The Hungry Triathlete

By Monique Ryan | June 15, 2009, 12 a.m. (ET)
With three sports to balance, triathlon training can easily reach 10-20 or more hours weekly. Dedicated training also means high caloric, fluid, and nutrient demands to sustain energy levels and recover daily. While requiring anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 or more calories daily may sound like paradise to some athletes, it can represent a challenge and chore for others. After you add up your training hours, work hours, sleep, and other commitments, not much time is left for eating — maybe just several hours daily!

Besides just lack of time, there may be several other hurdles that keep you calorie challenged. You may simply be too tired to cook or even eat some days. Filling up on bulky carbohydrates and lots of fiber can also prevent you from reaching your full calorie and nutrient potential. And practicing too many dietary extremes can also limit your flexibility and consequently your intake. So how can you fill-up your day with the needed amounts of foods and fluids, without bogging down your gastrointestinal system before a gut-jarring workout?

The most important thing is to be organized. Dedicated eating takes dedicated planning, just as your training program does. If you approach eating in a haphazard manner and rely on what is convenient and available, chances are that your diet will fall short on quantity and quality. Have a standard list of foods that you purchase weekly. Several weeks worth of non-perishable items can also be purchased at one time to streamline future food shopping trips. Online shopping and delivery is also available to many triathletes, and can be a real time saver for especially busy weeks. Once you have the proper foods available, planning requires that you time these foods properly with your training, and have them available when they are needed.

You may find it convenient to cook some items ahead of time. This allows you to pack food for the next day, leaving more time to complete early morning workouts. For instance, a batch of brown rice may last several days. A filling pasta salad can round some meals for the week. Chili and spaghetti sauces can also be pre-prepared. Bean dishes, risotto, and stir-fry may also make great leftovers and lunches for the next day. Cook several portions at a time and freeze items for especially busy weeks.

To consume all the calories you need, and avoid eating too close to training, especially running, you should adopt a grazing pattern of eating, consuming up to 6 to 8 meals or snacks daily. This will be more appropriate for recovery after exercise and maintaining balanced blood sugar levels, than consuming three larger meals. It is especially important to consume adequate carbohydrate and protein after hard training to improve your recovery, as well as sodium and fluid.

For good recovery nutrition, you can try calorically dense cereals with any type of milk, and some fruit. Cereals tend to have a high glycemic index, and raise your blood sugar quickly which can promote slightly more glycogen resynthesis. If you need something really portable for your recovery meal, you can try a concentrated sports nutrition drink. Fluid containing carbohydrates can also be topped of with an energy bar, bagel, and fruit. Other great recovery snacks are low fat milkshakes and fruit smoothies. Portable cow’s milk, soy milk, and rice milk is also available and can be consumed with other high carbohydrate foods after training.

Chances are you often train twice daily. Eating about two hours (or more depending on the sport and your tolerances) before training can fuel your workouts and improve the quality of your training. Pack the right pre-exercise foods with you. Most athletes prefer something simple and easy to digest, and try to limit very high-fiber foods. Some options are yogurt with fruit, breads and crackers, fresh fruit and juice, and starches such as bread topped with jam and easily digested cereals. Whole grains should round out meals where quick digestion is not as crucial, and fiber not a concern before exercise, perhaps at your lunch and dinner meals.

Essentially, triathletes are eating and drinking to either refuel and recover, or to optimize energy stores prior to their next training session. Here are a few food tips for maximizing your caloric intake on the big training days.

  • Make oatmeal and other hot cereals with milk instead of water.
  • Apple juice, cranberry juice, grape juice, and juice blends tend to be higher in calories than other juices. Use natural juices.
  • Fruits such as apricots, bananas, raisins, dates, and pineapple tend to have more calories than watery fresh fruits. Add fruits to cereals, yogurt, or have a quick snack.
  • To boost the calorie content of your milk you can try dried flavored milk. Fruit smoothies and low-fat milkshakes also add calories and carbohydrates to your diet.
  • Spread bread products such as bagels and toast with hummus, jam, honey, and natural peanut butter.
  • Select hearty, dense breads for sandwiches and use thick slices. Stuff your sandwich with slightly higher protein portions. You can go a bit heavier on the spreads and add some avocado for some extra calories (mostly from fat).
  • Have hearty soups like lentil, split pea, and bean with whole grain breads or crackers, and avoid lower calorie versions such as tomato based vegetable soups, and broth based soups. Soups made with skim milk will also have more calories.
  • Bean dishes and lentils are calorically dense and will add both protein and carbohydrate to your diet.
  • Peas and corn are more calorically dense than vegetables such as broccoli and green beans.
  • You can improve the caloric and nutrient content of salads by adding proteins like tuna, low-fat cheese, and chickpeas. Raw vegetables will also add some carbohydrate, as will pasta. Try to consume your salad with some breads to keep the carbohydrates coming in.
  • Desserts like fig bars, and low fat frozen yogurt are calorically dense. Low-fat muffins add lots of calories, as do other baked breads.
  • Healthy doses of the right kinds of fat can be obtained from nuts, seeds, and avocado.
  • Consider sports supplements like energy bars, concentrated carbohydrate drinks, and liquid meal replacements.
  • Keep non-perishable back-up foods in your car, workplace, locker, or wherever handy.

Every triathlete has different energy needs and food preferences. Fitting the right amount of energy and balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat can be challenging. It takes planing, portable food items, and smart to food choices to make it all come together. Below is a sample days menu. Try to use whole grains whenever possible, and emphasize fruits and vegetables over grain choices if that is your preference. Generally endurance athletes require 500 grams of carbohydrate daily to replenish muscle glycogen stores.

Sample Menu 

Early morning snack
16 ounces apple juice
16 ounces water

Morning workout

Recovery Breakfast
2 cups low fat granola
12 ounces soy milk
1 large banana

Recovery snack
8 ounces yogurt with fruit
½ cup wheat germ
1 ounces low fat cheese

5 ounces turkey
2 slices bread
1 pear
1 cup of bulgur salad with vegetables
3 tsp. olive oil

Pre-exercise snack
1 energy bar
12 ounces cranberry juice
1 tbs. Peanut butter
1 apple
1 tbs. Almonds

Afternoon workout

5 ounces fish
1 cup cooked broccoli and sweet peppers
1.5 cups cooked brown rice
3 tsp. Sesame seed oil

Evening snack
1 cup frozen yogurt
1 cup strawberries

Nutrient composition
3,400 calories, 530 grams carbohydrate (60%), 170 grams protein (20%), 77 grams fat (20%)

In addition:
•    Liquid supplement providing carbohydrate (and perhaps protein) providing 400 to 500 calories per serving.
•    Consume carbohydrate and fluid during training.
•    Consume water and hydrating fluids throughout the day.

Monique Ryan, MS, RD is the author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, 2nd edition (VeloPress 2007). Click here to view more about the book or purchase. She was a member of the Athens 2004 Performance Enhancement Teams for USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Women’s Road Team. She is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs and offers her sports nutrition “E Program” at