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High quality carbohydrates are an important part of your triathlon diet to fuel your performance.

Kathleen Oswalt | September 16, 2020

Using your triathlon diet to improve your performance and recovery is key in supporting your athlete body in a healthy way so you can crush your training efforts and be proud of your racing efforts.

Because, no matter where you are in your triathlon journey every athlete’s goal is to be in the best shape possible and to finish each and every race strong.

Let’s be honest…for years now there has been so much confusion and controversy surrounding carbohydrates; should you include them in your athlete diet or should you restrict them?

There’s no denying it, Keto (or low carb) came along and everyone, including athletes, were jumping on the bandwagon, right? And you can’t blame them. At first glance it promises weight loss, decreased appetite and improved insulin sensitivity.

But…is this type of diet the right diet for endurance athletes? Let’s take a look.

What are Carbohydrates?

 

Carbohydrates make up one of the three macronutrients. Protein and fat are the other two. These macronutrients are essential for your body to function. They’re called macronutrients because your body requires them in larger amounts. Carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fibers found in a variety of foods (healthy and unhealthy) as well as drinks.

When you ingest carbohydrates your body will go to work to break it down into its simplest form, this is called glucose. Glucose is the “food” that’s delivered to your body’s cells, tissues and organs.  Food = fuel, right? Carbohydrates are what FUEL your body’s cells, tissues and organs.

Now, glucose can be used immediately by your body or it can be stored in the liver and muscles for later use. This is super important, especially for endurance athletes who exercise for longer periods of time.

Carbohydrates are a vital part of your plant-based triathlon diet to fuel your performance and provide vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Two Types of Carbohydrates

1) Simple Carbohydrates

These are the most basic forms of carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates are sugars. Most of these simple carbohydrates show up in the American Diet as:

  • Raw sugar
  • Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose, fructose and sucrose
  • Brown sugar

Some examples of foods that have simple carbohydrates include:

  • Regular soda
  • Desserts like cakes, cookies, pies and more
  • Candy
  • Processed foods like snack foods
  • Fruit juices with added sugar

Let’s be honest, you don’t have to be a dietitian to understand that simple carbohydrates are definitely lacking in nutrients, right? Regular sodas, desserts, candy, processed foods and juices with added sugar don’t give us much but just that…sugar!

If you’re someone who’s consuming simple carbohydrates on a regular basis you might find yourself experiencing the lovely sugar high followed by the dreaded crash and burn. 

Simple carbohydrates or simple sugars are absorbed much quicker by the body. The body doesn’t have to do much to break them down into their simplest form for absorption. Therefore, causing spikes in blood sugar. And this is why you might experience that sugar high and then feel like you could take a nap an hour later.

Before we move on to complex carbohydrates I want to bring your attention to another place you can find simple carbohydrates…sports nutrition. This is why these products work so well to provide your athlete body with quick energy when it needs it.

 

2) Complex Carbohydrates

These are more complex forms of carbohydrates. They’re made up of several simple sugars that are strung together to make a starch. 

Some examples of where you can find starch in the American Diet:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Pasta
  • Whole Grains like quinoa, oats, rice, farro, barley, buckwheat, whole grain pasta and more…
  • Potatoes
  • Peas 
  • Corn
  • Legumes and beans
  • Nuts and seeds

Now, you don’t have to be a supersluth dietitian to know that you’re probably going to find more nutrients in the foods listed above versus the simple carbohydrate list that included soda, desserts, juice with added sugar and so on.

Complex carbohydrates also contain fiber.

 

The body doesn’t do a great job of breaking down most fibers. So, why should you care about this? Fiber has many important jobs. Because many times it doesn’t get broken down it can help you feel full longer, decreasing your chances of overeating. 

Fiber is also linked to improved gastrointestinal function, decreased risk for certain cancers like colon cancer, improved blood sugar management (to help with energy levels) and decreased risk for heart disease.

You can find an abundance of fiber in:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes and beans
  • Whole grains like quinoa, oats, rice, farro, barley, buckwheat, whole grain pasta and more…

Complex carbohydrates are digested and absorbed much slower before they’re used by the body compared to it’s simple carbohydrate counterpart. This means they provide energy to the body at a much slower rate and many times are stored for later use.

High quality carbohydrates are an important part of your triathlon diet to fuel your performance.

Complex carbohydrates are full of nutrients for your triathlon diet

 

Not only do they contain fiber BUT they’re bursting with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Many of them contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties working to keep your body healthy and free of disease. They can also help with improved performance and recovery.

Let’s face it, even after reading that last paragraph many of you will continue to remove carbohydrates from your diet and continue to villainize them, shaming them because “they make you fat”. 

But do they?

Carbohydrates and Fueling for Performance

 

Importance of Carbohydrates in Your Triathlon Diet as a Source of Energy for Exercise

Your body wants to run as efficiently as possible. Consuming complex carbohydrates will help your body do just that. And because of this, carbohydrates in general are your body’s preferred source of energy and that includes your brain and central nervous system.

As I explained above, when you eat carbohydrates your body breaks those long strands of sugar into their simplest form…smaller sugars. These smaller sugars are what your body digests and absorbs and then uses for energy.

The body is super smart. So when there’s unused glucose from eating complex carbohydrates the body stores it as glycogen in the muscles and the liver for future use. When you exercise your body will break down stored muscle glycogen into glucose for quick energy to fuel your training session and/or race. Liver glycogen is broken down into glucose and released into the bloodstream to help maintain good blood sugar levels so fatigue, lethargy and lightheadedness doesn’t set in. 

During exercise your body uses a combination of carbohydrates and fat to fuel the muscles.

 

As intensity in exercise increases carbohydrates becomes the predominant source of fuel for performance. 

High quality carbohydrates are an important part of your triathlon diet to fuel your performance.

During continuous exercise lasting at least 60 minutes or longer, glycogen can become depleted. So what happens then? Research has shown that when glycogen stores become depleted (without being replenished) that’s when fatigue starts to set in.

So what’s going on:

  1. When active muscles are depleted of carbohydrate (glycogen) stores your body is now forced to depend primarily on using fat for fuel. 
  2. Yup, the body can use fat for fuel. But, fat isn’t as efficient in providing your athlete body with energy. Fat requires oxygen when it produces energy and therefore increasing the work the body has to do and improvement in performance is less likely.
  3. If you’re participating in intense exercise lasting more than 60 minutes and you’re not properly fueling with complex carbohydrates daily, you’ll have less glycogen storage. You may be forced to slow your pace and possibly stop exercising altogether. 

Day to day fueling should come primarily from complex carbohydrates.

 

There’s always a place for the simple carbohydrates as well, including sports nutrition. So, where should you focus your attention when incorporating complex carbohydrates in your triathlon diet plan?

Grains

These should be a staple in your diet. Grains include whole wheat breads, pastas, oats, brown rice, cereals, farro, buckwheat, quinoa, millet and barley. These not only provide carbohydrates but they provide a good amount of calories and contribute some plant protein to your plant-based diet and an assortment of vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, selenium and iron. And because grains typically contain a high amount of fiber they’ll help you stay satiated much longer compared to other carbohydrate sources.

Fruits 

Interestingly enough, some but not all fruits have close to the same amount of carbohydrates per cup as grains. Typically this comes in the form of natural sugars versus complex carbohydrates. Fruit is a great snack around workouts but more than likely fruits are not going to satisfy you past an hour of enjoying it. Despite their natural sugar content, fruit provides an array of vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, potassium, folate and of course fiber. 

Vegetables

There are two different categories you can put vegetables in:

Starchy Vegetables

These include foods like root vegetables, for example all types of potatoes including sweet potato, yams, carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips, rutabaga, butternut squash, winter squash and Jerusulum artichokes. There are other vegetables like corn, peas that contain a fair amount of starch and beans and legumes fall under this category as well.

Non-Starchy Vegetables

These are foods such as asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, leafy greens, eggplant, tomato, cabbage, green beans, zucchini and the list goes on.

Vegetables just like fruit contain a variety of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, folate, potassium and yes fiber. Both vegetables and fruits contain carotenoids. These are the bright pigments you see in your fruits and vegetables like the yellows, reds and oranges. They act as antioxidants (help protect your cells against oxidation) and are best absorbed when you consume these foods with fat.

For example you can add bell peppers to a curry that has coconut milk added, you can pair baby carrots and hummus, sweet potato toasts topped with nut butter, you can prepare a black bean and corn salad with avocado, add tomatoes to a salad that has an oil based dressing. These are just a few examples and one reason why healthy fat in your triathlete diet is important.

Plant-Based Milks and Yogurts

Depending on which type of products you choose they can provide a small amount of carbohydrates in your triathlon diet. Most plant-based milks are also fortified with vitamin D, calcium and vitamin B12. And, if you’re lucky a few brands will provide as much protein as regular cow’s milk.

Carbohydrates for Athletes

Carbohydrates for Athletes

Are you ready to start incorporating more complex carbohydrates into your triathlon diet for improved athletic performance? Grab this free resource that gives you an at-a-glance breakdown of what your carbohydrate needs are for low, medium and high intensity training, what foods are considered complex carbohydrates and the carbohydrate content in a variety of foods.
  • Best Email

 

But Carbohydrates are Fattening!

 

Poor carbs, they’ve received such a bad rap over the years. Carbs seem to be the one constant evil in our food system. Instead of focusing on how carbohydrates can nourish and fuel our bodies (especially athlete bodies), we’ve labeled “good” and “bad”. We’ve been taught to think they make us fat. Because of this we’ve, unfortunately, seemed to create a lot of food rules and food restrictions around them. And this can potentially lead to disordered eating patterns and eating disorders.

As previously discussed carbohydrates, specifically complex carbohydrates, offer your bodies so much nourishment in the form of vitamins, minerals and fibers. When you remove these foods you’re also removing nutrients that help improve performance and recovery, and help your body stay healthy and disease-free.

Carbohydrates, especially complex carbohydrates themselves aren’t fattening, excess calories are fattening. What are you putting on your carbohydrates? Are you pairing high fat condiments like butter, oil, sauces, are you still including mayonnaise, cheese? Do you need to use a little less of these foods? Are you eating an excess of simple carbohydrates like desserts and processed snacks? Are you drinking regular soda, fruit juices with added sugar or energy drinks regularly? And for that matter, are you eating an excess of carbohydrates when your training doesn’t require it?

I would encourage you to take a look at what you’re eating and assess where your extra calories are coming from, more than likely it’s not the carbohydrates themselves.

 

Final Thoughts on your Triathlon Diet

 

Carbohydrates are a vital macronutrient and should be included into your triathlon diet. I challenge you to think about carbohydrates differently. Focus on how they can improve your performance and recovery versus how you believe they’re fattening.

When you restrict carbohydrates you’re actually restricting a variety of important nutrients that your athlete body needs to function at a higher level.

Carbohydrates are needed to create efficient energy.

 

They provide vitamins and minerals that are important not only in the process of creating energy for performance. They also help decrease time to recover. A variety of vitamins and minerals found in carbohydrates also support so many other functions in the body and many of them act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories helping to keep you healthy and disease-free.

When you restrict carbohydrates you’re cutting out so many foods that add versatility to your meals and snacks. Carbohydrates in certain forms can provide convenience and sometimes as an endurance athlete you need that. Plus, carbohydrates in both the simple and complex forms are just yummy and make your taste buds and tummy happy.

Including carbohydrates doesn’t have to be all about bread and pasta every time you eat them. But remember a cup of broccoli as your “carb” at mealtime isn’t going to cut it.

Choose from a wide variety of complex carbohydrates, this is one of the most important things you can do. Choosing variety may help you:

  • Become more accepting to including them into your triathlon diet plan
  • Decreases your chances of following food rules and food restrictions
  • Allows for a variety of nutrients to be included in your triathlon diet
  • Include foods that you actually enjoy and like to eat

Lastly, give yourself unconditional permission to eat not some foods but ALL foods for performance and recovery including a variety of carbohydrates.

 

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Dietitian Kathleen and Kona-Qualifier Don Oswalt

Welcome to Eat Love Triathlon! We’re Don and Kathleen your go-to dietitian and triathlete. Together, we’re here to share our latest and greatest tips, with you, on how to be a well-balanced triathlete with nutrition, triathlon and keeping harmony in your relationships. We’re excited you’ve stopped by, happy reading and don’t be shy about reaching out. We’d love to hear from you!