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Q. I am a distance runner and love pasta. Is pasta bad to eat?
A. There are a few fad diets around which are popular with athletes at the moment, some of these advocate lowering the carbohydrate intake. Given that pasta is a carbohydrate-rich food, this too has taken a dive in popularity in some groups of people.

The main argument used to fuel the anti-pasta popularity is that with carbohydrate ingestion there is a rise in a hormone called insulin in our bloodstream. Insulin activates glucose storage in the muscle and liver, fat storage, and protein synthesis in the muscle. From this simplistic explanation it would seem reasonable that if we lower our dietary carbohydrate intake we can lower the insulin in our bloodstream and therefore store less fat. However, the reality of this type of approach is that it invariably lowers the variety and quantity of food in the diet, which causes weight loss, not because of an alteration in any hormonal balance. Also, insulin is a very sensitive hormone and there will still be plenty of it in the bloodstream, even on a low carbohydrate intake.

For endurance events, such as distance running, our muscles rely on carbohydrate as an energy source, and it is important to replace these stores between each training session. Pasta is a great option when combined with a low fat sauce and consumed in reasonable quantities. The Recipes section of our website includes some great pasta recipes.

Q. I specialise in ironman triathlons. How many kilojoules do I need for this event?
A. You probably need to focus on carbohydrate requirements per hour of exercise, more so than kilojoule requirements. Carbohydrate, unlike fat and protein is a fuel source for your muscles during ironman racing that is stored in limited quantities within the body. So your focus during an ironman event should be on replacing hourly carbohydrate and fluid requirements. You should consume roughly 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight per hour of exercise during an ironman.

To compensate for the lack of opportunity to eat or drink during the swim, make sure you have a breakfast meal that provides roughly 2g of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight a couple of hours prior to race start. For an 80kg athlete, this would be 3 x English muffins, 1.5 tbsp of jam, and 750 ml of a sports drink. Make sure they are foods you are familiar with, are low in fibre, rich in carbohydrate, low fat and easily digested.

During the hour before race start, try drinking 500ml of sports drink and additional water (particularly if a hot ironman) to top up fuel and fluid levels. The advantage of competing in triathlons is that you can always urinate during the swim if you drink too much beforehand.

Think of the bike leg as a 'rolling buffet' because you really need to consume adequate fuel and fluid during this leg to set yourself up for the run. Nutrition plays such a key role in triathlons, particularly ironman events, and the bike is where you have the most opportunity to consume adequate food and fluid.

It is always a good idea to start off with a bike loaded with a full complement of drink bottles. It is easy to lose track of how much you have drunk if you are continually picking up and tossing drink bottles at aid stations. If you are drinking sports drinks and lose count of how much you have drunk, you can't be sure of your carbohydrate intake. Be sure to drink to a plan, so you know how much fluid and carbohydrate you have consumed.

Take a variety of food on the bike with you. These foods might include sports bars and gels, fruit bars, cereal bars or real food options such as Vegemite sandwiches (white bread, no marg, with crusts cut-off). It is a good idea to take a little more than you need, so you can mix things up on the day.

You may think the Vegemite sandwiches are a strange choice. However, most sports foods are low in sodium and are sweet tasting. Vegemite sandwiches are great for breaking up the monotony of sweet foods and adding additional sodium to your intake. Believe me, I have used them in ironman and have found them an excellent relief from sweet food choices. Furthermore, the sodium helps your body retain fluid, and decreases the likelihood of suffering hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels), a real danger for ironman triathletes. Many sports foods and fluids such as carbohydrate gels, sports bars and sports drinks are relatively low in sodium compared with regular food items.

Depending on the environmental conditions aim to consume 750-1000ml of fluid each hour on the bike, you may need more in hotter conditions. Don't rely solely on sports drinks as your only carbohydrate source, as you may find you drink less in cold conditions. Much to the disgust of race officials, it is a good idea to urinate while on the bike - this indicates that you are still relatively hydrated.

The run presents many more challenges than the bike in trying to match your food and fluid requirements. You need to experiment in training to see what works best for you. Most triathletes however, deal better with fluids and gels during the run leg as it is far more difficult to consume food while running. Early in the run, it is not a bad tactic to slow down during aid stations to take fluid on board. Keeping cool on the run is also a consideration, so slipping some shaved ice under your hat is a pretty good idea.

Above all, be sure to experiment with your nutrition race tactics during your longer brick training sessions. Don't expect to race well on a nutrition plan that you are not familiar with.

Q. I am competing in a 24 adventure race. What should I eat before, during and after the event?
A. Your requirements will depend on how much activity you are doing in the 24 hour period?  Are you doing the whole event or sections of it?  If you will be exercising continually for greater than 90 minutes, it may be worthwhile to carbohydrate load before the event.  See Carbohydrate Loading for further information.

During long exercise sessions, it is important to replace carbohydrate and fluid. Theoretically, you require approximately 30-60 g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise. See Carbohydrate - how much? for information on the carbohydrate content of common food and fluids. The types of foods and fluids which are most suitable depend on the intensity of exercise and your individual tolerance. If doing continuous, high intensity exercise you need options which are easily digested and absorbed. For example, sports drink, carbohydrate gels and lollies. If the exercise intensity is lower, you should be able to tolerate foods such as fruit, cereal bars, sports bars, plain sandwiches, crackers, yoghurt, nuts etc. It is useful to include a combination of sweet and savoury foods to avoid 'flavour fatigue'. Including some salty options such as Vegemite sandwiches, pretzels, crackers, potato chips etc. can also be useful, especially in very hot conditions or when fluid losses are high.

Fluid requirements vary widely among individuals. Training sessions can be used to estimate your individual fluid requirements. Work at drinking regularly (every 10-20 minutes) while exercising. Sports drinks are a good option but water, cordial and juice can also be suitable. The amount of fluid you require will depend on your individual sweat rate. Most people will need 300 - 1000 ml of fluid per hour of exercise. See Fluid - Who Needs It? for further information on fluid.

When needing to recover quickly after exercise, it is important to consume carbohydrate (0.7-1g/kg), protein, vitamins, minerals and fluid as soon as possible. In  most cases, consuming 2-3 of the following options will meet recovery requirements:

  • yoghurt
  • flavoured milk
  • sports drink
  • juice
  • sandwiches
  • fruit
  • sports drink
  • cereal bars
  • sports bars
  • soup

It may be useful to use a combination of hot, cold, sweet and savoury foods. Taste fatigue can develop if you use too many sweet foods. Changes in temperature will also affect your food and fluid preferences.

Q. My basketball games finish as late as 10 pm. I am usually too tired to cook and eat after playing. Is it a problem to miss dinner?
A. Ideally, you should try to eat something before your games. You will be able to play better and enjoy the game more if you have plenty of carbohydrate and fluid on board. Quick meal ideas include spaghetti or baked beans on toast, toasted sandwiches, grilled English muffins, and breakfast cereal. Alternatively, try cooking a little extra on other nights during the week.  Freeze meals in one-meal portions so you have a good quality meal which can be quickly reheated on basketball nights.  If this is too difficult, investigate some of the frozen meals available in the supermarket. Many of the lower fat varieties are good quality choices.  If you really can't eat before basketball, compensate by consuming a little more in the earlier part of the day - extra breakfast, lunch and snacks.

Recovery occurs more rapidly when carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals are consumed immediately after exercise. If you are training or playing again within the next 24 hours, it will be useful to have something to eat after training. A large meal is not necessary but snacks such as smoothies, sandwiches, and cereal are good quick options. If you have more than 24 hours to recover, it is not as crucial to eat after playing.

Q. My younger son often plays in basketball tournaments. What can I feed him to prevent him eating the chips, pies etc. provided at the stadium kiosk?
A. The best option is to pack a cooler with home-prepared food. Take along some sandwiches with interesting fillings, pasta salad, mini home-made pies or quiches, muffins, fruit salad, cereal bars and yoghurt. Encourage your son to consume the bulk of his food from the cooler but also let him buy a drink and some type of treat from the kiosk. If you keep your food interesting, you will probably have other team members wanting to trade their pies and chips for your own food.

Q. Apart from fluid, what should a player have at half time in a rugby match? Is a banana appropriate?
A. If you eat appropriately during the week and before the match, you should have enough fuel on board to last the entire match. If you feel your energy levels are low towards the end of a match, some carbohydrate at half time may be appropriate.  Sports drink is probably the best option as the carbohydrate is digested and absorbed quickly. Another alternative is a carbohydrate gel. A banana is OK as long as you do not experience any stomach discomfort. Bananas will take longer to to digest than sports drinks and gels.

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