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Nutrition and the travelling triathlete!
Posted by: John Levison
Posted on: Thursday 29th May 2008


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With several hundred GB age groupers preparing to jet off to Vancouver next week for the 2008 World Championships, Sports Dietician Melissa Arkinstall has some timely nutrition tips to help you arrive in top condition.


For many athletes, competing overseas is an exciting challenge. A race abroad could be a major focus of the season that has involved months of preparation, such as an age group championship, a half or full ironman or a “dream destination” event. However, long periods of travelling and staying in an unfamiliar environment can present challenges for the athlete who wants to arrive in the best possible shape to compete. Different time zones, meal times, unfamiliar foods, language barriers, restricted or unrestricted access to food, digestive problems and change of climate are just a few examples.

Fortunately, with a little forward planning, there are practical solutions to help deal with all of these problems...

Before you leave

Do a little research! Either use the internet (web sites or forums), or speak to people who have been to your destination. See if you can find out some basic information such as:

  • Where the local supermarket is.
  • What are the opening hours?
  • Are there any recommended local cafes or restaurants with athlete-friendly meal choices and fast service (or ones to avoid!!).
  • Can you buy your favourite basic foods there?

It’s best to pack a few lightweight “essentials” in your luggage; eg tried and tested pre-race meal foods, breakfast cereal, cereal / fruit bars, sports drink powder, dried skimmed milk, trail mix. If you have any special dietary needs, be prepared; eg take some gluten-free bread and muesli if you have coeliac disease. Find out if you can buy your favourite sports drinks / gels / bars abroad (see if there is a supplier in your destination country), or if you need to take your own. If taking sports drink powders, ensure that you carry an unopened pack as you may not be allowed to transport suspicious packages of white powder, strawberry flavour or not!

Learn a little lingo! You don’t have to become fluent in the native mother tongue, but a few key words and phrases can be really handy for reading menus and food labels. For example “without, fat, sugar, oil, fried, grilled, boiled, spicy, well done, raw, plain”and names of basic foods. Grab a phrase book for emergencies!

On the plane, train or in the automobile!

In-flight meals and train buffet cars are not too concerned about catering for athletes and food choices are often too high in fat and too low in carbohydrate for a triathlete. On a flight, if you can pre-book your meal, ask for a vegetarian, vegan or low fat meal (usually higher in carbohydrate and lower fat). Or take your own supplies from home or bought at the airport. Check the regulations regarding what you can take on a plane; eg liquids up to 100ml only. Ideas for DIY snacks include sandwiches, whole-grain crackers, fruit bread, bagels, dried fruit, muesli bars, rice crackers.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

The dry air on a plane can significantly increase the chance of dehydration on long flights, this can mean that you arrive feeling tired and groggy. If you have then just landed in a warm climate, this can be exacerbated leading to headaches fatigue and mild constipation. To guard against this, make sure that you buy a large bottle of water at the airport once you have been through security (it IS worth carrying it as many in-flight drinks are only 125-150ml in volume!!). Avoid alcohol and too much tea, coffee and undiluted juices as these are not the best drinks for optimising hydration!

When you arrive...

Continue to look after your hydration needs. If you have travelled to a warmer climate than at home, for the first few days you may notice that your sweat seems to leave a lot of salt on your skin. Replace this by using a sports drink containing electrolytes or add a little salt to your food. After seven to ten days, your body will have adjusted your sweat concentration to conserve more sodium and you should find it easier to stay well hydrated.

If you have travelled across several time zones, set your watch to local time as soon as you are on the plane and eat, drink and sleep at local meal times as soon as you arrive. If practical and if you have little time before competing on arrival, you could try adjusting your meal / sleep patterns in the two to three days before you leave. Eat a meal containing carbohydrates before bed to raise sleep-inducing serotonin levels and in the morning, include protein at breakfast to help you feel more alert.

Remember food safety! Find out if bottled water is recommended for drinking, cleaning teeth etc or if tap water is safe. Avoid high-risk foods such as raw or undercooked  meat / fish, shellfish, food from street vendors and unwashed fruit and vegetables (if tap water is unsafe it may be advisable to peel fruit and vegetables if eaten raw, boiled vegetables should be fine).

Finally, remember to try and keep your eating habits as similar as possible to at home, don’t overeat just because food is there (eg hotel buffets, snacks handed out on planes) and don’t allow yourself to get too hungry by being unprepared. Take a little time to plan and you can relax and enjoy the trip knowing that you are fuelled to fly!


Melissa has ten years experience as a State Registered Dietitian and qualified as a Sports Dietitian in 2002. She can be contacted for nutrition and diet consultancy by email, and will also be taking her own advice as a member of the GB age group team flying to Vancouver and Rimini this year.


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