Nutrition is the First Discipline Simple, Sustainable, Functional, Enjoyable
An engine is only as good as the fuel that it consumes. The same is true for human beings. We all operate at an optimal level when we are eating the diet that is best suited for each of us.
There are many, many diets out there that claim to have the solution. The way to make you lose all your extra weight, gain more energy, and solve all of your problems. The unfortunate reality is that many of these diets are gimmicks.
If it’s not sustainable, it’s not effective.
There are a few keys to an effective daily nutrition strategy.
It must be sustainable – It must be a way of living which can be implemented for the long term, not just a short time frame. Otherwise, the unhealthy habits will return once the diet ends.
It should be simple – We human beings have a tendency to want to over complicate things. Many times the solution is really quite simple, and it’s staring us in the phase, even if we choose not to see it. Diet is much the same way. Eating healthy does not have to be complicated.
It should be fun – We should always find ways to enjoy what we put in our bodies. That enjoyment should transcend the simple pleasure we get from “taste”, which is short lived, and extend into how we feel, how we perform, and psychological well being. It can become enjoyable to cultivate a healthy lifestyle.
It should be functional – Everything we eat has a purpose. That purpose may be to provide our daily stores of macronutrients, or deliver nutrients to our bodies, or simply to give our brains an immediate and pleasurable sensation. We must recognize that some foods provide greater function to that which we are trying to accomplish, whether it be athletic performance, mental clarity, or a generally healthy lifestyle. As Hippocrates is credited with saying, “let food be thy medicine.”
The goal should not be to lose weight or to fit into that dress or pair of pants. The goal should be to discover the joy and fulfillment of enjoying life giving foods that energize your system, provide maximum brain power, and maximize performance.
Nutrition is the First Discipline in any Exercise Program
Daily Nutrition Guidance
Note: This is basic nutrition advice only, NOT a prerequisite for this training program. Each individual is different in terms of their tolerances, and if you feel that you have certain sensitivities to foods, you should seek specific guidance from a certified nutritionist or healthcare professional.
It is said that nutrition is the fourth discipline in triathlon. In my opinion, it is the FIRST. In order to perform at the highest level, and not be encumbered by gastrointestinal issues, cramps, sluggishness, or fatigue, you have to fuel your body effectively.
This can get very convoluted VERY quickly. Hence the plethora of gimmick diets out there promoting heavy restriction and massive amounts of complexity.
Just. Say. No.
The goal should not be to diet – which implies restriction, willpower, and an expiration date. The goal should be to develop healthy nutrition habits – which implies sustainability, vitality, energy, and optimum performance.
Our goal: To develop a healthy relationship with food.
We want to make nutrition more complex than it needs to be. Why? Frankly, it’s because we want to justify to ourselves why it’s so hard to eat healthy.
The truth is, healthy nutrition is quite simple. We all really know the answer to “what” we need to eat to be healthy. In a nutshell (literally AND figuratively), to be healthy we need to eat more whole foods that have been enriched by the sun and soil, and fewer foods that have been put through a series of machines or have been developed in a lab. This means more fruits and vegetables, humane animal proteins, single ingredient whole foods, and fewer processed foods.
As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” And I’ll add an addendum to that quote (because this is an equally troubling problem in our society), “not too little.”
No need to count calories, no need to measure your macronutrients, just eat healthy food until you’re satisfied. No more, no less.
Not “What,” but “Why”
So now that we have the what nailed down, let’s focus on the most important question. “Why?”
A healthy relationship with food comes more from the psychology behind why we eat than it does from what we eat. To develop a healthy relationship with food, we need to weaken the emotional relationship we have with food, and strengthen the functional relationship.
An emotional relationship with food revolves around how food makes us feel immediately. Whether we are overeating in an effort to find an emotional release, or undereating to meet a superficial expectation of body image, we are seeking immediate gratification at the expense of our long term health.
As food in our western society has become readily available, we have been more obsessed with the feeling food gives us. Food MUST be delicious in order to enter our mouth. Think about how odd that statement is for a moment…
Not that an emotional attachment is all bad. In fact, it’s awesome to enjoy the food we eat! But creating that condition for all of our food is destructive.
Instead, most of our food should be consumed for the function it provides. To provide nourishment, to provide nutrients, to provide fuel, to provide energy. Our emotional incentive for eating food should be to feel sustainably good – to eat food that gives us energy, vitality, and clarity of mind.
And yes, in some cases, to provide joy.
If we change our relationship with food to one that is primarily functional instead of emotional, we will find that nutrition is far simpler than we make it out to be… and it supports an incredibly healthy and fulfilling life.
Once we have made the decision to develop a functional relationship with food, we can start changing the way we eat and adopt a clean base of foods.
Guidelines for establishing a clean base of nutrition:
Eat lots of vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits (especially vegetables) should be incorporated into all meals, as they serve as the primary cleansing and nutrient rich foods.
Eliminate all refined sugar from the diet (this includes fruit juices. Don’t be fooled by the phrase “contains real fruit”, or “100% Juice”. It is still sugar).
Look up all the synonyms for sugar, and be aware of them as you look at ingredients. This can include “High Fructose Corn Syrup”, “Dextrose”, “Maltodextrin”, etc.
Eliminate all processed foods from your diet (this is easy to identify by the ingredients on the side of the box/bag. Only natural ingredients should be considered – for example, Almond Butter – Ingredients: “Almonds”)
Generally, the more ingredients on a food item, and the more obscure the name of the item (think maltodextrin or xanthan gum, for example), the more likely it is you should avoid it.
Cook most of your own meals. It is understood that you may go out to eat every once and a while, but to make sure you know what’s entering your mouth, you want to own the ingredients from start to finish.
For those who travel, or must get out of their own kitchen, there are some options where you can get clean meals (Whole Foods comes to mind). Do some research.
Other clean food sources can come from cage free eggs, “humane” meats, nuts, butter, olive oil, organic oats, brown rice, or quinoa, for example.
If you are used to consuming a high sugar and/or highly processed diet, you will have a period of detox. This period will be challenging, as the cravings for your previous diet will overwhelm you. You may feel tired and run down, you may get sick, you may become irritable. Don’t give up! This WILL pass, usually within a few days. Make sure you stay hydrated, as that will aid in detoxing. After a few days, you will find you will have greater amounts of energy, clarity of mind, and improvement in mood.
Practice eating simple and clean foods for one month, that will allow the body to adapt. After one month, you can begin adding or removing specific foods to see how they make you feel, one at a time (for example, breads or pasta) for a couple weeks at a time. It’s also advisable to keep a journal to log how you feel on a daily basis starting when you begin the plan, and proceeding through until you are comfortable with your nutrition plan.
As you introduce/remove foods, how do they make you feel? Are you more fatigued? Is it causing you GI distress? Are you running slower at a higher heart rate? Are you benefiting from it? Does it only work for you at certain times of the day? If it makes you feel worse, you’ve identified a type of food that you do not tolerate well. If you are feeling better, more energized, happier, etc., you have found your superfood! (Sorry to say it, but cookies and ice cream will probably not be your superfood!)
After practicing a clean base nutrition plan, over time you will instinctively begin to understand which foods you tolerate more than others and what macronutrient balance works best for you, and you adapt accordingly. Knowledge is power, and knowing your body paves the way for a powerful body!
Does this mean that you can never again have that ice cream cone? No more Brownie Sundaes? Heaven forbid, no more donuts? Of course not, but that’s up to you. As long as you practice extreme moderation, you will continue to understand how these foods affect you, and change your relationship with food so that what you put in your belly is related more to its function rather than its flavor.
This is advice on how to eat a healthier, cleaner, and more energizing diet. If you are concerned that you have hypersensitivities to certain foods, and the clean base plan is not effective for you, it may be best for you to seek assistance from a certified nutritional expert.
Think that you won’t have time to prepare all of these healthy meals? Think again. There’s always a way to maximize your time management. After all, time is a product of energy and efficiency. Increase either energy, efficiency, or both, and you increase the amount of time you have.
Eating a healthy diet increases your energy, thus you can make better use of your time. If you think a greasy cheeseburger or candy bar will save you time because you can get them quickly, you’re in for a disappointing surprise 20 minutes later when you feel tired, run down, and undermotivated.
The next element is efficiency, and that element is improved through planning and strategy. The best way to enact a plan is to have a certain subset of foods that you can eat on a weekly basis. Put it on the calendar, and make sure you list out the ingredients for the trip to the store. The best way to do this is to have a number of ways to prepare each meal. For example, list out the meats you will purchase. Then you can list out a variety of ways to prepare them. For chicken, you may have recipes for citrus rosemary, garlic and herb, and mesquite grilled, just to name a few.
Now list out your side dishes. For example, sweet potatoes, brown rice (with various herbs and spices), vegetables, etc. Now simply mix and match the side dishes with the meat. There can be endless varieties. Make it a game!
You can also become more efficient through meal prepping. This is good for those who work. Prep some healthy meals and snacks for the week to grab and go (such as bags of vegetables, nuts, fruits, etc.). If you have these snacks at the ready, you’ll be less likely to go out and buy something unhealthy. You can also do this for the meats you will eat. You can have them marinated and in the freezer ready to be removed, defrosted, and cooked in no time at all.
What a person puts into their body affects everything from physical wellbeing to mental health, to longevity, to physiological performance and healing, to overall happiness. While we may enjoy an ice cream cone the moment we are eating it, the long term effects of eating an unhealthy diet can lead to chronic health issues, aggravated anxiety and/or depression, and lack of motivation.
Eating healthy, on the other hand, while not offering the same level of instant gratification, offers tremendous long term health benefits which can help to improve performance and reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. Here I will break down the components of a healthy diet.
Macronutrients are the primary source of calories (energy) within a diet. They include carbohydrates, fats, and protein. The three of these “macros” in various combinations make up 100% of the diet. For example, one macronutrient ratio may involve 50% carbohydrates, 30% fats, and 20% protein.
Carbohydrates – 30-50% of daily macronutrient intake
Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, the “fast” energy source for the human body. This can come from sugars, fibers, and starches. All of these carbohydrates break down into their simplest form, which is glucose, which is then used by the muscles for energy.
Sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, grains, wheat, beans, sugars, and many others. The modern industrialized world diet tends to be too heavy on carbohydrate intake, and the main reason is that sugars are added to many foods, while fats are deemphasized. Simply cutting out refined sugars and processed foods will serve to restore the balance of carbohydrate intake dramatically.
During periods of heavy exercise volume (for example, training for a half or full distance triathlon), carbohydrate intake will naturally increase as carbohydrates are consumed during workouts to restore glycogen stores and provide energy, but during periods of low volume and base building exercise, a lower carbohydrate intake is more appropriate (30-40%).
Carbohydrates can take one of three different paths in the human body. First, it can be broken down into glucose and used by the cells for energy immediately. Once this capacity is reached, any additional glucose from carbohydrates will be stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. Since there is a limited capacity to store glucose, excess carbohydrates consumed will be stored as fat. Typically, unless you are in an active state, carbohydrates that are broken down quickly, such as simple sugars and high glycemic foods, will often produce an elevated blood sugar response and store glucose as fat. Carbohydrates that have more fiber, or are lower glycemic, will burn more slowly and are therefore better for non-active states.
Good sources of carbohydrates include (with the exception of any food intolerances)
- Low glycemic fruits – Berries, apples, peaches, pears
- Whole grains, such as brown rice
Fats – 30-50% of daily macronutrient intake
Unfortunately, fat has been subject to guilt by association. Many people believe that consuming more fat will make you fat, and large food companies have exploited this association for the last many decades. The truth is that fat is a healthy part of a diet, and provides us the long term energy stores we need for endurance. In fact, endurance athletes, and those looking to lose weight, prevent chronic disease, and live healthier lives should increase their daily intake of healthy fats.
Unlike carbohydrates – which can only be stored in limited quantities – fats are not burned immediately. They are stored throughout the body in unlimited quantities. Fats are utilized when our efforts are low, or when we have to exert ourselves over long periods of time. When we condition our bodies to burn more fat for fuel vs. glycogen, we build endurance, we begin to lose more weight, we get healthier and less injury prone, and we enjoy more energy throughout the day.
Healthy sources of dietary fats include (with the exception of intolerances):
- Nuts – almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc.
- Oils – Olive oil, coconut oil
- Dairy – Milk, cottage cheese
- Seeds – Flaxseed, Chia
- Animal fats
Protein – 15-25% of daily macronutrient intake
Protein is made of of amino acids, which are responsible for building and repairing muscle. This is certainly an important aspect in athletics because building and repairing muscle is critical to performance. Therefore protein becomes an essential part of recovery.
Timing the intake of protein in the diet of athletes is important also. Right after a workout, an athlete should consume 15-20 grams of protein to aid in recovery. This can come from a number of different protein sources, and not all have to be sourced from animal. There are vegan options for protein powder available over the counter.
Protein should be avoided during workouts however, with the exception of workouts over many hours. Even then, it is advisable that you avoid protein or at least consider if you really need protein during a workout/race. If you do take protein, use only minimal amounts of less than a few grams per hour after about 4 hours.
Healthy sources of protein include:
- Grass fed beef
- Wild caught fish
- Cage free poultry
- Hemp seed
- Whey protein concentrate
Training/Racing Nutrition Guidance
Workout/Race needs not be complicated. In fact, when it comes to nutrition, it’s best to keep it simple. Too many variables can overcomplicate things. There are a few different factors that go into workout and race nutrition, which can make or break your :
Calories – Calories are units of energy. Typically, we categorize food by the amount of energy it provides, or exercise as the number of calories we burn. For the purposes of training and racing, it is important for an athlete to understand their body and how many calories they need to take in vs. how much they burn.
Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates are macronutrients which include simple and complex sugars. Every gram of carbohydrate equals about 3.75 calories. Carbohydrates are “fast” energy, in that the sugars are broken down in the system into glucose (the simplest sugar) and used for immediate fuel for the muscles and brain. There are a number of different types of carbohydrates which may be included in specialty nutrition products, including maltodextrin, fructose, and sucrose. Typically, carbohydrates are the primary calorie source for long workouts/races.
Minerals – These are the salts which will aid with digestion and fluid absorption, and aid against cramping. The salts include sodium (400-800 mg per hour), potassium, and magnesium. Salts are very important to replenish sodium levels in the body, as long workouts/races, where much liquid is consumed, can lead to sodium deficiency and could become potentially dangerous.
Protein – Protein is a macronutrient that aids in recovery/repair of muscles. The use of protein during workouts/races is a very individual option that varies from person to person. For some, it may improve performance, while it may hinder performance in others. The key thing is that if it is used in training it should be used sparingly, at no more than a few grams per hour (or less) for a full distance triathlon. For anything shorter than a 140.6 mile triathlon, protein is not advised for anyone.
Timing – The intervals at which you take in nutrition during a workout are just as important as the nutrition itself. Because the glucose will release into the system at specific times shortly after it is consumed, it is necessary to set a schedule for consumption of the nutrition (say one sip every 15 minutes). If the timing of consumption is too variable over the course of a race, you may find that you take in too much or too little at a time, and thus cause gastrointestinal issues.
Osmolality – This is a measure of the concentration of solids per weight of the liquid. In other words, in liquid nutrition, it measures the amount of nutrients you’re taking in as a proportion to water. This is important because the higher the osmolality, the greater chance of gastrointestinal distress. Therefore, if liquid nutrition is very concentrated (more than 8% carbohydrate by volume), it will be necessary to sip the nutrition followed quickly by a large drink of water.
A Few Rules to Live By
There are a few rules to which you want to adhere when it comes to workout nutrition:
Typically, you only need to take in carbohydrate calories during a workout lasting more than an hour. In fact, you have at least 2 hours worth of glycogen stores (the polysaccharide energy storage system) within our body. Once you exercise beyond an hour, you can start to take in calories to a) replenish glycogen storage, and b) practice nutrition intake for races.
Always train your race day plan. Never do anything new on race day. This is especially true with nutrition. You want to make sure you thoroughly practice your race day nutrition on your long days.
Solid? Liquid? Or Both? This is another one of those things that is very individual. Some people prefer to use solid foods, while others go purely liquid. Really consider what your purpose is here. If you want solid foods because they “taste good”, I would advise you to reconsider. It’s important to keep things as simple as possible, and you don’t get any simpler than 100% liquid nutrition. It’s easy to control, you don’t waste time with packaging, you don’t risk choking, and it’s simply fewer things to think about.
When mixing liquid nutrition, you can fit up to 1,200 calories into a single 24 ounce sports bottle. This being the case, make sure you have a separate water bottle standing by, because you will need it for dilution as you drink from the super concentrated bottle.
Take in 15-20 grams of protein after EVERY workout. Within 15 minutes to get the best results for adaptation. Remember: results don’t come during the workout, they come during the recovery. Taking in protein upon completion of a workout will aid in the recovery and repair of muscles. Make sure to use a natural protein product, like whey isolate, milk, or vegan based options (Vega is a great product which I use).
Within 30 minutes of each workout, have a meal balanced with all macronutrients. Make sure there are plenty of quality carbohydrate to replenish muscle glycogen, protein to repair and aid in muscle recovery, and fat to encourage metabolic adaptations.
How to Determine Your Nutrition Needs
The athlete will require different levels of nutrition during each phase of the race/training.
Swim – No nutrition taken.
Bike – 250 – 500 calories per hour (depending on multiple factors). The bike is the most important part of the triathlon to take in nutrition correctly because you are not only replenishing muscle glycogen stores, but you’re preparing for the run.
Run – 100 – 300 calories per hour (depending on multiple factors)
Since no nutrition is taken on the swim, let’s discuss the bike nutrition needs. In order to determine your needs, a good starting point is to calculate one gram of carbohydrate for every kilogram of body weight you have. For example, a person who weighs 70 kg will require at least 70 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise on the bike.
Since there are 3.75 calories for every gram of sugar (carbohydrate), this comes out to 263 calories per hour (rounding up is okay for ease of math, say to 275). This is the LEAST amount of calorie intake one will need for training/racing on the bike for long races (70.3 or 140.6).
From this starting point, practice taking in this number of calories per hour on the long bike ride and see how you feel. Make sure you take in the nutrition at appropriate timing. If you’re taking in liquid nutrition (as I recommend above), it’s a good rule of thumb to take a swig every 15 minutes with water (to decrease osmolality).
If after that first long ride you’re feeling a) really good, b) no stomach issues and/or c) very weak and hungry, increase the quantity of carbohydrate for the next long ride by 25 calories (in this case to 300). Continue to repeat this process until you get to the point where you experience gastrointestinal distress on your long ride. Subtract 25 calories/hour from this number, and this is the MAXIMUM caloric intake you can handle on the bike per hour.
Continue to practice the nutrition during long days with this calorie per hour to nail down the calorie intake, timing, and sodium requirements*
* A note about sodium: If you are a heavy sweater, you are training/racing in heat, or you find your clothing is salty after long training sessions, you need to add more salt to your nutrition. Remember that the salt requirements for anyone can be anywhere between 400 mg and 1,000 mg.
Ideally, if you fueled well on the bike, you will be well prepared to enter a “maintenance mode” on the run. As with the bike, finding your right nutrition mix on the run is a lot about trial and error. For many people, the starting point for run nutrition is to take in about half the calories per hour as you would take in on the bike. This number would go up the longer you plan to spend on the run course. For example, if you’re planning on running a 3 hour marathon off the bike, you may only need 150-200 calories per hour. However, if your plan is 5 hours+, you may need 250-300 calories per hour.
The goal should be to practice on your long runs with whatever nutrition you plan to use in your race. If you are partial to liquids, it may be worthwhile to practice with what is on the course. For example, if the race plans to serve Gatorade, Coke, or something similar, work with that, and practice taking in the nutrition every mile (as that is the typical distance between each aid station).
One word about cola. Cola is a great option for run nutrition because you can be certain that the calories you are taking in are consistent across each aid station (as opposed to sports drinks, which are mixed, and therefore subject to variability). An additional benefit is the caffeine contained in cola. Caffeine has some theoretical benefits to endurance athletes, as it acts as a stimulant. Additionally, it can be argued that it is performance enhancing due to the positive effect on perceived exertion (a faster pace feels easier). There are some concerns with caffeine that need to be considered, however. If you have heart issues, you should limit your intake or consult your physician before thinking about drinking cola. Additionally, when taken in too high a quantity, it can have negative effects. My advice would be to not begin taking in cola until after ⅓ to ½ of the marathon. Don’t forget to supplement with sodium, since cola will not contain sufficient sodium for many people.