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The Best Diet for Half-Marathons, Triathlons, Ironman and Ultra-Marathons?


I have been receiving questions lately regarding triathlons and the Ironman. The two most common questions are:

1) Is following a strict Paleo diet the best approach for endurance?

There is a great article written by Jonas Colting from Sweden, who has won the Ultraman World Championships twice, along with multiple triathlons, running and swimming competitions. According to Jonas:

I eat loads of eggs (I love banana-almond butter-egg pancakes), red meat, salmon, avocados, leafy greens, nuts and seeds. I eat sparingly with dairy but I’m generous with butter and drink some whole fat milk as well as some occasional yoghurt. I’m a big fruit eater with my favourites now being pomegrenate, blueberries, mango, citrus and bananas.

I also eat a fair bit of raw foods as in red meat, eggs, fish, milk straight from the farm. I eat some bread, mostly because I’m not really sensitive to gluten and bread is quite easy for me to digest. I can have a bowl of pasta sometimes as well as veggies like potatoes, carrots, red beats and turnips.

As you can see, these guidelines are very similar to what I advocate on the PaleoEdge diet. The diet is shifted so that protein and fat are at the top, carbohydrates in the form of fruits and vegetables are emphasized, with minimal grains and dairy. Even in the Paleo Diet for Athletes, Dr. Cordain seems to abandon Paleo for post-workout foods including pasta, bread, bagels, rice and corn. My position is that if you are going to include grains and dairy, consume the best and still avoid those that do damage.

Jonas continues:

I stay way clear from the typical athletes’ addiction to sports nutrition like bars, powders, gels and drinks which in most cases really is just candy in a more sophisticated package. I do use some electrolyte drinks on long and hot sessions and obviously for races all rules are off. When applying a “train low-race high” philosophy it would be foolish not to maximize both fat burning and carb utilization. For really long sessions or on the run portion of triathlons I find that Red Bull or soft drinks works wonders with the simple formula of sugar and caffeine. I work closely with Organic Food Bar, and their products are a great option for athletes to use while training or racing.

While I would agree most of the commercial bars, powders, gels and drinks are junk, there are many quality options that can be a lifesaver for training including adaptogenshigh quality made bars and electrolyte drinks.

My concern with using Red Bull is that you are already putting your body through tremendous stress, and to fuel it with 80mg of caffeine (3x the amount of coke) and sugar (or sugar free which uses aspartame!) basically kicks your adrenals into overdrive, stressing the kidneys and the heart more. If you are in hot weather, this seems like a recipe for disaster. Caffeine can have its place in about a 1/3 of that amount, but for those who get the jitters easily I would just avoid it. Sodas, as well as fruit juice, have a very high osmolality and should be avoided.

2) What should I eat or drink during training? 

You will find many different formulas for the amount of sports drinks, gels, carbohydrates, calories etc. It will be different for each person and each race depending on the climate and temperature. On average you will need 250-275 calories per hour, mostly from carbohydrates.

The osmolality of blood is between 280-290 mmoles/kg, so a sports drink should have an osmalality close to these values. The carbohydrate content should be 12-16 grams for regular endurance events, and at least 25 grams (or 2x as much) of carbohydrates for half-marathons, triathlons, Ironman and Ultra-marathon races. Gels provide 20-30 grams of carbohydrates, and require 1.2 to 1.7 cups of water to accompany it to maintain osmolality. Consuming these gels without water can cause issues.

Dehydration is your biggest enemy, and if you even lose just 1% of body weight in fluid, muscle performance will begin to drop. The 2-3% range can reduce time by 2.5 minutes in a 10K. Keep on top of hydration and carbohydrates once you are moving.

Recommendations for Optimal Training and Performance

1. Cordyceps Cs-4

Your running adaptogen of choice for increasing oxygen, immunity and lowering inflammation.

2. Hammer Nutrition HEED Sports Energy Drink

Meets all of the criteria above.

3. Hammer Energy Gel

Take with 4-8 ounces of water during exercise for 45-60 minutes.

4. Organic Food Bar

Easiest bar to digest while providing sufficient calories. Not everyone can handle solid food during this time. Experiment during training.

* Many triathletes drink Ensure leading up to the race and after the swim to get enough liquid calories. The nutrition isn’t optimal and doesn’t agree with everyone’s stomach. I’m currently researching alternatives.


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