Nutrition – getting the basics right

August 18th 2020

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

Nutrition – getting the basics right

Age group athletes tend to have busy lifestyles with long working hours, family duties, social commitments and daily training routines, sometimes two or even three times per day. All these factors have a calorie (and hormonal) demand that needs to be considered and addressed otherwise the balance will easily and eventually sway in a negative direction.

We all know about healthy eating, and irrespective of your interpretation of “healthy” it is essential to cover your outgoings in terms of energy by re-fuelling and drinking.

Quantity and / or quality

To a large extent, and looking at it simplistically, quantity is more important than quality! Getting calories in, in any form, is better than eating “healthy” foods but undereating. DON’T misunderstand us though, we are not suggesting you eat all the “crap” you like to make up the calories you consume to live, function and perform.

We are simply stating that consistently under eating is a bigger problem than eating some “naughty” food here and there, alongside a majority of “healthy” foods.

Dieting and training

Thanks to social media and the constant pressures to feel like we need to be thin, ripped and light weight there is a major problem at hand. Nowadays, this issue is prevalent in all ages, genders and walks of life – many children are having real problems!

It is all too tempting and easy to fall into the trap of thinking that “dieting” for weight loss is  going to improve your performance. The last thing an endurance athlete needs is to be weakened by lack of energy. If you are putting in hours and hours of training, you need calories to fuel the sessions, repair and recover; never mind all the other stressors in life to make you tired!

Nutrition needs to be an integral part of your daily routine, or part of your training routine if you want to improve your performance AND stay healthy.

Who has forgotten the tragic story of Mary Cain, the terrible reveal that she and her fellow athletes at the Nike Oregon Project were being emotionally abused, forced to take weight loss hormones and generally mistreated at the hands of Alberto Salazar – the legendary athletics coach! His goal: to make the athletes as light as possible while using performance enhancing drugs in the attempt to keep them strong, fast and “champions”.

In reality, there were severely ill individuals who had numerous health (and now mental) issues and long-term performance losses.


Without a “surplus” of body fat, enough daily calories, rest and recovery, the body will gradually breakdown and you will become fragile and open for injury and illness. By the time you reach this point, you are well into RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport).

RED-S is a world recognised problem and is behind numerous poor performances, injuries, chronic ailments and career ending incidents in MANY sports, especially strength and endurance sports.

Previously known as the Female Athlete Triad syndrome as it was more noticeable and recorded in women, it is now VERY evident that it can and does affect anyone of any gender or age.

Prof. Ross Tucker discusses the case of Mary Cain, and his thorough description of RED-S and what signs and symptoms to look out for. Alternatively, the IOC’s consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) covers the topic.

Race Weight

Consuming calories from a mix of “healthy” foods alongside a structured training regime should allow your body to settle into its “race” weight by race day!

Simplistically, the more you train the more you need to fuel; however, the more you train the more muscle you are likely to have (which needs calories for repair and growth) and the more fat you burn during and after training.

Remember that you are training your endurance, which means a good continuous dose of aerobic effort which in turn means you should primarily be burning fat!

This is all a very simplistic view and is summarised similarly simplistically by Prof R Tucker in the podcast and in the IOC’s consensus paper!

This is not a new concept and it is kind of obvious when you think about it, and we are pretty sure at some point you will have observed it, either relating to yourself or to friends / family members around you. Yet, as highlighted in a recent study by the Australian Institute of Sport, it is a very real issue and we are NOT learning or managing ourselves properly or safely.

Daily Fueling

So, what should you be eating?

As with everything, nutrition is individual and what works for one may well not for others, leaving aside allergies, etc. However, your basic daily needs in terms of calories must be considered, then add on top sufficient to cover your training loads.

Some very basic but key points are to avoid unhealthy foods; by this we mean anything that is loaded with sugar and anything that has been processed. In simple terms, the more natural the product the better, and especially if it is locally produced. Processed food includes fast-food, packaged meals, breads, pastas, cereals, ALL products containing vegetable oils (which are unfortunately very common as they are cheap and last a long time).

Processed foods really do form a large part of our daily food items – we have just been so “programmed” and grown up with the products that it is now normal.

This passage from “How to Become a Champion”, by Percy Cerruty back in 1960:

– but, in this matter, beggars, or Australians, must be content with what the farmer and the government give us. We grow our wheat for profit, not for food; and, truly, if we could get by with a poorer quality than what it is – and a bigger profit come out of it – that is us!”

“Who cares two hoots about quality – or dying, or athletes, or children – as long as the national trade balance is favourable?

This book is 60 years old and he (we) knew all the way back then that the corporate giants of the world had us all fooled with “science” and marketing – just to make a fortune on cheaply produced, poor quality grains.

Macronutrients – the basics

There are essential foods that should be included in your nutrition:

Protein – good quality meat, fish, poultry, etc (vegetarians must be aware that they must eat larger quantities/volumes of vegetables to achieve the same nutritional value as meat, and / or supplement with protein products. Protein is essential for muscle repair which is a big consideration for athletes. Note that protein requirements increase with age.

Fat – fat is essential for a healthy immune system and cell function and saturated fat IS GOOD, so all sources of animal fat should be the focus, plus dairy (butter, cheese, cream, etc), olive oil, coconut oil, avocado. DO NOT consume vegetable oils – rapeseed (canola oil), sunflower oil, etc, etc.

Carbohydrates – consume in their most natural state; ie vegetables rather than excessive processed carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, etc.

Training – fueling

In addition to your normal daily needs, training will place further demands on your nutritional requirements and when training more than once a day, refuelling is essential to ensure you can perform each training session optimally.

There are various early signs that you are under fuelling; RED-S doesn’t just happen overnight.

Consistently aching muscles and joints, even after “easy” session, may mean a lack of protein. Feeling sapped of energy, unable to get power into the movements may mean you are low on fats or carbs. Learn to listen to your body and the observations you make so you can reprioritise your food intake, and as soon as possible – not later or tomorrow!

Low intensity training forms the bulk of an endurance athletes training volume which is not only essential to develop a good aerobic system, it also helps promote the use of fat a fuel. Improving the body’s ability to use fats not only benefits the body when training / racing, but it will also help the body to use fats when at rest.

Training – Hydrating

Hydration and the need to replace fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat has become an industry in itself over the last few decades. The “science” of sweat testing is very vague and aimed ONLY at promoting the products that are supposeldy going to help you remain hydrated. Its a way to make the individual feel in control rather than simply applying the generic advice of “2% dehydration results in a fall in performance and so you must drink x litres per hour”. Not only are these tests very individual, they are very specific to the ambient conditions at the time of the test and so not accurate for different conditions!

Instead, and as with everything, learn what you need whislt training, listen to your thirst, and craving for fluid.The need to drink sports drinks with the essential electrolytes, often based on sweat testing, is big business and is based on some very biassed research.

Prof Ross Tucker provides a great, simple overview in his podcast “Simple Truth about Exercise and Hydration

The simple lesson is, as usual, learn to listen to your body and drink when you are thirsty!

During training

During a training session there is no real requirement to take any fuel unless doing a long (over 75min) bike or run session. However, this in-training fuelling has for two purposes:

  1. To support your training, both on the day in that session and for subsequent sessions, and
  2. To practice for when you race.

In the latter case, it is important to remember that you can only take on fuel after the swim, and the bike then becomes not only your first opportunity to fuel but is also the most convenient, as running places additional stress which sometimes makes fuelling more difficult. It is for this reason that we do not allow athletes to drink during their swim sessions; before and after is fine, but during will condition you to need a drink which is not going to be available in a race.

For long training sessions, take the first source of fuel after around 75min with around 200kCal to see how you feel and cope. 200kCal is the average amount that we have found people can tolerate; more than this (which is often recommended on the back of packages!) often results in digestion issues and discomfort. However, it is your responsibility to experiment with exact foods and quantities to learn your tolerance to the quantity and type of fuel you use.

Just like you would look ahead at your training plans and prepare for sessions, you need to prepare for fuelling too. Plan what and when to have fuel before the sessions, during and after. Before and after should be normal day-to-day items. During your long training sessions you should be using the same as you intend to use on race day. Whatever you choose, make sure it is easy, digestible (within the needs and timing of your session) and suitable; ie it is sustaining but not dense in your stomach, etc.

Over Hydrating

Drinking should be to thirst; whilst there is lots of “evidence” to support the need for the regular consumption of electrolytic drinks (electrolytes – a commercial term to make salts sound more scientific), salt tablets, etc, there is little real evidence to support this. Haile Gebrselassie is reported to have lost 10% of his body weight whilst setting a new record (2:04) at the Berlin Marathon in 2008. The normal dehydration information states that if you lose just 2% of your body weight in fluids during exercise/race, your performance will significantly drop!

Drinking excessively, to meet sweat rate loss, is NOT advisable. Fluids, water on its own especially, increases the rate you lose salts, and can lead to hyponatremia: Prof. Tim Noakes explains the issue in many published studies, in his book “Water logged” and various YouTube, newspaper and online magazine interviews.

Post training

Again, there is “evidence” supported by the sports nutrition industry that it is essential to refuel within the 20-30min window after training has stopped. Whilst this has little scientific evidence, it is a good habit to get into, especially if you have just completed the first of two training sessions in a day. Get the calories in to support the load you are placing on your body!

Race nutrition

Having practiced and refined your nutrition / drinking strategy in training, your approach to race day should be exactly the same. If necessary, to ensure race day nerves don´t overtake you, remind yourself to take fuel / drink at intervals you have practiced by adding notes to your hands, bike, etc.

NEVER try something new on race day – if you see something at an aid station, a fellow racer offers you a sample, etc, DON’T try it! The risk is that you take on board something that your tummy cannot digest easily, and it leads to tummy discomfort and frequent toilet stops!

Believe in your training experiences and the food you have chosen, but listen to your body on the day – nerves, climate, etc can all alter your body’s functioning, so if you sense your tummy becoming bloated while eating your chosen fuel at the “normal” intervals, WAIT a little longer before consuming the next dose. Let your tummy digest what is in there a little more before adding more to an already struggling system.

Day before

This is again a very individual choice and often dictated by previous experiences such as eating a particular type of pizza, because the last time you did so it led to a great race. However, carb-loading by eating excessive pasta, etc is definitely no longer recommended. Generally, a lighter, normal size, simple meal is better, containing a mix of good protein, fat and some carbohydrates.

Your digestive system might be “compromised” in the days before the race, so eating rich and fancy foods can add to the issue. Be sensible and treat the lead up and preparation as you would for any other day – this mentality will also help calm you!

Race day breakfast

Again, do as you do on training days. If you have a coffee and then go (shorter events), or a small meal (for longer events), this is all you need on race day. Anything more or different is probably going to upset the first part of your race.

Getting the timing of your race day breakfast is vital but can be practiced every week in the lead up to the race, there are no excuses for not practicing. Larger (volume or calorific) breakfasts obviously take longer to digest and this must be factored into your plans for training and racing; wake up early, get the fuel in and let it start digesting so you have fuel for training/racing.

Prior to the start of the race, you may, if already tested, have a “top-up” to keep you going through the swim to the bike which should be light and easily digested but only something that has been tested previously.

During the race, you won’t be fuelling or drinking (hopefully) in the swim. When you get on the bike, drinking should be your first priority. Depending on your swim, the water (salty/fresh), and whether you drank any, which may have tainted your mouth, you need to start with small sips. Leave the main fuelling and drinking intake until you settle into a rhythm on the bike after 20mins or so.

Time on the bike should be your main target for refuelling, while the impact forces and stress on the body is less. We have found and recommend that you have solid fuels on the bike, as they are much easier to “eat” and digest.

For the run, gels may be a better option as they are easier to use and digest although ensure that any gel does not require fluid for absorption; or if they do, get the fluids on board, but running on a full stomach is not easy or comfortable!


Caffeine can be used but make this in the latter stages of the race as it can upset your stomach and disrupt your energy levels.

Caffeine, along with the high sugar content of sports nutrition, can provide big boosts, but they WILL follow with big drop unless consumed regularly.

Caffeine in normal coke works great, most events have coke at aid stations. In the latter stages of the event, try mixing half a cup of water with half a cup of coke for a good mix of hydration, sugar and caffeine that isn´t too rich.

Your training when completed at the correct intensity and normal eating habits should improve your ability to burn fat for fuel (you become fat adapted) and so high sugar content fuels for both training (especially) and racing should not be 100% necessary. These sugary based fuels are there as a backup, to help with a few surges and for a faster finish (not mid-section of the race).


The age-old saying “never try anything new in a race” is equally applicable to fuelling and drinking. Training is your opportunity to practice and refine your fuelling and drinking strategy, but be aware and adaptable on race day, best laid plans don’t always follow through.

Learn what you can tolerate, and the amount you need, so that come race day, you can do what you entered to do and perform well and enjoy the experience!