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Fine-tune your sport nutrition strategies for your next race

Preparing for a triathlon is much more than checking off workout to improve fitness and booking travel accommodations. Nutrition plays an important role in race day readiness. Whether you are training for an Ironman or a local sprint triathlon, nutritional preparation is key.

How you fuel during a race primarily depends on the duration of the event and your racing intensity (which is based on your fitness level). Nevertheless, proper fueling will help you maximize recovery, fuel your workouts appropriately, boost your immune system and to maintain a healthy body composition, alongside building confidence for race day. While triathletes can get away with a haphazard sport nutrition strategies (or not fueling at all) during short workouts, competing at your best requires you to constantly fine-tune sport nutrition strategies to help minimize the fluid, electrolyte and fuel depletion that may compromise your performance and health on race day.

Because proper sport nutrition should be part of your ongoing training - and not something you only do during your long workouts, in the few weeks before your race - here are several useful tips to help you immediately dial in your fueling and hydration for your upcoming race(s).

  1. Start training well-hydrated – Consume 12-16 fluid ounces in the one to two hours before training and an additional eight to 12 fluid ounces in the 10-20 minutes before training. Because the emptying of liquids from the stomach is influenced by the volume of fluid in the stomach, an increase in volume will increase emptying – helping you optimize hydration during your workout.
  2. Begin drinking early in your training session – Within the first 10-15 minutes of exercise, start hydrating with a sport drink and drink on a regular schedule. Aim to consume 5-8 ounce fluid every 10-15 minutes. One ounce usually equals one large gulp. You may need to set a timer to remind yourself to drink. Big gulps will encourage a large volume of fluid to empty from the stomach more quickly. Because dehydration causes fluids to empty from the stomach more slowly, falling behind on your fluid intake may lead to GI distress (ex. bloating or a sloshy stomach) in the later miles of your workout (especially when running off the bike).
  3. Use a well-formulated sport drink – The ideal sport drink should contain 10-14g carbohydrate (glucose, sucrose, fructose and/or maltodextrin) and at least 120 mg of sodium per every 8 ounce of water. This will help stimulate drinking, facilitate intestinal absorption and maintain body fluids. To avoid taste bud fatigue, learn to develop a taste for different sport drinks (flavors and textures). As you train your gut to tolerate sport nutrition during exercise, you can gradually work your way up in calories, carbohydrates and fluids to find the sweet spot of fueling enough to support your energy/fluid needs for a given intensity, but not too much that you risk GI distress.
  4. Monitor signs of dehydration – Most fluid-related issues are related to poor understanding of fluids needs, lack or limited drinking opportunities, aversion to sport drinks (ex. “too much sugar), mismanaged drinking strategies and an inability to match excessive sweat rates with fluid intake. Reduced performance, headache, fatigue, dry mouth, dizziness, loss of appetite, chills and increased thirst are common signs of dehydration. Practice drinking while you are biking and running and have a plan as to how to carry your nutrition and to replenish your fluid/calorie supply appropriately.
  5. Stock your muscle and liver glycogen stores before demanding training sessions – To fuel your upcoming training session, replenish fuel stores from an overnight fast and restore depleted fuel from a previous session, consume a small to moderate size pre-training meal – similar to the foods and fluids that you will consume on race day. As a general rule, allow 3-4 hours to digest a large meal (450-800 calories, 1.5-3 hours to digest a medium-size meal (250-450 calories) and 30 -90 minutes to digest a mini meal or snack (100-250 calories). Eating in the 1-3 hours before a long workout has consistently shown by research to enhance the quality of your training session and will bring confidence when planning (and consuming) your pre-race meal. 

Extensive scientific research has focused on nutrient timing – what and when you eat/drink before and during exercise. Unfortunately, nutrient timing is a confusing topic because most strategies conflict with the nutrition advice that targets weight loss and healthy eating. Although the above sport nutrition advice may appear “unhealthy” because of the recommended amounts of calories, carbohydrates/sugar and sodium, implementing smart and well-practiced fueling strategies around and during your workouts is critical for your health and builds confidence for your upcoming race. By following the above guidelines, you can reduce your risk for sickness, fatigue and injury so you can achieve race day readiness by staying consistent with training and perform at your best on race day.

For more information on sport nutrition, check out my book: Essential Sports Nutrition.
You may also be interested in my latest book: The 365-day Running Journal