The Three Most Important Daily Practices for Triathletes
by Chris Breen
The definition of practice as it’s used as a noun is the actual application or use of an idea, belief or method as opposed to theories about such application or use. The definition of practice as it is used as a verb is to carry out or perform a particular activity, method or custom regularly. I prefer the use of the word practice as opposed to habit as the word habit often conjures up a negative connotation when it is routinely used in our culture.
There are few things when it comes to triathlon that are non-negotiable practices in order to maintain lifelong success and participation in the sport. Sleep, fueling, hydration and bodywork are the non-negotiable practices that need to be carried out day in and day out in order to be successful. Insert eye roll here. Are you thinking, what about the training? Training is a given and is the factor that most triathletes have no problem practicing every day, almost to a detriment. Of course you need to train, but let’s be real. Training is rarely an age-grouper’s limiter when it comes to long-term success in this sport as long as the training is periodized properly. However, you cannot out-train a poor diet. So, let’s take a look at the three most important practices a triathlete needs to incorporate into their daily routine.
I have written on sleep before, and it can never be overstated. Sleep is the No. 1 recovery tool every triathlete has access to. Quality sleep supports a body’s restorative state more so than anything else. When we spend 7 hours in a deep sleep our bodies release growth hormone, which restores our muscles from the previous day’s stress. Deep sleep also aids in repairing our immune system and refreshing our brain. It is during sleeping and to a lesser extent during rest and low levels of stress that our bodies adapt to our training load and repair themselves. This, in turn, also allows us to protect ourselves against injury and helps us to think clearer. Triathletes need to put into practice getting 7 hours of quality sleep a night. Remember, our bodies cannot “catch up” on sleep, so be consistent with at least 7 hours or more a night every night.
This subject clearly cannot be summarized in one paragraph, so I will simply highlight some key points. Proper nutrient timing is key to proper fueling. Nutrient timing enables us to maintain our glycogen stores, thereby helping us to adequately recover so we are energized both for our next training session as well as for life. Practicing proper fueling and hydration begins immediately upon awakening and lasts until we put into practice our next tool, which is sleep. Getting a quality 7-9 hours of sleep means we are not eating for that amount of time and likely even longer. Although we do not deplete muscle glycogen while sleeping we do deplete liver glycogen. This means our blood sugar is low. As most age-groupers get at least one workout in soon upon awakening it is important that one ingest a small amount of carbohydrate along with a small amount of protein in order to keep us satiated.
Fueling during a workout is important for two reasons. First it enables us to practice getting our stomachs accustomed to the types of fuel we will be ingesting during race day, and second, it allows us to maintain a balance between carbohydrate intake and use. Chronic fatigue and an overall feeling of tired is not simply a result of increased training as much as it is a result of an imbalance between carbohydrate use and intake. Fueling immediately after a workout, meaning 20-30 minutes following completion, is the time to replace lost muscle glycogen and kick-start muscle synthesis by adding a small amount of protein into the system. The window to continually replenish carbohydrate stores after a workout is approximately the same amount of time as your workout is long. As you were likely eating engineered sport supplements during your workout and immediately after, then this is the time to start ingesting high-quality, nutrient-dense whole foods. The rest of the day’s subsequent meals should also consist of unprocessed, nutrient-dense whole foods.
Remaining adequately hydrated keeps our cells functioning properly and minimizes energy fluctuations. It is important to start each day with a glass of water for the same reason mentioned above, being that it’s been about 7-9 hours since you’ve ingested any fluids. A general rule of thumb is to drink so you are peeing every 2 hours. In addition to your workout’s hydration, having water at every meal and carrying around a bottle with you, sipping it throughout the day, is a good place to start.
Bodywork includes exercises (both strengthening and stretching) that focus on what I call the CORE 4. The CORE 4 are your low back, abdominals, hips and glutes. You don’t need a gym or a significant amount of time to work these areas. What you do need is 10-15 minutes every day to put it into practice. Just like you eat, drink and sleep, this practice needs to be just as routine. One day it might be as simple as foam rolling and stretching. However, three days a week, you should practice exercises that focus on those core areas. Exercises such as bridge, clamshells, plank, back extensions and single-leg deadlifts target those areas. This practice can also be thought of as pre-hab. Incorporating it daily helps to mitigate injuries and prevents one from needing rehab.
These practices mentioned above are important for more reasons than just triathlon training. Practiced daily they help us to have more energy and focus at work, in our daily lives and our family life. Practiced daily they contribute to our overall health and should be viewed as lifestyle medicine and preventative techniques. Remember, it all starts with proper, high-quality sleep. When we wake up refreshed and with energy we have more enthusiasm to shop for and make healthy meals and more zest to focus on what our bodies need to remain healthy. By incorporating these daily practices, we’re able to begin the process of making triathlon our lifelong sport.
Christopher Breen, PA-C, ACSM EP-C is a Certified Physician Assistant specializing in sports medicine and orthopaedics, a Certified Exercise Physiologist by The American College of Sports Medicine and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. He is the founder and head coach of ARIA Endurance Coaching LLC and also works at Winthrop Orthopaedic Assoc., PC in Long Island, New York. He can be reached at ariaendurance.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.