Top eleven real foods for triathletes who need to eat a lot by Ben Greenfield
Posted Apr 26 2009 10:02pm
A major issue among Ironman and ultra-enduarnce athletes is that many
individuals use the rigors of training to justify a diet that is incredibly
calorie dense (usually 2000+ calories per day above the average person) and
high in foods that can cause damage to the immune system,
the heart, the hormones and overall health...not to mention causing frequent
run diversions into the woods and saddle shifting in the bike due to
bloating, gas or diarrhea.
For example, common traditional foods for fueling endurance sports include
high carbohydrate sources such as orange juice, bagels, cereal, crackers,
bread, pasta, scones and fruit smoothies. With the advent of commercialized
sports nutrition, the dietary staples of the Ironman triathlete can now
include sports bars and cookies, gels, powders, gummy chews and specially
formulated ³energy² drinks. With the label "Sports" slapped on the can,
package and box, people can now enjoy Chocolate-Peanut Butter flavored
exercise foods, 100% guilt-free.
But most triathletes continue to consume these type of high-carbohydrate
foods, even outside training. With pantries and refrigerators full of tasty
endurance fuels, there can be a driving temptation to grab a sugar-filled
berry Powerbar, vanilla-flavored Gatorade recovery shake, or peanut butter
and jelly sandwich during a 10pm feeding session.
Unfortunately, a diet high in these type of refined carbohydrates and
³fabricated² foods can cause excessive levels of glucose in the bloodstream,
a condition known as hyperglycemia. During exercise, this excess glucose is
used for energy. During rest, it wreaks havoc, primarily creating chronic
inflammatory conditions within the body.
Several studies have demonstrated a link between hyperglycemia and
production of free radicals by immune cells. These
free radicals can not only cause inflammation, but also increase potential
for insulin resistance - damaging the immune system, increasing exercise
recovery times, and causing fatigue and poor performance.
When this diet-based inflammation is combined with muscle tissue
inflammation from repetitive motion training such as hundred mile bike rides
and twenty mile runs, the body is constantly barraged with damaging free
radicals. As a result of chronic inflammation, the endurance athlete may
experience constant fatigue, sore joints, disrupted sleep patterns, and
frequent sickness. As if that weren' t enough of a worry, new studies on
plaque formation in the coronary arteries has suggested that refined sugars
may play a much larger role than saturated fat in dangerous low-density
lipoprotein cholesterol production and cardiovascular risk.
The concern for Ironman triathletes does not stop with refined sugar
consumption. The ridiculously high daily calorie intake necessary for
fueling endurance sports also increases the likelihood of consuming large
amounts of common food allergens such as dairy, wheat, whey, soy and eggs.
As a result, many triathletes experience
bloating, gas, constipation, skin problems and increased susceptibility to
colds and flu. This often chalked up to "hard training". However, even when
the high volume of training finally does subside, many of these problems can
cause a triathlete to experience poor health and gain significant amounts of
So while an Ironman triathlete may appear to be slim and fit, there are
often complex, diet-related health issues that go far beyond physical
appearance. With an exercise regimen that is already very difficult for the
average body to absorb, a triathlete must adopt a nutrition protocol that
supports complete health.
So what is the solution?
Battling the chaotic physiological environment creates by excessive caloric
intake of damaging foods involves a diet that focuses on fighting
inflammation and controlling refined sugar consumption, insulin levels and
potential food allergens. Large amounts of wheat and cereal-based
carbohydrates should be balanced with non-gluten sugars such as sweet
potatoes and yams, healthy whole grains like quinoa, amaranth, and millet,
and fiber-based carbohydrate sources like chickpeas and lentils. Healthy
fats such as nuts, seeds, avocadoes, fish, and olive oil also provide dense,
long-lasting energy sources, and contain valuable omega-3 fatty acids that
help to fight chronic inflammation.
Lean protein needs are often satisfied by the foods listed above, but can
include amino acid supplements, rice milk, almond milk, goat protein or goat
milk, and, if tolerated, eggs, beef and lean dairy. There are even many
spices and herbs such as turmeric, ginger and chilies which can help fight
inflammation. Meanwhile, packaged and processed ³fake² foods such as energy
bars and gels should be limited to longer training sessions, during which
carrying real food can be logistically challenging.
Now that you understand the complex dietary issues facing the high-exercise
volume athlete, let' s review the top 11 calorie-dense foods that will keep
your storage carbohydrate levels full, fight inflammation and assist with
muscle repair and recovery:
1. Sweet potatoes/Yams - Olympic 100 and 200 meter sprint champion Usain
Bolt' s secret energy weapon can also be effectively utilized by endurance
athletes. Perfect pre-race or pre-workout carbohydrate source.
2. Quinoa - protein-filled, non-gluten whole grain. Cook a batch on Sunday
night and use it the rest of the week for breakfast or as a carbohydrate
side with lunch or dinner.
3. Almond butter - eat a tablespoon when you have a food craving, and
substitute for toxin-filled, allergen-attracting peanut butter.
4. Goat¹s milk/rice milk/almond milk/soy milk - selection depends on your
food tolerances and personal profile, but any of these milk sources will
beat cow' s milk, which is high in estrogens, hormones, and insulin like
5. Kefir - This fermented, yogurt-like beverage is well tolerated by people
who have lactose issues with dairy consumption. Use in a post-workout
recovery shake with berries and ice.
6. Whey protein/soy protein/rice protein - selection depends on your food
tolerances and personal profile, but these proteins can be used to beef up
the diet with more protein (whey is the only "complete" protein of those
7. Pumpkin seeds/Brazil nuts/Almonds - the top three inflammation-fighting
seeds and nuts! The methionine in brazil nuts can even help to make soy
protein a more complete amino acid.
8. Raw Oats - not gluten-free, but many gluten-intolerant people can handle
small amounts. Perfect alternative to Wheaties for breakfast!
9. Ezekiel, sprouted or gluten-free bread - You can pretty much find it
anywhere now, so you have no excuse. A much cleaner-burning,
blood-sugar-friendly carbohydrate than whole wheat Wunderbread.
10. Avocados/guacamole - A healthy, appetite-satiating plant fat. Not good
for pre-workout, but perfect for afternoon appetite cravings.
11. Chickpeas/garbanzo beans/hummus - Use as a spread for turkey-avocado
sandwiches and dip with vegetables to increase caloric density.
As an endurance athlete coach, Ironman triathlete coach and sports nutrition
consultant, I frequently peer into the daily dietary habits of athletes from
across the globe. I' ve seen performance on fake food, and I' ve seen
performance on real food. I' ve seen frequency of colds/flus on fake food,
and on real food. I' ve seen injury healing time on fake food and on real
food. Guess which is better?
Time to go grocery shopping!
Ben Greenfield is the Renaissance man of the sport of triathlon.
He' s a fast triathlete, a coach, a personal trainer, and much more more.