IT IS OFTEN said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results. This can certainly be applied to sport – where results and improvement require a constant review and tweaking of strategy. The off-season might be a time to relax and rejuvenate, but is also an opportunity to prepare and plan. Before you know it, race season will be upon us. So take the time before the new season begins to review, plan and tweak, starting with the one thing you may well have the most control over – what’s on your plate (and in your fridge, pantry, cycle jersey, sports bottle and race kit).
So what went well last season or in previous years? Where do you think you can improve and how can this be done? For instance, did you find you were constantly getting sick or injured throughout the year? Perhaps your training or race schedule and load need adjusting, or perhaps your diet quality needs addressing. Did you find yourself struggling on those uphills in races? Maybe a fine-tuning of body weight or body composition would help. Or maybe you found yourself in the less-than-ideal situation where reliance on take-away soared as training and other life commitments banked up.
Here are some of the most common nutrition hurdles, and some ways you might go about trouble shooting them before the season gets in full swing.
Race day GI trouble and constant bathroom trips
There is no faster way to ensure a PR is not in the cards than spending frequent time in the port-apotty mid-race. Be systematic about trying to solve gut troubles and start this process today. Think about what you generally eat on race day, the quantity and the timing of ingestion. Think through whether your gut troubles always occur at the same point in a race, whether they happen in training and whether there are any common factors. It might be that your GI woes are triggered by nerves – in which case, work on mental relaxation techniques, experiment with liquid calories and trial your plan in key workouts. You may be struggling to cope with large quantities of sweet sports drinks on top of high-sugar gels – especially if you don’t typically consume this in training. Try alternating with some solid foods, if possible, or backing down the quantity – making sure you are washing gels down with water and, again, experimenting with your strategy in training. Your gut may also be revolting against a particular food and the stress of competition, coupled with the heat of exercise, may be enough to trigger the intolerance and the resultant reaction and symptoms. Lactose and gluten are common intolerances, so play around with eliminating these foods before big training days and races. Or you may simply be getting your timing and composition wrong – highfat foods, very high protein intake or excessive fibre can all cause enough gut upset to derail plans. Rather than change your usual diet completely before a race, stick to what you stomach and body know well and train off every day.
Body weight and composition
If you struggle to get through a race season and find you are battling colds and flus, then consider whether your body-fat levels are too low. While leanness is advantageous for performance, being too lean does pose a risk for immune health as well as injury. Conversely, if you struggle in the heat, find hilly courses very difficult or simply know your performance or health would be improved by being a little lighter, then connect with someone qualified who can help you do this safely, consistently and with your end goals in sight.
Heavy reliance on take-out and poor nutrient intake
While you still have the luxury of a little time, thanks to a reduced training load, take some time to investigate your options. Consider online shopping and delivery – whether this is simply fresh fruits and vegetables delivered weekly or meal boxes that come with all the ingredients ready for a quick cook. There are increasingly good options, too, where someone else has done all the work for you, and you enjoy all the benefits of freshly prepared meals to stock your fridge with, either at home or at work. Check what’s available in your local area and try a few options. That way, when you do get time crunched, you are not left scrambling or resorting to less-than-ideal fuelling options.
General well being and health
If you are constantly battling low energy levels, or feel as though you get sick frequently, then check in with your doctor. Don’t just save the visit for when you truly are sick, regular check-ups are a good way to get ahead of any issues, and, especially if there is anything to address, will save you time during the season as well as out on the race course. Along with your regular check-up, discuss having iron stores checked and cardiac health assessed. Use this checkup as an opportunity to see where and how you can make dietary improvements to boost health and performance, whether that is increasing iron rich foods, focussing on antioxidant-rich foods to support immune function or supplementing with specific foods to aid in better sleep and recovery.
Pip Taylor is a professional triathlete and nutritionist from Australia.