Why carbohydrates are a must for a triathlete
First of all, I totally understand why the keto, or low-carb high-protein lifestyle seems so appealing. We all have that one friend who raves about how much weight they lost after cutting out the carbs, but it isn't all what it's cracked up to be. There are many health risks associated with a lower carb diet such as vitamin deficiency, restlessness, and mood disturbances1. Athletes particularly have been found to have lower immunity, a decreased iron status (performance iron health status is different to normal iron health status) and issues gaining or maintaining muscle mass. For an athlete's sake, it certainly doesn't enhance performance in a multi-faceted race like a triathlon. Here's a brief insight into optimising performance without compromising health or body composition.
Let’s talk about why carbohydrates are a must on the menu! Ideally, carbs should be eaten throughout the day and especially before and after training or competing. So, what's so special about these little molecules of energy?
If we break down the word, we get carbo and hydrate. The carb part refers to energy. This is used by cells, muscles and the brain for fuel prior to exercise. In fact, it's the brain's preferred fuel source! After strenuous exercise, the body craves more fuel or carbs to help replace the energy lost. If this doesn't happen, the body will look for other sources of energy. Since fat isn't as easily broken down for the body to use, the body will also need to break down protein stores to produce energy. Unfortunately, these stores are found in the muscles, therefore resulting in muscle loss, zero training progression, and little to no chance at a PB (eating protein alongside carbs is the ultimate goal, but that's a whole other article)!
The hydrate part is the important bit. For every 1 part carb, we also get 3 parts water when carbs are absorbed by the cells, tissue and muscles (this may be why you feel heavier and tend to blame carbs for the sudden weight gain-it's not fat, just water). The water absorption is a great bonus. Since water is lost in sweat, carbs indirectly help to keep the body's cells hydrated therefore maintaining your performance.
We've discussed the backbone of carbohydrates, now let's talk about where they fit on the menu. For an everyday individual, we recommend eating 5-6x a day or in some cases 3x a day, with carbs added to main meals at minimum. For triathletes, however, this pattern of eating just isn't going to cut it! Triathletes need to be eating 6x a day at minimum, plus a pre and post carb rich snack around training. The AMOUNT and KIND of carbs is the tricky part. This is why it's important to understand your body and gut sensitivity. Trialling this in training leading up to competition is key. Your sports dietitian/nutritionist can play a huge role in this process and assist in which supplements such as electrolytes, caffeine, creatine, nitrates, etc. (if any) may be right for you.
If you've taken the time to read up to this point, let me tell you about a fantastic product that has been tested and recommended by fellow triathletes for its taste and ease on the gut, and supported by dietitians for its nutrition profile. With many different flavours to suit your fancy, and different products to choose from such as pre and during event energy or post event recovery products, Tailwind Nutrition delivers all the way from Colorado U.S.A and is available here.
Tailwind supplies products containing enough energy and electrolytes for pre or during competition and products with enough energy and protein to replenish the body after competition deeming a dietitian's mark of approval.
Before supplements can have a positive and noticeable improvement in your performance, your nutrition foundation should already be in tip-top shape. You wouldn’t bother fine tuning a guitar if it were missing some of its strings would you? The same philosophy should be adopted in regards to sports nutrition. Some supplements are also known to be contaminated with ingredients that are on the WADA banned substance list. There is a zero tolerance policy if these substances are discovered in your system. Competing athletes need to trust their providers and triple check ‘what’ and ‘how much’ they put in their body to avoid any disqualifications. Your sports dietitian will be familiar with this list and is also a great resource. If you're unsure, new to triathlete competing or just want some assurance in your nutrition plan, a sports nutrition consult could be the difference between a PB and getting a ripper calf cramp on the home stretch.
Finally, I want to emphasise that having a healthy relationship with food is the first and foremost step towards performing at your best and finding fulfilment in competing and succeeding. It is possible to be flexible with your dietary patterns to match your lifestyle while simultaneously fuelling your body for performance. Contact your local sports dietitian/nutritionist for more individualised advice and if you have any further questions!
About the Author
My name is Jen Pfeifler and my passion is helping people develop positive relationships with food and eating in the areas of sports nutrition for performance and disordered eating/eating disorders. Originally from USA, I now call Australia home after growing up in Florida where I completed my Bachelor of Science degree and played tennis at a semi-professional level during my university years. After hanging up my racquet, I moved to Australia to pursue my passion and complete my Masters and dietetic accreditation. I believe that nutrition is the cornerstone of health and wellbeing, and support this belief by adopting a person centered approach where I focus on improving the knowledge and behavioural aspects associated with food and eating.
Through my tennis career, I developed a strong understanding of the team approach and the importance of communication. In my work, I bring my core values and personality into consultations, and practice largely from an evidence based approach. I love working with like-minded athletes as the connection through sports and competing is unlike any other!
- Burke, L., & Deakin, V. (2010). Clinical sports nutrition (Fourth ed.). North Ryde, N.S.W., Australia: McGraw-Hill Education (Australia) Pty.