Triathlon race nutrition for requires planning. But, this process can quickly become epic and overwhelming. You may feel comfortable winging your diet for shorter distances, but once you get into the Ironman 140.6 or 70.3, a sound nutrition strategy becomes paramount.
Now that you’ve nailed down the basics for everyday triathlon nutrition, let’s get cracking on your race week and race day regime.
Week of Healthy Eating
Race week is both exciting and nerve-wracking. You may be tempted to change your usual pattern based on what fellow racers are doing and talking about doing. Resist the urge! This is not the time for novelty. It’s time to hunker down and stick with the tried and true.
At the beginning of race week, focus on general healthy eating – think fresh foods that are nutrient dense and vitamin-packed. Aim to support a robust immune system and stave off pre-competition bouts of illness. Also, be extra careful about contracting food poisoning. Practice safe food preparation techniques, wash your hands regularly and avoid eating food that is past its due date.
Carb Loading for Distance
If you are racing a shorter distance like a sprint or Olympic distance, continue to focus on general healthy eating, proper carbohydrate replacement after exercise, and limiting alcohol throughout race week.
For longer distances, aim to supercompensate your glycogen stores before your event. This carbohydrate loading should start 36-48 hours before race day. Carb loading allows your muscles to store glycogen above your normal levels for use during the race. Keep in mind, you accomplish glycogen super-compensation by tapering your exercise AND eating sufficient carbohydrates.
Both seasoned and new triathletes can have difficulty reconciling their usual healthy pattern of food choices with the higher sugar, lower fibre options required for them to achieve adequate amounts of carbs. You are aiming for 10-12 g/kg/day (4.5- 5.5 g/lb) of carbs for 36-48 hours before your event. To get there, you will need to reduce your fat, protein, and vegetable intake.
Race day requires a balance of timing, volume, and type of food. And, as I mentioned in my previous blog about triathlon nutrition, it also needs practice. Each stage of race day should take these factors into account.
When you eat will depend upon the time of your race. Ideally, you should eat 3 to 4 hours in advance of the start. This will likely take some planning – eating so far ahead may be tricky depending on the start time of your race.
If your event is midday or early afternoon, you will likely have time for breakfast and a pre-event snack depending on your logistics for getting to the start line.
For early morning events, consider having breakfast 3 hours in advance to allow for adequate digestion before the race start. Of course, you will have to take into account your personal needs for sleep – if this is an issue you should practice using easily digestible foods close to beginning exercise. Examples include smoothies and liquid supplements, sports bars, and easily digestible cereals.
Amount and Type
What you eat will depend on what you have practised in advance, but above all choose a pre-event meal you have used in training. If travelling, consider bringing some familiar foods with you (I like to pack oats and bagels in my suitcase), plan to visit a supermarket on arrival, or call your hotel ahead to ensure the available menu suits your needs. Take it from the pros, like Jonny and Alistair Brownlee, finding a familiar pre-race meal that works wherever you go is worth its weight in gold.
When selecting your pre-race meal, choose foods that are high in carbohydrates, low in fibre, moderate in protein. Foods high in fat, protein and certain sugars (like lactose and fructose) are common culprits of gastrointestinal (GI) distress.
Hydrate well. Generally speaking, aim to drink 5-10 ml/kg in the 2-4 hours before your race. But, plan to hydrate to predicted weather conditions. You will need more fluid in the heat than in cool temperatures. If you are racing in hot conditions, pay attention to properly hydrating in the days and hours leading up the race. Click here for more specific advice on carbohydrate and fluid amounts.
While some competitors rely on food and fluid provided on, course and others bring an array of fuel with them but have no plan; the smartest triathletes plan the type, amount, and timing of their race snacks.
When should you take on fuel? Triathletes often choose to concentrate on fuelling during the cycle leg because it is easier to eat on the bike than in the water or on the run. However, ensure you make the most of the other legs as well. The transition areas and the run offer excellent opportunities to dial up your fluid and fuel intake.
When you are setting up for your race, organize fueling opportunities at the start line and in the transition areas. Also, be sure to plan how you are going to transport the right amount of food and drink on course.
How much should you eat and hydrate?
A 2002 study of Ironman competitors found that long-distance triathletes select larger volumes of carbs on the bike versus the run. During the cycling leg, males took in 1.5 g/kg, while females took in 1.2 g/kg carbs. During the run, males ate 0.8 g/kg, while females consumed 0.6 g/kg carbs (Kimber et al.). Even so, Kimber and colleagues found that men who ate fewer carbs in the run leg tended to be slower than those who ate more carbohydrates.
So how should you break this down?
Racing more than 3 hours:
- For these events, your carb needs are most significant.
- Optimal performance results from intakes upwards of 90 g an hour.
- Carbohydrates in these large amounts should come from different sugar sources (e.g., fructose and glucose) to ensure optimal absorption.
Racing 90 minutes to 2 ½ hours:
- Take 30-60 g of carbohydrates an hour on course.
- Eating carbohydrates while exercising prevents a drop in blood glucose, provides fuel for your muscles, and fuels your brain and central nervous system.
- When your brain is adequately fueled, this lowers your perceived exertion, allowing for proper race pacing.
Triathlon distances completed in an hour:
- Do not necessitate carbs for fuel, BUT they may benefit from the positive effects of carbs on cognition and subsequent drive.
- Knowing this fact, some competitors choose to drink sports drinks during these shorter races.
- Most athletes drink about 0.4 to 0.8 L/h but needs will vary based on the individual and temperature and humidity.
- Drink often, but drink to thirst. Avoid over-hydrating.
- If it is going to be hot, consider having a friend or family member pass you a cold drink on course to help lower your core body temperature.
- Consider choosing some of your fluid in the form of a sodium-containing sports drink to aid with fluid absorption and electrolyte balance.
Triathletes rely on an array of foods and products to keep them fuelled. What you choose to use should be based upon what you have found works in practice. You are looking for products that are primarily carb-based though some competitors may have a preference for foods like peanut butter sandwiches when on the bike. Remember, particularly in the case of sports drinks, to read the label to be sure the product you choose contains carbohydrate if you are using it to meet your fueling needs.
Here are some examples of combinations that equal close to 60 g carbs an hour.
- 1 gel (25 g) + 2 cups sports drink (30 g)= 55 g
- 2 cups flat cola beverage (55 g)= 55 g
- 1 small banana (23 g) + 1 gel (25 g) + 1 cup sports drink (15 g)= 63 g
- 1, 28 g package of sport beans (25 g) + 1 gel (25 g)= 50 g
- 3 energy chews (24 g) + 1/2 peanut butter sandwich (20 g) + 1 cup sports drink (15 g)= 59 g
A Word About Caffeine
Caffeine can enhance performance but do not use it on race day if you have not used it in practice. If you are going to use caffeine limit it to 400 mg total for the day as per Health Canada guidelines (equivalent to three, 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee). Also, some people are slow metabolizers of caffeine. Caffeine can hinder performance in these people. And finally, I would not recommend the use of caffeinated energy drinks for any competitor but particularly for children and adolescents or pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Figure out what works best for you and optimise your feeding opportunities accordingly. Don’t be afraid to put pen to paper and work out both timing and amount of food and fluid in advance of race day.
Standard refuelling strategies are essential to good recovery after your race. Take advantage of the food and fluids at the finish and start replenishing your glycogen stores within 60 minutes of race completion. It may be tempting to celebrate with a few alcoholic drinks after your race, but try and keep alcohol intake moderate as it interferes with recovery. You’ll thank me later.
You’re All Set to Ace Your Triathlon Race Nutrition!
Race week will be here before you know it. Your triathlon race nutrition strategy during this time is the cherry on top to all the hard work you’ve put in over this season.
At this point, you know what works for you before, during, and after exercise. Resist the urge to follow another competitors nutrition plan.
Have confidence in your plan. Time to rock your triathlon!
Kimber et al. (2002) Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 12; 47-62.
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.