What Do You Eat in a Triathlon?
Your Guide to Fueling a Sprint-Distance Race and Beyond
If you’re following our training plan for your first sprint triathlon, you’ve probably wondered what you should eat during workouts and in the upcoming competition. Nutrition for endurance sports might seem complicated at first, since everyone has an opinion and a story about how a faulty fueling plan ruined a race, but we’re here to allay your fears. Eating for training and racing needn’t be complicated, daunting, or difficult. You simply need to make some choices, try them out, and keep what works. Read on for a five-step process to identify your best fueling strategy.
1. Keep it simple
Spend any amount of time reading triathlon forums (stop doing that), and you’ll see accounts of rolling science experiments, with carbohydrate dosages meted out in hair-splitting quantities. Athletes such as these cannot be taught, and many don’t seem to want to. They enjoy the exacting nature of their fueling, which is fine, but the problem is that it won’t take much to ruin their plan on race day. If you absolutely have to eat 28.7g of carbohydrate, 555mg of sodium, and a piece of obscure Chinese ginger every 30 minutes, you’re setting yourself up for a disaster when you spill your salt or a bird makes off with the ginger during your swim. During an endurance event, you need carbohydrates, water, and salt (either dissolved in that water or in your food). Start with those three ingredients, first.
2. Experiment with Quantities
There are limits to how much carbohydrate, water, and salt your body can accommodate and use, and everybody is different. You’ve got all of these workouts to accomplish, though, so use them to figure out what you can handle. Most coaches and athletes measure their food intake in grams of carbohydrate per hour (CHO/hr), and their fluid intake in ounces or milliliters per hour (oz./hr or ml/hr). You can find out how many grams any given product contains by reading the nutritional label. The upper limit is probably around 90g of CHO/hr for food, while fluid absorption varies wildly. A good place to start? Try 60-80g of CHO/hr on the bike and 40-60g of CHO/hr while running. For fluid, begin at 1-1.5 bottles per hour (24-36 oz., or 700-1050 ml) and see how you do, adding more if you don’t run into issues. What are you looking for? Well, if you’re not getting enough fluid, you may experience headaches, fatigue, high heart rate (pulse), and irritability/lack of focus. If you’re low on calories, you may experience…headaches, fatigue, irritability/lack of focus, and lower heart rates than normal. So symptoms are similar, which may seem annoying at first, until you realize the probable answer: eat AND drink something if you’re experiencing any of those symptoms, but make sure to read our note about hyponatremia, below. If you’re getting too much food, you’ll experience some gastrointestinal distress, but remember that being dehydrated, too, while contribute to GI woes!
3. What Formats?
There are almost as many brands of nutrition as there are races, but most of them sell the same big three ingredients: carbohydrates, salt, and fluid. Our advice? Try as many as possible, starting with the guidelines above, and tweaking the amounts as your system suggests your needs. Most sport bars carry 40-50g of carbohydrate per serving, most gels contain about 25g of CHO, chews are often 5-9g per chew, and any sports drink literally worth its salt will contain 500-800mg of sodium per mixed bottle. Some sodium/electrolyte products only have salt and no calories, which we’re OK with, but make sure you’re getting enough sustenance from the bars, gels, and chews going down your gullet. Many athletes experiment with non-sports nutrition as well, eating sweet potatoes, PB&J sandwiches, homemade honey balls, or stacks of Pringles. All of these are fine solutions, providing a nice break from the homogeneity of sports nutrition, but double-read our next section.
4. Practice in Every Session
Yes, that’s right: every session. Once you’ve started experimenting, don’t ever miss a session without practicing and refining your approach. You want your racing and training nutrition plan to be second nature, and for your body to recognize and easily accept what you’re feeding it. Your gut is adaptable, and the more you train it, the better it can handle different scenarios. What doesn’t work, though, is skipping fueling during your sessions to try and lose weight. If you follow that manner of thinking, your system will learn to slow down as you train as your system tries to spare calories. Then, on race day, when you attempt to feed it what it needs, it will reject the nutrition the way a grumpy toddler rejects peas.
5. A Simple Starting Plan
Follow the table below for a very simple starting plan for your training and racing nutrition, and then read our series of caveats below that. You won’t be able to fuel during the swim portion of your race, but in training we still recommend finishing a bottle during your workouts. Remember that it only requires a 2% drop in body weight due to dehydration for you to experience a dramatic drop in performance, so don’t let that happen to you.
|Every hour on bike, consume...||Quantitative||Qualitative|
1-1.5 packages chews
24-48 oz fluid
1-2 bottles of fluid,
each with at least
500mg of sodium
|Every hour on the run, consume...||Quantitative||Qualitative|
1/2 to 1 package of chews
We don't recommend bard
while running (unless your
are doing an ultra-run, in
which case, eat what you'd
24-48 oz fluid
1 cup of fluid at each aid
station, or 1-2 bottles of
fluid per hour (as
possible) making sure to
get in 500-1500mg of sodium
First of all, a note about hyponatremia. If you ONLY drink water, drink tons of it, and take in no salt, you are in danger of hyponatremia, which happens when the sodium concentration in your body drops to dangerous levels. The symptoms are similar to dehydration, which is a problem, since athletes feel dehydrated and keep drinking water. Hyponatremia can be fatal, but it is very avoidable. Make sure your bottles always contain sodium of some sort.
Salt and Carbohydrates Assist Absorption
Drinks with salt and calories help your body absorb the water in your sports drink, so make sure to include both in your bottles. Very often athletes try to cut calories in training, and that only leads to poor racing and training outcomes. When your stomach recognizes sodium and carbohydrates in your drink mix, the fluid doesn’t pass into the kidneys as quickly (where it is slated for, um, elimination), allowing your system to extract more water for your working engine.
Women May Do Better with Chews than Gels
Dr. Stacy Sims, in her excellent book Roar, asserts that many women have more luck with sport chews than traditional gels. Chews are great because they are semi-solid, so they digest quickly, but they’re easy to manage, and many of them taste better than gels (we think). Some great options are the PowerBar PowerGel Shots (we know: confusing name), the Skratch Labs Sport Energy Chews, and the Clif Bloks Energy Chews.
Women Are Not Small Men
To steal another piece of information from Dr. Sims, “Women are not small men.” The traditional approach to performance nutrition for women is the age-old “shrink it and pink it.” That approach drastically underserves women in sport, and should be avoided. A woman’s menstrual and hormonal cycle changes the way her body deals with fuel, and each athlete should experiment for herself what works best, following step number two, above.
Just a cyclist or runner? Simply follow the guidelines for each sport above as your starting point and see how it goes.
The biggest takeaway is that whatever you decide to try, practice it with the same assiduousness you practice your sport. Too many athletes train hard, but then ruin their races because they haven’t practiced effective eating and drinking. Think of every training session as an opportunity to train your body to eat and drink, and you will arrive at race day an efficient machine, properly set up to accept the fluid and calories you need to succeed.