All experienced triathletes will tell you that nutrition should never take a backseat when preparing for a race. More specifically, race day fueling strategies are particularly important and represent a common challenge among all types of endurance athletes, but especially multisport athletes.
No matter how long your race is going to be, you need a good plan for your fueling. This comes with practice and testing out different types of fuel during training as well as experimenting with different supplements and foods that agree with you.
Because the length or distance of the triathlon will shape your nutritional needs, below we break down specific fueling strategies based on the main types of triathlon.
A Plan for Any Triathlon Distance
Nutrition is very important, no matter what triathlon distance you’ll be training for and racing in. But, to be more specific, when speaking of triathlons, we can group your fueling plan into a few categories:
- Pre-race dinner – “Balance” is the keyword here. You need to make sure that you get carbohydrates, fat, and protein in your meal. Never avoid carbs, but don’t go over the top with them either. You will need to hydrate with water, and of course – avoid alcohol.
- Pre-race breakfast – of course, you need to take your breakfast, and once again – balance. Eat well in advance of the race, optimally two-three hours.
- Race fuel – you will need to use your training here to know what endurance supplements work best for you. However, you need to look for natural sports products, such as fruit puree, natural flavors, and of course, a bit of protein and race.
- Post-race recovery fuel – you will need to replace lost nutrients by eating the right balance of carbs, fat, and protein. Of course, depending on the race, you may not be able to eat straight away, but put the focus on the carbs and protein in terms of macronutrients, which are crucial for proper recovery.
Sprint Distance Triathlon
The Sprint triathlon distance is usually comprised of a 750m swim, 20k bike, and 5k run, so it’s often a high-intensity effort that requires minimal race nutrition. This is a short-course triathlon distance, and you need good concentration. Triathlon accidents can be very serious, so make sure to maintain your concentration level. One way to do so is to follow the fueling plan below:
- Race fuel – if you are trained for metabolic efficiency, you won’t need more calories during a sprint triathlon. If you eat a balanced meal pre-race, you are good to go.
- Fluids – how much fluid you provide your body depends on the time of the race, climate, and sweat rate. Of course, drink water, but don’t overdo it.
- Electrolytes – most people won’t need electrolytes during the race, but once again, this is an individual thing. If you take any electrolytes, make sure they don’t have any calories
Olympic Distance Triathlon
We continue with the Olympic distance triathlon, which is a 1,500m swim, 40k bike, and 10k run. You can follow this plan if you participate in this type of triathlon:
- Race fuel – you may not need replacement calories during the race, but if you consumed your breakfast three hours before the race, you might be running on empty. An option here would be to eat breakfast a bit later, about 2 hours pre-race.
- Fluids – 12-14 ounces of water every hour should be enough, but again – don’t overdo it. Over-hydration can have a negative impact, so keep this in mind.
- Electrolytes – once again, remember that if you consume electrolytes, they shouldn’t have any calories.
Half-Ironman Distance Triathlon
Let’s now take a look at a plan concerning the long-course racing, starting with the half-Ironman distance triathlon, or 70.3 distance, which is a 1.2mile swim, and 56-mile bike, and 13.1 mile run:
- Race Fuel – once again, this depends on your breakfast time. If you have eaten a breakfast 3 hours in advance, a 150-calorie snack may be required pre-swim. If you eat a bit later, start fueling when you get on the bike.
- Fluids – don’t forget about fluids here, with 12-24 ounces of water being enough.
- Electrolytes – here, electrolytes with calories are fine.
Ironman Distance Triathlon
Finally, we have the Ironman distance triathlon which is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run, so you need quite a bit of extra fueling:
- Race fuel – when you start fueling also depends on breakfast time. If you eat three hours before the race, a 150-calorie snack may be enough, and if you eat later, delay it until you are on the bike. Once you start, fuel once per hour with up to 150 calories.
- Fluids – 12-24 ounces per hour (water).
- Electrolytes – again, you are good to consume electrolytes with calories.
As you continue on your path of triathlon training and racing, also continue to experiment with your nutrition and fueling strategies. What works for some may not work for others. So, it’s important to figure out what works for you.
About the author
Emily Myers is a retired triathlete who currently works as a resident writer for Squawka. Even though she’s no longer that active in the sport, she still continues to train. Outside of work, she loves to write about health and fitness tips and shares her expertise with her readers.
Endurance athlete, professional off-road cyclist, and avid blogger, Tyler Tafelsky participates in long-course multisport and cycling events. Today, Tyler competes in ultra-distance cycling races at the professional level. Since starting Better Triathlete in 2014, he has been the head of content for the site's editorial team. Learn more about Tyler