Preparing for a triathlon is much more than checking off a workout to improve fitness. Nutrition plays an important role in race-day readiness. Whether you are training for an IRONMAN or a local sprint triathlon, nutritional training is key.
Your fueling and hydration strategies will change day to day depending on your daily training volume and intensity. How you fuel during a race also depends on the volume of the event and your racing intensity. Nevertheless, proper fueling will help you maximize recovery, fuel your workouts appropriately, boost your immune system and maintain a healthy body composition. While triathletes can get away with a haphazard sport nutrition plan in the winter months, competing at your best requires you to constantly fine-tune sport nutrition strategies to help minimize the fluid, electrolyte and fuel depletion that may compromise your performance and health on race day.
Because proper sport nutrition should be part of your ongoing training—and not something you only do during your long workouts, in the few weeks before your race—here are several tips to help you immediately dial in your fueling and hydration for your upcoming race season.
Start training well hydrated
Consume 12-16 fluid ounces in the one to two hours before training, and an additional eight to 12 fluid ounces in the 10-20 minutes before training. Because the emptying of liquids from the stomach is influenced by the volume of fluid in the stomach, an increase in volume will increase emptying – helping you optimize hydration during your workout.
Begin hydrating early in your training session
Within the first 10-15 minutes of exercise, start hydrating with a sport drink, and drink on a regular schedule. Aim to consume five to eight ounces of fluid every 10-15 minutes. One ounce usually equals one large gulp. You may need to set a timer to remind yourself to drink. Big gulps will encourage a large volume of fluid to empty from the stomach more quickly. Because dehydration causes fluids to empty from the stomach more slowly, falling behind on your fluid intake may lead to GI distress (ex. bloating or a sloshy stomach) in the later miles of your workout (especially when running off the bike).
Use a well-formulated sport drinkThe ideal sport drink should contain 10-14 g carbohydrate (glucose, sucrose, fructose and/or maltodextrin) and at least 120 mg of sodium per every eight ounces of water. This will help stimulate drinking, facilitate intestinal absorption and maintain body fluids. To avoid taste bud fatigue, learn to develop a taste for different sport drinks (flavors and textures). As you train your gut to tolerate sport nutrition during exercise, you can gradually work your way up in calories, carbohydrates and fluids to find the sweet spot of fueling enough to support your energy/fluid needs for a given intensity, but not so much that you risk GI distress.
Monitor signs of dehydrationMost fluid-related issues are related to poor understanding of hydration needs, lacking or limited drinking opportunities, aversion to sport drinks (ex. “too much sugar”), mismanaged drinking strategies, and an inability to match excessive sweat rates with fluid intake. Reduced performance, headache, fatigue, dry mouth, sunken eyes, dizziness, loss of appetite, chills, and increased thirst are common signs of dehydration. Practice drinking while you are biking and running, and have a plan as to how to carry your nutrition and to replenish your fluid/calorie supply appropriately.
Stock your muscle and liver glycogen stores before demanding training sessionsTo fuel your upcoming training session, replenish fuel stores from an overnight fast, and restore depleted fuel from a previous session, consume a small to moderate-size pre-training meal. This should be similar to the foods and fluids that you will consume on race day. As a general rule, allow 3-4 hours to digest a large meal (450-800 calories, 1.5-3 hours to digest a medium-size meal (250-450 calories) and 30 -90 minutes to digest a mini-meal or snack (100-250 calories). Eating in the 1-3 hours before a long workout has consistently shown by research to enhance the quality of your training session, and will bring confidence when planning (and consuming) your pre-race meal.
Extensive scientific research has focused on nutrient timing—what and when you eat/drink before and during exercise. Unfortunately, nutrient timing is a confusing topic because most strategies conflict with the nutrition advice that targets weight loss and healthy eating. Although the above sport nutrition advice may appear “unhealthy” because of the recommended amounts of calories, carbohydrates/sugar and sodium, implementing smart and well-practiced fueling strategies around and during your workouts is critical for your health and athletic performances. By following the above guidelines, you can reduce your risk for sickness, fatigue and injury, stay consistent with training, and achieve race-day readiness.
Marni Sumbal is a Board Certified Sport Dietitian, holds a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and is the owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition. She is the author of Essential Sports Nutrition and is a 14x IRONMAN finisher (6x IM Kona qualifier). Marni specializes in working with endurance athletes, specifically on race week/day fueling and hydration, the application and understanding of sport nutrition products and teaching athletes how to nourish their body for health, fitness and body composition goals. She's also passionate about helping athletes develop a healthy relationship with food and the body. Marni and her husband, Karel, coach a team of endurance triathletes and hold several triathlon training camps throughout the summer in their hometown of Greenville, SC. For more information on her services, visit Trimarnicoach.com and follow Marni on Facebook @Trimarnicoach and Instagram @trimarni.