What Every Triathlete Needs To Know About Carbohydrates

This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy thru these links, we may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

captain-carbohydrate-doll-by-cljo.jpg There are 4 macronutrients every triathlete must effectively blend into their daily diet: protein, fat, carbohydrate, and water.

How much of each you include in your diet significantly impacts the quality of our triathlon training and performance.

Every triathlete must determine what their specific nutrition and daily dietary needs are based on gender, body weight, level of training, and any specific nutrition needs related to a specific health or medical condition.

A general rule of thumb states that a healthy balance of key nutrients is:

  • 55-60% healthy carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans)

  • 15-20% lean protein (soy, low-fat dairy, chicken breast, fish, round steak, turkey)

  • 20-25% healthy fats (avocado, nuts, seeds, olives)

In addition, you should spread out your total calorie needs into 4-6 smaller meals throughout the day.

Calories vs Carbs

As an example, what follows is what a 110 pound female triathlete eats during Ironman training.

She divides 2,500 calories a day into 4-6 meals of 400-600 calories each.

Each meal blends carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Her calorie total doesn’t include calories consumed during or immediately following training.

Breakfast: Oatmeal blended with granola, berries, almonds, and milk along with Naked Juice

Lunch: Vegetarian turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, cheese on whole grain bread, vegetable soup or salad, a piece of fruit, and low-fat chocolate milk

Afternoon Snack: Fruit smoothie prepared with yogurt, juice, and frozen fruit or an energy bar and piece of fruit

Dinner: Large salad plus a pasta dish prepared with soy-meat

Evening Snack: Small bowl of granola with almonds and nonfat milk.

It would be wise for every triathlete to learn more about the 4 key nutrients of triathlon nutrition. Let’s start by focusing on carbohydrates.


Athletes and Carbohydrates

In most sports, you don’t have to worry too much about optimizing carbohydrate consumption. You can simply drink a sports drink when you’re thirsty during practices and games, and you will probably get enough carbohydrate to maintain a high performance level until the final whistle sounds. The key thing is not so much trying to maximize carbohydrate consumption as it is to go the distance is conditioning your body to go the distance in practice.

triathlete-running-by-rcastag.jpg In endurance sports such as triathlon, optimizing carbohydrate consumption is a critical matter, because in longer workouts and races you may use up your body’s existing carbohydrate stores and hit the wall.

It is possible to push back the wall of fatigue significantly by consuming carbohydrate throughout workouts and races. Optimizing carbohydrate consumption during a triathlon means consuming the right types of carbohydrate from the right sources and at the proper rate to push back the wall as far as possible.

But all of that might be getting ahead of ourselves. Step one is establishing a solid nutrition plan that supplies a strong foundation of carbohydrates for training and competing in triathlons.

A Triathlete’s Nutrition Plan

Carbohydrates (or saccharides), which are made by plants during photosynthesis, are sugars and starches, which provide energy.

Carbohydrates also fuel nervous system function, which is why skipping meals can cause one to feel weak and light-headed. The body needs a certain amount of carbohydrates to function properly, and insufficient intake can cause fatigue, muscle cramps, and poor mental function.

You can see why carbs are so vital for endurance sports, which requires sustained energy, proper muscle function, and mental focus.

There are 2 kinds of carbohydrates:

Simple carbohydrates – which are found in fruits and dairy products, are more easily digested by the body. They are also often found in processed, refined foods such as white sugar, pastas, and white bread.

Complex carbohydrates – which take longer for the body to digest, are most commonly found in vegetables, whole grain breads and pasta, brown rice, and legumes.

The liver serves as a general fuel warehouse for the entire body. The liver digests carbohydrates by breaking them down into simple sugars, or glucose, which stimulates the production of insulin in the pancreas. The insulin functions to get the sugar into the body’s cells to be used as energy.

How Carbohydrates Work

The 2 different types of carbohydrates affect the production of insulin differently.

When digesting simple carbohydrates, insulin levels spike faster, and the carbs are used up more quickly for energy. This is why many who turn to a candy bar for a quick supply of energy find that their energy levels crash when the "sugar high" comes to an end.

Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, resulting in longer lasting energy, and less of an insulin reaction in the body.

If the body produces too much glucose, it gets stored in the liver and muscle cells as glycogen, to be used for when the body needs an extra burst of energy. Any leftover glycogen that isn’t stored in liver and muscle cells is stored as fat.

The body uses the immediate store of glycogen for short bursts of exercise. For extended periods of exercise such as longer-distance triathlon training and races, the body will turn to its fat reserve to draw extra energy.

Carbohydrates Provide Fuel

bread-zen-by-dogwelder.jpg Many people consider carbohydrates to be the primary fuel needed in endurance sports.

Sometimes the importance of carbs gets over inflated. The poorly educated triathlete who hears that carbohydrates are important for performance often overeat carbohydrates at the expense of protein and fat.

The longer the distance of an endurance race or training session, the need for both protein and fat significantly increases. As a rule of thumb:

  • For short and intense efforts (Sprint Triathlon) carbohydrates are the fuel of choice.

  • If the activity is moderately intense and long (70.3 Triathlon), carbohydrates and fats provide the energy.

  • For longer-distance efforts (Ironman Triathlon) where you run low on carbohydrates, protein takes on the role of energy provider.


Foods High In Carbs

So, what food items can you blend into your diet to ensure you are consuming enough carbohydrates as a triathlete?

Here is a table that was put together by friends over at Time-To-Run which supplies examples of foods that are high in carbohydrate content, including carb grams and calories.

Be careful of going overboard on carbohydrates. Eating a diet that is extremely high in carbohydrates is questioned by some in the scientific community. A good way to do this is to apply just as much effort in assuring your diet includes the proper intake of fat and protein. The goal is not just "a lot of carbs" but the proper balance of key nutrients.