Training for a triathlon, from a sprint distance to an Ironman requires a lot of extra time and grit, putting in the hard graft a train for 3 disciplines (swim, run and cycle). A disciplined attitude towards nutrition is also useful, since training alone will only get you so far. Specifically, amateur and elite triathletes should be aware of their own carbohydrate needs and intake, ensuring they are consuming enough to optimise their training performance and ensure that carbs are distributed over the day to fuel before a workout and aid recovery following. If you are serious and you want to do well, then fuelling your training with a healthy nutritious diet and one that provides an adequate amount of carbohydrate should be one of the things at the top of your list.
Carbs to Go!
Carbohydrates are your body’s main and preferred source of fuel especially during an endurance sport such as triathlon. Carb food sources such as bread, potato, pasta and rice are digested and stored in your muscle and liver as glycogen, ready to use as energy, as and when we need it. The problem is however, that we can only store approximately 2000 kilocalories from carbohydrate. Which sounds like a lot, but if you imagine a half – ironman triathlon requires approximately 4500 calories to complete, the energy stored doesn’t even meet half of the energy required. That’s why a regular intake of carbs is required during the event as well as during your triathlon training. To put it simply, a higher muscle glycogen level will allow you to train harder for longer and a low muscle glycogen will result in early fatigue and a lower training threshold.
Take home message: A regular intake of carbs in your diet can help you to train harder and perform better.
Calibre of Carbs
You may have heard of the glycaemic index (GI). It’s basically the value at which carbohydrate food and drinks affect blood glucose levels. High GI foods and drinks cause a higher blood glucose response and low to medium GI foods cause a lower blood glucose response. It’s recommended that we consume carbohydrate foods that are considered low to medium GI most of the time. However, in reality a mixed meal, which contains carbs, fats and protein, will reduce digestion time and thus the rate at which a high GI carb (like a jacket potato!) affects the blood glucose level anyway. Plus high GI sources are particularly important during exercise (greater than 1 hour), since they supply a rapid uptake of glucose to sustain energy production and performance.
The amount (which I’ll come on to) and ‘quality’ of the carbohydrate food appears to be more important for health and energy levels. By ‘quality’ carbohydrate I mean, carbs that are unrefined, e.g. wholegrain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables as well as dairy; foods that provide many other nutrients and physiological benefits besides energy alone. Sweets and sugar (are also carbohydrate) do just that and have been unfairly demonised of late. While they shouldn’t be consumed regularly, an infrequent intake will cause you no harm. Plus, we are only human – who doesn’t like the odd biscuit or sprinkle of sugar!
Take home message :Eat nutritious unrefined carbohydrate sources most of the time and save sweet foods and those with added sugar to occasional treats or for during exercise lasting more than 1 hour.
Carb counting – how much?
We all need carbohydrates as part of a healthy balanced diet but regular exercisers and triathletes need more than inactive, sedentary individuals. The amount of carbs you require is very much dependent on how active you are, and specifically how many hours per week you spend training. Carb requirements are calculated on an individual basis using total body weight (in kgs) multiplied by carbs (in grams), which increases proportionately with time spent training.
Take Home Message: To estimate your carbohydrate needs, use the information in the table to establish the amount of hours you typically train each week and calculate the suggested carbs in grams by your weight in kilograms.
This is probably all gibberish if you do not know the carb content of your fav’ foods! So to help, see our Carb Food Guide below; which shows you a variety of different carb rich foods and the amount that provides around 50g of carbohydrate. I would suggest keeping a food diary for a few days, being sure to note accurate weights or servings sizes. Once complete, cross-refer with the Carb Food Guide to estimate your current carbohydrate intake, comparing it to your calculated requirements. It may be that you consume more carbs than you need or that you do not consume enough to support your triathlon training. Either way, adjusting your intake should help you to meet your carb needs and ultimately support your triathlon training and performance.
Take Home Message: Different foods contain varying amounts of carbs, getting to grips with your current carb intake and making appropriate adjustments to the amount and ‘quality’ you consume, will help you to meet your energy needs whilst fuelling your sport and supporting your health.
Please note: that I have included a variety of foods within this table to help show their carb content. Foods such as sugary cereals, chips, white bread and biscuits should be consumed in moderation – think ‘quality’ unrefined, whole foods.
How do you ensure you consume enough carbs to support your training?
Does a small appetite hinder your ability to consume enough carbs?
How do you overcome this to ensure you are meeting your energy needs? We’d love to hear from you.