No other topic in triathlon elicits as much confusion and conflicting viewpoints as does the topic of exercise nutrition – what we consume and how during exercise or racing. It seems that every “solution” is THE solution in the mind of the person presenting the solution, even if said solution is directly contradicting another THE solution presented by somebody else… Got that? Neither do I…
Sadly, the newbie athlete with minimal knowledge on the subject is thrust into the debate and compelled to choose sides (because, you know, there are sides and all). The popular advice that may be presented by high level coaches or elite athletes who have trained and dialed in their direct nutrition needs (and adopted by the “if it works for them, it will work for me” masses) mislead newbies into an overly complicated, and potentially unhealthy, relationship with sports nutrition. This is especially true now when the sports nutrition world is obsessed with “restriction”.
The Problem With Clickbait
Case in point, I recently read a blog post by a famous triathlon coach which, in the title of the post, asked if water was a performance inhibitor. Yes, you read that right, water. Cardinal rules of clickbait achieved: make the title provocative and ask it in the form of a question.
First of all, let me just address the 50,000 foot view question itself. No. For every single person on the planet, water is not a performance inhibitor. I think that with hundreds of thousands of years of empirical evidence to support the claim, we can put that one to rest. If you don’t consume water, you will die within days. If you exert yourself during the process, you will probably die sooner. Thus, if the objective is “live” then water very much helps performance.
To be fair, this coach was not advocating training and racing in a dehydrated state. He was actually promoting his philosophy of only using water as a vehicle to deliver calories, which isn’t all bad (hence my point about clickbait being the real enemy), but it kind of overcomplicates the issue and makes water sound like the annoying guy at the party we want to avoid.
Many elite level coaches who don’t consider the beginner mindset tend to overcomplicate things that should be inherently simple. They do so in an effort to address the last 10% of fitness necessary to get to the top of the game – which is what elite athletes want to focus on. They want to get that last difficult 10% in fitness, in nutrition, and in mindset. For the beginner, however, the target should be the relatively uncomplicated pieces of fitness and nutrition that account for about 90% of the results.
I hypothesize that 90% of fitness and health can be achieved through simple solutions. The remaining 10% is where the complexity lives (again, where the elites hang out, but for some reason the fitness industry is obsessed with driving all our focus). The complex 10% is where things become highly individual, highly nuanced, and frankly kinda dangerous. Intermittent fasting or keto may work for a few people in unique situations, but by no means are they beginner strategies or panaceas.
The simple 90% is what we all know. Lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole foods; and less highly processed foods.When it comes to sports nutrition, we see a lot of “10%” solutions in the form of low calorie options for long races (just no), or fantastical claims about water impeding performance. The 90% solution? Focus on the exercise nutrition triad.
The Triad of Sports Nutrition
Water – This is a given. As stated above, you need water to live. You need it to perform. Don’t neglect it. But also be conscious that OVERconsumption of water is a real risk in long races, especially when you ignore the other two elements. That can lead to hyponatremia, which is a very dangerous condition that results from low sodium and high water content in the body.
The simple rule for water: Drink for thirst, and drink consistently, being conscious to not overconsume. Don’t restrict yourself to the point of dehydration. If the training day or race is longer than about an hour (or it’s a hot day), mix in some calories and minerals (described below).
Calories – Also important for performance. Don’t neglect these. Calories are your friend on longer training days. Specifically, sugar is your friend (I can hear the gasps from across the internet). Yes, sugar is a very legal performance enhancing substance because it directly fuels your energy system. In this case, it’s good for you. Where it’s not good for you is when you’re sitting in front of a computer all day playing Minecraft (sorry, that was me talking to my son). We’ve all heard stories about athletes finishing long races like Ironman without consuming calories, but those are unicorns, and they’re doing something that is highly dangerous. While it is possible, I just have one question for these people… Why?
The simple rule for calories: For races lasting more than a couple hours, take in about 1 gram of carbohydrate for every kilogram you weigh every hour to start. So if you’re 70 kg, take in 70 grams per hour to start. The “to start” point is important. This is highly individual, and you may find you need more calories if you feel like you’re not getting enough. There are plenty of options for calories, including gels, sports drinks, and gummies.
Minerals – Specifically in the form of sodium, potassium, and magnesium. These minerals will help with cramping, water absorption and retention, and performance. Sodium in particular is necessary to take in due to the amount of water being taken in during training/racing. It helps keep your body regulated to avoid dangerous conditions like hyponatremia.
The simple rule for minerals: Start with between 400-800 mg sodium for every hour you train and race depending on how much you sweat and your body weight. If you feel like your stomach is “sloshy”, take in a bit more. If you sweat a lot or the race will be hot, aim for the high side of this equation.
That’s it. The non-gimmicky simple approach to exercise nutrition for endurance training and racing. Don’t restrict anything, and don’t overconsume. Just be aware, and discover what works for you without leaning into ridiculous claims.
The last thing I’ll say about keeping nutrition simple is this. The simpler you make nutrition on race day, the fewer things you’ll have to worry about. You will have fewer variables that have the potential to fail. And if things do fail, it will be easier to pinpoint what went wrong and find a solution. Simple is not sexy, but it is much more effective.