3 nutrition trends for triathletes in 2020

By Katie Rhodes | March 09, 2020, 10 p.m. (ET)

plant based meals

Training season is upon us, which means it is time to refine your training schedule, solidify race day targets and buckle down on your nutrition.

Nutrition seems to be the component of training that leads to more insecurities for endurance athletes. Working on nutrition strategies does not always lead to fast results that provide security in consumption choices. It takes time to refine your base nutrition to meet your desired goals; base nutrition meaning the framework of your daily consumption of meals, snacks and fluid intake. And, it takes trial and error to determine what the best fueling regimen is for race day.

All of this takes time, patience and reliable information. In order to obtain reliable information to influence your decisions, it is important to discuss your plan with a dietitian and to thoroughly educate yourself on nutrition trends that may influence your choices. Anything that you change to your food consumption in a major way needs to be taken seriously, not just implemented based on a trendy article or an opinion of a friend. To help you out, I've highlighted three 2020 nutrition trends I see affecting athletes’ thoughts and food choices this race season. 

Real Food as Fuel Sources 

It is not a surprise that there is a desire to consume more whole foods as fuel sources. Athletes are intrigued by the idea of “cleaner” fueling options made with whole foods and fewer ingredients, or at least ingredients they can pronounce. The use of fueling sources like sports drinks, gels, gummies, and bars is undoubtedly a huge part of sports performance because of convenience and effectiveness. Although there are products that have unrealistic claims and there are more products than I could even try to count, most do use science-proven strategies to provide what is needed by our bodies before, during and after performance.

For example, gels generally provide a form of carbohydrate that is fast absorbing to be consumed every 20-30 minutes when glycogen stores are depleted. Some even contain additional benefits such as caffeine and electrolytes. Sports drinks not only provide most of the benefits of a gel, but you get the fluid needs provided as well. Of course, needs vary based on the person, accessibility, intensity of activity, and the type of activity. 

However, it isn’t uncommon to have a client ask for a DIY version I would recommend. You must first consider tolerance. Most fueling products have limited the amount of fiber, fat and protein to prevent gastrointestinal upset and increase speed of carbohydrate absorption. Make sure what you use has little or none of those components that slow absorption time. Next, look at the Nutrition Facts Label of the product you are trying to mimic and use that as a base for food choices and serving size. Finally, look at convenience. Is your whole food option easily accessible during whatever sport you are doing? 

Here is just one recipe I have shared with clients that has been popular:

“Pineapple-Orange Chia Energy Gel”
1. 1 oz chia seeds
2. 1 medium seedless orange
3. 8 oz pineapple
4. ¾ cup brown rice syrup
5. ½ oz dry fruit pectin
6. ¼ tsp salt substitute
7. ⅛ tsp baking soda (not baking powder)
Mix the chia seeds with ⅜ cup of water. Stir until the chia gels thoroughly, then set aside.
Peel the orange, removing as much of the pith as possible. Combine the orange and the pineapple, including the juice, in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.
Combine ½ cup of the fruit mash with the hydrated chia. It’s normal to have extra fruit mash (I had ¾ cup left over). You can freeze it until you need to make another batch of gel.
Stir in the brown rice syrup, then slowly add the pectin. Finally, stir in the electrolyte mix.
Put the mixture in a small saucepan. Bring to a rolling boil over low to medium heat, stirring constantly. Let the mixture boil for 1 minute, then remove it from the heat and pour it directly into a sterilized ½ pint mason jar for storage.

— Recipe by Tim Woodbury

More Plant-Based Meals

Meatless meals and meat substitutes are on the rise, and I do not believe it is just a trend. Instead of experimenting with becoming completely vegan or completely vegetarian, athletes are taking a very logical route of “meeting in the middle.”

It is not uncommon for a client to request a few meatless meals a week or even only one meal a week containing meat. The idea that this can be met to meet what is attainable and sustainable for the individual is very attractive to athletes. Why choose meatless meals? There is continued research that support improved health through lipid profiles and weight with decreasing meat in one’s diet. The other advantage is it decreased your environmental impact due to the resources needed to raise as many animals as our society has demanded for consumption. And not to mention, your grocery bill may decrease. 

When choosing a meatless meal, consider your diet as a whole. If your diet is low in animal protein, ensure you are getting adequate iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium from other food sources.   

Understand that for your body to utilize plant-based protein efficiently, it is best to pair it with a grain; for example, red beans and rice. If you are open to keeping eggs and dairy in your diet, include those daily to reduce the chance of nutrient deficiency and for more protein absorption. Since these come from an animal, they have more intact proteins. 
If you are open to the idea of meatless meals, vegetarian or vegan find what works for you and experiment with what will work with you and your lifestyle. What may work for one person may not mean it will work for you. 

Intermittent Fasting 

Just like including plant-based meals in your diet to suit your lifestyle, intermittent fasting is somewhat of an umbrella term for different strategies to achieve a fasting state. People are intrigued mainly due to body fat and weight loss. In addition, some studies are linking this way of eating to reduce cardiovascular risk factors for disease, improving insulin resistance, and decreasing cancer risk. The research is still on-going. The variations of intermittent fasting is ever growing with the most popular being the OMAD diet (one meal day), 16:8 diet (16 hours fasting), one to multiple days of complete fasting, Warrior diet (4 hour window of eating), and the 5:2 diet (normal eating five days and extreme calorie restricting to 500-600 calories for two days). 

If you want to dabble in this trend, find what works for your lifestyle while maintaining safety. Anything too extreme can be hard to follow and sometimes harmful if too restrictive. As an athlete, understand your diet directly impacts performance and recovery. Not fueling properly can decrease your performance, influence injury and impact your ability to recover and make it to your next workout in tip-top shape to kill it, which is normally not too far after your last workout. You know it is true. 

If I had to choose, I think 12 hours on and 12 hours off is safest for athletes if you were to choose to experiment with this method. This allows you enough time to consume adequate nutrition, decrease peak times of mindless eating, and reduce the urge to binge eat from hunger. 

Katie Rhodes-Smith MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a board-certified sports dietitian and founder of OWN-Nutrition, LLC (www.own-nutrition.com). She is based out of Little Rock, Arkansas, but works remotely with multisport athletes exclusively, specializing in triathlon nutrition. Katie applies a research-based approach to her practice.


The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.