Race Nutrition for Long Distance Triathlon
The purpose of this article is not to provide a one size fits all foolproof nutrition plan. Nutrition is very personal and honing a strategy that works takes practice. One thing to mention from the start is food is not a replacement for under par fitness. If you have not put in the training at some point you will no longer be able to sustain the pace you might like to, no matter how much fuel you take on. This guide aims to give you basic knowledge of nutrition & allow you to build your own successful strategy to perform in a long distance triathlon and keep away from ‘the man with the hammer’ or the dreaded ‘bonk.’ I am not a nutritionist, the details in this information come from my background as a personal trainer and experience in competing at various sports. Athletes with specific allergies and sensitivities may need to seek the guidance of a professional nutritionist.
General Day to Day Nutrition
Training for three disciplines, especially for long distance, requires a lot of fuel. There is no need to cut out particular food types completely. Try to keep your diet well balanced. Look to include the following:
Protein from lean meat such as chicken and turkey, dairy, seeds, nuts, grains, legumes, green leafy vegetables and fish.
Carbohydrates from potatoes, pasta, bread & cereals. The GI (Glycemic Index) is a scale which relates to the speed at which the glycogen from carbohydrates enters the bloodstream. 100 being glucose, the simplest sugar which can actually enter the bloodstream through the stomach wall and not have to enter the intestines. High GI foods can lead to an insulin spike which is characterised by a sugar ‘high’ and then an energy ‘low.’ White and processed foods are more likely to have a high GI. Brown and/or whole wheat breads and pasta’s have a lower GI which causes a slower energy release and helps maintain constant energy levels. The GI of a food can be manipulated by the way it is prepared. For example a mashed potato has a higher GI than a baked potato. By mashing you are starting the breaking down process and making it easier for your body to use the available carbohydrate. GI also works as an average of a meal not its individual ingredients. By adding fat and protein to a simple carbohydrate you will change the speed at which that meal can be processed. It’s not a case of low GI is good and high GI is bad, it’s all about timings. High GI when you need energy soon and low GI when you need to drip feed those carbohydrates into your bloodstream over a longer period. E.g. Porridge with fruit and nuts for breakfast (medium/low GI) then an energy bar or sports drink when you are out on your ride. Or, a rice cake with jam (high GI) before a run session.
Fat has the most calories per gram of any other food type (9 calories/gram compared to 4 Kcal/gram for protein and carbohydrates). Our bodies like fat, it fills us up, has lots of energy and tastes good. Be wary of foods that advertise themselves as ‘low fat.’ When the fat is removed it is often replaced with sugar to keep it satisfying to taste. A high fat food might have more calories but is likely to make you feel fuller for longer and keep away the quick fix cravings. Look to intake fats from a range of sources such as dairy, seeds, nuts, oily fish, avocado and red meat (just 1-2 times per week for red meat).
Fibre does not provide much in the way of useful calories. It does however keep the digestive tract working efficiently. Fruit, vegetables, cereals and grains are all good sources of dietary fibre. Too much fibre can leave you feeling bloated. When combined with race day nerves it can also lead to multiple toilet trips on race day morning. Bare this in mind and try not to eat too much high fibre food in the days leading up to a race.
Vitamins, minerals & antioxidants come from a wide range of food types. The best way to get a good mix of these is to eat lots of colourful and varied fruit and vegetables. Aim to get at least five portions of fruit and veg a day and eat twice as much vegetables as fruit. Juggling work, family & endurance training can mean this is the area that gets missed. A strong multi-vitamin could help make sure you get the essentials and will give the immune system a boost, especially during hard training blocks.
To summarise, keep it simple. Before approaching any change in diet ask yourself ‘is it sustainable?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then it’s probably not right. A diet should be a lifestyle choice not a quick fix. If you are trying to lose weight for an event do it gradually. Up to 2lbs/week is considered healthy weight loss. Eat to perform and the volume of training should help the excess weight come off. If you try to train whilst leaving a large calorie deficit you will lose weight, but probably become lethargic, demotivated and possible ill or injured in the process. There is nothing wrong with a treat now and again. You might burn 5,000Kcal on a big day of training. Once you’ve given your body some good quality nutrition there is nothing wrong with a nice reward of cake and ice cream to top it off. Diet is as simple as inputs and outputs. If you consume the amount of calories you burn then you will maintain the same weight. Bradley Wiggin’s summed it up by simply saying ‘don’t fill up the tank if you are only going to the shops.’
Endurance Ride & Run Fuel
First things first, start the day with a good breakfast. Have it include low GI carbohydrates and protein. A couple of examples: porridge with seeds, nuts and fruit. Beans on toast. Scrambled egg with spinach on toast. Avocado and peanut butter bagels. Try to eat it 1-2 hours before setting off. Any longer and you may need another little snack before leaving. Don’t wait until you are out on the bike to start hydrating either. Get some water on board with your breakfast.
Out on the bike aim for 250-350 kcal/hour in total. This can come from solids and fluids. Consume little and often to keep drip feeding glycogen to the muscles (glycogen is what our body stores carbohydrate/sugar as in the muscles and liver). A bite of a bar every 20 minutes is more beneficial than one whole bar on the hour. My personal opinion is stay away from gels on the bike during a long distance triathlon. One gel is about 100 Kcal, you’d need two to three an hour. That’s up to 18 gels in a 6 hour bike split. Imagine 18 gels poured into a bowl. Now picture that inside your stomach. Nearly every story of gastro intestinal distress I have ever heard of in long distance triathlon is caused by gels. My advice would be eat solid food on the bike. In the weeks leading up to your event find out what nutrition will be available at the feed stations. Purchase some and practice with it. Do not rely 100% on the feed stations but at least know that your body can cope with what they will provide. Experiment with a few other snacks (manufactured or homemade) and create a plan based on what you can realistically carry and what you can pick up from feed stations on the day. 250-350 Kcal/hour is a guide, smaller athlete’s may need less and larger athlete’s may need more. Too much food in the stomach at once can lead to gastric shut down, particularly at higher intensities as blood is drawn away from the digestive system to the working muscles. As a general rule, at low level aerobic intensity (long distance triathlon pace), if you replace half of the calories you burn you will replenish glycogen stores sufficiently. The rest of your energy at this intensity should come from fat stores. Even the leanest of triathletes has enough fat to fuel them for multiple ultra endurance events.
Learn to read the signs of dehydration and low glycogen levels. Here are a few signs that you need fuel and or water:
- Drifting off and looking at the scenery, laughing out loud or singing.
- Making poor/sloppy gear changes.
- Spinning at a cadence that is not natural to you. E.g. big gear, slower rpm.
- No longer sweating despite being hot.
- Zigzagging across the road.
- Seeing stars or hallucinating.
- Dry mouth.
- Rumbling stomach.
- Heart rate higher than normal for same perceived effort could be a sign of dehydration.
- Heart rate dropping during the same perceived effort could be a sign of an energy low.
- Slurring your words.
Hydration varies a lot among individuals and the climate you are racing in. Aim for at least 500ml/hour of fluids. Up to 1 litre/hour on hot days. Even if you are not sweating you are still expelling water when you exhale. A sports drink can help drip feed carbohydrates and replace lost salts. It may be harder to digest solid food on really hot days so a sports drink can help replace calories on hot training days. In a long distance triathlon you should be stopping to urinate at a few points throughout the day. If you haven’t and/or at your last stop you passed amber or dark urine you need to increase your fluid intake. If this happens up your intake with sips little and often. Flooding your stomach with a bottle at once can make you uncomfortable, bloated, maybe sick and possibly pass through you quickly without getting absorbed by the body.
The need for electrolytes varies massively between individuals. If you leave salty stains on your kit or have salt dry on your skin when you sweat then it is likely you need to replace salts while training. Also if you suffer from cramps during training then it is worth trialing electrolyte drinks or salt tabs. Start with half of the recommended dosage on any package and build it up if you are still cramping.
Once you have successfully fueled and paced yourself through a long cycle you need to be able to run. Although your runs off the long bike ride in training will never be that long in comparison to the marathon run on the day, you still have to practice getting the fuel on board to get you through it. You need to practice fueling to run a marathon whilst on the bike. Try not to hold back on the nutrition during training just so you can have a big rewarding feed later that day. You need to get off the bike feeling fresh in training so start to practice consuming enough to make this happen. It is more difficult to get nutrition on board during the run, therefore it is not a good time to be playing ‘catch up.’ Try not to overdo the solid fuel on the last hour of the bike. If it doesn’t get a chance to digest you may be uncomfortable during the run.
During the run you may wish to switch to gels or a product that does not require much chewing and is easier to digest. For training with short runs off the bike one gel 10-20 minutes before getting off the bike and then maybe one more during a 30-40 minute run will be enough to keep glycogen stored topped up. For the marathon during a race stick to the 250-350 Kcal/hour rule. Try to wash gels down with a drink. It will help with digestion, keep you hydrated and help with the taste they leave in your mouth. If your run is going to take more than four hours you may wish to experiment with some more ‘real’ or savoury food for the run. Rice pudding or malt loaf are popular choices. It is difficult to carry lots of nutrition on the run so it is important that you research and practice with the food that will be provided. Twelve plus hours into the race everything will begin to look attractive at the feed stations, savoury or sweet make sure it’s something you have practiced successfully with in training. Race websites should contain details of the nutrition sponsor, their products available on the day and any other available nutrition.
Start the recovery process as soon as possible after every training session. Try to consume something within fifteen minutes of finishing your session to kick start the recovery process. A mixture of protein and simple carbohydrates works best E.g. sports recovery shake, milk shake, fruit yogurt, banana and nut butter. Getting some quality nutrition into you here can also keep cravings away and stop you making poor nutritional choices. We’ve all come in from a hard session and gone straight to the biscuit tin! Next, aim to consume a meal within two hours of having your recovery fuel. This meal should contain a mixture of protein, low GI carbohydrates and nutrients from vegetables. If this is your evening meal bare in mind it is a long time till breakfast. You may be up early to train and not eat a proper meal until after your morning training session. This is a long time to fast so you may need a high protein, low GI carbohydrate snack before bed. It’s common for athletes to not eat before an early training session, particularly swimming. You will have to eat before the swim on race morning so it is worth getting used to eating something before your early sessions.
Taper & Race Week
When you finish your biggest block of training before the taper you will no doubt be tired. The goal of a taper is to shed those layers of fatigue by reducing training volume at a rate that allows you to maintain your fitness and at the same time gain freshness. This is where you need to be on the ball with your nutrition. You will be training less, so your calorie intake should be less or you will gain weight. Yes, you do need to replenish and maintain glycogen stores so you can perform in your event. However, this can still be done by eating less than you consumed during your biggest weeks of training. An athlete with a large muscle mass can only store about 2000 Kcal of glycogen in their body (1400-1600 Kcal for the average person). For an average person that’s only about 200Kcal surplus of carbohydrates a day during the two weeks leading up to your event. Consciously eat good quality low GI carbs with every meal but just be aware that the quantities may need to decrease as the training volume does. This is not the time to be making drastic changes to the types of food you have been eating, just the quantities.
During the final day or two before your event your routine is going to disrupted with travel, registration, briefings etc. Try to keep your nutrition to a routine and do not try anything new. Take your own food with you when you can. Most events offer a pasta party in the days leading up to your event. The food here might be good quality (it might not), be wary of the variety. It is tempting to try a bit of everything but the mix might not digest well. Try to keep it simple and go easy on sauces. A popular choice among endurance athletes is pizza the night before an event. Wherever you are in the world you can usually locate pizza. Pizza menu choices are usually similar and so are the portion sizes. Pizza also has a really good combination of carbohydrate, protein and fat. I’m not saying you must eat pizza but find something that works for you which can be easily replicated wherever your race is. Try not to eat too late. You will likely be getting nervous & anxious about the event. This can affect your digestive system. Eat your biggest meal earlier in the evening and have a light snack later in the evening if you need it. Stay hydrated with water, sips little and often.
Race morning, get up early enough to eat breakfast. Eat your breakfast 2-3 hours before the scheduled start time. If you can, give yourself time to eat it comfortably without rushing. Relax and give your digestive system a chance to ‘fire up.’ Take a small snack with you e.g. a banana, toast, crumpet, rice cake or gel that could be consumed in the hour leading up to the event.
To Summarize, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Do not jeopardise all those hard months of training by ‘winging it’ with your nutrition.