Apart from rigorous training nutrition strategy is the key in determining whether you finish a triathlon race or not. You don’t want to have the three letters DNF (did not finish) written across your name, right? So, build endurance and stamina through proper nutrition and start this with your training.
Test run your meals, snacks and hydration during training and don’t start or try something new during the race to avoid unwanted surprises such as gastrointestinal distress.
As a rule when you eat a balanced diet your body has already stored energy that can last from 90 minutes to 2 hours physical activities. Stored energy can be found in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen.
A polysaccharide carbohydrate, glycogen breaks down into glucose upon hydrolysis and powers up your muscles when swimming, cycling and running for the triathlon.
For races that last for more than 2 hours such as the Olympics and Ironman, you should not rely only on your stored energy. They require 2 stages of nutrition strategy to ensure you top up your glycogen levels to maximum: carb-loading before the race and fueling during the race.
Carb-loading is a period where you maximize your glycogen intake to prepare for the race ahead through high carb foods. Top up stored glycogen at lunch time two days before the race by eating simple or refined carbohydrates such as white pasta, white bread, white rice or refined cereals. Avoid high fiber carbohydrates as these cause stomach cramps and bloating.
Two days before the race
It is recommended to base carbohydrate intake on your body weight. Ideally, it is approximately 8 to 10 grams carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. For example if you weigh 65 kilograms you need to eat 520 to 650 grams of carbohydrates 2 days prior the event. Schedule your carb meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner with high carbohydrate snacks in-between meals.
You don’t have to limit your carbohydrate intake on refined grains; you can have smoothies, fruit juices and milk. Eat foods you normally take before your big training day because they are already tested and proven to support your energy needs. For example if you’re fond of eating whole grains and their products, 2 days before the race choose refined grains to store up glycogen while limiting insoluble fiber that might slow you down digestion as the race progresses.
CNN Health suggests taking an early dinner at least 12 hours before the event. Make carbohydrates the main ingredients such as white spaghetti with low-fat sauce, lean meat, white bread rolls and electrolyte beverages.
Eat your comfort foods similar to those you usually eat before the race. Don’t drink too much water the night before as it may disrupt your sleep with the necessity to make bathroom trips. These condition your mind and your body, lessen pre-race anxiety and put you in the right frame of mind for your triathlon competition.
A Few Hours Before The Race
Have your breakfast three and a half hours before your Ironman with 110 to 180 grams of carbohydrates depending on your requirements and very low fat and insoluble fiber. It may consist of plain bagels because of its high calories, high sodium, high carbs, very low fats and dietary fiber contents.
Top the bagel with creamy peanut butter and accompany it with a glass of fruit juice or coffee. Sip your energy drink after one hour to 2 hours after you’ve eaten.
During the race, your goal is to recover about 30 to 50% of the calories you burn. How do you schedule your fueling as the race is going on? The beauty about a triathlon is it has 3 legs in which you can choose what and when to drink or eat. For rapid absorption of glucose you can choose energy drinks, energy gels, energy bars and other high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate snacks such as sweets and dried fruits.
Swimming is the first leg in the triathlon and if you have carb-loaded properly there should be enough stored glycogen to give you energy. However depending on the length of the race and your preference, you can bring energy gel and drinks.
After the swim, it’s the cycle leg where you can start fueling with solid foods as it is easy to carry them on the bike.
The final leg is running and this is where real exhaustion can be felt. You can attach your fueling drinks and snacks to your running belt (click here for more tips), but make sure they will not hinder your speed and motion. It is smart also to bring sodium salt with you especially during the run in case you need it. You never know what will happen even if you have a well-planned fueling strategy.
Energy drinks are also called isotonic drinks because they have similar concentration to blood and are ideal for endurance sports like triathlon. A good energy drink for sports competition that lasts longer than two hours should contain about 0.5 to 0.7 grams per liter of sodium and 0.8 to 2 grams per liter of potassium.
They usually have 6-8 percent carbohydrate to maintain energy level. It is recommended to take only energy drinks when competing an Ironman to maintain the right sodium concentration.
Energy gels are concentrated carbohydrates composed of glucose, fructose, maltodextrin which may contain vitamins, minerals, caffeine and amino acids. They are very easy to transport and consume and need little water to replenish depleted energy and achieve optimal effects.
What is the right gel for you? You can choose an energy gel for short distances which has 30 grams carbohydrates per hour for 1 to 3 hours competition. Consume 1 gel every 45 minutes to 1 hour with water. Energy gel for long distances has 60 grams carbohydrates per hour for more than 3 hours of physical activities. Consume 1 gel every 45 minutes to 1 hour with an isotonic drink.
Power snacks such as energy bars are a convenient way to boost endurance and stamina by providing 200 to 300 calories and 30 to 40 grams of carbs. Check the label to ensure you have the low fat and low protein variety. However, bananas, dried figs and dates can be good sources too with added benefits of potassium and other nutrients.