Drop fat and race triathlon faster by learning the nutritional lessons of triathlon’s elite athletes, says Sally Pinnegar

(Photo: Michael Dannenberg)

Look around at your next triathlon and you’ll see that many competitors have a high body fat percentage, despite all the hard training they do.

That’s because it’s easy to overestimate the amount of food needed to fuel and refuel. People think they can eat anything because they train every day.

That’s how they pack on (or keep on) the body fat and slow themselves down. Refueling inappropriately not only keeps you at a higher-than-optimum weight, but also sets you up for a bad session the next time you train.

You might be surprised to know that many elite triathletes eat less than recreational triathletes, despite doing more training. So how do they stay at the top of their game? It’s all about timing, type and portion sizes.

Just like training, everything you eat should serve a functional purpose and be an appropriate amount. You wouldn’t do junk miles in training so why munch wasted calories that will be detrimental to performance?

With a few changes you’ll soon see your weight and fat percentages shift, aiding higher performance.

Plan properly

Plan your meals and shopping. Remove the randomness from your daily diet by planning your meals a week in advance. The idea is to always know what you’re having, rather than eating the first thing you see.

Ditch the excuses

Don’t make training an excuse. It’s easy to rack up the calories by thinking “I have a hard session in the morning so I can get away with a big meal and a pudding” Then training day comes and it’s “I’d better have a large breakfast to see me through”. During the session you continue to take on calories in the form of bars, drinks and gels. Afterwards it’s “I can afford a blowout now as I’ve just trained hard.” It doesn’t take a genius to see how this results in fat gain.

Play your carbs right

Time things so that you eat complex carbohydrates either side of training. Other meals can be more protein and vegetable based, such as meat or fish with salad or vegetables. Don’t be afraid of carbs, just put them in the right place!

Get hungry again

Avoid grazing. Grazing is alright if all the eating ‘incidents’ are small. But most people graze on top of three main meals. Going a few hours without food won’t kill you. Get back in touch with mild hunger. It makes food taste better.

Mix it up

Eat a wide variety of foods. This will broaden your intake of nutrients. Avoid eating the same few meals week-in, week-out. It’s important to get a full range of vitamins and minerals so that your health and recovery rate are strong.

Drink carefully

Wine is fine (occasionally). One glass of wine with a meal a few times a week is good, but beyond that you are taking in empty calories that do nothing for your sport. Keep alcohol intake low.

Eat lighter later

Don’t eat big meals too late. If you train in the evening and finish late, have your largest meal at lunchtime and a small but powerful snack post-training; such as eggs and spinach on whole-grain toast. This will give you the nutrients you need – you’ll sleep better too.

Sally Pinnegar is a marathon runner and nutritionist to pro triathletes