When you think of an athlete what‘s the first image that comes into your head? Do you see the stereotype, someone strong, lean, and toned; someone envied by all, who seems to control their weight and manages to abide by strict dietary rules with relative ease?  If this is what you see, you’re not alone. The truth, however, is that, mere mortals and athletic gods alike; it takes effort and consistency to achieve a desired body weight. 

I’m often asked about the secrets to weight loss and women in triathlon often ask ‘how do you fuel performance and lose weight? The two seem to be mutually exclusive’.  Among athletes weight is often a hot topic. Many athletes strive for the ideal; to reach that perfect weight, whether it’s purely for aesthetics (yes, race suits can be unforgiving at times) or whether it’s to improve performance.  In sport, particularly in endurance sport like triathlon, carrying extra weight is like carrying dead weight – it will ultimately slow you down. There is no doubting the fact that in endurance sport, being lean is important.

The first step to finally achieving long terms success in the battle of the bulge is to ditch the diet!

Many people, in a desperate bid to lose weight, begin to ‘diet’ – fed up with their apparent inability to shift the unwanted kilos, they decide to try the latest fad wanting to see almost instant results. In the process they start to cut out key food groups and macronutrients (most likely to be carbohydrates). Sure, in the short term, weight loss is achieved – success, right? Wrong. This short-term weight loss is often fluid loss, rather than a reduction in fat mass.  Continuing on a diet that cuts out key food groups often results in the breakdown of muscle mass in the long term. This leads to a reduction in basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy your body burns at rest) and a reduced metabolism. This then leads to inevitable weight gain when a dieter reverts back to old habits.  It is well known that if a dieter falls off the dieting bandwagon, they put more weight back on compared to when they started a diet. The other danger with ‘dieting’ is nutritional inadequacy – an inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals. This may lead to fatigue, delayed recovery, reduced immune function and illness[1].

Fad diets weren’t designed to work. If they did, the multibillion dollar industry would be out of business.

To achieve long term, sustainable weight loss you need to eat a healthy, well balanced diet and play by the rules. Unfortunately there’s no magic pill. It takes effort, perseverance and consistency.  We all know the key to seeing results in training is consistency. This is the same with healthy eating and weight loss goals. Weight loss is about 80% diet and 20% exercise. Training does not give you the green light to eat anything and everything that your heart or appetite desires.


Here is a sneak peak in to a Dietitians Tool-Kit. Try these practical tips and you’ll be on your path to successful weight loss.

Be realistic about your goals.

If you’ve been around triathlon for a while you will, at one time or another, have set yourself training and racing goals. These goals need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and to be achieved in a specific time frame) to keep you motivated, on track and seeing results. The same principles apply to your healthy eating and weight loss goals.

Be realistic about your goal weight.

Setting a goal weight is very individual. We all have different body types, but as a general rule, aim for a slow weight loss of about 0.5-1.0 kg per week, towards your healthy weight range. To achieve this you will need to reduce your total daily intake by about 2100-4200kJ per day, without compromising your carbohydrate or nutrient intake[2].

Be realistic about the changes you’re prepared to make and keep the ‘real world’ in mind. There is no point saying ‘I will never have chocolate again’. What happens when there’s a birthday, or a special occasion? Instead limit your intake of chocolate (a ‘sometimes’ food) to special occasions only.


Monitor your progress.

Aim for a weekly weigh-in and keep a record of your weight. For a more accurate reflection of where your weight is at try to weigh yourself at the same time each week (ideally first thing in the morning, perhaps after your morning shower). Avoid weighing yourself daily. Daily weight changes are not a true indication of weight loss and daily weight fluctuations occur due to things like fluid shifts.

But remember – your bathroom scales can only tell you so much. You will start to gain more muscle mass with regular training and muscle weighs more than fat. So according to the scales it may seem like you’ve gained weight but this may not be the case. Taking other measurements, such as measuring your waist circumference or taking skin-fold measurements will show that you are still achieving results.  Also, take note of how you feel in your clothes. The leaner you are the better your clothes fit.

It’s all about the plan.

Let’s face it, without a fortnightly or monthly training plan it’d be pretty hard to stick to a training regime. The same goes for healthy eating. You are more likely to reach for high calorie, fatty, sugary snacks and takeaways if you haven’t planned ahead.

After a hard evening training session, the golden arches of McDonalds seem so much than a trip to the supermarket, right? This may be an extreme example, but the chances of this happening may be greater if you haven’t planned ahead.

Plan your meals and snacks for the week ahead. This will make things a whole lot easier and it’ll make it easier to stick to those healthy eating and weight loss goals.

Keep a Diary.

How many of you keep a training log that helps you to keep you on track with your training? Keeping a food diary will keep you accountable. It will help you to count your calories and show you where you’re at for the day. Generally speaking, people who keep a food diary are more successful at achieving weight loss then those who don’t. Be accountable for what you put in your mouth.

Snack right.

Increased training loads can often lead to increased appetites and more snacking. When that 3pm slump hits, have a snack to stabilise your blood sugar levels, but have a healthy snack.  One of my favourites is a green apple, sliced into quarters, with a small serve of feta cheese (for protein), a small handful of almonds and raisins.   Make sure your snack includes some lean protein. This will keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Danger – Beware of the hidden calories.

As a child, growing up, I used to love tomato sauce. I would soak my food in the stuff. From hot chips to red meat, everything had to be drenched in the red sauce. Unfortunately, tomato sauce is packed with sugar and hidden calories.

Be careful of what goes on and in to your favourite meals. For example, baked potatoes on their own are not a bad thing. But, if you drench them in gravy, the calorie content skyrockets.

Don’t drink your calories.

It’s no secret that soft drink, cordial and even fruit juice is packed with added sugar and calories. These drink options are best avoided or limited to no more than about 1 glass per day. Your best bet is to choose water as your main drink. Rather than a glass of fruit juice, have a piece of fruit and a glass of water – this will fill you up faster and will keep you feeling fuller for longer.

 Watch your fruit.

Yes, fruit is a healthy snack but even too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Fruit contains a fruit sugar called fructose and if you eat too much fructose, more than the recommended amount, it will lead to weight gain. Stick to two serves of fruit per day and you’ll get all the goodness from fruit (like fibre and antioxidants) without sabotaging your weight loss efforts.

Make friends with salad.

Salad vegetables are virtually calorie free. So get acquainted and make them your new best friend. Aim to fill up half your plate at lunch and dinner with salad vegetables. Or if you’re having a sandwich for lunch pack it with salad. Also have them on hand as a snack option.

Don’t overdose on Carbs.

Carbohydrates are vital for athletes. Skimping on pasta, rice, bread, cereal, potato, pumpkin and corn will lead to depleted glycogen stores, and will ultimately leave you feeling flat and fatigued. Not what you want when you have multiple training sessions to get to. The key is not to overdose on Carbs. Aim for a moderate intake: 6-8g/kg body weight/day[3] and choose low GI options.

The GI (Glycaemic Index) is a measure of how quickly carbohydrate foods are broken down in your body. High GI Carbs, like white bread, are rapidly digested and leave you feeling hungry soon after eating. Whereas low GI Carbs, like wholegrain breads and cereals, sweet potato, pasta, are digested more slowly and therefore leave you feeling fuller for longer. They also fill you up a lot quicker, so it’s much harder to eat too much!

It’s all about the perfect portion!

What’s the secret of companies like Light ‘n’ Easy? They have portion control down pat.

A good way to make sure your meals are portion controlled and balanced is to portion out your meals according to the ‘Healthy Dinner Plate’ model. Your plate should look something like this at meal times:

* ¼ of the plate should be lean protein or protein alternatives (meat, chicken, fish, legumes, egg);

* ¼ of the plate should be low GI Carbs (sweet potato, pumpkin, pasta, basmati rice, wholegrain bread) and,

* ½ of the plate should be packed with salad vegetables.

If having pasta or a stir-fry, aim to fill half the plate with rice/pasta topped with pasta sauce or stir fry; the other half of the plate should still be salad vegetables.

Calcium – not just for strong bones.  

The exact mechanism is uncertain but studies have shown that people with higher calcium intakes lost more weight compared with those that had lower intakes of calcium[4]. So make sure to include three serves of low fat dairy each day in the form of low fat milk, cheese and yoghurt.

The dangers of excessive weight loss.

As much as achieving that desired lean physique is beneficial for performance in endurance events, excessive weight loss can be dangerous. Inadequate energy intake and excessive weight loss can lead to menstrual disturbances and osteopenia (low bone mineral density)[5]. It can lead to fatigue, reduced immunity, illness and poor performance. It’s important to maintain a healthy, balanced and nutrient-rich diet when watching your weight.

For more information on weight loss for performance seek advice from a qualified Sports Dietitian.  A Sports Dietitian will be able to tailor a plan specific to you and your needs. Visit the Sports Dietitians Association of Australia website for information on where to find a Sports Dietitian near you.

[1] Stensel, D. ‘Exercise, appetite and weight management’. Nestle Nutrition Institute – Sports Nutrition Conference, Mallorca 2009.

[2] Burke, L and Deakin, V. ‘Clinical Sports Nutrition’. Chapter 6 Weight loss and the athlete, page 135.

[3] Burke, L and Deakin, V. ‘Clinical Sports Nutrition’. Chapter 6 Weight loss and the athlete, page 135.

[4] Burke, L and Deakin, V. ‘Clinical Sports Nutrition’. Chapter 6 Weight loss and the athlete, pages 128-129.

[5] Burke, L and Deakin, V. ‘Clinical Sports Nutrition’. Chapter 6 Weight loss and the athlete, page 131.

About The Author

Margaret Mielczarek

Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist and Accredited Sports Dietitian

Margaret Mielczarek is an Accredited Sports Dietitian with a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics/Bachelor of Applied Science (Health Science) from Deakin University, where she graduated with a High Distinction average.


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3 Responses

  1. Herby

    Ah fruit – Natures Candy!
    Id like to think I have a balanced diet and I dont take supplements but during the tri-season is there any that you would recommend while we exert our bodies? Thanks!


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