Triathlons are a truly great sport - they're the ultimate test of both endurance and versatility. So when it comes to training, your body is always evolving and adapting to the 3 disciplines with the end goal of becoming faster and going further.
With this desire to compete and push your body harder and harder, comes internal stresses as you try to improve your game and be the best you can be. Today we'll look closer at some of the key limiting factors you could be experiencing, common to this sport.
1. Persistent fatigue
It’s normal to feel fatigued with overexertion, illness or an underlying medical condition. However, if in the absence of these, fatigue and tiredness persists despite appropriate rest, it’s advisable to ask your GP or private provider (we at Fibr Health offer an in-depth range of blood tests) to check the following as a baseline:
Iron, Ferritin, Thyroid (TSH, free T4, T3).
A full blood count is often a great starting point for uncovering and addressing underlying causes around energy/fatigue, including nutritional deficiencies and thyroid issues. It’s always preferable to work with a practitioner with experience of helping endurance athletes and one that utilises functional lab reference ranges. ‘Normal’ is often not optimal for many people, this is especially true for athletes.
2. Low Libido, low mood, muscle aches and failure to strengthen/adapt to training.
Again, I’d advise a comprehensive steroid hormone panel (Fibr Health offer the Dutch test- a comprehensive/advanced hormone test) and to specifically check: morning testosterone and free androgen index in males and day 21 oestrogen and progesterone in menstruating females.
It’s also wise to test one’s cortisol diurnal variation and cortisol/DHEA ratio (also covered by the Dutch test) to address any adrenal dysregulation issues.
Disrupted sleep, inability to gain muscle, low libido, reoccurring injuries, sugar/carb cravings, poor digestion and uneven energy throughout the day are all issues related to HPA dysregulation.
A number of lifestyle factors such as diet, rest, exercise type/duration, supplementation for adrenal support and overall stress reduction go a long way in addressing these issues.
In pre-menopausal women, irregular or absent periods are an indication of the Female Athlete Triad or REDS and involve a chronic health cascade including persistent fatigue and reduced bone mineral density.
It’s imperative to seek appropriate advice but often responds well to a combination of nutritional counselling/education, psychological support and reduced exercise load to address the body’s overall energy deficit.
3. Gastrointestinal Issues
Key culprits for gastrointestinal disturbances in runners are dehydration and heat exposure due to blood flow being diverted from the GIT to the muscles and skin. As a standard, avoid dehydration, low sodium levels and reliance on sugary sports drinks for hydration.
If loose stools and cramping persist, whether during a race or as an ongoing issue, it’s advisable to have a gut assessment (poop test). More commonly, we see athletes with ‘leaky gut’ – increased intestinal permeability in the gut, bacterial and yeast imbalances and parasitic infections.
A gut protocol will include an elimination diet - especially gluten, fodmaps or other ‘triggers’ such as dairy. This can work wonders alongside a high dose, broad-spectrum probiotic and gut barrier support. Close monitoring of symptoms will help you learn how and which foods affect you and identify any specific patterns.
This can be followed by a reintroduction phase of the safe foods alongside continued recording and monitoring.
Ditching the gluten is not enough, as one just has to look at ingredients your average gluten-free product contains. A focus on eating real foods and finding the right macronutrient ratios for your body type and exercise levels is key.
The gut is the epicentre of many health issues - skin, energy, mood - so identifying your gut health status and working with a practitioner to eliminate inflammation and improve function is crucial to overall health and improved performance.
Work towards becoming a ‘fat-adapted’ athlete for greater metabolic flexibility by increasing your overall intake of nutrient-rich fats and reducing your carbohydrates. Context is key here, so carb intake will be very much dependant on each individual’s physiological needs and training volume.
Becoming fat-adapted enables the body to burn stored fat for energy and to tap into those fat stores more efficiently, resulting in steadier increased energy throughout the day. Ultimately, the body will rely less on the reliance of carbohydrates on race day as it burns fat as fuel to a higher heart rate, allowing the athlete to strategically use sugars as a performance enhancer as opposed to a primary fuel source.
This, in turn, places less stress on the digestive system, which draws water into the gut to digest and absorb all the sugar. Burning your own fat stores for longer is a much more effective strategy. Mark Sisson’s “Primal Endurance” book and blog, Mark’s Daily Apple, has lots more info on the subject of fat adaptation.
4. Race Day
Avoid NSAIDS such as ibuprofen and aspirin at all costs. Despite inflammation being the very problem they have been designed to help, they, in fact, increase inflammation and create damage to the gut lining. They have also been linked to renal / kidney damage. Paracetamol and a small amount of co-codamol 8/500 is a much safer option to reduce GI motility and joint pain in longer races.
Activated charcoal is extremely helpful in reducing any gas and bloating and is available in tablet form for ease of use. Imodium should be a last resort emergency option!
Finally, It’s crucial to practice your race nutrition in similar conditions to those expected on race day. Hot weather racing causes less blood flow to the gut, which results in greater stress on the digestive system. Incorporating your race day nutrition throughout training and allowing training sessions to take place in similar conditions to those expected on the big day will go a long way in minimising digestive distress unexpected surprises!