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Even Pro triathletes are not immune to nutritional dramas, as Rich Allen explains.

Rich AllenAnother race season is on the horizon and at 38 I only have a few years before too much grey hair will tell me it’s time to hang up the tri suit. Most pro triathletes will be working on a new training structure or perhaps a new swim technique during the off-season, but looking back at 2012, training was not my stumbling block. My Achilles’ heel during the last 12 months has been nutrition and by nutrition I mean what to eat on a daily basis, not what to eat during a race.

Why am I specifically addressing nutrition this off-season? Surely my diet is already excellent? Well, truth be told, I had a major wake-up call last November.

I woke up the middle of the night with a sharp stabbing pain in my upper right abdomen. I managed to stumble out of bed, only to collapse on the floor. My arms and legs were completely numb and I was terrified – I had no idea what was going on. After a night in A&E the pain subsided, only to return a few days later. For the following month I was in significant discomfort, enough to sideline my training. The pain was a gallbladder attack, the result of an egg and cheese eating frenzy and an overload of fat and cholesterol. As a professional athlete who works out four or five hours a day I naïvely believed that I was immune to these body malfunctions as these were reserved for the clinically obese. I was very wrong.

My everyday diet is certainly healthy when compared to the average person but I do tend to go crazy sometimes. There are occasions when my body craves protein or sugar and I will devour a complete slab of mature cheddar or half a chocolate cake. The attack occurred on one of those nights and my gallbladder could not handle it. The advice I was given was to considerably reduce my fat and cholesterol intake, even though it was not that high to begin with. On reflection I decided to take things one step further and completely overhaul my diet with a three-step process. I didn’t want to risk anything like this happening again.

Step one was to cut down on cholesterol and fat as instructed. This is not as easy as it sounds as cholesterol is quite high in many everyday foods. Cheese is probably my favourite food but this has practically disappeared from my diet. Eggs are a great source of protein but eggs are out because they are the number one gallbladder aggressor. My beloved mayonnaise is no more and butter is a thing of the past, but I still eat chicken and red meat in moderation. Fish is a great substitute for a steak, but I am struggling, as a nice bit of fish can be a bit pricey. To get enough protein I have been eating a lot of nuts and beans, which has lead to some interesting sounds and smells around the house.

Step two was switching to the whole-grain diet. I know that whole grains are much better for me and will release energy slowly. Let’s face it, some whole-grain products taste like cardboard, but I am slowly learning to love cardboard. For one, it certainly has increased my energy levels in general, particularly the bowl of porridge in the morning.

Step three has been eating more fruit and vegetables. Why has this been lacking in my diet? Pure laziness. I would run to the supermarket and just grab a few easy-to-prepare vegetables like carrots or broccoli. Anything else looks foreign and I would probably destroy them in preparation. With fruit I am a bit of a banana freak and get hooked on them as my one and only fruit source. Of course this barely constitutes balanced fruit consumption and I am missing out on some important yet simple things such as apples and oranges. My failings are simple to rectify and just allowing more time in the supermarket, and 10 more minutes to prepare meals, gives me enough time to buy, prepare and eat a whole variety of fruit and veg.

I have learnt three things over the past few months. We pro triathletes are not immune to anything and no amount of training can save you from some ailments. Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of variety not only helps you feel better on a day-to-day basis, it also helps training performance and ultimately race performance. Eating healthily is certainly harder on the wallet but it’s most definitely worth it. Bring on the 2013 season! is the online home of Triathlon Plus – the best source of triathlon training advice, triathlon gear reviews and triathlon news.

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