By Ian McMahan
We all wore those fashion choices that seemed good at the time — hello velour tracksuits and acid wash jeans — but subsequently lamented when we looked back at old photos. Similar to regretful choices in fashion, nutrition has had its share of fads.
In fact, popular nutrition, not just that of endurance sport, is virtually defined by the waxing and waning of nutritional trends — high carb, no-carb, Pritikin, Banting and Paleo, to name a few. Like any individual looking for benefit though, triathletes are drawn to the newest fad in hopes it will provide a quick boost in performance. However, many have been tried, but fewer are true.

Let’s take a look at some of the nutritional fads that have come and gone (or stuck around) in the sport of triathlon.


Fad: Ketogenic Diet
Mark Allen (six-time IRONMAN World Championship winner): “The biggest fad I am seeing now is people completely starving themselves of carbohydrates to reach a state of ketosis. It’s the complete opposite extreme of when I started in the sport in the 1980s when athletes were trying to follow the Pritikin diet of high carb/low fat. From what I can gather, there seems to be mounting evidence that when someone is in ketosis, their training quality drops as well as getting changes in blood chemistry and lipid profiles that are not healthy. On top of that, my guess is that over time a ketosis diet will not be something that people can sustain.”

What the science says: Because a high fat/low carb diet might enable the body to better use fat as fuel, some have attempted to use supplements to mimic that effect. Early reports suggested that ketones (or a state of ketosis), substances produced by the liver that the muscles and brain can use as fuel, could be used to improve performance. A 2016 study, performed by researchers at Oxford University, found that cycling time-trial performance was significantly improved when ketones were added to a carbohydrate drink.

However, more recent research on ketones, including a study by a group of researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport, determined that ketones impaired time trial cycling performance in elite cyclists. The conclusion, and note of caution, stated, “This outcome appears to be linked to the general observation of gut discomfort and intolerance among the study participants, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe.”


Fad: Mustard Packets
Meredith Kessler (10-time IRONMAN and 20-time half-IRONMAN champion): “When you feel like you are on the brink of cramping, put some mustard on your tongue and it’s supposed to send a neurological message to the brain to stop cramping. This all could be a misnomer yet it works for me!”

What the science says: This practice might have reached peak popularity when football players began using pickle juice and mustard to prevent cramps.

Though research has determined that high sodium mustard and pickle juice don’t adequately replenish electrolytes, they can be effective in reducing exercise-induced muscle cramping, the bane of many a long-distance triathlete. The researchers concluded, “This effect could not be explained by rapid restoration of body fluids or electrolytes. We suspect that the rapid inhibition of the electrically induced cramps reflects a reflex that originates in the (mouth) region and acts to inhibit the cramping muscle.”


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