An effective and easy strategy to maximize your energy stores before a competition is to consume a high-carbohydrate intake (7-12g carbohydrates/kg bodyweight) in the week prior to competition, in combination with a reduced training schedule.
The PowerBar plate model offers a meal planning approach that is simple and helps you get an idea about the balance between the food groups for meals which are high in carbs:
Examples of high carbohydrate-rich meals based on the PowerBar® plate model include:
- Porridge with low-fat milk and fruits
- Pasta with low-fat tomato sauce and 1-2 tablespoons of grated low-fat cheese
- Examples of high carbohydrate-rich snacks include:
- Dried fruits
- PowerBar Natural Energy Cereal Bars
Glycogen is stored in the muscles, together with water. This means that if you've effectively super-compensated your muscle glycogen stores, then you'll naturally be a bit heavier because of the extra water you're carrying. This is why it's important to try out carbo-loading before a competition.
Be sure to practice your carbohydrate loading regimen before long training sessions. This will help you optimise the right types and quantities of foods and beverages you'll personally need to successfully carb-load, and will also help you get a sense of the performance benefits you can expect as a result.
Nutrition on competition day
When it comes to food tolerances, there is an enormous amount of variation between individuals, so you should check for yourself to find out WHAT suits you best, WHEN and in WHAT quantity. Other factors, such as training intensity and duration, play a crucial role in tolerance as well. For example, high exercise intensity or nervousness can reduce the body's tolerance of food and drink.
Example: Sports nutrition strategy for a triathlete during a long distance (11 hours 19 min) with approx. 87g carbohydrates per hour