Race-Day Nutrition for Sprint and Olympic-Distance Triathlons By Rich Strauss


Follow these nutrition tips to keep you fueled through your next triathlon
With so many fall triathlons taking place this weekend, its a great time to make sure you have your nutrition plan for your sprint or olympic distance race ready to go.  Follow the advice below to help you stay fueled and hydrated throughout the race weekend and to help you have the best race possible.  Don’t forget to check out KONA Multisport home of swimbikerun.com for all of your nutritional needs, triathlon supplies, triathlon gear, and triathlon equipment.  We want to help you Cross YOUR Finish Line!

Since race-day nutrition is such a big part of Ironman racing, and because long-distance racing generates so much noise in the triathlon space, it’s difficult to find good guidance on how to fuel for a sprint or Olympic-distance triathlon. It’s not uncommon to see new triathletes in their first short course races racking their bikes with four bottles of sports drink and 10 gels taped to the top tube.
Before we give you our recommended nutrition plan for short course racing, however, we want to share with you a few key points regarding endurance sports nutrition in general.

You have (about) a 2-hour gas tank: Your body burns primarily fat to fuel itself during endurance training and racing. However, this fat is burned in the fire of carbohydrates, that is, your body needs to burn carbs in order to burn this fat. Your body’s primary sources of carbs are:

Glycogen stored in the muscles and liver.
Food or sugars eaten during exercise.
Very generally speaking, a well-trained endurance athlete has about 1500 to 2000 calories of glycogen stored in their body and available as the fire in which to burn fat, our primary fuel during exercise. In our experience, this glycogen store is good for about 1.75 to 2.5 hours of exercise for that well-trained endurance athlete. Hold that thought…

Less is More

“Hey, Body, I want you swim very hard, bike very hard, then run very hard. Oh, and while you’re at it, I want you to also eat and process this fancy sports food I’m shoving down your neck.”

The key verb in that sentence above is process. Right now, sitting on the couch, your body can easily process that pizza on the coffee table because you’re not asking it to do anything other than sit on the couch. But the harder you exercise, the more scarce resources become for processing food, as blood is shunted from the stomach to the limbs that are hard at work doing the triathlon racing thing.
The lesson here is that the fewer calories you eat and ask your body to process during a race, the more resources your body has available to continue to swim, bike, and run very hard. When we combine the 2-hour gas tank with our less-is-more philosophy, we find that the best nutrition strategy for short course racing is a minimalist, take-in-as-few-calories-as-I-can-get-away-with strategy.

Now that we’ve set the stage for you, here is our nutrition plan for short course triathlon racing:


The conditions you are trying to create before your wave hits the water at 7:25 a.m. on Sunday are:

You are well-hydrated
If it’s going to be a hot race, you’ve pre-loaded your body with sodium.
You’ve topped off your glycogen stores and you have a full tank of gas
Your stomach and digestive tract is relatively empty–you are now in complete control of everything that goes into it.

Day Before the Race

Lunch: your largest meal of the day. No need to go crazy or eat anything special (a sandwich or pasta is fine), but eat a bigger lunch so you can have a lighter dinner, giving your body time to do it’s thing. Lightly salt your food. Drink water all day or, if tomorrow’s race is going to be hot, drink a sportsdrink instead of water. Don’t go crazy, no need to drink gallons of Gatorade!

light, high in carbs, easy to digest.

Race Morning

While you sleep your body will burn about 800 calories, tapping into that gas tank. Also, it’s likely that your stomach will be doing flip flops as you deal with race day-nerves. This will slow down your digestion. So we need to top off your gas tank, but give your body enough time to process your food so you can start the race with a relatively empty stomach and clean digestive tract.
In order to top off your gas tank, and allow enough time to digest the food, we highly recommend waking up at 2 a.m. and eating a very easily digestible breakfast of 600-800 calories. A liquid fruit smoothie is a good example. Then simply go back to sleep and wake up at your normal time. That is a plan that thousands of our athletes have followed since 2002: Wake up, eat, go back to sleep. It works!

From Wake Up #2 to Race Start

You’ve got a full tank of gas and you filled it up early enough so that everything should be out of your stomach by that 7:25 a.m. wave start. We suggest you eat very lightly. Maybe a sports bar while you drive to the race, drink a bottled sports drink while setting up your transition, maybe pop a gel and slug some water about 30 minutes before your wave. That’s all you need.

Sprint Triathlon Nutrition

Armed with your 2-hour gas tank, you don’t really need to take in any calories for a sprint. You’ve got enough fuel to last through the entire race and, more importantly, the fewer calories you take in, the harder you can race. But if you feel you want some calories with you just in case:

On your bike: a bottle of sports drink, about 150 calories for the bottle, BUT you’ll be lucky to drink maybe half of it during the race…you’re riding that hard.
On the run: have a gel tucked into the leg of your shorts. Maybe pop the gel coming out of T2, grabbing a cup of water, and sip it for the first half mile as a tool to help you rein in the horses during the first half mile. Or grab a cup of sports drink at the first aid station. The simple fact is that with a 3K run, by the time that gel has a chance to do anything for you…you’re likely a mile or less from the finish anyway.
Bottom line is you just don’t need to take in any calories, at all, during a sprint and the fewer you take in the harder you can race. If you really want to fuel (just in case), take in no more than 100-200 calories across the whole event.

Olympic-Distance Triathlon Nutrition

Basically the same drill as a sprint, but you might drink the entire bottle of sports drink (~150 calories) on the bike, and maybe take in another 100 calories on the run. The bottom line again is: the less you eat, the less additional stuff you give your body to do, which means you can go harder with reduced risk of nutrition issues such as


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