There’s an old joke in triathlon that people spend hours and hours perfecting their swim, bike and run portions – but spend very little time working on speedy transitions, where they can lose all the time they just saved.  This is true.  What a smart triathlete might also consider is the importance of nutrition in the fold.  Indeed, if “transitions” is the 4th aspect of triathlon training (i.e., “swim, bike, run, transitions”), let us pose that ‘nutrition’ would be included in the list of necessary training.   If you don’t view nutrition as one of the critical aspects of your sport, this article may help clear your swim goggled view to its importance.

Kim Schwabenbauer is a professional triathlete you’ll see at the Rev3 races this season.  One thing you’ll know she’s doing right is tackling her nutrition during her events, but leading up to them too.  As a licensed dietitian she is able to practice what she preaches on a daily, consistent basis.  Through her professional research, and her own theories proven correct, she has great insight for athletes.

When asked why she is choosing to do Rev3 races this year, Kim says, “Because they just ‘get it’.  They just seem to care so much about the athletes in this sport and the importance and need to balance family, life and the finances it takes to do this sport”.

Let’s be honest, triathlon is expensive.  I think Rev3 puts tons of effort into the little details that make each athlete feel special and the races are not only affordable, but also that it’s more of a family experience due to the venues they’ve chosen. For example, my husband and I enjoyed riding the roller-coasters after Rev3 Cedar Point.  He may have liked it just as much as seeing me race!”

“Finally, Rev3 has a sense of humor and that just makes the sport more fun and interesting!!  I can sense the quirky humor in their Facebook page, the fun things they do to get the athletes pumped up and just in the way they handle their work and business.  It’s refreshing to say the least!!”

1.  What got you interested in Nutrition analysis and consultation originally?

Originally, I began in the Nutrition Program at Penn State because I thought it would fit well with my intent to attend Chiropractic College after my undergraduate degree.  However, as I started in the program, I really enjoyed my classes and I started working with Kristine Clark, PhD, RD, the Sports Nutritionist for all Penn State Teams.  I was in a special case because I was in nutrition and also an athlete, so she became my advisor.  Once I realized the importance of nutrition and how it impacts performance, I became so interested in the field that I started working with her during the summers.  The rest is history!

2.  What has been the most common “mistake” you see triathletes make with regard to their nutrition outside training?

The most common mistake I see with triathletes in regards to their nutrition is not treating it with the same priority as they do their training and racing.  This is true whether we are talking about nutrient timing, i.e. starting a workout fueled and hydrated, or using nutrition to complete their recovery after a hard training session.  Understanding how these pieces can impact heart rate, perceived exertion or energy during a workout, or glycogen storage, electrolyte replacement, or muscle repair after a workout to get athletes ready for the next day, it’s important to treat nutrition as the fourth component of training!  If athletes gave nutrition half the attention both in their training diet and to prepare and recover from workouts that they did the training itself, they would see HUGE gains and feel a lot better during the process!

 3.  There is some controversy on protein during training/racing, or not.   Where do you stand on this?

I think most of the scientific population can agree that a properly formulated carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage improves performance during exercise primarily because of two key ingredients: carbohydrate, which provides fuel for working muscles, and sodium, which helps to maintain fluid balance.

However, in addition to whole proteins, many studies have examined whether consuming specific amino acids or amino-acid mixtures improves exercise performance. These studies have generally reported no benefit, although the issue of branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplementation remains debatable.

According to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, during more prolonged forms of exercise (e.g., endurance cycling, triathlon or distance running), recent studies suggest that the oxidation of amino acids accounts for approximately 2-5% of the total energy expenditure.  There are conditions during which the energy contribution from amino acids may be higher, e.g., when initial muscle glycogen stores are low, but the maximal energy contribution from protein sources during prolonged exercise is probably less that 10%.

All in all, outside of Ironman racing, I don’t generally encourage athletes to consume protein during training and racing.  Protein definitely promotes satiety and sometimes on a longer bike ride (5+ hrs in Ironman training) a little protein (4-5 grams / 24oz bottle) can help to stave off some of the feeling of “I’m so hungry I want to eat a hamburger” and that’s important for some athletes when gels or other sports nutrition products just don’t seem to do the trick.

Once again, it’s also about what each individual person believes and their own tolerance as the intensity increase (i.e. racing) vs. training.  Additional protein (greater than 4-5 grams / hr) may go well in training, but may not in racing due to that increase in intensity.  So, that’s something to keep in mind too!

I, personally, use a blend of Infinite that does have 5 grams of protein per 24 ounces, plus an electrolyte blend made specifically for my needs for training.

4.  If an athlete wants to “clean up” their diet, what is a basic good place for them to start?

A good place to start for an athlete who wants to clean up their diet is making a pact with themselves to take 20 minutes on Sunday and think about their week.  What will it demand in terms of training, work and other commitments?  If an athlete can roughly plan for evenings where they may have some more time to make healthier meals (thaw chicken in advance, pre-cut vegetables etc.) then they will know what they will need to buy for the week for a menu and which evenings they will cook vs. possibly heat up leftovers.

A weekly menu will cut down on impulse eating out, will allow them to not let healthy ingredients like fruits or vegetables to go to waste because they weren’t used, and even will allow better lunches to be made from extra chicken made for dinner (i.e., turn it into a chicken salad for the next day).  Any time an athlete can cut down on the processed food and eating out.

A little planning up front goes a LONG way in terms of eating more cleanly and cutting down on process foods.

Finally, becoming a label reader in the grocery store is also a great step to eating more cleanly.  By cutting down on the total number of ingredients (aka if you can’t pronounce it, or it doesn’t resemble actual food and more so a chemical) then athlete can make better choices.  Better yet, trend toward whole foods, such as real fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains vs. boxed foods.

5.  Has there been anything you’ve learned about nutrition that changed the way you thought about nutrition or the way you work with your clients?

Just recently, a very interesting article came out in the New York Times that summarized some very interesting information on the impact of losing weight on our bodies.  While researchers have known for decades that the body undergoes various metabolic and hormonal changes while it’s losing weight, a physician at the University of Melbourne, Joseph Proietto, suspected that there was more to it, and he decided to take a closer look at the biological state of the body after weight loss.

His studies consisted of 50 obese men and women stuck with the extreme low-calorie diet, which consisted of special shakes called Optifast and two cups of low-starch vegetables, totaling just 500 to 550 calories a day for eight weeks.  According to the article, while these participants did lose a significant amount of weight, these men and women remained in what could be described as a biologically altered state. Their still-plump bodies were acting as if they were starving and were working overtime to regain the pounds they lost.  For example, ghrelin, often dubbed the “hunger hormone,” was about 20 percent higher than at the start of the study.  Levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses hunger and increases metabolism, also remained lower than expected.

Calories in (via food) vs. calories out (via exercise) has always been the determining factor whether someone is going to lose the weight or not.  Due to new research, what we are realizing is that although losing the weight may be possible for many people, it’s not always about someone having “poor willpower” or just “not wanting it bad enough” to keep this weight off.  It’s definitely important to understand there are many factors at work within the body and each one impacts the other.

Knowing this information may help people be more forgiving of one another and realize that the battle is not only one of mental fortitude and education, but also biological as well.  The better I understand it as a dietitian, the better I can help my clients as they make the journey to a healthier weight.

6.  Most athletes who want to lose some weight to be “lighter on the run” will go into extreme calorie deprivation.  While they can lose the weight, this can also ruin their training without the proper calories (strength) to sustain the efforts needed.   What suggestions do you have for athletes trying to get lighter?

In triathlon, losing weight, in particular reducing body fat, can mean the difference between finishing in the middle of the pack and standing on the podium. Dropping a few pounds may confer an advantage, because it increases your power-to-weight ratio, a term that describes the amount of power you’re able to generate relative to your weight.  In addition, a decrease weight can have a positive impact on your pace per mile (aka going faster on the run).

If you take the wrong approach, your performance may suffer, you may get sick more frequently, and you may not show up for your workouts hydrated, properly fueled and / or sacrifice your recovery (not to mention, how many of us get a bit disgruntled when we don’t eat regularly).

The best time to undertake a weight loss program is in the off-season or a time when an athlete’s training demands aren’t quite as high and workouts can’t be impeded by a reduced calorie level.  A realistic goal is to lose about 1 lb (0.45 kg) of body weight per week. To achieve this, you’ll need a calorie deficit or shortage of about 500–750 calories every day. If you want to drop 5 lbs (2.3 kg), plan on taking about 5 weeks to pull it off. For an 8-lb (3.6-kg) weight loss, plan on about 8 weeks.  To lose the weight you’ll need to do three things: control your calorie intake, train aerobically at a moderate intensity, and engage in a program of resistance exercise. All three are necessary to get the ball rolling.

Some tips that can help any athlete shed pounds healthfully are:

– Take Good Notes – the athletes that take the time to record what they eat always lose more than those that don’t.  It keeps you mindful of what’s going in and the timing (does it make sense to be eating at 9:30pm?).

– Don’t skip meals – Keeping blood sugar consistent is very important to not overeating later in the day (especially breakfast).  By having a good breakfast and lunch, you help control your hunger and make good decisions instead of impulse decisions.

– Don’t drink your calories – many of our added sugars and unnecessary calories come from drinks such as Carmel lattes, alcoholic beverages and iced teas etc.  Try just making this one change in the New Year to water and watch the pounds start to come off if you consume 3 or more of these types of drinks per day!

– Enhance Your Protein Intake – Protein not only helps restore muscles repair after a workout, but by adding protein to your meals and snacks, you tend to stave off hunger pains and this helps you make better decisions.  Some ideas for good snacks would be yogurt and low-fat granola, fruit and cottage cheese, whole wheat crackers and low-fat cheese or almonds.

– Add a healthy dose of color to each meal – Vegetables have ample fiber which helps people feel full and are low in energy-density (meaning calories) but high in nutrient density (meaning nutrients).  They are a great addition due to the antioxidant they provide while studies have shown it reduces the total number of calories at each meal.

To learn More About Kim, Visit:

Interview By: Carole Sharpless