Fueling yourself to the finish line

Chrisse Wellington makes herself an energy drink after a training session.

Story highlights

  • Correct nutrition and hydration can enable you to train longer and harder
  • Champ's nutritional strategy comprises natural foods as much as possible
  • Dark chocolate and pizza are definitely on the menu, champ says
Each triathlete has his or her own swim, bike and run programs. They probably have a logbook, which they diligently complete -- placing nice little checks in the columns, patting themselves on the back for having logged another session.
But this training would be useless without a bit of help. No, I'm not talking about a singing, dancing, power-testing, go-faster meter. I'm talking about nutrition, and its partner, hydration.
Whether you are an athlete or a coach potato, you are what you eat. It's that simple.
Correct nutrition and hydration can enable you to train longer and harder, delay the onset of fatigue, enhance performance, promote optimal recovery and adaptation and reduce the potential for injury and gastrointestinal distress.
Now, don't get me wrong. My relationship with food hasn't always been healthy.
I suffered from eating disorders in my youth, and my mid-twenties were spent worshiping the patron saint of pizzas and peach schnapps.
But over the past few years I have empowered myself with knowledge about how to fuel myself for performance and ensured that I have the nutrition log book column well and truly checked.
So what constitutes a good, healthy diet for triathlon success?
Healthy eating for athletic performance (in fact for everyday health) isn't rocket science, especially for those fortunate enough not to suffer from allergies or intolerances. Obviously each triathlete has his or her own food likes and dislikes, energy demands, body types and performance targets, so I will focus this blog on my own diet, in the hope that it offers some informational nuggets to take away.
I love to eat. My nutritional strategy is simple, it comprises natural foods as much as possible, balances intake with energy output and follows the "everything in moderation" rule.
On average -- although bearing in mind that a) math is not my strong point and b) I have never actually measured this -- my daily diet consists of the following:
-- 60% carbohydrates, which provide the major muscle fuel source for high-intensity exercise. I tend to stick to low GI/complex carbs (whole grains) and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, although I eat high GI carbs/simple before and during training
-- 30% lean protein (which helps in the building and repair of muscle tissue, and works with carbs to boost the rate of recovery after exercise) such as fish, poultry, lean meats, tofu, low-fat and nonfat dairy, seeds, nuts, beans, eggs and whey;
-- A good smattering of healthy fats from olive oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocado.
My daily meals
I have two breakfasts: One when I wake up, about 45 minutes before my first session, which is light and easy to digest. I have a couple of rice cakes or a frozen banana (simply because I like the taste and texture when they are frozen) with sunflower butter and honey on top, washed down with water and an oversized cup of joe. Decaf is not in my vocabulary.
After my first training session I have my second breakfast; this is either hot oatmeal with another grain (like spelt/buckwheat/quinoa) mixed in, with honey on top, or a huge bowl of raw oats, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, coconut and plain yogurt all mixed together.
My choice depends on whether I am running later in the day. If so, I chose the former, slightly lower fiber option to avoid the probably of GI distress.
After my next session I have lunch, which is either a baked potato, wholegrain bread/wraps or brown rice with a salad and some tuna, sliced meats, eggs or pulses (such as chick peas). I finish it up with a bigger than average bowl of cereal and some nuts or fruit as a snack.
For dinner I have either poultry or fish (I tend to choose oily fish to maximize my omega-3 intake). I have red meat once a week, to ensure I get enough iron. I also love liver and kidneys. Horse was the red meat of choice in Switzerland. Ostrich in South Africa.
On the side I have roasted/steamed/stir fried veggies or a salad and a big pile of grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, rice, wholegrain pasta, or a large sweet potato.
The extras
Dessert is always a bowl of wholegrain cereal and frozen berries. I put olive oil on everything. Even oatmeal.
I don't deprive myself of any foods. Nothing is "naughty" - it is just eaten in moderation. A few pieces of dark chocolate a day definitely doesn't do me any harm, and as for pizza -- well, I can still squeeze one of those in!
During the day I drink either plain water or water with electrolytes, and keep an eagle eye on the color of my urine to ensure I am hydrated.
Weighing yourself before and after a session can help you to work out your own sweat rate, and thus your required fluid intake (losing more than 2% of your body weight during exercise can indicate dehydration).
Remember that training/racing at different intensities and in different conditions will cause variations in your sweat rate, so you should try and practice your nutrition/hydration as close to race conditions as possible.
Immediately after a hard training session I make a protein/carb rich smoothie with frozen pumpkin, ginger, Muscle Milk powder, blackstrap molasses (for iron), lemon juice, ice and water blended into deliciousness.
Prepping for a race
In the two days before a race, I stick to plain, simple food to maximize my energy reserves and limit any possibility of GI distress.
The day before a race I have a bowl of porridge with tahini and honey. Lunch is a couple of white bagels with cheese, a bit of spinach and olive oil. Dinner is tuna pasta with a tomato based sauce. On race morning I have Cream of Rice (made with water) with honey and nut butter stirred in, plus a cup of coffee to get things moving.
Immediately after a big race, I crave chips, a kebab, pizza or burgers, and tend to indulge in more than one.
My record-breaking two large burgers, two plates of chips, one plate of onion rings and 15 donuts after Ironman Arizona 2010 could have been deemed to be slightly excessive though.
I don't claim to have all the nutritional nuggets, and much of it is down to common sense, trial and error and a few episodes of "Iron Chef America." But I would urge all triathletes to make sure they've paid as much attention to this hugely important pillar of success as they do to logging the training sessions.
Happy fueling!