Updated: Mar 28, 2022
A new season is underway, with a few races completed and some big events on the horizon; many athletes are training hard and starting to increase their training volume. With key races getting closer I have started having athletes approach me to debate “Race Weight”.
Making now a good time to talk about proper triathlon nutrition practice. As Coach Brett says in his article from 2014, ‘Race Weight is very important, but it isn’t something that should run your life based on the latest and greatest diet!’
With all the information out there today, you can’t go anywhere without seeing conflicting information on whether or not you should be Gluten Free, Ketotic, or Carb-Heavy. What seems to be the common occurrence in athletes is they aren’t getting enough fuel to properly execute their training and races. Your body has enough energy stored up as muscle Glycogen to fuel approximately 2 hours of hard effort. I’ve had athletes come to me saying they didn’t have enough energy for that 1 hour endurance ride, or 40-min endurance run. As soon as I see this trend in an athlete, I immediately ask what were they eating the previous 5 days? The general result is…. Not enough carbohydrate, fat and especially protein! Many athletes are effectively starving themselves of energy.
The numbers Athletes are being told they need to be light weight in order to be fast, this is true only to a certain extent. If you get so light that your muscles have no energy or force, you will fail in training and on race day. Middle distance and long distance racing are strength, not speed sports. General guidelines for highly active athletes are 1.2-1.4g/kg (4 kcal/g) Protein, and anywhere from 25-30% calories (9 kcal/g) from Fat. For a 55kg Female, this would be at least 66g (264kcal) of protein per day. For a 75kg male, that is at least 90g/kg (360kcal). Calculate it yourself, where do you stand? In times of heavy training before a race, you can bet that your body needs upwards of 1.4g/kg or so protein. With fat, if you are eating 2500kcal/day, you need 69-89g (~625-750 kcal) of fat, or for 3500kcal, 97-116g (~875-1050kcal). Look at those numbers! Way higher than I bet many think they need. When athletes start restricting calories, fat and protein are generally the two macro-nutrients that suffer, with this often comes low energy, decreased training benefit, sickness, or injury.
Ok, so away from all the numbers. For short races such as a Sprint or Olympic distance triathlon, you can get away with being a bit lighter and using that low weight to be “faster”. As soon as you move to the long course races, it become essential that you maintain your strength, over speed. Find out how many calories you need per hour when training, and make sure that you’re getting enough to fuel your body. When you’re looking at losing weight, try for no more than 1kg (2lb) per week, you need to have the energy to keep going, day after day, and hour after hour on race day.
“You’ll find that you race better in an Ironman with a little too much (weight) than a little too less.” – Coach Brett Sutton.
Don’t shy away from that cheesecake or chocolate when you’re training hard! Make sure you reward, don’t starve yourself! If you enjoy Reeses Peanut Butter Cups or Snickers, then go ahead and eat them, especially if you are training hard or during a race! Find out what works for you, and don’t change it! You’re out there trying to achieve a personal best, please, don’t skip on the essential fuels. If you are practicing Gluten Free, Vegetarian, or Ketotic Diets, then by all means do so it if it makes you feel better, but don’t do it because “they” told you it’s better. Everyone is different and what works for one athlete will not necessarily work for another.
The KISS Principle applies to diet. If you struggle to read the name or number of ingredients, you probably should pass on it. Also, enjoy the foods that make you happy, some more in moderation than others. A maintainable diet in moderation, is the best path to success and consistency.