April 2023, Articles

Keeping our triathletes fuelled

Dealing with the challenges of keeping New Zealand’s high performance triathletes fuelled and in peak condition rests largely on the shoulders of HPSNZ Performance Nutritionists, Kim Abbott, Rebecca Cooke and Sara Richardson.

Several factors drive the complexity of triathletes’ nutrition needs including home and away, high training loads and competing in sprint and mixed team relays and long distance events.

While the triathletes have been in New Zealand for the domestic season, HPSNZ nutritionists have used the opportunity to assess where they are at and what adjustments need to be made to their nutrition programmes.

To assess if New Zealand’s elite triathletes were fuelling for the work they were doing, Kim and her colleagues analysed their five-day food and training diaries while they were on home soil over the summer, something which is more difficult to do from their international base in Spain.

This work was done in collaboration with Dr Sam Mayhew as part of a wider project to reduce the risk of RED-s (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) in New Zealand’s elite triathletes.

“Triathletes have complicated and often conflicting nutrition needs,” says Kim.  “The nutrition requirements for a triathlete are varied and need to be periodised to the training needs for that day, week and programme phase.

“The carbohydrate intake should be matched to reflect their higher endurance load and should be adapted to reflect their need for high intensity training with increased speed and power.

“We need to ensure the athletes are consuming sufficient calories for the work they are doing as due to their heavy training loads their need for endurance and speed along with a heavy training load means there is a high risk our triathletes will have an energy deficit unless we get it just right.”

The food and training diary looked at a range of factors including the overall and daily energy availability, along with how much in the way of carbohydrates, protein and micronutrients, such as calcium and iron each athlete was taking in.

Kim says a triathlete’s training schedule is extremely intense.  “Optimising the nutrition around the elite triathlete’s high training loads is challenging as, unlike single modality sports, triathletes need to balance training for three sports within their weekly schedule.

“This often involves days with two to three sessions to fit it all in.

“A typical training day could include a one and a half hour swim in the morning, followed by 45 to 60 minutes in the gym and either a two hour ride or run in the afternoon.  That sort of training schedule needs an awful lot of fuel and it can be difficult to find the time to consume all that fuel around training.”

Kim says if a triathlete is using up say 2,500 calories in training but eating only 3,000 calories it is clear they are not eating enough to maintain optimal health, let alone perform at the highest level.”

Triathletes’ food and training diaries have now been assessed to see if they are eating appropriately before, during and after training.   Each athlete has met with their Performance Nutritionist to get feedback on how to make improvements to their fuelling.

Kim says that while overall they are fuelling quite well, it is essential they have the right strategies to consistently fuel for the work they do.  Assessing the triathletes’ training nutrition practices also provides an opportunity to work with them on how they can practice their race nutrition strategies in training.

Nicole van der Kaay of New Zealand in action during the Triathlon Mixed Team Relay on Day 3 of the XXII Commonwealth Games at Sutton Park in Birmingham, England, Sunday, July 31, 2022. (AAP Image / www.photosport.nz)