Navigating your way through fad diets
Triathletes have a desire to gain an edge in every which way, from new equipment, training, recovery and diets. Here is an overview of a few popular diets and how to best navigate them.
— by Pip Taylor
Athletes are renowned for their attention to detail and desire to gain an edge in that never-ending quest for performance improvement. This can mean a willingness to experiment, innovate and try new things. Whether that be new equipment, new training protocols, recovery techniques, or playing around with diet and nutrition strategies, such experimentation frequently results in valuable personal insights and knowledge about how individuals respond to different stimuli and can spurs innovation that leads to performance gains.
When it comes to diet, triathletes are generally highly aware of the important role that day-to-day food choices play in body composition, fuelling recovery, as well as race-day strategies. However, despite this, or perhaps because of this, triathletes are not immune to using non-scientific methods to gain an edge. This can be partly attributed to the lure of either aggressive marketing by various companies or dietary trends with attractive promises popularized by the press, celebrities or our personal “hero” athletes. Sometimes, this can result in positive changes, but, most often, dietary trends are off-base in terms of value in general health terms, or because they have been intended for sedentary individuals. Issues can crop up when translated to highly active, fit athletes.
Here are some of the current popular diets, and what to pick and what to leave for health and performance gains:
This involves an extra low-carb diet, with the idea that the body becomes better able to utilize fat as fuel in the absence of glucose. The keto diet is backed by medical research; it can be a useful dietary regime. However, its intended therapeutic use is for controlling epilepsy. The keto diet has risen in mainstream popularity over the last couple of years for its weight-loss effects and is currently the most frequently searched diet term. However, for a triathlete managing large training loads, the keto diet may be one to avoid. While it’s true that low-intensity endurance training relies heavily on fat as a fuel source as opposed to carbohydrates, carbohydrates are nevertheless an important energy source for other aspects of health and performance,
including immune status and hormone production. Compromises to immune status and hormone production can lead to impaired recovery, low testosterone, depression and other mood changes, insomnia, illness and increased risk of injury – effects not conducive to sustainable performance.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Rather than adopt a keto diet complete with butter- filled coffee, try manipulating your carbohydrate intake to reflect training and body composition goals. Doing some low-intensity training sessions in a fasted state have been shown to help boost the body’s ability to tap into fat stores. Fueling for high-intensity workouts and to support optimal recovery, will mean you are still able to hit the high notes in training to drive adaptations and improvements while maintaining good health and immune status.
These diets/lifestyles have been well established now for many years. There are many positives to them, because they focus on whole, real foods. For athletes of all sports, both health and performance can be easily sustained following this approach, particularly when quality carbohydrates are thrown into the mix at appropriate times, such as around training or before a race. The only potential downside is when athletes take the approach too seriously – forgoing mid-race fuel or avoiding foods when travelling just because they can’t source a truly paleo option.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Go for it, but be flexible in your approach. Sometimes a gel or swig of a sports drink, or even a pre-race peanut butter and jelly sandwich, isn’t going to hurt. At other times, revert to whole food and nutrient-dense options to optimize health and recovery.
Again, in essence, there is nothing much wrong with a diet that encourages quality, real, fresh foods. However, focusing on vast numbers of superfoods, with the allure of special powers and protective properties, can be very expensive.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Save your pennies and opt for the less sexy, yet still genuine superfoods, such as broccoli, kale, carrots, blueberries and cacao, rather than the expensive yet well-marketed moringa, ginko and maqui berries.
Pip Taylor is a pro triathlete and nutritionist from Australia.