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Top eleven real foods for triathletes who need to eat a lot by Ben Greenfield

Posted Apr 26 2009 10:02pm

2hummus 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.

2goatsmilk 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.

2avocado 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 fat.

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.

2alondbutter 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:

2sweetpotato 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 growth factor.

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 listed above).

2pumpkinseeds 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!

Whoisben 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.

We recommend that you surf on over to, for more great training advice.

Ben will be coaching the Iron speed Triathlon Camp in Coeur D' Alene from Saturday, May 9 - Thursday, May 14, 2009. Camp info is HERE.

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