Triathlon Nutrition: Fueling for Maximum Performance

Coconut Water

What can I drink and eat during triathlon training?

Whether you are doing a sprint or Ironman triathlon, you are an endurance athlete. You need energy for strong training and racing. More importantly, you need the right amount of calories and nutrients paired with proper timing in order to feel good before, during and after your swim-bike run fun. Knowing how to fuel yourself correctly will make you a stronger athlete who also enjoys an energetic life outside the sport!

The most important part of nutrition and fueling for endurance athletes is proper hydration:

Drink more water! Water is your most important fuel.  A common cause of fatigue is actually dehydration.  Before you reach for that energy drink, coffee or candy, have a glass of water.  Better yet, carry a water bottle throughout the day to track your water consumption.  80oz of water – not including training hydration – is your goal during moderate temperatures. Adjust accordingly for the weather.

Consider your fueling in 3 ways:

  • Timing  - pre-training, during training, post-training recovery
  • Sport and distance – swim, bike or run
  • Content – amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and fats

The following guidelines are provided for maximum performance and general training success.  The timing of your calories is critical for strong training, racing and life vitality.

Prior to workout:

  • Hydrate well with water BEFORE you train
  • Fuel yourself with carbohydrates and protein if you have more than 1 hour prior to training (60% carb/40% protein)
  • Examples:  oatmeal/nuts/milk, eggs and toast, PB and J, etc.
  • Don’t have an hour?  Use easily digestible carb-only fuel: apple sauce, Gels, orange juice, pineapples, bars.


Electrolyte Supplements for TriathletesDuring Workout: Calorie replacement is NOT 1:1 expended vs. replaced:

  • Water, water, water for training lasting less than 1 hour in moderate climate.
  • Training 1-2 hours:  carb only liquid (maltodextrin or fructose combo product, GU, Gels, CarboPro, Heed)
  • Gels MUST be taken with 8 oz water or diluted in your bottle or flask.
  • Try to avoid simple sugar solutions and high fructose corn syrup.  Blood sugar spike is not desirable.
  • Endurance athletes:  during the bike, use the guidelines of 20 oz of water and 250 calories/hr
  • Try products with 3-5grams of protein for 200-250 calories.  Helps keep hunger away.
  • During the run, try 100 calories/hr with 8-12 oz of water.  Avoid the slosh but minimize dehydration.
  • During hot weather, increase fluid and add electrolytes and/or salt.  See package for recommendations.


After workout: (within 30 minutes)

  • FruitsRecovery nutrition:  high quality carbohydrate w/small amount of protein
  • 4:1 ratio carbs to proteins
  • Examples, whole fruit and nuts, soymilk/choc milk, PB and J (org/whole wheat), healthy bars, etc.
  • Sure, have the recovery drinks – they are convenient and complete.  But real food is desirable.
  • Always have your recovery nutrition planned and packed for your training. Carry a mini-cooler with you.


After workout: (within 2 hours)

  • Have a well-balanced meal - your metabolism is a bit raised.  Example:  60% Carb, 20% protein, 20% good fats
  • Your body will synthesize the energy and nutrients well.
  • Burrito with guacamole is a great choice – whole wheat tortilla, rice and black bean combo etc.
  • Plus, you may avoid the “I MUST have food, ANY food NOW” challenge!


Sandwich Turkey Gormet

To improve your training and athleticism, make some small changes:

  • Plan, plan, plan.  There is no substitute for planning your nutrition.
  • Replace white bread with whole wheat, eliminate hydrogenated oils, add some whole fruit, etc.
  • Increase fiber for good health and satiety.
  • Build a food cooler to bring with you always to promote healthy eating rather than buying poor nutritional choices.
  • Be thoughtful about your food intake and the relationship to training.


Timing is important! 

Stagger your eating in smaller portions and prepare around training as outlined above. You’ll prevent that hunger that attacks and tempts you to grab for the unhealthy options. The timing of your calories and the combination of nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fats needs your priority attention. Let the spacing of your calories properly throughout the day and around training become an integral part of your training plan and organizational routine.  Here are some guidelines to use as a starting point.

Managing the morning sets you up for a great day:

In the morning, eat within an hour of rising.  If you have more than an hour before you train, consume a breakfast that includes protein (30%), carbs (60%) and some good fats (10%).  Eating a balanced meal will normalize blood sugars which have dropped during the night and energize you steadily.  If you are rushing out to training in the wee hours of the morning, consume a food or drink that contains only carbohydrates and little or no fiber.  You want to start your metabolism as well as energize your body without fighting with digestion during your training. blueberries Most of us think we need more calories when we train. Perhaps, but not necessarily!  Assess your caloric output accurately and replace accordingly.  Nutrition tolerance in training is highly personal.  Experiment in training….ALOT! Visit a sports store that has a wide selection of products in individual servings.  You can try the flavor and see if it agrees with you before investing in the large container.

Set up for a great race day:

Experimenting and practicing with the timing, amounts and types of products will set you up for a great race day experience.  Compose a race-day fuel plan and test it out on a few key training days at least 4 weeks before your race.  That will give you some time to make adjustments.  If you’ve followed the above guidelines along the way, your plan for a strong race will be evident.  Quality in = Quality out! 

Next week: Power Foods : Easy Nutrition Options for Triathletes.