How Meal Planning Can Help You Be a Better Triathlete

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What’s for dinner???

If that question makes you feel stressed or frustrated, you need help with meal planning.

Meal planning is probably one of the most important things you can do to get ready for your big A race. This is especially true if you are training for a half or full Ironman because your free time becomes almost negligible the closer you get to the big day.

Obviously, if you don’t cook for yourself, you probably don’t need to worry about meal planning. But even if your spouse does most of the cooking, meal planning will save them huge amounts of frustration and you don’t want your #1 supporter any more frustrated with your training than they need to be, right?

So, why is meal planning so important? Because people tend to eat poorly when eating on the fly. They tend to grab whatever is available instead of fixing a nutritious meal. They eat fast food and/or “junk food” or they don’t eat at all. Sound familiar?

I have some clients who eat very nutritious foods on a daily basis, such as kale, salmon, and sweet potatoes, but they don’t eat enough of these foods, because they don’t know what their nutritional needs are for training.

This might be ok for a couch potato but you have nutritional needs that will enhance your training and if you don’t meet them, your performance will suffer.

Take my client Kathy, for instance. She was training for an Ironman and before working with me, was not meal planning at all. She was eating whatever was around her, which usually included a fair amount of snack food. Breakfast was toast and coffee, lunch was out with co-workers or a Cliff Bar at her desk, and dinner was take-out or occasionally a decent meal at home. She snacked all evening long (another story), mostly on chips, pop corn, bars, and cookies.

Kathy’s nutritional analysis showed excess calories from fat (not the good kind) and processed carbs. Protein intake was well below her estimated needs, which makes it difficult to build and maintain lean body mass. She missed at least one workout each week because of being tired and hungry and couldn’t finish other workouts for the same reason.

We planned out a week’s worth of meals and snacks, built around her work and training schedule, and each week she prepped as much of the meals as she could on Sunday nights. Her stress level went down because she didn’t have to worry about what to eat and she was able to complete all of her workouts.

So, how do you meal plan?

Start by compiling a list of recipes or meals that you like and designating which day you want those meals. Make a grocery list from the recipes and go to the store once a week (or order online, if you can).

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Keep a meal calendar that lists what you are going to have each day. Prepare as much of the recipe ahead of time as possible. I usually designate one evening each week where I chop vegetables, boil eggs and edamame for salads, make a batch of quinoa (or other whole grains), make my favorite salad dressing, make energy balls, and anything else that can be made ahead of time.

What’s helpful is to know what your calorie and macronutrient needs are for training so that you can plan the meals to meet those targets. How do you do that? Hire a dietitian, of course! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

There are wonderful meal-planning programs out there that typically charge a monthly fee. I use EatLove for most of my clients and they seem to like it a lot. EatLove has over 4000 dietitian-curated recipes that you can choose from and each meal plan comes with a printable grocery list and meal prep guide.

Here is an example of a meal plan from EatLove (below). Each meal comes with a recipe and grocery list. You can swap out any meal for another that you like better that is matched for calorie and macro levels.

Example of EatLove meal plans

Example of EatLove meal plans

Anyone can subscribe to EatLove and get weekly meal plans but the meals won’t be created to meet your specific nutritional needs. The advantage of having a dietitian do it for you (aside from the fact that you don’t have to do anything) is that dietitians have access to the “pro version” so we can generate meal plans based your specific nutritional needs and food likes/dislikes. The meal plans I create for my clients are customized to meet their specific calorie and macronutrient needs, food preferences, and cooking skills.

For those of you training for a half or full Ironman, your time will become increasingly limited and your energy level between training bouts will likely decrease. The last thing you will want to do at 4:00 pm on any given day is plan out a healthy dinner, go to the store to get all the ingredients, and then cook the meal. By having a weekly meal plan and prep schedule, you can have a healthy meal on the table in no time.

However you go about it, meal planning will help you eat better and enjoy what you are eating. Don’t let all that time and energy you’re putting into training go down the drain on race day by eating poorly now. Invest in meal planning and it will pay off at the finish line!

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