Simple and effective triathlon racing fueling tips

Last Sunday I had a wonderful time "speaking" to some of the members of the Strong & Focused triathlon club with a Webinar on Race Day Fueling Tips. 

In an effort to help as many triathletes out as possible to reach personal racing goals, I would like to share some helpful information with you. 

First, I want to share a brief story. 

IMFL Finisher 2006

Boston Marathon Finisher 2006

When I started endurance racing back in 2006 at the young age of 23, I had some knowledge of sport nutrition and training thanks to recently graduating with my Masters in Exercise Physiology. But I certainly did not know what I know now as sport nutrition science is always evolving. 
Also, as a 8x Ironman finisher, I've learned that many times, experience in real world settings many times trumps science in a laboratory.

So as I was training for my first Boston Marathon and first Ironman (IMFL), I had some understanding of how to fuel my body for sport nutrition. It was enough to help me to finish my first Boston Marathon (2nd Marathon) and win my age group at my first IM (18-24 age group) and qualify for Kona but I sure did experience a host of nutrition related issues on race day. And so, the learning continued. 

Almost a decade ago, most of my nutrition education not found in textbooks but instead from articles and books written by dietitians who specialized in sport nutrition. Authors like Monique Ryan and Nancy Clark. Back then, they were the nutrition guru’s of sport nutrition. Now a days, it seems like everyone is a sport nutrition expert and an exercise physiology coach. 

One interesting thing is when I started endurance sports back in 2006, it seems like all of the information on sport nutrition made sense for the average athlete. 
-Drink 20-28 ounces of water per hour
-Consume 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour in a 6-8% carb solution sport drink
-Consume electrolytes like sodium and potassium.
-Eat carbohydrates before your workout and rehydrate and refuel with carbohydrates and protein post workout, best in a 4:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein.

Simple information for athletes to understand and apply. And believe it or not, it actually worked! 
But fast forward to today and there’s a lot that’s different with sport nutrition and some that’s the same. 

What’s the same? 
The principles are still there. Consume fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates during workouts and races lasting more than 1 hour to hydrate the body, to maintain energy levels and to replace electrolytes lost in sweat.

So what’s different? 
Every athlete, coach, personal trainer and fitness enthusiast is an expert at every topic from sport nutrition to body composition which makes for a lot of different fueling strategies! The science of fueling an athlete’s body is evolving, there are new and different styles of training (with new gadgets and gear to give athletes the competitive edge) and the diet and lifestyle of the average athlete (specifically living in USA) is much different than it was 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. 

With all of this being said, there’s a lot of information to fueling a body in motion.

There’s nothing more gratifying than being able to put your hard work to the test on race day and execute. Think about the last time when you had a great race. Perhaps you overcame an obstacle on race day but it all came together. 

But far too many times, I see and hear of athletes who experience a host of nutrition-related problems on race day which negatively affects performance. And for a time-crunched age-group triathlete, I want to make sure that athletes can reduce the chance for any setbacks related to nutrition, specifically the most common four: GI issues, dehydration, cramping and bonking.

So as much as I would love to go into the specifics of what’s new and current with sport nutrition, what I’d like to discuss today are a few of my simple tips for how to fuel properly in your upcoming triathlon race.
And above all, no amount of sport nutrition information is helpful if an athlete does not have a healthy relationship with food and the body. If you feel you need help in this area, consult a sport RD who specializes in body image and understands how to help you with your body and food concerns before seeking a drastic change in your diet to improve performance or health. 

So when should you start fueling for your race? Well, it really depends on how long you are tapering your body before a race. As you decrease training volume and intensity, the body will naturally expend less energy which means that the food you are eating will be stored as muscle and liver glycogen. This is energy for race day.  

For a sprint or Olympic distance triathlon, you may be tapering for only 3-4 days. Whereas for a half or full IM, you may gradually start to decrease your training load 10-14 days out from the race. There are many styles of tapering but in relation to race week nutrition, I recommend to draw your focus away from eating an excessive amount of carbohydrates just because you have a race coming up in a few days. This doesn’t mean low carb but instead just re-thinking how you fuel your body during race week.

On race week, we are simply taking a normal diet and increasing the carbs just a bit and decreasing the fat. Typically, a balanced diet would be around 50-55% carbohydrates, 20-25% protein and 25-30% fat.
For race week, this would look like 60-75% of your total calories from carbs, 15-20% from protein and 15-20% from fat on race week. The biggest change would be to simply modify how you fuel before, during and after workouts to accommodate your decrease in training load. By doing this your body will have plenty of fuel on race day so for most athletes, there is no need to over load the body with carbohydrates on race week. Research shows that a fitter athletes stores glycogen more efficiently than an unfit athlete. But even more interesting, the body can still perform and muscles can be powerful even if the glycogen stores are not at full capacity (ex 2000 calories worth of carbohydrates in the muscles). However, you can imagine how an athlete can easily get by in training by not eating adequate carbohydrates and still feel just fine in training. But come race day and the low carb athlete who chooses to race at high intensity or high volume will ultimately sabotage performance if she/he does not eat a balanced diet on a daily basis and does not eat appropriately on race week.

  Because I find that many athletes have yet to master a “balanced” diet, I recommend on the few days leading up to the race to just add an additional 50-90g of carbohydrates a day to the normal diet.

Many times athletes complain about feeling heavy in the gut or in the legs before the race. Although some of this is taper related, adding carbohydrates will also add water to the body. Although this is perfectly fine and many times needed, the best way to ensure that you have plenty of usable energy for race day without feeling heavy, bloated or fatigued, is to consider when you are eating the majority of your daily carbohydrates. 

Yummm, french toast with syrup, fruit, greek yogurt and sunny side up egg. A delicious breakfast on the morning before IM Lake Placid last year. 

I recommend to focus on a very satisfying carb rich breakfast after your morning workout on the 2-3 days leading up to the race. This should be in addition to a pre training snack before your morning workout. Rather than the typical carb rich dinner meal, think about eating your carb rich meal in the morning. An example of this would be pancakes, French toast, granola, oatmeal. Something that sits well in your stomach but is not too heavy and who doesn’t love breakfast foods? Dress these items up with some fruit, honey or syrup for additional carbohydrates and combine a little protein like some eggs or yogurt for a complete balanced meal. As for eating the rest of the day, I advise my athletes to eat mini meals of carbohydrates and quality protein throughout the day so that no one meal after breakfast is too large or small. Fruits are great to snack on and foods like wraps, sandwiches and soup as well as potatoes or rice as these items are very easy for the digestive system to digest (especially in a nervous athlete) without a lot of residue build up in the gut. 

My top tips for eating in the 2-3 days before a race is to focus on low fat and fiber foods and focus on foods that do not require a lot of chewing. A moderate amount of protein is fine, around 15-30 g per meal which looks like 4 ounces of lean meat or fish or ½ package tempeh. Focus on carbohydrates and a little protein every time you eat and lots of water.

Lastly for hydration, I recommend to aim to drink around 16-20 ounces of water between meals and at least 8 ounces of water with meals. Also you should have a sport drink during all workouts on race week. Also you can add an electrolyte tablet to your drink on the 2 days before the race, just once a day is fine and this may help out those who are not big fans of plain water. If you are concerned about your electrolyte needs on race day, consult with a sport RD who can help you out.


Now on to race day morning. I’ve worked with many athletes who have to deal with different scenarios on race day such as when transition opens/closes, a late wave start, delays on race day morning, having to wake up early to drive to the race, etc. But for the purpose of this blog, I am going to give some tips for the typical race start at 7am and transition opening at 5:30am.

I recommend to have your pre race meal around 2-3 hours before your race start. I have a few helpful videos/articles for those who aren’t quite sure what to eat before a race (see links below).

If you are eating more calories to support the longer racing distance, allow more time to digest. A good rule of thumb is to plan for around 50g of carbohydrates (or 200 calories) for 1 hour or less of racing. 60-90g of carbohydrates (or around 240-360 calories) for 2+ hours of racing. In addition, I recommend 10-15 g of protein or fat. So if you are racing a sprint distance triathlon, aim for around 250-300 calories around 2-2.5 hours before. An Olympic distance triathlon, aim for around 300-400 calories and for a half IM triathlon, around 450-600 calories.

As for what to consume before the race, pass on the broccoli and salsa on race day morning .OK, not sure if any athlete would want to eat that at 4am but the focus here is on foods that do not irritate the GI tract during digestion. 

I recommend foods that are carb dense but low in volume. A few options: Granola, oatmeal (no more than 1 cup), rice cakes, jasmine or basmati rice, WASA or crisp bread crackers, Pita bread, frozen waffles, applesauce. A bagel or toast is fine but I have had great success with my athletes consuming foods with less residue so think the low volume foods. Also, these foods should not termed “healthy” so if you would eat them on a daily basis to stay full for a few hours, these are not the carbs you want to be eating before a race. Pass on the on  ultra grain breads or super high fiber cereals. 

The reason why I like the rice cake, pita bread and wasa cracker options or only using ½ - 1 cup oatmeal is because you can dress these things up. You can add carb dense options like raisins, granola, banana, applesauce, or fruit, juice honey or maple syrup to your meal and easily get in 150-250 additional calories from carbs without requiring an extra load on the gut for digestion. This is going to be much easier to digest than eating 400 calories worth of bagels or plain oatmeal.

Coffee is fine in the morning but be sure to drink around 12-16 ounces of water with your pre race meal.

After your pre race meal, you need to allow this solid food to digest and give yourself time to have a good bowel movement from digested food consumed over the last two days. If you have trouble going to the bathroom in the morning, be sure to move around after you get up, don’t just get up out of bed and start drinking your coffee and then sit down. Stand up and walk around for 10 minutes, this may help move contents through the gut.

All ready for IM Austria 2014!

When you get to the race venue, I recommend to sip on an electrolyte rich sport drink of around 80-120 calories and one that has no artificial flavors, food dyes or sweeteners. This will help you maintain blood sugar levels before the race and will also help provide your body with additional calories if for some reason you were unable to stomach all of your solid food before the race.

Just a helpful tip, I recommend a plastic water bottle for your pre race sport drink so you can toss it in a garbage can before the race start.

That was probably information overload so I will summarize a few tips for pre race nutrition: 

-You want a diet that is Low fiber and low fat on the days leading up to the race. Minimize processed foods and focus on real foods. 

-Sport bars are fine and can be convenient for traveling and eating on the go but do not slack on fruits to help provide electrolytes and vitamins and minerals as you hydrate your body. 

-Always keep a water bottle with you to stay hydrated and it’s good to have 1 electrolyte tab each day on the 3 days leading up to the race.

-Continue using sport nutrition drinks during your workouts on race week and continue eating normally for your meals and snacks. All that should change is how you fuel before, during and after workouts to accommodate for the lighter workout volume.  

-You should be eating similar foods on race week, similar to your normal diet. These foods should be practiced in advance and well tolerated. Consider your traveling/lodging logistics when it comes to planning what you will do on race week. It can be done but toasting your bread with an iron and eating oatmeal from a coffee pot is not the most ideal way to prepare your race morning breakfast. 

-Make your pre race and race day morning foods easy to find, easy to prepare and easy to consume.

Although there is not much nutritionally you can do during the swim portion of a triathlon, I can offer two big tips. Do not swallow water and do not start out too fast. Ok, I know triathletes are not trying to hydrate with ocean or lake water on the swim but even for an advanced swimmer, it’s very easy to swallow water from kicking/splashing/waves and not even know it. For less experienced swimmers, I find that another common issue is gulping air and shallow breathing. The reason why I bring this up is because These are two reasons that athletes may experience GI issues on the run. This is just a tip so that you can be careful during a mass start or if the water is choppy. Just be smart and do not start out too hard which may cause you to accidently swallow water or gasp for air. Try to stay calm in the water and this will also help your muscles stay relaxed.

As you exit transition and get on your bike, the first thing you want to do is settle into a rhythm. Spend the first few miles or 10 minutes getting your land legs comfortable from the swim. This can help reduce the risk for cramping and can provide the way for better digestion of sport nutrition. You should start hydrating and fueling within 10 minutes of being on your bike.

I encourage my athletes to keep nutrition as simple as possible on the bike. This not only makes for easy prep before the race and efficient digestion and absorption during the race but it also makes for a safer bike ride for you and others if you have everything you need in a bottle. 
So what do you need each hour? Fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates. 

Most sport drinks will provide a concentration of carbs to electrolytes and fluids that will meet your needs per hour when mixed in 20-24 ounces of water. However, when it comes to calories, I often find that athletes will either underfuel or overconcentrate a sport drink and this can severly affect energy and digestion. 
My recommendation is to aim for around 100-220 calories per hour per bottle from liquid calories on the bike in a 1-2 hour triathlon race. Around 200-250 calories per hour, per bottle in a 2-3 hour race and 220-300 calories per hour in a 3+ hour race. The most efficient way to digest and absorb carbohydrates and electrolytes are in liquid form, around 30-70g of carbs per hour. This recommendation will vary based on the athlete, intensity of the race and the race volume.

 The nutrition you consume on the bike is easier to digest and absorb than on the run so consider the bike is your prime opportunity to give your body energy for the bike and the run. Most sport drinks will provide adequate electrolytes and carbohydrates but if you feel you need more or need a better plan, consult with a sport RD.

When should you start drinking? As soon as you find your rhythm. I recommend within the first 10 minutes that you have already sipped your bottle once. Continue to Sip every 10-15 minutes. If you tend to get heartburn or burping or reflux, be sure to sit up when you drink. Generally, 1 sip is around 1-2 ounces so if you only sip baby sips from your bottle 4 times in 1 hour, you may find yourself not even finishing 1/3rd of your bottle. Sip frequently and to ensure you finish a bottle every 60-70 minutes, take 2-3 gulps at a time when you sip. Additional water can be consumed on your bike or from aid stations for cooling the body and for hydration.

A few other tips, you can consume gels or bars during racing but I would encourage solid food to be consumed in longer races when the intensity is lower. Also, solid food is simply to satisfy hunger and keep the belly happy, it is not a practical energy giver like sport drinks. I recommend only around 30-50 calories every 20-40 minutes of solid food if needed on the bike. 

Also for every gel consumed, you need around 1.2-1.7 cups (or 12 ounces) of water to ensure that the gel will be digested so be sure to take a few sips of water when you sip your gel or mix a gel in a flask and combine with water for easy sipping of your gel so you do not have to consume the entire gel all at once. Also, if you tend to get bored with only liquid calories while training, I have worked with many athletes who do just fine with some solid food (ex 30-50 calories here or there) to help the taste buds from getting bored from drinking the same drink so this is an option to just snack once or twice on the bike to help from taste bud fatigue. 

I recommend to not gulp your drink right before a climb. Review your course for ideal opportunities to eat/drink that are safe and will allow for proper digestion when the HR is not high.  

So now, we get off the bike and here is where the race is won....or remembered.  

On the run. I have seen many athletes win races on the run and many athletes suffer after an epic bike. When it comes to nailing your run which every triathlete wants to do, the most important thing is to pace your race on the bike and fuel consistently on the bike. To run fast off the bike, your body has to be set-up to run fast off the bike. Also, No amount of sport nutrition, gels, caffeine or sport drinks can make you run 7 min miles off the bike if you haven’t trained yourself to do so in training. So sadly, we can’t blame everything on nutrition.

So with the right pacing strategy, you will not only postpone fatigue on the run but you will also minimize chance of GI distress. These are two very big limiters for athletes. 

In terms of calories, it is much harder to digest and absorb calories while running so this is why liquid calories are preferred on the run.

The most important thing to consider with your racing nutrition is finding the perfect balance between minimizing GI upset and bonking so this means not taking too much but taking in enough. Ultimately, your fueling strategy compliments your pacing strategy and this works both ways. You have to be able to pace your effort so you can stay hydrated and energized but you also have to stay hydrated and fueled to be able to pace yourself. 

For athletes who feel like they can’t stomach anything when they run, they feel they don’t need anything on the run or aren’t sure what works, a simple suggestion is to train your gut in training.

 Every run you should be practicing your racing nutrition. Don’t wait until 24 hours before the race to put together a fueling plan for the run on race day.

There are two very simple strategies when it comes to fueling your run during a triathlon. 

One – you can use what is on the course. 
Two – you can bring your own nutrition and use water at aid station.
For most athletes, you may find yourself with a combination of the two. 

So just to repeat myself, every workout you should be using nutrition similar to race day. I also recommend doing race prep bricks to ensure that your bike nutrition strategy will be well tolerable on the run. For example, if you are training for a half IM, do a 2 hour bike and 1 hour transition run and include a few 20-30 min intervals at race pace on the bike w/ 2 min EZ in between and on the run, include 3-4 mile repeaters at race pace w/ 1 min walk in between. If your fueling and pacing plan works in training you should feel confident it will work on race day.

On the run, I recommend to aim for around 80-120 calories per hour as a start when training your gut. There is a fine line between meeting your energy, electrolyte and fluids needs to prevent bonking and risking GI upset. So it’s a careful balance to have enough but not too much. If you need more calories, up to 150 calories per hour. This should be from liquid calories, either gels or sport drinks. Aim for at least 16 ounces of water per hour as well.

A few strategies for run training nutrition: 
 You can use a gel flask with gels and top with water and sip every mile so that you do not have to take 1 entire gel all at once. For example, put 1 gel in a gel flask and top with water for 100 calories and around 8 ounces of water to use + additional gel flask with water only for sipping. This would be a total of 16 ounces fluid and 100 calories. 

You can also use a fuel belt for water and sport drinks.

Be sure you are sipping your liquid calories every 8-10 minutes so you may need to set up aid stations when you train or do out and back segments. I recommend to treat every training session like a race.

 I feel that most triathletes are not properly fueling their bodies during run training and this results in lack of confidence (and gut acceptance) with race day fueling and you certainly do not want your race to be limited by your inability to properly fuel for the last leg of your triathlon. If you need help, find a sport RD who can assist. 

I realize that this was a lot of information to digest so to summarize your nutrition during racing: 

-Prioritize liquid calories on the bike and run to meet hydration, electrolyte and carbohydrate needs
-Train your gut in training by using a similar fueling strategy for race day. 

-Consider the weather on race day as well as racing intensity and volume and how it impacts nutrition needs, pacing strategy, fueling strategy and toleration of certain sport nutrition products. 

-Be frequent and consistent with your nutrition intake. Start early on the bike when the body temperature is lower and HR is more controlled. 

-Any time you feel that your nutrition or pacing strategy is not working, slow down. If nutrients are not being absorbed and are sitting in the gut, blood needs to return to the gut from the working muscles to help with digestion.  

-Post race, allow time for your body to lower HR and body temperature. You will want to sip on at least 16 ounces of fluid for every lb lost in training/racing to rehydrate.

For some athletes, high intensity efforts make for not so wonderful gastro intestinal discomfort post race when the blood returns to the gut. Give yourself time after a race or hard workout before rushing to eat. If you can, the first thing in your body should be an electrolyte replacement beverage to rehydrate. It is not always easy to find (or digest) a recovery drink post race but if tolerable and accessible, a chocolate milk or whey/vegan protein powder mixed with milk/water/juice, along with carbohydrates of your choice can make for a quicker recovery. Then mini meals throughout the day (carbs and protein) to help restock muscle stores and repair damaged tissues. I encourage athletes to have an electrolyte tablet after really sweaty, intense or long workouts/races as an easy way to rehydrate but also curb some of those salty cravings post race/workout as you rehydrate. 

Happy Racing!

2013 Ironman World Championship - Kona #3!

Helpful Links:

Race week fuelingCarbo loading - friend or foe?Race week zenTraveling nutrition

Night before fuelingFueling before an evening race

Race morning fuelingRock your pre-race mealWhat to eat before your race
Pre Race Nutrition

SWIMMaster the mass swim startHow to fuel before a swim or track session

BIKETri tipsHydration tips: swim, bike, run
RUNIs your nutrition performance limiting or enhancing?How to fuel before a brick or long run


Healthy eating vs sport nutritionBuild a better body image