Athlete fueling mistakes

As a board certified sport dietitian who specializes in fueling the endurance athlete, I find it critically important that athletes develop appropriate daily eating and sport nutrition habits to support an extremely active lifestyle. It's important to remember that your extreme exercise routine (which you call training) is also very stressful on your body.

Although we need to stress the body for it to physically adapt, the human body can not tolerate too much stress without adequate fuel, hydration and proper nutrients.

When Triathlete Magazine gave me the topic of "x-fueling mistakes that triathletes make", I struggled not because I couldn't select the mistakes but that I only had 500 words for this article.

With the experience of working with many endurance athletes, I see common fueling mistakes time and time again. However, I find that more mistakes are made due to misinformation and poor planning than by no information.

Clearly, in our society we do not struggle with lack of information on any given topic. Instead, there is information overload on everything which makes figuring out what works best for you, extremely difficult.
Making the investment to work with a professional who specializes in the area of your concerns/struggle is often the best way to truly understand what will work best for you and your body.

To be honest, I find that most endurance athletes develop bad habits overtime throughout a season. One long workout is rewarded with x-food and then x-food becomes desired after every long workout. Or, the athlete starts off with good intentions for proper sport nutrition, meal planning and recovery but overtime, those strategies are forgotten as the athlete gets "too busy".

These bad habits that are developed overtime are due to a variety of reasons but I find that most endurance athletes leave less time for proper meal planning/prep, feel rushed or constantly on the go, are constantly looking for a quick fix (or the cutting edge) and jumping from one approach to another, put too much on the daily plate (feeling exhausted, drained and overwhelmed) and push aside healthy lifestyle habits (or never create) in an effort to just go through the motions in order to check off workouts.

Here are 4 of the common fueling mistakes that I find that athletes make throughout a season. 

I selected these topics not because athletes are uneducated on these topics but instead, because athletes often overlook or don't make the effort to create great daily lifestyle and nutrition habits to take training to the next level.
It's far too common that athletes become very robotic with their lifestyle and training, thus sabotaging their potential to make huge performance gains overtime.
Sadly, I find that many athletes underperform in almost every workout, not because of a lack of passion and dedication for training but because daily and sport nutrition are limiting overall health and/or the ability to improve athletic performance.
Caffeine dependence
Although a universally known stimulant when needing an adrenaline rush, the strategic use of caffeine as an ergogenic aid is not for every athlete. If tolerable, a safe caffeine dosage is ~3-4g/kg, consumed ~60 minutes before activity  - example, a ~4 ounce espresso. Although your morning 1-3 cup coffee routine is perfectly healthy, more is not better.
If you find you “need” caffeine pills or energy drinks to fight fatigue or to get through a workout, you are developing an unhealthy dependence on caffeine which could be masking an underlying issue like underfueling, sleep deprivation, stress or overtraining.   

Poor recovery planning
Recovery strategies are dependent on sport duration and intensity but to perform well over consecutive workouts you must always refuel, rehydrate and repair.  
In your busy real world, don’t let your cravings or busy lifestyle get the best of you after you finish a workout.
Within 60 min after training, consume 0.8-1.2g/kg carbs and 25-30g protein, with 16-20 ounce water, to kick-start recovery.  Muscle glycogen replenishment and tissue repair are enhanced when carbohydrates and protein are consumed together.
Try this ideal snack or meal: 6 ounce 0% Plain Greek yogurt + 1 banana + ½ cup dry oats + 1 tbsp nut butter.

Haphazard fueling strategies 
A precise balance of carbs, fluids and electrolytes are needed to delay the onset of fatigue by sparing liver glycogen, maintaining blood glucose concentrations and offsetting excessive fluid losses from sweating. 
Athletes often over-complicate fueling strategies due to misguided sport nutrition recommendations and lack of understanding of how to properly use gels, bars, foot portables, powders and chews. Whereas too low of an energy intake is detrimental to performance, concentrated carb solutions (or high osmolality) can saturate the intestines as oxidation rates are limited when a single carb source (glucose, sucrose or maltodextrin) is consumed. 
To optimize carb oxidation without causing GI distress, consume 30-60 grams of carbs per hour, in frequent dosages every 10-15 minutes. To experiment if increasing the oxidation of carbs (60-90g/carbs/hr) will improve performance, multiple transportable carbs are advised (Glucose + fructose + maltodextrin) over a single source (glucose). 

Habitual reward food
Your active lifestyle allows you more calories than the average person but quality food choices improve health and performance.
Rewarding with junk food after a long/hard workout not only increases cravings for unhealthy foods but undermines the importance of developing appropriate fueling and hydrating habits around/during workouts.

While there is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, coaxing yourself to get through a workout with the anticipation of guilt-free unhealthy or excessive eating may create a dysfunctional relationship with food. Stop habitually using food for reward (when exhausted) or punishment (bad workout) and thank your body for giving you a great workout, then treat yourself with a massage or Epson salt bath.