TTriathlon's ultimate nutrition guide
(Image: Remy Whiting)

Triathlon nutrition – our ultimate guide to fuelling

Your fuelling strategy should be a shifting picture, reflecting your training and the time of year. We unlock the secrets of periodised nutrition…

You spend thousands of laps refining your swim technique, hours poring over cutting-edge carbon components and wear out dozens of run shoes. But do you apply the same dedication to your nutrition plan?

Many of us fall into the trap of eating what we want without stopping to think ‘Hang on, is my nutrition plan suited to my training at this particular time of the year?’.

Enter periodised nutrition. In essence, this fuelling template matches your training macrocycle and the intensity of your training, but in the case of nutrition, this is broken down into the following phases: Base, Build, Competition and Transition. 

We’ve timed the phases here to begin in early-mid January, peaking for the triathlon race season in early June (although this is adaptable if your season starts a little earlier or later). A rough guide will see the Base Phase lasting around three months from January until April, the Build Phase lasting two months until June and the Competition Phase totalling the six opening weeks of your race season. The Transition Phase encompasses the final weeks of the race season and lasts until the end of the year, when the Base Phase is set to begin again.

While each phase varies, there are some nutrition principles that apply all year round, according to coach Bob Seebohar, author of the book Nutrition Periodisation for Athletes on the subject. “Choose foods rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc to improve immune function,” says Seebohar. “Also, choose polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats over saturated fats, and keep a written three-to-five-day food diary when you feel that your eating habits are lacking, to begin remedying the situation.”

Also remember this is real life, so aim for the 80:20 rule – that is, 80% of what you eat should be healthy, with 20% left to your own discretion. Right, onto that 80%…

Triathlete making a protein drink

The base phase

The chimes of Big Ben still echo in your ears – as does the sound of masticating mince pies, glugging Glenfiddich and listening to Graham Norton. Yes, Christmas may well bring the family together, but it’s distinctly divisive when it comes to reaching your triathlon goals, with studies showing the average weight increase is 5lb.

“That’s why body composition is so important to the base period,” says sports nutritionist Drew Price. “You’re looking to lower your weight and now’s the perfect time to do it because training intensity should be low.”

Beyond cutting the pounds, improving your aerobic capacity is key, achieved via long sessions at an intensity that will focus on utilising oxygen to create energy. Nutritionally this means you can reduce high-intensity fuelling carbs and increase the proportion of energy derived from protein and good fats.

“Depending on the amount of training you do, your carbohydrate intake should be 6-9g per kilogramme of bodyweight,” says Price. “Six is for athletes on less training with a higher body fat percentage. Protein nestles between 1.2g and 1.6g per kg, with fat around 0.9g-1g per kg.”

You might think cutting carbs and increasing fats is counter-intuitive to losing weight, but an excess of carbs is absorbed into the body as fat. Good fats, like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, are also more satiating than carbs, meaning you’ll feel fuller for longer.

Triathlete in training

Caffeine hit

Lower glycogen levels and lower intensity also guide your body to becoming a more proficient fat-burning machine, heightened by integrating fasted sessions, where you enter the workout in a glycogen-depleted state. We delved into this deeper in issue 306’s Performance pages, but once a week is fine for many, ideally before breakfast following the night’s fast. However, for those of you regularly shadowing the age-group podia, you could experiment with more fasted sessions during the base phase.

“I tend to do a couple of runs each week and a longish ride (2.5-4hrs) in a fasted state,” says Michelin chef and world age-group duathlon champion Alan Murchison. “However, this is for experienced athletes only as there’s a real chance of bonking or running out of fuel.”

And if you’re concerned that your glycogen-deprived work output is simply too low for your ego to handle, there are tweaks that can help. “When athletes train with low glycogen levels, their power output is reduced by 7-8%,” says professor of exercise metabolism, John Hawley. “However, we’ve shown that you can reduce that deficit by consuming caffeine, cutting power loss to around 3.5%.” 

The preparation phase should also see an increase in antioxidants to boost immunity. According to the NHS, you’re 80% more likely to pick up a cold in the winter, so cut down on pasta and rice, and take on more carbs from colourful vegetables. They’re a great source of vitamins and minerals, as are liver and kidney.

Base breakdown

The base period is the time to try out different wholefoods,” says Price. This period is characterised by a reduced carbohydrate intake, that space in your macronutrient cupboard now occupied by higher levels of protein, fat and fibre. Also up the antioxidant levels to fend off common winter ailments and keep snacks to a minimum, though when you do graze, ensure it’s healthy foods like almonds that replace the urge for Pringles. 

The daily breakfast of Helvellyn 2014 victor Alex Lawton isn’t a bad one to follow. “During the base period, my favourite is porridge with water (I have milk when increasing calorie requirements), including oats, pumpkin seeds, sultanas, cherries, blackcurrants and grapes.”

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