Fiona O'Donnell on Nutrition

'Beyond the Finish Line' Advocate and Nutritionist Fiona O'Donnell has the following advice on nutrition now that we are all moving a little less than we usually would...

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March has possibly been one of the strangest months we have all seen in our lives. We could look at the obvious illness and the loss that some people are suffering but I think that social media and every news outlet is covering the topic in spades. As triathletes, I think we all have more of a “What CAN we do” attitude to the situation. Now that we are limited to exercise within a 2km radius of our homes, it's time to think about the areas that we have the opportunity to attend to now that we have some extra time (if you do have the extra time!!!). 

There are 2 areas that we can have an effect on today - Nutrition and Physical Function 

When it comes to eating for health, the top area for focus right now is supporting immune function. 

Nutrition for Immune Support 

Supporting gut health is an essential element of sustaining good immune function.

Our immune function depends on adequate energy intake in order to sustain health. This means leaving the crash diet behind and eating to nourish your body instead. With current restrictions in place, we are moving less than usual and as such, we could probably do with eating a little less too. Rather than cutting back too harshly, it is a great idea to put your best efforts into keeping your protein intake up to support retention of muscle mass and immune function. Whether you eat little and often or you have 3 large meals a day doesn’t matter - what does matter is that you have enough food.

Getting the balance right isn’t always easy but it is simple - too little food and your weight will drop - this puts your immune system under unnecessary pressure, so make sure to fill up on a healthy selection of nutritious grains and pulses to ensure energy balance is maintained. 

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Supporting gut health and function is also important. Eating a wide variety of fibrous fruit and vegetables will provide a great environment for your microbiome to flourish and support your health. These options are also lower calorie than many processed snacks and can be a great option when you are trying to avoid weight gain. 

Funnily enough, the nutritional advice I would give supporting your immune system is very similar to the advice I would give for optimising performance. After strenuous training, your immune system can become depressed. A balanced diet with a wide range of vitamins and minerals will support your health. 

So when it comes to performing your best as a triathlete AND supporting your immune function, the following list is a great start that you can make today; 

  • Ensure you are in energy balance - You have to fuel well for the body to run well
  • Increase the amount of vegetables and fruit you eat - plant phenols and flavonoids are known to reduce inflammatory and oxidative stress in endurance athletes. This can aid recovery and help to mitigate soreness.
  • Optimise protein intake. As endurance athletes, approximately 1.8g per kg of bodyweight is the optimal dose of protein daily.
  • Supplement with vitamin D and probiotics. Both will support immune function.
  • Ensure that fats make up approximately 25-30% of your dietary intake (no less than 20%) to support hormone function. 

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Optimising physical performance

There are a number of ways we can optimise performance as triathletes. We can swim, bike and run. We can strength train and stretch and we can do prehabilitation exercises that will help to balance out over use of the muscle groups that we use predominantly as triathletes. 

To give you an example, I am ‘trap dominant’. This means that the muscles on either side of my neck work more than they need to. Swimming and long bike rides contribute to this. I have recorded a short series of exercises that I do in my living room that help to prevent this and you can see them here.

Now is the perfect time to revisit any exercises that your physiotherapist has given you for previous niggles. We can all benefit from setting ourselves some small mobility goals.

This month, I am spending 30 days doing a downward dog and hamstring stretching so that when I am ready to get back out on the road, my back and legs will be stretched and strong. 

Can you think of any niggles you could address now while you are at home? Give your physio a call and ask for a zoom session to address any of those niggles before they turn into something more. 

Finally, its always a great idea to schedule all these wonderful plans. Maybe you will do a hamstring stretch immediately once you are out of the shower every morning.

Perhaps you will decide to plan your protein intake for the day while you are drinking your first coffee of the morning. However you decide to put your plan together, there has never been a better time than now to execute it. 

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Exercise-induced Immunodepression in Endurance Athletes and Nutritional Intervention with Carbohydrate, Protein and Fat - What is Possible, What is Not? Gunzer et al, 2012. Nutrition.  

Upper respiratory tract infection in athletes: Influence of lifestyle, type of sport, training effort and immunostimulant intake. König et al, 2000. Exercise Immunology Review. 

Tart Cherry Juice in Athletes: A Literature Review and Commentary. Vitale et al, 2017. Current Sports Medicine Reports.