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Nail your key races and training sessions through smart nutrition

Prepare properly to ensure you bounce back from hard workouts

Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

Smart food choices can help all triathletes get to the next level. Nutrition is invaluable for optimizing performance as well as health throughout a long season. When athletes pay attention to what, how much, and when they consume foods and fluids, their chances for enjoying a successful season get stronger.

photo: Getty Images

Preparing for Race Day

The day before the competitive event, runners and triathletes should:

  • train only lightly; this allow muscles time to refuel.
  • hydrate well; the goal being copious light-colored urine.
  • choose carbohydrate-based meals and snacks.

For a 150-pound triathlete, for example, the goal is to eat about 1,800 to 2,100 calories from grains, fruits, veggies, sugars, and starchy foods to replenish the muscle and liver glycogen stores that got depleted during training sessions. That’s no Paleo or Keto diet!

More precisely, the target is 3 to 3.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (6-8 g/kg). For a 150-pound athlete, this means about 450 to 525 grams carb the day before the race to refuel—plus for two to three more days afterwards. Divided into three meals plus two snacks, we’re talking oatmeal + bagel for breakfast, sub sandwich + fruit for lunch, a pile of pasta with dinner, plus some pretzels and dried fruit for snacks.

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Every meal should be carb-based. Athletes who fill-up on excessive protein at meals, plus choose protein bars and shakes for snacks, commonly eat only half this recommended carb intake. While protein helps build and repair muscles, it does not fuel muscles. In team sports we know that players on teams who start a game with low muscle glycogen tend to run less distance and be slower than carb-loaded players. This is particularly noticeable in the second half of the game. As a runner or triathlete, you don’t want the same drop in performance needlessly happen to you.

Related: What vegetarian pro triathlete Tamara Jewett eats in a day

Race Day Fueling

A pre-race meal, eaten three to four hours before start-time, will optimize liver glycogen stores that can drop by 50 per cent overnight. Anxious triathletes who sleep poorly could burn even more. A pre-event meal helps fuel high intensity sprints; it delays fatigue so that you can perform better. An adequate pre-event meal is particularly important for late-morning or afternoon start times.

For a 150-lb athlete, “adequate” means 300 to 450 calories from grains, fruit or other source of carb that settles well and digests easily. This could be a bagel and a banana; oatmeal with raisins and maple syrup, or two packets of Nature Valley granola bars. More precisely, target ~0.5 to 1.5 g carb/lb. body weight (1-3 g/kg).

  • Runners and triathletes want to tank-up with water, sport drink, coffee or a familiar fluid in the two to four hours pre-race. This allows time for them to void the excess fluid.
As a volunteer runs to get water to them, Charles Paquet helps Jeremy Briand out with a water bottle at the 2020 Canadian Pro Triathlon Championship.

During endurance events

The overall nutrition goals during long runs, bikes and triathlons are to:

  1. drink ample fluid to prevent dehydration (but not over-hydrate), and
  2. consume ample carbohydrate to prevent blood glucose from dropping. The brain uses carbs to think clearly and focus on the task at hand.

After warm-up, and again every 30 to 45 minutes, you want to consume about 100 to 250 calories from carbohydrate (~30 to 60 g carb) to help keep feeling “sharp.” Sport drinks and gels can be handy sources of carbohydrate at this time. Most gels offer 25 grams carb. Those who poorly tolerate gels can get the same benefit from natural foods (banana, raisins, honey). Real food works just as well.

  • For triathletes who cannot tolerate any food or fluid in their anxious stomach, swishing and spitting a sport drink can potentially enhance performance. No need to spit it out if you can tolerate it!
  • Sweat rates vary from 500 to 2,500 ml/hour. The goal is to prevent a drop of more than 2 to 3 per cent in pre-activity body weight (and also to avoid over-hydrating). That means a 150-pound triathlete should lose less than 3 to 4.5 pounds per workout or race. Weight yourself (without clothing) before and after a workout to see how close you come to replacing what you lose.

Related: Fact or Fiction – carbo loading before a race makes for better times

Post-race Recovery

Triathletes need less time to fully recover if they do a good job of fueling and hydrating before and during the event (or hard workout). This is particularly important in situations where you might have back-to-back efforts.

  • To rapidly replenish depleted glycogen stores, a 150-pound triathlete wants to consume about 300 calories of carbohydrate per hour for the four next hours (more precisely, 0.5 g carb/lb. body weight (1 g/kg).) This can be accomplished with carb-based drinks and snacks in the locker room, followed by a post-race meal near the event site, and snacks while traveling. Plan ahead!
  • Triathletes with a poor post-race appetite may initially prefer commercial sport foods, but natural foods (chocolate milk, vanilla yogurt) offer more electrolytes along with carbs, protein and fluid. Tart cherry juice might help reduce muscle soreness.
  • The post-race goal is to maintain a carb-rich diet (3-3.5 g carb/lb.; 6-8 g/kg) in the 24-hours post-race, and again for the next two to three days. As a runner, you are either fueling up or refueling! Every meal and snack has a purpose.
  • To repair muscles, triathletes want to target 20 to 25 grams of high quality protein (milk, soy, eggs, meats) at three to four hour intervals. While more research is needed, cottage cheese before sleep might enhance overnight muscle repair. Tart cherry juice might help reduce muscle soreness.
  • When adult athletes want to celebrate with alcohol after an event, take note: More than two drinks (2 beers, 10 oz. wine, 3 oz. alcohol) can impair glycogen replacement, muscle repair, and rehydration—to say nothing of hurt the next day’s performance. When recovery is a priority, athletes should avoid alcohol. Good thing the thrill of victory comes with a natural high!

Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you eat wisely yet simply and win with good nutrition. For more information, visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.