by Zoe Wilson
There are four main components to nutrition you need to master to fuel your body properly. Just as you put a swim, ride and run together in triathlon; you need to eat enough overall with the right mix of carbs, protein, fats and fluids together to give your body what it needs to pull PBs.
Carbohydrates: Premium fuel
Carbohydrate is your body’s first choice for fuel during exercise. Think of it as the petrol you put in your car. The body stores carbohydrate as glycogen in the muscles and liver, but there is a limited amount that can be stored at once. When there isn’t enough stored carbohydrate to meet the demands of your training program, you’ll come to a grinding halt, just like your car when you’ve played chicken with the petrol light and lost. Not only will you face fatigue, but your training will suffer, your race times will slow and your immunity will be compromised.
It’s for these reasons it’s crucial to plan how much and when you eat carbohydrate foods. Base your meals on nutrient-rich carbohydrate foods such as cereal, bread, pasta, rice, fruit, dairy, starchy vegetables like potato, sweet potato and corn and legumes (lentils, chickpea and beans). Foods high in refined sugar, such as lollies, soft drink, honey and jam, also contain carbohydrate and can be useful in certain situations like racing or during long training sessions. (Keep an eye out for our upcoming series on race-day nutrition for more info).
Protein - The building blocks
Remember that car? Protein is the chassis, the engine, the body and the nuts and bolts that hold it together - without it your car simply wouldn't exist. Protein is the fundamental building block of muscle, hormones, and enzymes, so it’s crucial to growth, immunity and the day-to-day running of your body. Protein can also be used during exercise as an energy source when carbohydrate stores are very low, and is essential to recovery by helping to repair any damage after your session.
Endurance athletes need a little more protein than your average Joe, but most can get enough by eating a well-balanced diet that includes a wide variety of protein foods such as chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, pork, fish, eggs, dairy foods, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Fats - The reserve fuel tank
Fat provides the main fuel source for long duration, low to moderate intensity exercise such as Long Course or Ironman triathlon. Even during high intensity exercise, where carbohydrate is the main fuel source, fat is needed to help access the stored carbohydrate. Fat is also essential for the formation of hormones, carries fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) and is high in energy to support your training load.
It’s best to choose foods such as nuts, seeds, oily fish, dairy foods, lean meat and avocados which contain fat but also contain lots of other nutrients, too. Cook with ‘heart-healthy’, vegetable-based oils such as olive, sesame, macadamia or avocado. Stay away from processed foods high in ‘unhealthy’ fats (saturated or trans fats) which are also low in other nutrients such as biscuits, pastries, chips and deep fried foods as these often contain lots of salt and sugar.
Fluids - Lubricant and coolant
Water is essential for the human body, especially during exercise. Think of water like coolant in your car. While you're pedalling away, water plays a big role in temperature regulation so you don’t overheat and blow up your radiator. Water is also crucial for digestion, nutrient transportation and blood circulation so your muscles can access the fuel they need.
Dehydration during exercise will lead to a decrease in performance and can even lead to nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea during and after exercise (not pretty!). Drinking fluid before, during and after your training sessions and races is necessary to replace fluids lost in sweat. However, how much and the type of fluid you should drink varies from person to person.
Staying hydrated outside of your exercise sessions also strengthens your immune system and is a key component to recovery, so you can back up with your next session sooner and improve faster.
Zoe Wilson is Wiggle’s new Australian nutrition blogger – Zoe is a triathlon-mad Accredited Practising Dietitian with a keen interest in sports nutrition. Most of all, she loves making nutrition concepts easy for any old person to follow. Find her at zoewilsonnutrition.com.