Planning Your Triathlon Nutrition and Hydration Strategy
Training for a race of three different sports can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. it’s easy to forget about the importance of nutrition and hydration. In addition to swim, bike and run, the last thing you need is two more things to think about, right?! However, a sound strategy for both hydration and nutrition for both your training and race is exactly what you need to mentally and physically stay on top of your game!
Here’s the quick and dirty on what’s important.
Nutrition leading up to your race - YES
Nutritional supplementation during a Sprint or Olympic triathlon - MAYBE
Nutritional supplementation during a longer distance triathlon - YES
Hydration – YES, YES, YES! Without a doubt for all distances
If that answers your question, thanks for reading and happy trails. If you want to learn more, here you go!
start with hydration
A very distinct memory of one of my early group training sessions with friends is Dave Horne screaming “HYDRATE!!’ as we transitioned to our run during our brick workout. When the big muscley guy in spandex screams at you to drink, you listen! Dave was right to shout about hydration. It IS that important.
However, its not as easy as just guzzling water. In fact, hyponatremia is a serious condition caused by drinking too much water at once, which screws with your electrolytes, and can be very dangerous. Sipping water regularly throughout the day is the way to go. Throughout your training, and particularly as race day approaches, your water bottle should be like your binky – keep it with you at all times and suck on it regularly throughout the day.
Even mild dehydration takes quite a while to improve and can quickly escalate in severity. A triathlon is a easy setting for dehydration to occur. You don’t realize how much you are sweating when you bike because it dries quickly. By the time you get to the run portion, outdoor temps have likely risen quite a bit. Things can take a turn for the worse quickly.
The bike is the easiest and best place to hydrate. Your body needs to replace 16-32 ounces of fluids per hour of exercise. A standard bike size water bottle is 22 ounces. Your plan should be to sip some water before the race, in transition and then all throughout the bike ride so when you hit the run, you’ve had at a bare minimum that 16 ounces of water. There’s typically an aid station just outside of transition so be sure to drink there and at all the other aid stations on the course (usually spaced 1 mile apart).
An electrolyte mixture in your water bottle is a great idea to replenish electrolytes that are lost when you sweat. Just make sure to test out these products on your long ride to be sure they sit well with your stomach.
Now for calories and carbohydrates.
Fuel efficiency is critical to ensuring you have enough energy to cross the finish line. Athletes have two sources of energy during a race:
Glycogen stored in the muscles
That’s why it’s important to consider what we do to boost our glycogen stores in the days before the race as well as what to consume during the race.
Do I really need calories during a sprint triathlon?
Experts say that you have anywhere from 75 minutes to 120 minutes of energy stores in your body. That range exists because we are all unique. Needs depend on the individual, the intensity of exercise and the conditions of your training/race. To give you an idea of time, some athletes can finish a sprint tri within 75 minutes, and most will be completed within 2 hours.
Nutritional needs are something to discover about yourself. It’s important to make sure that nutrition and exercise sits will with your system. Truly the best way to figure this out is during your long training sessions. Race day is not the day to experiment with nutrition.
If you find that fatigue sets in during the tail of end of your long workouts (lasting an hour or more) then consider adding a small amount of calories to your longer workouts. Try out different products to see which work the best for you.
Keep in mind that once you’ve “bonked” it’s really hard to recover, so the timing of nutrition is very important. It can take up to 15 minutes for the carbs to make it into your system once consumed, so plan ahead. Just like hydration, the bike is prime time to take in nutrition, whether it be liquid or solid.
I do take a small amount of nutrition in a sprint triathlon. I will tape a gel with electrolytes (about 100 calories) onto my handlebar and slurp it down about 45 minutes into my race. Of course, that is followed up with water to dilute the carbohydrate and get it moving into my system. That’s my personal preference, but it if gave me a stomach issues, I could skip it and be fine. Thankfully, I have an iron gullet. I do always feel a little pep in my step after a gel, so that tells me it was needed.
How should I eat leading up to the race?
Junk in, junk out.
If you fuel your workouts with crappy foods, there’s a good chance you’ll have a crappy workout. Of course, we all have that friend who can eat pizza and beer for every meal and still podium at a race. That’s the exception, not the rule. Most of us should follow a balanced diet with sufficient amounts of each macronutrient. That means avoiding processed foods and clean eating. I strongly urge you to not jump on the fad diet bandwagon. You do not need a special diet – just eat healthy foods and eat enough so you are not in a constant calorie deficit.
In the days leading up to the race, don’t be tempted to “carb load” just continue to eat as you have been, but being mindful of the amount of roughage or fiber you consume if you have a sensitive stomach. You may also want to add a few extra sprinkles of salt on your meals leading up to the race.
Lunch before race day is your most important meal. Have a decent size lunch with healthy carbs, like a loaded sweet potato or quinoa salad. Dinner that night should be a little on the lighter side. You certainly don’t want to wake up the next morning with heavy food sitting in your gut.
Your race day breakfast should be tried and true, loaded with carbs and something you you’ve eaten numerous times before exercising. I go for a bowl of oatmeal. Bring a snack with you as you’ll want to fuel one last time within the 30 minutes leading up to the race. But as I've mentioned a few times in this blog post, be sure to test these foods out to be sure they sit will with you.
One more time...
Remember, experimenting with supplements and pre-workout meals needs to happen long before race day. On the day of your big event, you should what you’re used to and have a really good handle on your race nutrition strategy!