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Nutritional Know-How: Build a Solid Nutrition Base for the Season 

By Monique Ryan

salad It’s time to get down to business. Even if the most important race on your calendar falls later in the season, visions of race day are dancing in your head. You visualize the most perfect race. Everything went exactly as expected, including your nutrition plan. Race day aside, it is never too soon to move nutrition up a notch on your priority list. In fact this is a great time of year to evaluate and change your diet as it allows room for experimentation and development, laying the foundation for optimal nutritional fine-tuning in the weeks leading up to the start line.  Let’s take a look at how you can build a solid nutrition base, and how to avoid some common nutrition pitfalls.

Weigh body composition goals carefully

Don’t make assumptions about your weight, but rather get a body composition evaluation and determine goals for changes in both lean mass and fat mass, not just body weight.  While all body fat measurement techniques are indirect, it does provide a more complete picture than a simple scale check. Check your body fat with a competent technician and plan to monitor changes with the same technique (calipers, bio-electrical impedance, hydrostatic weighing) over the season so that you can estimate changes in both lean mass and body fat.

By setting realistic body fat and weight goals you should not put too heavy a drain in energy stores and recovery adequately from training. Ideally you should have several months to drop those extra slowing-you-down pounds, or to build muscle and strength. Keep calorie deficits to reasonable drops of 300 to 500 daily, and don’t skip on fueling around training sessions.   

Focus on quality

Sure, calories matter, but so does the quality of your diet which should be filled with wholesome, not processed, meals and snacks, and a variety of nutrient rich foods. If you are in a nutritional rut now, chances are you may dig even a bigger hole later in the season and find yourself consuming the same old meal and snacks. Take the time to try new foods, new recipes, and maybe even expand your cooking skills. So where do you start?

Take an inventory. This could mean keeping a food journal and checking your diet for whole grain, fruit, and vegetable intake frequency. Are you in a breakfast rut- having the same quick coffee shop fix every day? Tired of the same turkey sandwich for lunch? Need some new ideas for dinner? Ask foodie friends for ideas or invest in a cookbook with simple recipes that provide ample wholesome carbohydrates for triathletes in training. You might even invest in a cooking class and make some delicious ethnic recipes.

Next take a kitchen inventory. Short of an expensive remodeling project, organizing your cooking and food life can be helpful. Do you have a slow-cooker, which is ideal for dinner and leftovers that can be eaten on the fly? How about a great skillet for making stir-fry? Developing a weekly shopping list, having plenty of dry goods on hand, and stay on top of fresh produce are also essential to healthy eating. By the time the busy part of the season arrives you will have your meal planning and preparation down to an appetizing science.

Start to nail down your training nutrition strategies

By race day you should have determined your favorite sports drink product and flavor, and have planned out your strategies for fueling and electrolyte replacement. Here you can actually start with that crude instrument- the scale. Check your weight before and after training (preferably in the buff) to determine your sweat rate. Every pound of weight loss represents 16 ounces of sweat that you did not replace. Keep tabs on how much fluid you consume during a one hour workout and determine your current sweat rate (fluid consumed during exercise + fluid lost during exercise). Start drinking during training to replace or minimize sweat losses. This makes for good practice as you develop your fluid replacement skills on the bike and run.

Experiment with various sports drinks. Find out what products are being offered in the racecourse so that you can train with them as well. While you likely will pack many of your own goods for the race, knowing the racecourse offering works for you is helpful.  Gels, energy bars and electrolyte replacement products may also be used during training and eventually racing. Keep experimenting to determine what products, amounts, and strategies work best for you. As the season progresses you should reevaluate your sweat rate in changing environmental conditions and keep refining your hydration and fueling strategies. You should never begin developing a race nutrition plan only a few weeks prior to the race, or fall solely on the advice of what works for other racers, rather than experimenting for several months and determining what works best for you.

Practice all the fundamentals

No matter what level of intensity you experience during your workouts, don’t forget the fundamentals of a good sports diet. First, stay hydrated. Urine should be pale in color when you hydrate steadily during the day. Besides focusing on better meal planning, new foods, and a nutrient dense diet, you can also prepare for workouts. Pre-hydrate and have a high carbohydrate snack one to two hours before training. Real foods that are easily digested can work, as can sports nutrition products such as energy bars. Focus on recovery nutrition as well. Consume mainly carbohydrate (about 0.5 g per pound wt) combined with 15 g of high quality protein after more demanding training sessions.

Checking your iron stores is also advised. If you do have low stores, better to improve them now under a physician’s supervision than to experience the negative performance effects of iron deficiency or anemia later in the season. Besides beefing up your diet with plenty of antioxidant and phytonutrientl rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, a daily multivitamin mineral supplement providing 100 percent of the daily values can also be taken, with or without iron as appropriate.

Eating on the run

Life is busy with training, work, life, and other hobbies. But a cutting-edge sports diet does mean planning the whole day’s eating and taking into account your training requirements as well as daily energy needed. It takes both planning, organization, and a little food know how, perhaps with some new recipes for this season, as well as convenience and creativity.


Sport Nutrition for Endurance AthletesMonique 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