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Fuel For Champions: What Triathletes Eat

By Peggy Shinn | May 14, 2015, 1:14 p.m. (ET)

Food is fuel. Or so the saying goes.

For triathletes, this is especially true. They compete in three events in races that, at the Olympic distance (1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike, 10-kilometer run), can last around two hours. Going all out for this length of time, often in hot, humid conditions, triathletes’ diets are as important as their equipment.

We asked Team USA’s top four women how they fuel on race day — and what they eat to recover. These four women — Katie Zaferes, Gwen Jorgensen, Sarah True and Lindsey Jerdonek — are currently ranked 1-2-3-5, respectively, in the ITU’s World Triathlon Series standings. And all four are aiming for a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team competing in Rio, with the first qualifier coming up this August.

So what fuels these women on race day? And what do they eat to recover? Their answers are surprising.

Lindsey Jerdonek

Favorite Pre-Race Breakfasts

Gwen Jorgensen has won every WTS race that she has entered in the past year. And the 29-year-old triathlete always eats the same breakfast before every race: oatmeal. She travels with a rice cooker and makes the oats in the rice cooker about four hours before the race starts.

“I soak the oats overnight (this helps break down the oats so they are easier to digest),” she wrote via email. “I cook the oats with berries (bananas, raspberries, blueberries). I also add peanut butter after the oats are done cooking.”

Protein and fat, she has learned, are key. Rather than steering clear of these calories, she has increased her consumption of healthy fats, such as coconut and olive oil, avocados, and nuts (macadamia, almonds and walnuts), as well as red meat, cheese and eggs.

For Katie Zaferes, 25, who has finished on the podium in every WTS race this season, her pre-race breakfast depends on the race’s start time. If it’s a late race, she admits to indulging in the hotel breakfast buffet. If the race is earlier in the day, she eats oatmeal with peanut butter and banana.

In either case, she steers clear of dairy. Her stomach does not respond well to dairy products before a tough race or workout.

Zaferes has also learned to be flexible. With races all over the world, her “norm” is not always available. So instead of oatmeal, she eats rice.

“I've found that with not being so neurotic about what I eat I'm able to relax and just enjoy the experience more,” she said.

Lindsey Jerdonek, 30, a former collegiate swimmer and top-five WTS finisher, also goes for less fiber before a race. Her breakfast of choice is rice and eggs with honey and soy sauce. She can throw it together in her hotel room with a microwavable pouch of rice and a kettle to boil the eggs. Or she gets hard-boiled eggs from the hotel’s breakfast buffet, if available. Coffee is also a pre-race must-have.

“However, being flexible is key when on the road, so any combination of cereal, yogurt, banana, etc. will get the job done, too,” Jerdonek wrote via email.

For Olympian Sarah True (nee Groff), it’s been a challenge to learn what foods she can easily digest and tolerate. Her favorite pre-race breakfast is eggs, toast and coffee.

Favorite Pre-Race Snacks

Between breakfast and race time, Zaferes will eat peanut butter sandwiches and/or energy bars and drink water and a sports drink.

Jorgensen relies on bananas, energy bars and peanut butter, and washes them down with Red Bull.

True likes rice, maple syrup (available in single-serving packets from UnTapped) and bananas.

Katie Zaferes

Favorite Race Fuel

During a race, triathletes need to stay fueled with carbohydrates and hydrated with water and electrolytes. In triathlon, it’s easiest to refuel during the bike leg because bike frames can hold water bottles — and for Jerdonek, gel packets too.

True, Zaferes and Jerdonek rely on gels. Zaferes eats vanilla GU during the bike leg and has a rehydration drink such as Osmo in her water bottle.

Jerdonek consumes PowerBar vanilla gels, along with two bottles of water, during the bike leg. She tapes the gels to her bike’s frame with electrical tape, which allows her to rip them off and open them with one hand and in one motion.

“It’s best to practice this maneuver first in training,” she warned.

Jorgensen used to eat nothing during a race because she could not find a nutritional drink that she enjoyed. Then she tried Red Bull — and she promises that she’s not just saying that as a plug for one of her sponsors.

“I was hesitant at first, as I viewed this drink as not having any nutritional benefits,” she confessed. “But my nutritionist showed me the benefits of Red Bull.”

These benefits include B vitamins, in addition to caffeine. B vitamins help the body use carbohydrates, protein and fat for fuel.

Jorgensen mixes Red Bull with water for races.

Gwen Jorgensen

Favorite Recovery Meal

After a race, triathletes can let their hair down, so to speak. Zaferes really likes smoothies, ice cream and chocolate milk — “All the dairy I didn't eat before the race!” she joked.

However, those items are not typically available immediately after they cross the finish line, when it’s crucial to quickly replace glycogen stores for optimum recovery. Jerdonek packs a bar in her bag and eats it immediately, as does Zaferes who eats whatever she finds in her bag: energy bars, bananas, belVita cookies.

As soon as they can after a race, all four women like to eat burgers.

“It's what I crave, and it's important to listen to your body,” said Jerdonek.

True will also order fries and a local microbrew to go with her burger.

And Jorgensen often tops off her post-race meal with ice cream.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

Related Athletes

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Gwen Jorgensen

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Sarah True