Triathlon Nutrition PlanDo you follow a triathlon nutrition plan?

We periodise our training sessions and season but what about a triathlon nutrition plan?

Breaking through the dreaded fitness plateau is what I help my clients do.

I do this by applying the principles of specificity to our workouts. Adjusting the frequency, duration, intensity and type of training to keep our body recovering and adapting.

In terms of real-world triathletes, endurance athletes, I want to address how many of us overlook nutrition. How can we periodise it to meet our physical needs dictated by the training stress we undergo?

Are You Refuelling Or Recovering?

You cannot enter a gym, sports shop or endurance race such as a triathlon without being faced with an array of sports drinks. Promising faster recovery if you consume them it is no wonder they are so popular. But are we using sports nutrition properly?

The difference between recovery and refuelling is often clouded and although they do sit hand in hand it is important to maximise both.

Occurring at different times there are several factors to consider. The optimum time for refuelling is within the 15-minute window after exercise.

At this point you are highly insulin sensitive, and the high glycemic index sports nutrition that you consume will result in glycogen synthesis and the replacement of stored energy in your muscle cells.

It is suggested by Joe Friel that additional carbohydrate consumption should continue post exercise for every hour of the training session, so for those of us who are marathoners or Ironman triathletes this could take some doing.

Essentially your most important time for refuelling is immediately after your training session and as time passes your body becomes less able to use the high GI carbohydrates usefully.

Insulin And Human Growth Hormone

Conflicting with high GI carbohydrate consumption and the consequent insulin hormone response is the occurrence of human growth hormone (HGH), which often seems to be overlooked.

HGH as the name suggests is fundamental for repair and recovery in exercise. Clever timing of your sports nutrition will elicit HGH production and result in faster recovery.

Peak times for recovery by HGH in the body are a couple of hours after you go to sleep. This is when we repair ourselves and adapt to training stress.

However since HGH production is hindered by the presence of insulin is our addiction to sports products, and traditional endurance athletes’ high-carbohydrate and grain-based meals such as pasta and bread hindering our nighttime recovery?

I suggest that it is and considering that glycogen synthesis (refuelling) is optimal immediately post exercise we should do everything we can to maximise our recovery, specifically by creating a HGH desirable, low-insulin environment in the body.

By avoiding high GI foods before bed and in the hours after initial exercise refuelling this can be achieved. Telltale signals that you are achieving this optimal environment for recovery at night include better sleep quality and faster recovery from exercise.

It is possible to get the most from your HGH at other times of day too. Firstly by having a siesta this may well aid recovery but remember you are not likely to have a HGH response if you’ve previously ingested high glycemic index foods.

Secondly we can elicit HGH through very short high intensity training sessions such as a set of 5×5 big bang exercises such as the dead lift loaded with >85% 1RM.

High intensity sports training is also effective. If for example you perform sets of 10 to 40 second reps on the track or turbo-trainer and keep the session under 40 minutes total duration.

If done correctly, and you avoid carbohydrates at all costs post session you should feel a wave of tiredness 1-2 hours later. This is a sure sign of HGH kicking in.

Do not make the mistake of performing long sessions or pairing up the short session with a couple of hours aerobic exercise afterwards as this is sure to result in the opposite of your desired ‘growth’ and achieve a catabolic break down.

Periodise Your Nutrition During The Year

As athletes you will not be (should not be) doing the same training sessions all year long. As previously mentioned periodisation is crucial to improved performance. So it is wise to ensure your fuelling matches your training load.

By considering your macronutrient intake and adjusting it as your training changes you are sure to get rapid recovery and provide the correct fuels to your body.

The macronutrients including fat, carbohydrate and protein all play an essential role and your body needs different ratios of each at different training periods.

Periodising your nutrition to match your training

Training Volume Intensity Nutrition
High Low
  • Increase fat
  • Decrease carbohydrates
  • Protein stable
Moderate Moderate
  • Increase carbohydrates
  • Decrease fat
  • Protein stable
Low High
  • Increased carbohydrates
  • Decreased fat
  • Protein stable
  • Reduce calories with training volume

Adapted from Friel, J. and Cordain, L (2005) The Paleo Diet For Athletes. Rodale.

Protein should be maintained at 1.4g to 2.0g per kilo of body mass and form about a 20% of total calories.

Fat and carbohydrate content should vary with training intensity and volume.

A focus on high quality nutrient-dense food needs to be followed at all times, in particular if you are ingesting large volumes of empty calories (described as anti-nutrients) from sports drinks that may deplete your nutrient stores and not replace them.

5 Step Triathlon Nutrition Plan For Maximum Recovery And Refuelling

  1. Use your 15-minute window for sports nutrition and stay away from it at other times of the day.
  2. Avoid high GI carbohydrates before bed but also during your sedentary day.
  3. If your sessions are under an hour question the need for sports nutrition at all. What are your goals? Are you looking to get lean, and if so a calorie deficit will be hindered by ingesting sports drinks.
  4. Perform very high intensity and short sessions to elicit a growth response, but remember to avoid carbohydrate drinks afterwards.
  5. Let your training volume and intensity dictate your nutrition. Are you doing lots of low intensity exercise, using fat for fuel, or are you performing high intensity interval sessions or races, using more percentage of fuel from glycogen?

Further information:

Friel, J. and Cordain, L. (2005) The Paleo Diet Foe Athletes. Rodale

Seebohar, B. (2011) Nutrition Periodization For Athletes. Bull Publishing Company

For more comprehensive advice and a zero guesswork triathlon nutrition and training plan join the team. Alternatively you can subscribe to my newsletter to receive your free 5 steps triathlon e-course (in the sidebar) and learn more about your triathlon training and how to progress.

Happy training, Nico.