Health, Nutrition, Podcast

Performance nutrition for triathletes with Steph Saullo | EP#22

 May 13, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Performance nutrition for triathletes with Steph Saullo | EP#22

When it comes to nutrition, there are some overarching principles that are true for almost everybody, but there's no one-size-fits-all approach to optimizing performance through nutrition.

Steph Saullo (MS, RD, LDN), registered dietitian at Ritter Sports Performance and host of the Performance Nutrition Summit empowers people to learn how to make the best nutrition-based choices for themselves and their goals.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Performance nutrition for triathletes - how to set up a healthy eating foundation in your day to day life.
  • Once you have a healthy eating foundation in place, how can you optimize your nutrition and take it to the next level?
  • How should you fuel before, during, and after workouts?
  • What supplements might be a good idea to take, and which supplements should you avoid?
  • Nutrition myths and fads - what's working and what's just marketing hype and misconceptions?



07:18 -​

What is your take on macronutrients? Are there any "optimal ratios" for endurance athletes?

08:26 -

  • You don’t need to get caught up in the numbers. Yes, we do talk about ratios. We do have some science to support some ratios but it is not really that important to get really hung up on the ratios, especially if you are not competing at an elite level. If you are competing for fun, if you are an age grouper, it is not life for death.
  • It is really about setting a foundation, and I know this sounds so silly, but I go back to this all the time, it is setting a foundation of fruits and vegetables and lean protein and whole grains and good fats and getting in adequate fluid.
  • Getting hung up on the numbers is not necessary at all, really. I like to tell people, each meal, a servable plate. I know that we eat on plates but we don’t really eat in compartments. We eat in mixed dishes, if you think of spaghetti and meatballs, that is sort of all on the plate together but if you were to picture your plate divided up, you would want most of it to be fruits and vegetables. You would want 25-ish percent of it to be protein and then you would want some of it to be carbohydrates.
  • Now, if there are really high intensity days, you are working on a really high intensity, maybe for a longer duration on a high volume, then you want to shift what your plate looks like a little bit. Maybe you are taking in a little of less of fruits and vegetables and more of those whole grains, more of those carbohydrate rich foods.
  • Fruits and vegetables fall into the carbohydrate category but we usually separate them out when we talk about the “performance plate” like what is the ideal performance plate. That is depending on whether it is a high intensity day or a low intensity day but most of the time it is a solid foundation of fruits and vegetables and whole grains and lean protein and good fat and adequate fluid. Getting hung up on the numbers is not needed.​

Key takeaways

  • The foundation of your nutrition should consist of fruits and vegetables and lean protein and whole grains and good fats and getting in adequate fluid.
  • On high intensity or big volume days you want to get in more carbohydrates than normal.

Let us say that we are somebody who has been struggling with getting that foundation in place, what are some tips that you can give for really good healthy eating?

12:01 -

  • The first thing I would recommend is try to get in some fruits and vegetables every single meal. I say every single meal because most of the time we end up at the end of the day and we say, “Oh crap, I forgot to eat some vegetables today, I have only eaten XYZ and none of them were vegetables”. Fruits are usually easier to get in than vegetables, most people lack on vegetables but if you try to incorporate some fruits and vegetables every single meal that is a good step.
  • It does not have to be a lot, we are not talking about a whole plate full of vegetables. We are saying it is a side of broccoli here, incorporate some spinach into your omelette or add a banana to your breakfast or throw in a sliced apple or grab a can of mandarin oranges. It does not have to be complicated.
  • You have to try to focus on it for a little while and then after a while it becomes a habit and then you don’t even have to think about it. It takes time to develop a habit, you are not going to do this overnight and go,”oh boom, I am healthy now. I started incorporating fruits and vegetables into my diet because I did it for one day”.
  • It is going to take some thought especially if you are not used to doing it and you have to remind yourself to do it every single day, every single meal. Something is better than nothing and that is a step in the right direction. Once you get there, like I said, it becomes more of a habit and you don’t even think about it.​

Do you have any specific hacks or trick or systems in place that you tell people you work with for how to adopt those habits?

13:43 -

  • Sometimes I tell people to set reminders on their phone just because they always have their phone, and I know it sounds silly but setting a simple reminder to remind me every day at 8am to eat a piece of fruit with my breakfast or whatever time it is you eat your breakfast or lunch, so that you can remind yourself if you pack your lunch the night before, before you go to work.
  • Set yourself a reminder so you can do that. If you really have trouble remembering, a simple reminder on your phone is probably the easiest solution especially if you are not good at writing things down or putting post-it notes on the refrigerator or whatever else you could do.​

If you want to get to the next level and get those final percentage points out of your nutrition and really optimize it for performance, what are the main things that you would tell an endurance athlete to do?

15:00 -

  • First, I would say we will set the foundation and develop a healthy diet.
  • Second, you want to ensure that you are getting in adequate energy, especially triathletes. Many times they compete at a different weight than they train at, working up to maybe cut a little bit of weight before you actually go into a competition. Sometimes this hurts you. Making sure that you get adequate energy so that you can perform at your best is really important.
  • The other thing that can optimize your performance is to incorporate some training with lower carbohydrate. When I say that I mean take a few days that are lower intensity or shorter duration sessions that you are working on and work on eating lower carbohydrate that day so that your body gets used to lower carbohydrate availability and you would be able to not have to refuel as often and be able to work off your fat stores for longer.​
  • Science is slow sometimes and sometimes we are just little guinea pigs working on ourselves. Just because we have science that says one thing does not mean that is the best approach for you. If you try something and it does not work, then that means you might have to try something else. If your friend or team mates are doing something and it works for them, it may not work for you.
  • Allowing adequate time to prepare yourself and to try things to make sure that that is ideal for you and you are actually getting some benefit out of it is really important because you could read research all day but it may not be applicable to you. Research is sometimes based on a very small sample of people and sometimes it is not the exact population that you are, so you might not fit in into that category. It is really about being pragmatic and practical and not being hung up on what the science says but being practical in your everyday life.
"It is really about being pragmatic and practical and not being hung up on what the science says but being practical in your everyday life."
  • Allowing adequate time to prepare yourself and to try things to make sure that that is ideal for you and you are actually getting some benefit out of it is really important because you could read research all day but it may not be applicable to you. Research is sometimes based on a very small sample of people and sometimes it is not the exact population that you are, so you might not fit in into that category. It is really about being pragmatic and practical and not being hung up on what the science says but being practical in your everyday life.

Key takeaways

  • Set the foundation and develop a healthy diet.
  • Get in adequate energy.
  • Incorporate some training with lower carbohydrate on easier training days.
  • Experiment with your nutrition and learn what works best for you.

What about nutrient timing?

18:33 -

  • ​There are various approaches to nutrient timing but in general you want to think about when are you exercising, training, and competing and then working back from there.
  • You want to have some sort of meal let us say 4 hours before, or if it is early in the morning then that meal is the night before.
  • Then allowing adequate time in the morning to eat something whether that is a small breakfast depending on how your body reacts. Your nutrition training is just important as your physical training.
"Your nutrition training is just important as your physical training."
  • If you don’t practice your nutrition, you are going to be at a loss. Knowing what works and does not work for you is super important. Incorporating that into your training plans, weeks, months, beforehand is where you need to be.
  • Farther out from the workouts, even that night before, that is more of a complete meal. You got whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and good fat, lots of food groups.
  • As you approach exercise, the meals get smaller, usually depending on how much you can handle, and they become more focused on carbohydrates by themselves.
  • If you were to consume something two hours before, maybe you can handle some protein. An hour before, maybe you can handle a little bit of protein but that carbohydrate is the most important piece. Then, 15 minutes before, you want just carbohydrate.
  • During activity, it is going to be dependent upon how long you are going to be exercising for, doing that activity for. If it is something less than an hour, most of the time you don’t need anything besides water. If it is beyond an hour, then you need to think about how long you are going for.
  • We are talking about really long events versus really short events. If you have an event that is three hours or less, then usually you are getting by with carbohydrates, electrolytes and water. Anything beyond that, then maybe you are also incorporating some protein just because you are also hungry.
  • It is always important after to refuel. The important thing is that you actually eat something because maybe you are not hungry but you want to start that rebuilding and repairing process and also putting back that glycogen that you lost and used.

Are there any supplements that triathletes should consider taking or they should avoid?


  • There are quite a few supplements that I think is quite beneficial especially in the endurance capacity.
  • One of them is caffeine, it can help improve mental alertness and help improve prolonged exercise. You want to take caffeine 60 minutes before your activity begins and then the effects are going to last for 3 to 4 hours. If you are engaging in an event that lasts for longer than 3 or 4 hours, then maybe you are taking in more caffeine during the event to sort of boost it up.
  • Another supplement that I think is not utilized enough in endurance sports but is becoming more popular is creatine. Creatine not only helps you to enhance your strength which I think it is more commonly known for, but also to help boost your some of your power. Getting that creatine store up there is important. You are not starting to take creatine a week before your event, you are working creatine into your exercise and training plan earlier on.
  • Another one would be beta-alanine and I think this is one that is a little bit newer on the horizon. We have been studying it for a little while but I think not a lot of people have been talking about it. Beta-alanine helps you to feel like you can go a little bit longer, you don’t feel as if you have exerted yourself as much as you have. It helps take out a piece of that perceived exertion. You need to load it so you have to focus on taking that before you get to that event time. You don’t take it a day before or even a week before. You need some time, at least four weeks to load that into your plan.
  • A couple of other ones that may be beneficial on the endurance athletes side are tart cherry juice which can help with muscle recovery and soreness. Then, beetroot which is pretty common in the endurance area. Although I think that a lot of the beetroot research is focused more on the shorter duration events but again, this goes back to practicality. If you tried it and it works for you, then by all means you feel comfortable taking it, you are not taking too much and you are getting that supplement from a reputable source then by all means you should take it.
  • Another one is a multivitamin. It is not something that everybody needs, you have to look at your diet overall, but some people don’t get in enough nutrients so I like to look at multivitamins as some sort of insurance plan. It is not a substitute for fruits and vegetables or a healthy diet.
  • Then there is Omega-3 in the case where you don’t eat a lot of fatty fish. We know that there is a lot of health benefits to having Omega 3 in your diet, so just having those around is important. If you are eating enough fatty fish, then you don’t need to take a supplement.​
  • The ones that are not so useful, there are a lot of them, I would say anything that claims to do miracles is one you should stay away from. There are a lot of them out there and we can’t even keep up with some of the supplements that are coming out every day. It is unfortunate that there is an irresponsible industry out there but there is also a responsible industry. You just really have to be careful. Some of these might be pre-workout supplements and fat burners that you should really just stay away from.
  • For any supplements you take, look for third-party verified supplements. It does not necessarily mean that you won’t test positive for a banned substance in a drug test if you do have to have one but it can give you a better assurance that you won’t test positive. Most of those companies that are using third party verification systems are less likely to have banned substances in those products.

Key takeaways

  • Performance-boosting supplements include caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, and maybe beetroot.
  • Tart cherry juice is a good supplement for recovery.
  • For general health, multi-vitamins and omega-3 supplements can be useful.
  • Stay away from pre-workout supplements and fat burners.

In a broader sense, are there any nutritional myths or fads that athletes should stay away from?

28:47 -

  • There are a lot of them out there. Any diet is going to give you some sort of result if you follow it to a T for a long period of time. You have to come back to whether it is sustainable.
  • It changes year to year but this year and the past couple of years, there has been a lot of paleo and clean eating followers (I don’t really know what that term means...), but you should be wary of claims in general.
  • Diets that claim to do things fast is probably not a sustainable approach. They may work on the short term but probably not for the long term. There is no pill, potion or magic solution. Some people come to me and think that I have a magic wand but I don’t.​

Rapid fire segment

31:10 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to nutrition?​’s “We Do Science” podcast
  • What is your favorite snack? A good chocolate chip cookie
  • What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment related to nutrition? My very cool light on my bike.
  • What did your daily meal plan look like yesterday? For breakfast, some coffee, yoghurt with sliced almonds, shredded coconut. For lunch, a quasedilla-ish type wrap with turkey, cheese and left over Brussel sprouts, and leftover chocolate cake. For dinner, eggs, vegetables and chocolate yoghurt.
  • Do you have a productivity hacks that helps you fit everything into your life? My productivity hack would be putting everything on my calendar.

Listener question: ​I have gotten into the habit of binge eating at night. It happens around once or twice per week and usually when I am pretty tired whether it be from hard training or lack of sleep, what can I do to break this habit?

35:34 -

  • This is a very common habit. The good thing is that you recognize that this is happening and how often this is happening which is usually the hardest part.
  • To help combat this, you might want to take a look at what you are eating during the day. Most people binge eat at night because they don’t eat enough during the day.
  • I don’t know what kind of activity is going on if you are training pretty hard or trying to lose weight or gain weight, whatever it may be, just take a sit back and pinpoint if you are feeling hungry during the day that you are not paying attention to and it therefore causes you to over eat at night, which is usually the case.
  • In many cases, you binge eat because you are bored and you've got nothing else to do.
  • I encourage you to be very self-aware during the day. Every time before you eat, you should assess how hungry you really are. Then halfway through your meal, assess if you are still hungry or sickly full. Taking a moment to just eat in the present and assessing your hunger is a really helpful tool to really understand what your body is really trying to tell you.​

Listener question: I have been raised on fast food and snacks my entire life. Now, as a 45 year old, I am getting into triathlon and doing sports for the first time in my life. I want to get into healthy eating but there is so much information out there that I feel overwhelmed about where to start. What are your top 2 or 3 tips on how to change my diet?

37:56 -

  • Don’t try to tackle all at once. Don’t go cold-turkey and be like I'm not eating fast food ever again because you are going to fail and going to feel bad about it.
  • Take it one step at a time, one meal at a time perhaps. Maybe you start with breakfast, incorporate a fruit or a vegetable with breakfast. That is one step in a healthier direction. Then the next week, if you were able to do it for a whole week of incorporating a fruit or a vegetable at breakfast, then you go for lunch or maybe start doing it at snacks.
  • Know that you can eat fast food or eat out and make healthful choices. You don’t have to be slaving over a hot stove every single night making dinner to be healthy, you just need to know what choices you have and there are plenty of options out there especially today. There are way more options now than ever have been before. Knowing what choices you will make will put you in a better place than you were before.​

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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