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Triathlon Nutrition: Getting the Basics Down

Gazelle Nutrition Lab / Blog  / Triathlon Nutrition: Getting the Basics Down

Triathlon Nutrition: Getting the Basics Down

As the weather warms, triathlon training season kicks into top gear!

Whether you are training for a Sprint triathlon or an Ironman, it’s essential that your triathlon nutrition training also keeps pace. An overall healthy and balanced diet is fundamental to every program. If you think your diet is lacking, now is the time to tighten the screws.

My clients seem to eat pretty well on a day-to-day basis. Where they slip up is eating around training sessions, planning race day nutrition and practising their race day feeding schedule.

In part one of this two-part series, we’ll take a quick look at eating around exercise to nail down the basics and help get you race ready.

Eating Around Exercise

Photo by Daniel Llorente

Do you eat before hopping on your bike? Do you take water to the pool? Do you munch on gel during your runs? Do you know when you should? I’m sure many of you are thinking “Well… that depends”. And actually, it should depend – factors like the duration and intensity of your exercise, as well as external factors like outside temperature and humidity, should change your habits. It will also be dictated by your own tolerance to food during exercise.

Eating Before

Photo by Pranam Gurung

This one is a no-brainer. Most of the time you will get more out of your workout if you eat before you exercise. You may have heard about the potential benefits of training low carbohydrate, but for everyday training eating beforehand is your best bet.

This means you should have something to eat before heading out for an early morning workout. It may seem like a hassle, but a little food will bring more quality to that exercise, and we all know those good quality sessions can result in considerable payoffs in performance down the road.

If you’ve had trouble with pre-eating before due to gastrointestinal discomfort – this really is a case of practice makes perfect. Practice eating small amounts of high carbohydrate, moderate protein, low fat foods before exercise, and your gastrointestinal tract will adapt and get used to you eating at this time.

The rule of thumb for pre-exercise nutrition is as follows:

  • Food: 1-4 hours before exercise aim for 1-4 g/kg carbohydrate. This works out to 73-290 g for a 73 kg (160 lb) person. An example of a 76 g of carbs is a ½ large bagel, one medium banana, 100 g of flavoured Greek yogurt.
  • Fluid: 1-2 cups of fluid 4 hours before exercise with an additional ½ c to 1 ½ cups < 2 hours before exercise if you are dehydrated.

Eating During

Photo by Sage Friedman

There’s no need to bring anything along with you to munch on if you are going out for a short session (<45 minutes). Sometimes, triathletes like to take a sports drink to intense workout sessions lasting 45-75 minutes in order to fully optimise their performance. This can be a useful strategy, as carbs can positively affect cognition and in turn the cognitive drive to push through a workout. As a rule, though, water is enough for shorter workouts.

If you have a longer workout that lasts more than an hour then bringing along fuel is beneficial. In fact, these longer workouts are a great time to practice race day types and timing of food. This is particularly the case for those training for an Ironman 140.6 or 70.3.

During exercise lasting 1 to 2 ½ hours aim for the following:

  • Food: 30-60 g of carbohydrates an hour. If you are going to be out for 2 hours, this means you need to take 60-120 g of carbohydrates. Start within 15 minutes of exercise and evenly pace your fuel throughout the workout. One gel (25 g carbs each) + 2 cups of sports drink (15 g carbs/cup) would get you to 55 g of carbohydrates.
  • Fluid: Sip fluids throughout the exercise. Avoid drinking so much that you gain weight. For more on hydration see this previous post.

During exercise lasting more than 2.5 to 3 hours aim for the following:

  • Food:
    • Up to 90 g of carbohydrates an hour. If you eat above 60 g/h of carbs ensure that you are choosing carbohydrates from a variety of sugar sources. For example, fructose and glucose.
    • An example of 85 g of carbs from multiple carb sources is 1 gel (25 g carbs each) + 2 cups sports drink (15 g carbs) + 1 banana (30 g of carbs).
  • Fluid:
    • As above, drink often but drink to thirst. Sports drinks are handy at promoting adequate hydration during longer workouts as you are likely to consume fluids with flavour.

Be sure to sit down and work out a game plan for your next long workout in advance, now that you know how to calculate what you need. Remember, foods you choose (and the timing) will likely differ depending on whether you are swimming, running, or biking. By far the most comfortable place to get your fuel in is on the bike – but don’t forget about implementing strategies for before and after your swim and for during your run. Neglecting these two segments can make or break your nutrition training and ultimately your performance.

After Exercise

Photo by Massimo Sartirano

Multiple daily workouts are par for the course if you are a triathlete. Eating after exercise is essential for helping you get through those second (and sometimes third!) workouts. This strategy often needs some planning if you are going to be away from home when you finish a workout. If this is the case, be sure to bring along a post-workout snack and drink in your training bag.

After exercise refuel within 15-60 minutes with the following:

  • Food:
    • If you have less than 8 hours between 2 intense workouts, refuel with 1 to 1.2 g/kg/h carbs for 4 hours. This works out to 73 to 88 g per hour of carbs for a 73 kg (160 lb) person.
    • Include a source of protein. Choosing protein shortly after exercise helps your muscles to take up amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and promotes positive protein balance and muscle recovery.
  • Fluid:
    • Remember to re-hydrate as well.
    • Try weighing yourself before and after your workouts and then drink accordingly.
    • If you lose weight drink 2 to 3 cups for every pound of weight, you lose (or 500-750 ml for every 0.5 kg).

Training for a triathlon and racing can be daunting. Look at your triathlon nutrition as an aid to tackling these tasks and optimising your race day goals.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the great Dave Scott: “If you set a goal for yourself and if you are able to achieve it, you have won your race. Your goal can be to come first, to improve your performance, or just to finish the race; it’s up to you.”

Check back soon to see part 2 of this blog series, and learn about how to plan your race day nutrition strategy and the importance of practising this plan in advance.


Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes.

The Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!

Ashley Leone

Ashley is a Sports Dietitian and Owner of Gazelle Nutrition Lab. Ashley provides nutrition advice and plans to athletes and everyday active people alike. Her goal is to help fuel your inner athlete and put good sense back into eating. Ashley is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable nutrition specialist with over 20 years of experience.

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