I learn new information about Ironman training every day. Recently I’ve done some research on Ironman nutrition, specifically supplements, and also read the chapter on nutrition in Joe Friel’s Triathlete’s Training Bible. I’ve learned a lot about the special needs of a long course triathlete as well as the additional special considerations for women athletes. Turns out, training 12-20 hours a week can really take a toll on your body (who would have thought!) and often it’s difficult to get all the required vitamins and nutrients in a normal diet, even if it’s a healthy one.
When I spoke to my doctor about my concerns, she first and foremost told me to make sure I’m eating protein. Joe Friel agreed, as the first thing mentioned in the Nutrition section of The Triathlete’s Training Bible is the importance of protein in an athlete’s diet. So many endurance athletes think that carbohydrates are the best source of energy (which they are during high intensity exercise), but day to day, athlete’s need to consume higher levels of protein than non-athletes. Low dietary protein will increase your recovery time, cause muscle weakness, and suppress your immune system. Worse, if you chronically fail to eat enough protein, you’ll completely cancel out the effectiveness of workouts and will suffer from fatigue, anemia, lethargy, or worse. Oftentimes a dietary protein deficiency is inappropriately diagnosed as over-training syndrome (From Badwater.com).
To determine how much protein you need, multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.4 -1.7, depending on your exercise intensity. It’s safe to assume that if you are training for an Ironman you’ll multiply it by 1.7. For example, a 140 pound woman (63.50 kg) would need 107.95 grams of protein a day. Here is a list of protein rich foods and how many grams they have: http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/whattoeat/a/highproteinfood.htm. To reach at least 108 grams, a 140 pound athlete could eat 3.5 oz of chicken (30 grams), a 6oz can of tuna (40 grams), 3/4 cup egg beaters (18 grams), 1 cup of black beans (15 g), and 1/4 cup of almonds (8 g). As you can see, animal protein has the highest amount of protein/calories, although tofu has about 20 grams per half cup which is pretty substantial. The approximate caloric value of the items I listed above is 800 calories. If you were only consuming 2,000 calories per day, protein would be 40% of your daily value. As long course triathletes, it’s safe to say that we eat more than 2,000 calories a day (well I do!) so it shouldn’t be too hard to get in the required 108 grams.
From an endurance perspective, it’s actually a misnomer that carbohydrates always provide better fuel for workouts. This is true for high intensity workouts, but it is actually true that protein and fat can provide equal amount of energy prior to long, lower intensity workouts (ie 7 hour bike ride). A peanut butter banana sandwich (my favorite!) is actually a very good pre-workout or mid-workout snack as it contains fat, protein and carbohydrates.
Iron deficiciency is a very common problem among female triathletes. The main reason is that female athletes need about 15-18 mg a day of iron, but a typical American diet only contains 5 mg per 1,000 calories. A woman consuming about 2,000 calories a day will have a 33% deficiency daily. Vegetarian athletes need to eat even more iron, as iron from vegetable sources isn’t absorbed at the same rate. Vegetarian triathletes shoudl consume double the amount of iron. The best way to get the adequate amount of Iron is to consume it via healthy food. Red meat is the most beneficial source of iron and women should incorporate lean red meat into their diets regularly. Here are some other foods high in iron: http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/top-10-iron-rich-foods. Supplementing iron can have some nasty side effects (constipation, loss of appetite, and vomiting among others), so you need to talk to your doctor about taking an iron supplement before purchasing.
Going forward, I’m going to try to eat red meat more often, probably when I eat out since I don’t ever buy it to cook. My multi-vitamin actually has 18mg in 2 capsules but I only take 1 capsule per day, as recommended by my doctor.
Calcium deficiency is another concern among women triathletes in particular. According to TriFuel.com, “a study found that Masters’ women athletes consume up to 20 percent less calcium than their recommended daily minimum of 1,000mg. On top of that, the body excretes a sizable amount of calcium through sweat, a condition that can put the body in a calcium deficiency that could lead to bone density loss.” Even worse, for female athletes, calcium intake is of particular concern. Excessive training—more than seven hours per week—may cause hormonal declines in young girls that can stop menstruation. This hormonal decline also compromises bone formation, possibly leading to premature, irreversible osteoporosis (a-z-health.com).
Unlike Iron, supplementing calcium is encouraged and safe; however the body can only process 500 mg of calcium at once so you need to spread your dosage out throughout the day. It’s also helpful to get calcium from low-fat dairy, as that will help you get your daily protein intake as well. Here is a list of calcium rich foods: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/calcium/. To get your daily requirement of 1,000 mg from food, you’d need to consume about 1 cup of Fage greek yogurt (150 mg), 1/2 cup frozen yogurt t(100 mg), 1 cup of cottage cheese (138), 1 cup of Silk Almond milk (450 mg), and 1 oz of cheddar cheese (200 mg). That’s a total of 745 calories or 37% of your daily intake if you are consuming 2,000 calories a day. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like A LOT of dairy! I tend to eat only 1 serving of the above foods, perhaps 2 in a day. I tend to have either almond milk or cottage cheese with breakfast and then frozen yogurt or ice cream 2-3x/week. I don’t eat much cheese unless it’s on pizza or lasagna. For me personally, I need to supplement calcium to ensure I get my daily dose. My multi-vitamin only has 150 mg. Asia told me that Luna bars have a good amount of calcium, so that’s another option.
Magnesium is often coupled with calcium as a supplement and is very important to muscle repair. It is best to consume these two together in a 2-1 Calcium to Magnesium ratio. Magnesium is involved in a denosine triphosphate (ATP) production from fatty acid oxidation; ATP, present in all cells but particularly in muscle cells, stores energy. Magnesium is also involved in post-contractile muscular relaxation, bone remineralization and in phosphatidylglycerol (DPG) production, which is important to red blood cell formation.Athletes lose magnesium through sweat and urine. This, combined with the fact that athletes’ diets are usually low in magnesium, generally leads to the need for supplementation. The recommended intake for endurance athletes is 500 to 800 mg daily (source).
To add further complication, according to cal-mag-c.com because calcium and magnesium are both alkaline, they can’t be absorbed unless they have the correct pH. To achieve the correct pH, they need to be taken with apple cider vinegar or vitamin C.
Glutamine & BCAAs
Glutamine is something I’ve been supplementing since I started taking endurance training seriously. Although the body can make enough of this non-essential amino acid on it’s own under normal conditions, long course endurance athletes find benefit in supplementing. I’ve also started taking a BCAA powder 1-2x daily since I started increasing my training workload. BCAA powders contain the essential three branch chain amino acids Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. Mike took BCAA and Glutamine religiously during training for his first Ironman and he swears by it. “Supplementation with 6-8 grams/day of BCAA and glutamine has been shown to decrease protein degradation during ultra-distance triathlon competition, decrease exercise induced muscle damage after prolonged running, and improved performance in 40 K cycling time trial performance. Furthermore, there seems to be an immuno-enhancing effect” (source).
Basically, taking a BCAA and Glutamine blend post workout will decrease your post workout soreness, give you more energy for your next workout, and boost your immune system so you are less likely to get sick. I take 1 serving of each post workout and take another serving before bed most nights. It’s not cheap, but I really think that it makes a difference.
My Daily Supplement Routine:
Every person has their individual needs as well as their own opinions on whether or not to take supplements. When I’m not training hard, I always take a multi-vitamin and I eat a good amount of protein. However, now that I’m training for an Ironman, this is my daily intake of supplements:
- 1 multi-vitamin. I use Opti-Women and take half the daily dose because it is a VERY potent multi-vitamin and I generally eat a well rounded diet. This half dose contains 50% of my daily Iron as well as 100% of my daily Vitamin C needs.
- Calcium Citrate/Magnesium. Since I don’t eat nearly enough dairy to get my daily needs, I take an additional calcium tablet (my multi-vitamin only has 7.5% of my daily needs in the serving I take). This was also recommended by my doctor at my yearly physical. A bonus to this supplement is that the magnesium makes me sleep like a baby.
- 1-2 Servings of BCAA & 1-2 Servings of Glutamine. This is always taken post workout and sometimes before bed.
- Lots of protein! I don’t record my protein intake daily, but I eat protein with nearly every meal.
- Lean red meat 1-2x/week. Although my multi-vitamin has half the required daily dose of Iron, it isn’t well absorbed in supplement form. Therefore, I’ll need to eat some iron rich foods to get my requirement. In addition to incorporating more lean red meat in my diet, I eat dark, leafy greens, lentils, beans and turkey, which also contain Iron.
Do you change your supplements during high volume training? Do you pay attention to your protein and Iron intake? Or do you hate supplements and just try to eat a balance diet?