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What to Eat and WHEN to eat during a Triathlon

  • 5 min read

By Glen Gore, former pro triathlete and current coach.

If ever there was a hot topic of debate, it comes in the form of triathlon nutrition and more importantly, nutrition intake on race days.

What exactly do you need to eat and drink, and when?

To start this editorial piece, we need to agree that there is no magic formula that will work the same for everyone. Each of us differs in our body mechanics and the way we work with nutritional absorption that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint one clear plan that will work for everyone.

Having said that, you can still use sound advice and at least start on the right track. For us, nutrition is another important discipline in the sport of triathlon. The fastest and most finely tuned sports car in the world will go nowhere fast if there is no fuel in the tank. Similarly no matter how hard you have trained and prepared if you are going to race on zero nutrition, your body (engine) is going to slowly come to a complete stop and falter.

Rule no 1 – don’t neglect your nutritional intake on race days. It’s quite easy to “forget” to drink and eat when you are giving 100% during an all-out race effort. Just know that sooner or later, you will start to run out of energy stores and that is when racing becomes anything but fun.

Fuelling is different depending on the distance

A Sprint Distance triathlon race is completely different from an Olympic, Half, or full Ironman distance event. These distances require different amounts of training loads to be fully prepared to take on the challenge. The same rule applies to how you fuel the body during an event that takes less than 60 mins compared to an event that may take up to 17hrs.

Sprint

A sprint race normally lasts anywhere between 52 minutes for the PRO’s up to say 1.5-2hrs for the backmarkers. Most of the time – depending on weather conditions, you can get away with next to nothing in the form of intake over the sprint distance. Some hydration via a small sports bottle and perhaps 1-2 gels for the bike and run should sufficiently see you through the event.

I have often found that my best results over the sprint distance come when I go in “light” – not much food in the tank – that empty feeling but with just enough energy stores from the previous night's meal or early morning small breakfast to see me through the event.

Hydration is always important – you never want to start any event “thirsty” so make sure the fluid levels are topped up in the form of small sips. A huge intake of fluids just before the start is not a suggested best practice for an optimum result over short distances. 

These should be taken as pure guidelines and not as hard-fast rules – these suggestions come from trial and error on the battlefield.

Olympic

When you compete in an event that spans longer than 2hrs, then you need to start looking at a more efficient fueling system.

The Olympic distance event can take anywhere from 2hrs to 3hrs plus - eating and drinking now becomes more important. If you are not fuelling adequately over the 40km cycle, you will feel the burn when you enter the hunt on the 10km run.

Some athletes require less nutritional intake than others while others may require more fluid intake. The best place to learn what your body requires is by trial and error. The more you race over this distance, the more you will learn as to what you require and when. 

Half-Distance

When the event time spans over 4hrs in duration right up to 8h30, then you will need a tried and tested method, worked on in training, to see you adequately fuelled in a race that covers a whopping 113km.

The many trained brick sessions will give you a firm indication of what will work for you on race day and what will not. It does become quite expensive when your training sessions have to mimic race days but as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. The more you practice eating and drinking over the longer distances in training, the easier the transition will be from training days to half-distance racing days.

Full IM Distance

So many athletes have “bonked” or “hit the wall” over the full IM distance simply because they ran out of fuel. The body was prepared, the mental side was in place but the “engine” for some reason was neglected.

Firstly consider that a normal day at work would require someone to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Now add in 3.8km of swimming, 180km of biking, and a 42.2km marathon to top it all off, covered in a time that may span at least 17hrs. Now it becomes apparent just how much food and drink is required to keep you moving along at an optimum level.

 

Best Fuelling Tactics during Training
  • Find a product that works and more importantly is cost-effective. Just because it’s expensive does not mean it's better.
  • Trial and Error – the brick session will help you develop a suitable war plan for race days. If it works in training, more than likely it will work during the race.
  • Make sure you re-fuel within 15-30 minutes after a strenuous workout. As athletes, we often neglect the post-training refueling strategy. Remember you are not only eating for today but you are eating for tomorrow’s training session as well.
Best Fuelling Tactics during Racing
  • Eat small bits and drink small sips all the time – especially during the longer races – the reason being to keep the tank on full at all times and not deplete it before you think about replenishing. 
  • Cut up your energy bars into small bite-size pieces – this is much easier to eat and digest while on the move.
  • Get in some solid food sources quickly once you are done with the swim. The longer the duration of the event, the more advisable to start the cycle with something a little more substantial than just a gel.
  • Don’t overload your bike with too much nutrition and hydration. This makes that very expensive bike extremely heavy. The bigger races have more than an ample supply of nutrition along the way – make use of it even if you need to stop briefly and take some on-board.
  • Don’t start the run in a hurry. T2 over long distances is a time where you need to relax a little and consume some solid nutrition before you head out onto the run. Whatever time you lose in transition you will more than makeup, especially when the run distance is over a full standard marathon.
Common Fuelling Mistakes
  • Eating only when hungry – this means it's already too late. It will take you a long time to get back those lost energy stores, time which you won’t have during the race days.
  • Drinking only when thirsty. Once again, this is too late – if you are feeling thirsty you are already on the way to partial dehydration. Keep on sipping water and juice so you never get to feel that thirst.
  • Trying new stuff on race day. Stick to what you know and what you have trained on.
  • Don’t alter the nutritional plan. What you practiced in training, do the same on race day. Don’t change the formula, there is a good chance it won’t work.
  • Drinking too much. This can be a problem worse than drinking too little so take the race weather conditions on the day into account and drink what is normal for you.

 

Nutrition is important, a successful race plan always has a well thought out nutritional plan that goes along with it, and remember, it takes trial and error to perfect – good luck!

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