I did a triathlon in Gravenhurst, ON in the middle of July and I had a great time! I love doing the sprint distance, which is 750m swim, 20km bike ride, and 5km run. This one was especially fun because the bike route was on a beautiful country road and the Segwun (a large ship that tours Lake Muskoka) took us out to start the swim. It was my second triathlon and I was much happier with how this one went compared to my first one.
The first triathlon I did went really well for me physically (I felt great doing it and I was in great shape for it); however, my digestive system was not happy with it at all! After I finished, I was really sick to my stomach and this was very disappointing. This happened before I started working towards healing my intestines but it was a good reminder that proper nutrition before and after an event is just as necessary as being physically ready. This is especially important to remember when you have a sensitive digestive system.
Having an upset stomach after an intense sporting event is definitely not uncommon. When you’re working out intensely, your body is primarily in a sympathetic state (aka the “fight or flight” response). In this state, your digestive system shuts down and energy is diverted to the areas of your body that require energy to increase your performance. It leads to reactions such as increased heart rate, increased breakdown of energy stores (i.e. fat and sugar) for use by your muscles, and increased blood flow to your muscles. In order for optimal digestion to occur, your body needs to be in a parasympathetic state (aka the “rest and digest” response). If you eat or are trying to digest anything when your body is not in a parasympathetic state, you definitely won’t be digesting your food properly and this can lead to digestive upset. This makes it that much more important to be aware of what you are eating before and after your triathlon (or any other intense exercise).
I have compiled my nutrition advice from taking nutrition and exercise physiology classes during my undergraduate kinesiology program. I was also reminded of all of this during my second year nutrition class this year at CCNM. Dr. Phil Rouchotas was our professor and he taught us a great evidence-based lecture on Sports Nutrition. However, this is definitely not medical advice, it is just what I find works best for me and maybe it will work for you too 🙂
Eating Before Exercise:
It is generally considered best to eat 2-3 hours before your event/training session. In this meal, you want to have mainly carbohydrates, some protein, and very little fat. It is also best have only a small to moderate amount of fiber. Fat and fiber are both things that will slow down your gastric emptying time and, therefore, your overall digestion. You want your meal to be mostly digested before you start your activity. It is important to have a significant amount of carbohydrates in this meal because that is the energy source that your muscles can use immediately. Yes, diets lower in carbohydrates are considered to be quite healthy but, if you’re a high performance athlete, getting enough carbohydrates is VERY important to ensure you have enough energy. Within this same time-frame, you should also make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids so you are well-hydrated.
My pre-triathlon meal (which is also generally my pre-workout meal) was a smoothie. I made it with blueberries, strawberries, probiotics (I have this every day in my smoothie), protein powder, and almond milk. I drank this two hours before my triathlon start time.
This is something new I decided to add to my routine recently. I don’t take it before a normal training session but I took it before the triathlon, as well as before my last long workout (the week before my triathlon). There is a lot of discussion about the benefit of taking caffeine before an event. It is said to increase your fat breakdown so that you use a higher percentage of fat as fuel and, therefore, reserve more of your glycogen store (which becomes depleted during long duration activities). I decided to use the Vega Pre-Workout Energizer. It felt more beneficial to me than just taking caffeine pills. This has sugar in it to provide fuel; yerba mate, green tea, and ginseng to give you more energy and have the benefits of caffeine; potassium and sodium to give you much needed electrolytes; and turmeric and ginger for anti-inflammatory benefits. I think it is a great product and I really enjoyed taking it! I have the lemon lime one and although it looks a little weird, I didn’t mind the taste at all.
What you need to be taking during exercise changes with the duration of your event. If you are working out for under an hour, just water and maybe some electrolytes (if it is a hot day or you tend to sweat a lot) should be sufficient. However, once you start working out for over an hour, your body starts to deplete it’s glycogen stores significantly and, therefore, you need to ingest sugar in order to keep your blood sugar at a high enough level to allow your muscles to continue functioning at their current capacity. If you don’t have enough blood glucose, it is your brain that requires it most and, therefore, your muscles will not get as much in an attempt to make sure your brain is getting a sufficient amount. This is why it is important to take a gel or nutritional supplement of some sort during an event. It will give you the blood sugar boost you need.
I completed my triathlon in just under two hours so I knew I would need some sort of carbohydrate supplement to get me through the event. I went with the Vega Endurance Gel. At first, I didn’t enjoy the taste but I got used to it and didn’t mind it at all. During the event I barely tasted it anyways! The base is dates so it has a bit of a Fig Newton (remember those cookies??) flavour to it. I just took one but you can take whatever you think you need for your size and the length of your event. I decided to take it near the end of the bike ride because that was just over an hour into my race. I think this makes a big difference to my performance compared to not taking a nutritional supplement. I also had an electrolyte powder. I had some of this during the race but I drank it mostly when I was done to replenish. The powder I use is Ultima Replenisher. I love the taste of it and it has a really good balance of electrolytes for me. I used to find that I would get really bad headaches by the end of the day if I had done an intense workout that day. Now, I always take this powder after a workout and I find it helps a lot!
This is an important time to make sure you pay attention to what you are eating! It is REALLY important to eat after you exercise. This can be difficult to do because your body often stays in a sympathetic state and, therefore, you often don’t feel very hungry. However, the best time to replenish your glycogen stores is during the first two hours after exercise. This is when your muscles are most efficiently up taking glucose. Incidentally, this is also a great time to eat if you have diabetes. I will never forget one of my fourth year professors at Queen’s University (Bob Ross) said that he was pretty sure he could cure diabetes (type 2) if he gave people a pill they had to take every day after thirty minutes of exercise. Exercise is AMAZING for improving your blood sugar levels. Your muscles can actually uptake glucose during exercise without needing to use insulin. Anyways, just an interesting aside.
As with before exercise, it is important to eat mostly carbohydrates; however, protein is very important too. Your muscles get small tears in them when you work them hard and it is important to have protein to allow this recovery process to occur.
This was a really important time for me too. This is where I made my mistakes after my first triathlon. I was really careful what I ate leading up to the triathlon but as soon as I was done I thought I was free to eat whatever I wanted! I got fries on the way home (horrible decision! I’m incredibly embarrassed to admit that they were my first choice after such an incredibly healthy event) and then had requested a huge lamb dinner when I got home. I was excited to be able to eat a lot and replenish my body of all the nutrients, protein, and sugars it had lost during the event. HUGE MISTAKE. My digestive system was clearly a little bit thrown off after completing such a strenuous event and it was definitely NOT ready to intake all these heavy, fatty foods that, for some reason, I was craving.
This time I was probably overly cautious but it worked perfectly! I felt GREAT after! I came home and within half an hour of finishing had another smoothie. This time I made it with banana, sunflower seed butter, protein powder, rice milk, and maple syrup. Then, about an hour after that I had a large cup of bone broth and a bowl of rice (I made the rice using bone broth instead of water and I added carrots, zucchini and some spices). This was a meal that was incredibly easy to digest but also hearty and delicious. Then for dinner, I had a chicken breast, some veggies, and more rice. I was really careful what I ate the rest of the day to make sure I wasn’t taxing my digestive system more than it had already been that day.
I was incredibly happy with my results and I would definitely suggest eating easily digestible meals after any intense sporting event, ESPECIALLY if you have any pre-existing digestive issues.
Just remember there are TONS of opinions on sports nutrition and everyone will give you different advice but the most important thing to do is to eat what is right for your body! Make sure to test it out during your training and eat the foods that make you feel energized and well.
I hope all of you have been enjoying the summer weather and finding lots of ways to get outside and exercise 🙂
Rouchotas, Philip. (2014, April). Sports Nutrition. Lecture conducted from CCNM, Toronto, ON.