Taking on triathlon, part III: Fresh veggies and homemade desserts–the diet for a triathlete

Triathalon training is incomplete without a proper diet. From loading up on fresh veggies and banning junk food–this is how SuYin prepped for the Ironman Goa 70.3

Triathlon training
Let SuYin tell you about the food that helped her through her Ironman training. Image courtesy: SuYin
SuYin Kalia-Ong Updated on: 17 January 2020, 13:28 pm IST
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This is the third feature in a four-part series, chronicling SuYin’s conquest at the Ironman 70.3 in Goa in 2019.
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Diet fads may come and go (remember Atkins, anyone?), but it is worthwhile to remember that suitable diets vary from person to person. Uncovering the intricacies of the human body and its long term effects from specific food consumption, is a complex and time-consuming process (which is why research has flip-flopped between deciding whether butter, amongst other things, is good or bad for us).

While some aspects of diets are still inconclusive, it is a proven fact that our bodies require carbohydrates to sustain workouts. Just as automobiles require the right fuel to propel forwards, the same theory applies to our bodies. This fuel is predominantly carbohydrates, followed by protein and fat–bad news for keto and paleo followers, but great news for carbohydrate lovers!

Also read: Taking on triathlon, part 1: So, I signed up for the Half Ironman in Goa, and…

Carbohydrates are converted to glycogen when stored in muscles and liver. Glycogen provides the energy essential for hard workouts, like training for a triathlon. The levels of glycogen in our body determines how much fatigue we’ll experience while working out. At low levels of glycogen, the body prevents itself from over working, hence limiting your exercise capabilities. So, don’t skimp on the pasta the night before that tough interval workout–I know I don’t!

Meanwhile, when glycogen storage runs out (usually during long workouts), fat is used as an energy source. This, however, does not mean that by limiting intake of fat, we can burn the residual of our fat storage. The reality is, our bodies get accustomed to using the type of fuel we consume–thus, eat fat to burn fat (obviously, pick good fat!).

And last, but not least: proteins. They are crucial in the repair of muscles post-workout, after wear and tear from exertion.

This is what my daily diet looks like
While everyone’s ideals may be different, I strongly believe that health and diet needn’t be complicated, and it all dials down to a sensible and balanced diet.
I include plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits to my daily diet, avoid highly-processed foods, and opt for natural foods instead of depending on supplements or vitamins. Sure, it is easy to list the obvious, but making a conscious decision, one step at a time, is still a step in the right direction.

Cutting down on junk food was also a no-brainer for me. However, instead of going cold turkey on your favourite chips or fried chicken, I would suggest that you consider cutting down gradually until you no longer crave junk food.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The occasional ice-cream and cake is fine–don’t deprive yourself of such treats! Although I may be biased–the fact that I am a pastry chef makes it very hard to avoid desserts altogether! I like to make my own treats. This ensures I know exactly what goes into them and there are no nasty surprises. I would suggest that you too create healthy versions of desserts by reducing the sugar content, or better still, use raw sugar, instead of processed sugar.

Triathlon training
Image courtesy: SuYin Kalia-Ong

Unrefined sugar (and the same applies for unrefined flours, rice, and more) contains low GI and is slowly digested and metabolised to provide a steady source of energy. On the other hand, highly processed and refined food spikes the body’s sugar levels, which then leaves you feeling lethargic afterwards.

There is a lot of wisdom in the saying “eat till you are no longer hungry; not, eat till you are full”. Overeating is completely unnecessary–other than to satisfy the glutton in us!–and it makes us feel bloated and sluggish. In addition to that, consider the amount of resources and carbon footprint (including transportation, clearing of farmlands, animal feed and so on…) that goes into our meal excesses!

This is what I ate while training for the triathlon
About 65% carbohydrates and 35% fat are the fuel to long endurance work. This stored energy is sufficient to last for 90-120 minutes. Any longer, and our carbohydrate stores gradually run out. As a general rule of thumb, carbohydrates should be consumed every 30 minutes to avoid a risk of bonking.

Also read: Taking on triathlon, part II: Train hard, but train smart! That’s how I prepped for my first Half Ironman

I use energy gels or bars for fuelling endurance workouts–they are convenient, possess a long shelf life, and are easy to stash in your back pockets during a workout without creating a pulpy mess.

Bananas are also a great alternative–they are more environmentally friendly and are available in abundance year round. Sometimes I make my own granola balls or carb-rich energy bars from bread, eggs, milk and a sprinkling of sugar and salt for long rides.

Our stomachs are highly adaptable–we can train our guts to process a preferred fuel or gels. Whatever it is that you choose as workout fuel, be sure to use it just as you would in a race to avoid surprises in the form of gastrointestinal stress!

Please note: I am not a trained nutritionist, just sharing my experiences that have worked for me.

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About the Author
SuYin Kalia-Ong SuYin Kalia-Ong

SuYin is a Malaysian ex-offshore geophysicist who met her husband while diving in the Andamans. Since then, she has called India her home. She is a triathlete, a pastry chef, and also a rescue scuba diver for DIVEIndia (in no particular order!). 

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