Carbohydrate facts for triathletes

SomeCarbohydrate facts for triathletes for optimum performance.

It’s important to have at least a basic understanding of carbohydrates and they role they play when it comes to endurance sports.

Proper intake of carbohydrates before and during an event like the Ironman can have a huge impact on the final outcome.


Carbohydrates basically fall into two categories called “simple” and “complex.”

If you just remember these rules of thumb when it comes to telling the difference from a simple carbohydrate and a complex carbohydrate you will pretty much have it figured out.

It it tastes really good and you almost guilty eating it than most likely it is a simple carbohydrate. If it is called “chocolate” anything then it is  most likely a simple carbohydrate. It it comes at the end of a meal and has ice cream piled on top it is pretty much a 100% simple carbohydrate.

If it is the last thing you see on the shelves beside you as you check out of a super-market, it’s most likely a simple carbohydrate. They are put there for a reason. They are called “impulse sales” as they trigger the sugar mechanism deep inside us and it calls out “just one Oh Henry won’t hurt.

The problem with simple carbohydrates is that they rush the sugar into our systems and create a sugar imbalance, and sometimes a “sugar crash” that can sap energy almost instantly.


I would not be exaggerating if I said that at the peak of my endurance career when I was having by far my best results in marathons and the ironman, that my diet consisted of almost 70% complex carbohydrates. The other 30% of my diet was divided between protein and fat.

Yes sir, my meals revolved around oatmeal, whole wheat bread, brown rice, potatoes, and pasta. I didn’t really care if I had oatmeal every morning and pasta every night for weeks on end because to me it was simply fuel as I was training at a high intensity.

No matter how much I ate my weight was stable at between 148-152 pounds for years on end.

Because these carbohydrates are “complex” they take longer for the body to assimilate and do not rush into your bloodstream right away in the form of sugar. They actually provide a fuel that is burned in the fire of clean-burning fat.

Of course that’s assuming that your fat choices are good ones, and that is a topic for another post. Stay tuned.


In this day and age you have to practice caution when overloading your body with complex carbohydrates.

Agricultural growing practices have changed drastically in the past 3 or 4 decades. In order to keep up with market demand shortcuts are often take when it comes to growing the food we depend on.

Most whole wheat these days comes from grain that has been altered in one way or another to speed growth.

I figured that out a long time ago and believe it or not, I actually used to spend 4 hours about once every three weeks making my own whole wheat bread from scratch with organic whole wheat flour.

That also meant I knew “exactly” what was added to my bread. In my case it was olive oil, molasses, honey, and seeds instead of poor fat and sugar choices.

It’s also wise to avoid white rice and white bread as they have most of the nutrients removed long before they ever get to your kitchen.

I love potatoes and just for myself I used to buy 20 pound bags when I was training like a gladiator. I soon discovered that potatoes are almost the purest form of carbohydrate there is and must be balanced with a protein in order to slow their absorbtion into the blood-stream.

I remember a pro triathlete once saying to me, “if I had my way I would haul about 5 baked potatoes with me in an Ironman.” So obviously he also realized the potential of this particular carbohydrate choice.

I used to do a long workout and then treat myself to about 4 large potatoes cut up and steamed with some onion and spices and often about an hour later had severe energy crashes until I figured out that I had to eat something else with the potatoes in order to slow their absorption rate.

In subsequent meals I topped the potatoes with cottage cheese or included eggs with the meal and the energy crashes stopped.

balance fruit with protein

So it follows then, that if you are on a strict training diet and want to treat yourself to the occasional ice cream cone or Mars Mar, eat a cup of cottage cheese before you do and this will help balance the flow of sugar into your system.

This same strategy works well with most fruits as well as they have lots of sugar in them and should be eaten in moderation. A good snack would be half an apple and half a cup of cottage cheese, or a fruit salad topped with cottage cheese. Always be aware of balance in your diet and you will do just fine.


Caution is recommended if you are not training or working out on a regular basis and plan to continue on a diet high in carbohydrates in any form.

If you over-do it on pasta, bagels, and bread and are not burning fuel these foods will generate, these carbohydrates will convert to fat and you will most likely experience weight gain.

In the world of diets, most of them work best if accompanied by a regular dose of fitness activities that take you into the fat-burning zone on the heart-rate scale.

This is the same with the very best of carbohydrates. As much as I love my whole wheat and Cinnamon Raisin bagels I really limit them these days as I am not training anywhere near the level and intensity I used to.

The best thing about triathlon is that while you are in training you can pretty much eat as much as you want of the right food choices.

That luxury almost always disappears once we revert to the sedentary life-style.

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