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Nutrition & Daily Habits to Prevent Injury as a Triathlete

nutrition and daily habits

Triathlete’s Guide to Injury Prevention: Part IV

Series written by Becky Arturo, doctor of physical therapy, certified strength & conditioning specialist, USAT triathlon coach, and RRCA running coach, in collaboration with Nick Fischer, board-certified sports dietitian, both of Weights and Plates Endurance

The final major component of injury prevention in endurance training requires us to look at what we are doing while not training. See previous posts in this series on optimizing your training plan, strength and mobility training, and proper form and technique to prevent injury.

Your daily habits can have a large impact on your recovery and performance. Adequate fueling, sleep, and stress management will be explored in this article.

Adequate Fueling RED-S

triathlon fueling hydration

While endurance sports are plagued with overtraining, they are also plagued with under-fueling. Even if you are doing everything else correctly, adequate nutrition will make or break an athlete

This is a delicate topic, so I’ve invited my husband, board-certified sports dietitian, Nick Fischer to collaborate on this section.

Under-fueling and malnourishment can lead to some pretty serious consequences. You’ve probably heard of RED-S or relative energy deficiency in sport. While older terminology will discuss the female athlete triad, this is not just limited to female athletes. 

Low energy, poor performance, decreased bone density, stress fractures, other overuse injuries, decreased focus, low libido, and lacking a menstrual cycle can all be related to inadequate fueling in athletes.

This is more common than many people think because diet culture and the fitness industry are riddled with misinformation which leads to undereating and malnutrition.

Micro and Macro Needs

macronutrients rice and beans

When you are not eating enough food, you are not getting an adequate intake of macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein), or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

While it is also possible to be malnourished in the sense that you are not getting adequate nutrients while overeating an unbalanced diet, endurance athletes are much more likely to be undereating, leading to malnutrition. 

All of your body systems, including your musculoskeletal system, require enough vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fat, and protein to continue functioning properly. 

Your brain’s main source of energy is carbohydrates. Your cardiovascular system depends on iron for the transportation of hemoglobin. Your bones rely on an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D to maintain safe density levels. If you neglect the nutritional needs of your body systems for too long, something will eventually break down. 

Eating Enough

eating enough as a triathlete

Most endurance athletes need to be eating more than they think. Most meals should be well balanced with a staple carbohydrate, protein, and fruit/vegetable. One way to know if you are not eating enough is if you have cravings or impulsively eating.

You are recovering from your workouts 24/7 so you need to ensure your body has food to aid in this recovery. See the below example of a balanced menu.

Athletes should also make sure to include things they enjoy in their diet, keeping in mind that everything is appropriate in moderation. There are no food rules that exist, and there’s no food that is good or bad. There are just poorly balanced diets. 

Balance and Moderation

balance and moderation eating

While many endurance athletes tend to take more of a type-A approach to training & planning, nutrition is much more type-B. If passing up a fast food cheeseburger means that you are going to miss the meal, then you are better off eating the burger. This type of flexibility will take the stress off you, likely make you happier, and give your body fuel to recover.

Endurance athletes also need to remember that carbohydrates are your friend as much as protein. The idea that carbohydrates are the enemy is pervasive in our culture. However, this is flat-out wrong. Even the Diabetes Association does not tell people with diabetes to fear carbohydrates. 

Not only do carbohydrates fuel your workouts, but they also play a part in recovery and muscle development. For example, if you are working out 1-2 hours a day, then a carb range of 5-7 grams of carb per kilogram body weight is appropriate. 

Protein, while it is important for muscle recovery and many other body systems, is not King, and you may not need as much as you think. In general, you need anywhere between 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight up to 1.6 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Balanced Menu Examples 

Example 1Pre-workout
Breakfast2 eggs scrambled with peppers and onion with cheese all warped in a large tortilla with a side of fruit2 pieces of regular bread (not diet or low carb bread) with peanut butter and yogurt with a spoon of jelly added to it
LunchHam and cheese sandwich (regular bread) with mayo or mustard and hummus and pretzelsLeftovers from dinner, 4 oz meatball with 1-2 cups pasta and side of veggies
Dinner (post-workout)Bagel with honey and peanut butter1-3 pack of Fig Newtons
Leftovers from dinner, 4 oz meatball with 1-2 cups pasta and a side of veggies4 oz meatball with 1-2 cups pasta and side of veggies4 oz chicken from a rotisserie chicken in a large tortilla with refried beans and cheese and spinach with a side of rice and veggie
Snack1-2 oz cheese and 1-2 oz. crackersRegular ice cream, you decide how much you want, be type B

Disordered Eating

manage your stress eating

The topic and specifics of nutrition concerning decreasing injury risk for endurance athletes could be an entire book’s worth of information. With that being said, the last note I want to make is about maintaining a healthy relationship with food

Disordered eating is far too common with endurance athletes, which can quickly lead to consequences such as RED-S, as mentioned above. 

If you feel like you have a poor relationship with food – fear of overeating, irrational fear of weight gain, or fear in general surrounding food, then speaking with a mental health professional would be a great favor to do yourself, and could very well save your longevity in sport.

Daily Habits

daily habits recovery

The last area I find worth mentioning for reducing injury risk in athletes is about daily habits. Now I know some things can be harder to control than others. However, adequate sleep and stress management are key components to a successful athlete’s longevity in sport. 

As we all know, proper recovery does require enough sleep. And, exercising with a tired mind and body is another recipe for injury. 

Likewise, stress management is important for athletes to stay injury-free. Training stresses the body. Although it’s a different kind of stress, your body systems can only handle so much stress in general before it starts to break down. 

A lot of athletes use training as their stress management, which is fine as long as you can take a rest day and maintain a healthy relationship with exercise. 

As mentioned above in terms of your relationship with food, if you feel that you are developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise – excessive stress from a missed workout, inability to break from your training plan for any reason, exercise addiction, etc., then talking to a mental health professional such as a sports psychologist could be of great benefit to you.

To wrap this up, if you end up injured, don’t delay seeking guidance from a professional. Sports physicians, physical therapists, dietitians, and psychologists are all great resources to get you back on track. However, the goal of this article is to give you some information to get started with so you can prevent injury in the first place.

Becky Arturo
Becky Arturo
Endurance Coach, Physical Therapist at Weights and Plates Endurance | Website

Becky Arturo is the co-founder of Weights and Plates Endurance Coaching. Becky Arturo received her doctorate degree in physical therapy and started practicing as a sports and orthopedic physical therapist in 2019. She is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist as well as a USA Triathlon certified coach. Learn more about Becky