Eat Like a Triathlete

Hello readers! I have not abandoned you! I am back from the beach, but have what I think is an inner ear infection. Dizziness, shakiness, general malaise, ugh. However, I’ve slept 25 of the last 36 hours and I ate cake for breakfast. Both good things, yes? Please bear with me over the next week – I promise to be back at 110% as soon as I can :-)

Meanwhile, if you read my blog regularly, you’ll know that my boyfriend Nate is a dedicated triathlete. Over the years he’s learned a lot about the connection between training and nutrition and today he’s going to share some of his tips with you.

Nate and Megan

Coming out of the water

Nate on his bike

Real Food and Endurance Sports: A Triathlete’s Take on Fuel for Training (and Living)

Dear faithful readers of The Runner’s Kitchen: Megan, feeling charitable, has allowed me to fill in today as a guest blogger. Today’s post will explore generally healthful eating and sport-specific nutrition – familiar topics here – but will deviate from the typical focus of the blog to look at food through the prism of my experiences as a triathlete rather than through Megan’s adventures as a 3:38-marathoning, yoga-practicing blogger extraordinaire.


The theme of my post is that provided they’re practicable to consume, real foods, i.e. whole foods are often as effective and nutritious as their laboratory-created counterparts.

The idea is not one I claim as my own – it is the mantra of many experienced athletes and sports nutritionists. One of these folks is Allen Lim, the physiologist for Garmin-Chipotle, an American cycling team that received a lot of attention during this year’s Tour de France. Check out this Nutrition Q & A with Lim and then watch a video about the Francois, a concoction of rice, eggs, bacon, and parmesean cheese that, believe it or not, his riders eat mid-race. That even bacon has its place at Le Tour speaks to the universality of real food.


Not into bacon & egg rice cakes? Discover why the humble banana is The Perfect Runner’s Food.


Figs and plums are other ‘real foods’ popular among endurance athletes. I prefer my plums in prune form (i.e. dried): they are calorie-dense and laden with antioxidants, making them an excellent post-ride or post-run snack. Immediately after a workout it’s critical to provide the body with a serving of easily digestible carbs to replenish one’s muscle glycogen stores. Prunes provide just that along with free radical-fighting antioxidants. Moreover, an entire bag will keep for months inside a gym duffel and occupies little space. Big ups to Trader Joe’s for their non-sorbate variety:


Megan says: If fiber bothers you, make sure to eat prunes and dried fruit only AFTER running/cycling. Try lower fiber alternatives such as fresh grapes, orange slices, or frozen popsicles pre-workout. I ate a few orange slices in the middle of the Boston marathon – they were very refreshing!

Even packaged in cookie format, figs find their place in the diet of elite athletes: George Hincapie, one of the most accomplished Americans in pro cycling and Lance Armstrong’s most trusted domestique, has been seen “gobbling Fig Newtons” during a training ride. Check out this Outside Magazine article for more info.

Fig Newman's

Hincapie has raced in five Olympic games; if Newtons work for him they ought to suffice for us mortals, too.

Our discussion of figs and bananas are excellent examples of the theme mentioned earlier: the race-worthiness of real foods. Anyone who has run a major road race, competed in nearly any triathlon, or set foot inside of a running shop has experienced the ubiquity of engineered sports nutrition. Gels, sports drinks, and energy bars are tremendously popular. I personally consume more than my fair share of Hammer Gels and Builders’ Bars in the course of my training and racing. These products are convenient, but I would be just as well served – and much better off financially – to incorporate more real foods into my training diet. Fig Newtons, salted and boiled potatoes (wrapped in foil), bananas, and even PB&J have for decades been favorites of road cyclists.


pb & b sandwich

And with the partial exception of bananas, all of these are easy to wrap in foil or plastic and throw in the back pocket of a cycling jersey. Likewise, a few Newtons can fit in a baggie in the rear pocket of running shorts and bananas are available at aid stations at many marathons and halfs. And at ~$1 per gel and sometimes more than twice that for a Powerbar, I’d stand to save several hundred dollars per year by opting for more real foods over their prepackaged, pricier alternatives. If you’re interested in making your own electrolyte beverage, check out this Consumerist article that lists a homemade sports drink recipe formulated by Nancy Clark, Sports R.D.

Good luck with your training and racing, whether your next event is a triathlon, a 5K, or a jog around the neighborhood. And when you reach for mid- or post-workout fuel, don’t feel obligated to get something that’s been engineered in a lab. A little bit of fruit might prove to work just as well!


13 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this great advice! I’m always looking to read stuff about marathons and nutrition! :) i really appreciate it! :)

  2. Hope you feel better soon, Megan. Eat cake and sleep–that’s the best medicine!

    I liked Nate’s post. I find it hard to fuel properly sometimes but am trying to get better at it as my mileage slowly climbs. The real food part definitely resonates with me. I’ve been trying to move away from bars to more whole foods for money reasons mostly, but the health benefits I think are also great. My favorite snack is just toast with peanut butter. It has carbs, fat, and fiber, and is very cheap. Even if the loaf costs 3-4 dollars and the peanut butter 10 dollars(yes I’ve payed this for a jar before), the price per slice with 1 tablespoon nut butter is far less than commercial bars.

  3. I understand it’s important to refuel after a 10 mile run, but is it just as necessary to do it immediately after a 30 minute workout on the elliptical?

  4. Great post. It’s never even occured to me the idea of eating fig newtons while running. I loved the link to the DIY sports drink too, that could save so much money.

  5. thanks for the post nate – i definitely picked up some good hints on foods to eat as i train for my marathon. i can only aspire to 3:38 like our gal megan.

    feel better dear!!!

  6. Good advice Nate, we humans have been eating “real” food, drinking plain ole’ water, and running for millenia and have survived just fine. :)

  7. Great post :) I just picked up some figs not too long ago, and like them as a pre-workout snack.

  8. Megan – Hope you are feeling better!

    Thanks for the great food tips. I am definitely going to use this post as a resource for myself. :D

  9. Yeh triathletes woot woot!! Thanks for the great advice, it was very informative. I eat figs all the time but never realized they were aiding my performance as well!

  10. This is a great post!! Feel better Megan!!

  11. […] today.  With what you ask…COOKIES.  After reading Jenna’s article yesterday and the Eat Like a Triathlete post on Runner’s Kitchen, I knew figs would be a great way to try something […]

  12. Emmanuelle – If you’re just doing 30 minutes of moderate cardio (bike, elliptical) you probably don’t need to worry too much about fueling. As long as you have a generally healthy diet and drink plenty of water, you should be fine. But if you’re hungry after working out, eat something! I try to exercise right before a meal, so that I can eat something yummy afterwards :-)

  13. thanks Megan!

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