Optimize Your Triathlon Nutrition

Prime yourself for peak performance by knowing when and how much to fuel in your training and racing.

Triathlete drinking water during the bike leg of a race.
Triathletes hydrate during the 2016 Golden Triangle International Triathlon. Photo: Shutterstock.com/Kitzero

Nutrition is more to a triathlete than simply what you eat. When you eat and how much you eat should also be a critical part of your training, racing, and recovery. Athletes who get their nutrition right on a day-to-day basis are more likely to train better, leading to better race performances. Those who have the right recovery nutrition will set themselves up for improved performance in subsequent training efforts, again leading to better race-day performance.

Not to mention, athletes who fuel best before and during a race are those who will have better energy to execute throughout their event and are more likely to find success than those who are underfueled. Let’s look at how to optimize your triathlon nutrition strategy.

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Triathlon nutrition before a workout or race

To get the most out of a training session it is vital to begin adequately fueled. This could mean consuming a high-carbohydrate meal or a carbohydrate-rich snack or sports drink an hour or so before activity. High-protein and fatty foods should be avoided as they can delay gastric emptying and contribute to stomach upset when exercising.

Prior to a race, it is generally not possible to eat a lot within that time frame, so I advise athletes to consume a gel or packet of carbohydrate chews (100-200 calories) 15-20 minutes before the start.

Triathlon nutrition during training and racing

When a workout or a race begins, if the athlete is properly fueled in advance, they should have enough energy stored in the form of glycogen to get them through the first hour of activity. After that, glycogen stores will be depleted, and unless exogenous sources of carbohydrate are ingested, an athlete will rapidly fatigue and be unable to continue exerting themselves at a high level.

For training workouts that last less than an hour, hydration with water or an electrolyte solution is all that is needed. When workout duration exceeds an hour, it is important to then include calories in the form of carbohydrates.

Simple sugars like sucrose, fructose, dextrose, or glucose are all fine but tend to create spikes in blood sugar and can lead to cycling between high and low sugar availability. For that reason, nutrition in the form of complex polysaccharides like dextrin or other similar compounds are preferred. As these are broken down in the gut, they liberate glucose molecules that are then absorbed in a continuous and predictable manner.

Athletes should try and ingest 60-100g of carbohydrates (250-400 calories) per hour. However, newer athletes may not be able to tolerate this much and might have to start at a lower amount and work their way up.

RELATED: Calculating How Much Carbohydrate You Need

Sprint triathlon nutrition needs are generally minimal as these races are done in around an hour for many. However, if you are an athlete who does a sprint in 90 minutes or more, then you should consider adding calories for that last half hour. This can be in the form of a single gel (~100 calories) or perhaps two.

Olympic-distance triathlons are longer in duration and most athletes will take 2-3 hours to complete them. Since it is not possible to fuel during the swim, the bike is the leg during which most fueling should be done. Fueling should begin immediately and continue to follow 250-400 calories/hour as noted above.

Once on the run it becomes harder to take in calories but no less important to do so. Gels or other carbohydrate-rich drinks can be used to take 100-200 calories per hour.

Triathlon nutrition for recovery

Once a workout or a race is over, that doesn’t mean that the nutrition plan is complete. During those two or more hours we deplete our glycogen stores and may damage our muscle fibers. The role of nutrition after an effort is vital to restoring balance. Carbohydrate intake should begin as soon as is practical and be supplemented with protein and potentially even some fat to help with tissue repair.

RELATED: How to Maximize Recovery During Multi-Day Events

When to seek nutrition guidance

Certain groups of athletes require more planning for their training and racing nutrition. Athletes with diabetes, for example, constitute such a group in which no two athletes will have the same circumstances or nutritional needs. In these cases, and for others, the guidance of a dedicated nutritionist as part of their team is of paramount importance.

Whether working alone or with a nutritionist, it is critical that athletes develop and test their triathlon nutrition strategy in their training so that they know what works well for them. That way when they arrive at a race, they can execute what they have practiced.