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Fueling for the Sprint Distance

By Monique Ryan | Aug. 04, 2009, 12 a.m. (ET)

Sprint triathlon racing can seem short and sweet compared to its longer distance cousins, but don’t let finishing times fool you. Eating and hydrating properly is essential to get in blocks of quality training and to have high octane fuel in your tank for race day.  

Match it up every day
Matching your fuel intake to your output, particularly carbohydrate intake, is needed for optimal recovery from one training session to the next, whether in 4, 8, 12 or 24 hours. So, don’t buy into the deluge of low carbohydrate diets long on the scene. Let your training and sensible eating take care of body composition goals. Every training session depletes body carbohydrate stores to some degree, it is just a matter of how much, and sometimes that depletion is significant.

Of course, get in plenty of wholesome carbohydrate choices, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, but the total amount you consume is important. How much you need depends on how long and at what intensity you train that day. Carbohydrate requirements for the day based on total training times are outlined below:

  • 2 to 2.5 grams per pound weight for 60 minutes
  • 2.5 to 3 grams per pound for 75-90 minutes
  • 3-3.5 grams per pound for over 90-120 minutes
  • 3.5 to 4 grams per pound for 2-3 hours

Just to translate all these numbers, let’s start with a 60 minute training run. A 140 pound triathlete would require about 280 grams of carbohydrate that day. On a training day that included a 45-minute swim and 60-minute bike ride, she would require over 400 grams of carbohydrate. Finally, the long bike day which could include a 3-hour ride would necessitate an intake of 490 grams of carbohydrate.

Of course, two other important nutrients in your daily training diet are protein and fat. Higher protein amounts required for sprint training are easily met with balanced eating, and fat can be kept to low or moderate amounts if you want to drop a few pounds. 

Focus on timing
Besides consuming enough carbohydrate, timing your carbohydrate intake properly is also important to provide fuel before, during, or after each training session. Fueling up with a light carbohydrate snack providing 50 grams in the 2 hours before training gives carbohydrate fuel levels a boost. 

Recovery nutrition, eating in the minutes after hard training, is also a good practice to jump start the replenishment process. Within 15 minutes after training longer than 75-90 minutes, aim for half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of weight. You can also add 15 grams of protein to the recovery mix. Convenient recovery drinks and smoothies are also hydrating, but you can also use real foods such as cereal, fruit, and milk, or a peanut butter and jam sandwich for your recovery snack. 

Immediate post-exercise nutritional timing is especially important if you train twice that day. After training, muscle glycogen is repleted at a high rate, and this carbohydrate and protein mix can be consumed again in two hours, and every few hours, so that fuel stores are sufficient for the next workout.

Hydrate and practice fueling

Of course the carbohydrate you consume during training is intertwined with your hydration strategies. Training sessions lasting longer than 75-90 minutes steadily deplete muscle glycogen, and sports drinks provide needed fuel, fluid, and electrolytes. Even harder training sessions lasting only 60 minutes can quickly deplete glycogen. 

Learning how much to drink and refining your drinking techniques, especially on the bike, is essential for race day. To start, aim for 4-8 ounces of a sports drink every 15-20 minutes of training. Check your weight in the buff before and after training. If you’re down more than 1 pound, you may not be keeping up with your sweat losses. A 2-pound weight loss indicates either a high sweat rate, or the need to drink more, or both. Any weight gain after training could reflect fluid consumption in excess of a low sweat rate.

While everyone has their own individual sweat rate, it could increase as you progress in your training, and in warmer weather conditions.  Check your sweat during the various disciplines, especially as race day approaches so that you can focus on minimizing fluid losses during the race. 

A quick and dirty formula for checking sweat rate: 
Sweat rate = (body weight pre-training – body weight post-training + fluid ingestion) ÷ exercise time. 1 pound of weight loss equals 15 ounces of fluid.  

For example:  
Sweat rate = (140 lb.-139 lb. or 1 lb. loss + 24 oz fluid ingested) over 1 hour of training.
Sweat rate = 15 oz + 24 oz = 39 oz/hour

Build muscle 

Resistance training is often the fourth discipline for any triathlete, and like running, is a weight bearing exercise. To make the most of your muscle building efforts, consume 20 to 25 grams of high quality protein, along with 25 grams of carbohydrate within the 30 minutes before resistance training. You should also consume these carbohydrate and protein amounts within 1-2 hours after resistance training.

Sprint training nutrition tips:
Workout  Try Because
Early morning swim  Having a light pre-swim snack such as juice and half an energy bar. Consume a sports drink or gel or beans and blocks during the swim. 
Liver glycogen stores are low in the morning and you need a fuel boost for early morning training.
Long bike rides  Practicing your drinking techniques on the bike. Experiment and find your favorite sports drink for race day. 

This is the most important and easiest time to fuel and hydrate during what is the longest leg of the race.
Evening training sessions  Having a high carbohydrate snack within 1-2 hours beforehand.  
This will provide fuel for training and continue the recovery process from early morning training. 
Weekend workouts  Practicing the meal timing and portions consumed before long training sessions.  
You will have your pre-race meal well tested, helping to calm race day nerves.

Monique Ryan, MS, RD is the author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, 2nd edition (VeloPress 2007). Click here to view more about the book or purchase. She was a member of the Athens 2004 Performance Enhancement Teams for USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Women’s Road Team. She is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs and offers her sports nutrition “E Program” at