Protein Supplements for Triathletes

Since its inception in 1920’s France the popularity of the triathlon (or ‘Les trois sports’ as it was first known as) has grown and grown. Its Olympic debut in the 2000 Sydney Olympics combined with the success of the Brownlee brothers during the 2012 London Olympics has only helped to fuel the sports appeal. This rise in popularity has obviously meant that the competition has also increased and with more and more people taking part in triathlons and Ironman/Ironwoman events around the world the involvement supplements in the sport has also increased.

Originating from the Greek for three (τρεῖς or treis) and for competition (ἆθλος or athlos) a triathlon is an endurance race that is split into three smaller endurance races that can be in any number off disciplines although the most popular sports are swimming, cycling, running. Competitors are not only timed for each event but also for the time it takes to transition between each event.

There is a wide range in the format of events depending on your level and this will play a part in the best supplement for you. For example if you’re entering a ‘Kids of Steel’ or ‘Ironkids’ event you’ll be competing with athletes of all ages over a relatively short distance (around 100-750m swim, 5-15km bike race and 1-5km run) so will need a protein to help increase your endurance, energy and stamina. If on the other hand your entering a ITU-Long Distance event (sometimes referred to as a triple Olympic event) you’ll not only be covering a distance of over 150km but you’ll be competing at the highest level the International Triathlon Union offer so will need a supplement that has been approved by Informed Sport, the International body tasked with testing supplements for banded substances.

What do you want from a supplement?

Now that might seem like a question with the obvious answer of ‘to win’ but in order to find the right supplement for you it helps to break the answer as much as possible. For example, of course you want to win but what do you feel is holding you back from doing so? Is it your strength, your stamina or your ability to recover quickly? Each protein supplement works in a different way so being honest about this question is a big step in the right direction.

Proteins for stamina/endurance

When it comes to increasing your stamina and endurance it’s best to go for a slow release protein rather than a fast acting one. A fast acting protein will give your muscles all of the protein they need but in one go. A slow release protein on the other hand will be fed to your muscles over time so you’ll have a ready supply of energy. One of the best and most popular slow release proteins is casein and in particular micellar casein. A derivative of the cheese making process, casein is made from the curd that rises to the top of the liquid. 

As well as proteins the ideal supplement would also contain some of the ingredients considered key in increasing both your stamina and your endurance.

  • Creatine – Creatine helps to produce the phosphocreatine that provides energy to your muscle cells.
  • Quercetin – Sometimes referred to the ’super’ in superfoods, Quercetin is an antioxidant that is noted for protecting cells against damage and is used in supplements for stamina and endurance because of its ability to improve both.
  • Ginseng – The Asian or Chinese ginseng, often called Panax ginseng has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years. It’s extremely popular with long distance runners and is known to increase stamina and endurance as well as delaying fatigue by helping the muscles to use energy more efficiently.
  • Guarana – A Brazilian herb guarana has been used by Amazonian tribes to boost energy, speed and reduce fatigue. Used a lot to reduce weight in recent years its become increasing popular energy supplements.
  • Caffeine – Known as a stimulant, caffeine is widely used in supplements for stamina and endurance for this reason. It actively blocks adenosine which helps increase alertness and energy whilst also slowing down the onset of tiredness. It is sometimes found is supplements designed to improve strength but the jury is still out on whether it really has an effect on strength.

Protein wise the key amino acids to look out for are:

  • L-Carnitine – Is widely found in protein supplements designed to enhance your stamina and endurance because of its ability to boost your athletic performance and well as helping your body to resist fatigue.
  • L-Arginine – Popular for its ‘healing’ properties L-Arginine plays a vital in the production of nitric oxide which increases your blood flow and in turn has a positive effect on your performance.

Proteins for strength

When you’re looking for a protein supplement to help improve your strength the protein source isn’t as important as it is for endurance. That said most protein shakes or supplements for strength are taken post-workout (or post-race) and whey protein is the most popular for this. Reason being is that it’s a fast digesting protein and can get to work on repairing your muscles and increasing strength straightaway. Whey is available in four types:

  • Concentrates – Containing lactose, concentrates have been 30% and 89% protein.
  • Isolates – With at least 90% protein isolates don’t contain any lactose so are idea for people with an intolerance.
  • Hydrolysates – Less allergenic than other forms of whey its been through a process known as hydrolysation where different molecules are extracted.
  • Native Whey – Being extracted from skimmed milk rather than as a byproduct of the cheese making process native whey is the least processed form of whey.

More important than the source of protein there are a few other ingredients that you need to look out for. Some, like creatine, have multiple purposes and are used to incense stamina and endurance as well as improve strength and aid recovery. Other ingredients to look out for are:

  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (or BCAAs) – An amino acid with a carbon atom bound to three or more carbon atoms referred to as a ‘branch’. There are three BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAA’s are quite possibly the most important ingredient when looking to build and increase strength. Leucine in particular suppresses protein degradation which improves the recovery of muscles damaged during resistance training.
  • Citrulline Malate – Originally prescribed post-surgery to combat fatigue these days its immensely popular for its ability to boost sporting performance. Recent studies carried out by the Mississippi State University have shown that just one dose (around 8 grams) is enough to increase sporting performance as well as reducing muscle soreness for up to 48 hours after exercise.
  • Nitric Oxide rich foods – Foods such as dark chocolate, walnuts, pomegranates and citrus fruits are all high in nitric oxide which helps to increase your blood flow and thus reducing soreness and enhanced strength and performance.
  • Fish Oils – High in omega-3 fatty acids these are often used by strength athletes due to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. When combined with BCAAs and carbs they help to increase the rate at which protein is synthesised which is key to muscle strength.

Proteins for recovery

Often over looked is the recovery process, after a workout or race we tend to think we’re done and can just just relax. Although there is some truth in being able to relax if you take the right supplements then you’ll not only recover quicker but will also be less likely to suffer muscle soreness and recover your energy much quicker. So with this in mind what do I need to look out for in a supplement?

  • Glutamine – This is excellent in the recovery process because it removes the ammonia which has built up in your body during periods of intensive exercise.
  • Vitamin C – More commonly known as a supplement to help fight of colds vitamin C is actually extremely good good as an aid to recovery. Not only does it produce collagen which helps to repair tissue and tendons it also helps to flush lactic aid out of the muscles and thus preventing muscle soreness and aiding a quicker recovery.
  • B Vitamins – A group of eight vitamins they help with the development of cells as well as repairing muscles. Lack of B vitamins can often results in muscle cramps.
  • Magnesium – Magnesium helps to improve your muscle function by maintaining your electrolyte balance and reducing tiredness. It’s sometimes used with zinc to help boost your immune system.
  • Carbohydrates – Often over looked, carbs are important in the recovery process because they help to increase your plasma glucose and insulin levels which make it easier for your body to resynthesises glycogen quicker. And in turn restoring your energy levels. 

What about during a race?

Okay so we now know what too look out for when it comes to supplements for stamina and endurance, strength and even recovery but what about during a triathlon? Most triathlon events will provide you with some sort of nutrition or refreshment at various points (called aid stations) along the bike and run sections. Often handing our water and energy drinks to competitors, on longer events they also hand out energy bars and gels as well as fruit.

Water is a great way of helping the body recover from so many things but what about energy drinks, bars and gels do that actually work?

  • Drinks – Generally high in sugar and caffeine proper energy drinks (rather than the ‘trendy’ energy drinks that are supposed to help you fly – you know the ones we mean) will also contain an number of amino acids designed to get the energy to the muscles that need them the most as quickly as possible.
  • Bars – Energy bars often contain cereals (such as oats and granola), fruits (blueberries and goji berries being the most popular) and seeds and nuts (like chia, pistachio and cacao nibs). Being high in carbohydrates they’re easy to digest and are great for giving you an energy boost on the go. 
  • Gels – With around 25g-30g of carbohydrates and 20mg-50mg of caffeine energy gels give you the carbs you need to top your energy levels back up mid race. Often said to be a mix between energy bars and drinks their gel form makes them every easy to consume while running or cycling.

Conclusion

When it comes to supplements for triathletes although there are a number of all in one supplements out there you’ll get far better results with more specific supplements. That way you know you’re getting the right nutrients for that moment. If you’re interested in reading more why not check out our article on the importance of supplements in a professional sporting environment.