Most folks know that the sport of triathlon involves three disciplines: swimming, biking and running.
But sports dietitian and accomplished age-group athlete Jennifer Hutchison thinks many triathletes could improve their performance by focusing more on a fourth discipline: nutrition.
"A good diet does not equal success," Hutchison said. "But poor nutrition can shortchange a potentially good performance."
Hutchison, 43, an 11-time Ironman-distance finisher, is a USA Triathlon-certified, elite-level coach who works with junior athletes and seasoned pros.
She says many age-group, or recreational, athletes have the same problem as most Americans: They have extra weight slowing them down.
"If you want to realize your potential, you have to make healthy challenges a priority," she said. "Many age-group athletes spend so much time training that they think they can eat whatever they want. But that is not the case."
Hutchison advises her clients to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meat, fish and poultry. The problem many recreational athletes have is that even if they're eating healthy foods, they're consuming too much of them.
"They read these nutritional plans that are designed for elite athletes training at a much higher intensity," she said. "The average age-group athlete doesn't burn the same amount of calories as a professional triathlete."
Hutchison thinks many triathletes could improve their performance by just cutting back on portions. Even 5 or 10 extra pounds can mean the difference between being a good triathlete and a great triathlete. Not to mention the fact that less weight not only means more speed, it also means less wear and tear on joints and tendons.
"My hand is the limit," she said of how she measures her food. "I cup my hand, and that is my portion." If you need more guidance, just use a 1-cup measure.
She advises eating four to six small meals a day rather than three big ones. Smaller meals are easier to digest and will provide a steady supply of fuel all day long.
Her advice will resonate with anyone who needs to watch his weight.
"Eating is tied to emotions," Hutchison added. "If you keep your body evenly fueled, you are less likely to overeat when under stress."
For most fitness-minded people, consistency is the key. But as a race approaches, Hutchison said triathletes should fine-tune their diets.
As race day nears, the goal is to repair muscles that have been damaged from training, restore muscle and liver glycogen, and hydrate the body.
Continue eating four to six small meals, at regular intervals, each day.
There is no need to increase portions of carbohydrates until a few days before the race. As always, stay hydrated by drinking water frequently. Shoot for 16 to 24 ounces of water at and in between meals.
Eat what you like, within reason, but avoid new or unusual foods because these may upset your system. In a hot, humid climate, don't be afraid to add a little salt to pre-run meals.
On the big day, the goal is to top off your body's glycogen, or fuel, supplies to prolong endurance and maximize fluid stores to prevent dehydration. Eat a breakfast rich in carbohydrates but low in fiber about two to four hours before the race. Remember, a heavy meal will take longer to digest.
Drink eight to 12 ounces of water or your favorite sports drink 30 minutes before the start. In a race or any other heavy physical activity that lasts more than one hour, drink at least 4 to 6 ounces of fluid at every aid station. Sports drinks such as Gatorade are a good choice on race day because they provide both carbohydrates and electrolytes.
When you finish, stay focused on your overall race plan. The goal is to repair your damaged muscles and hydrate your body, which will help prevent post-race nausea.
Take advantage of post-race snacks — bagels, bananas, oranges — and hydrate. Try to eat a full meal within two to three hours after finishing. Drink 16 to 24 ounces of water for every pound lost during the race.
Get some "active rest." Walk around the race village, stretch those tired legs. Then go home and take a nap. Your body recovers best when you are asleep.
Ideal recovery foods include low-fat dairy products, potatoes, dark green vegetables, bananas, peanut butter, whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, lean meats (pork, beef, chicken, salmon), eggs and dried beans.
Sure, go on and celebrate your finish with a big, special meal. But remember: There is another race down the road. So don't overdo it. Success lies not in the destination, but simply staying on the path.