Your nutrition strategy for Olympic and sprint distance triathlons

By Kaye Lopez | Photos by Kawin Harasai, Elli O, and Mikesh Kaos/Unsplash

Race day nutrition for long and short course events are not created equal.

To determine how much energy you need to have at your disposal, the most important factor to consider is how hard you plan to race from the start. Understanding the concept of sports nutrition for endurance athletes is key to zeroing in on a personalized and race-specific nutrition plan that best provides the fuel needed for a strong performance.


What’s in your tank?

During endurance training and racing, your body primarily burns fat for fuel but it needs carbohydrates in order to burn fat. This “fire” of carbohydrates primarily comes from glycogen stored in the muscles and liver as well as food and drinks consumed during exercise. A well-trained endurance athlete can store 1,500 to 2,000 calories worth of glycogen, which can be used to burn fat and fuel up to two and a half hours of exercise.


The minimalist approach

Contrary to long-distance events, most above-average triathletes are able to finish an Olympic distance race in two to three hours, and a sprint triathlon in even less than half the time. Those who fall within this category race harder than the rest of the field and therefore have the option of taking the “less is more” approach. It’s all about setting priorities: If you want to race hard, you need to take in the least amount of calories you can get away with so that all your resources can be used for swimming, biking, and running hard instead of processing food.


Fired up and ready

Before gun start, you need to focus on creating the ideal nutritional state in order for your body to perform at its best:

  • You are well-hydrated
  • You’ve pre-loaded with sodium if you’re expecting a hot race
  • You’ve topped up your glycogen stores and have a full tank of gas
  • Your stomach and digestive tract are relatively empty to give you full control of everything that goes into it
Have lunch fit for a king

Make lunch your heaviest meal a day before the race then have a light dinner before bed. This does not give you a free pass to overeat at lunch. Total calories should still remain the same. You’re just moving some of your dinner calories to lunch. Avoid eating anything new and stick to your usual choices like a sandwich, pasta, or rice meal. Lightly salt your food and drink water all day or a sports drink if tomorrow’s race will be hot. Eat a light, high-carb dinner that is easy to digest.


Perfect timing

Research shows that consuming 1.5 to 1.8 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight is ideal for improving performance. For a 150-pound runner, that comes out to 225 to 275 grams of carbohydrates or about 1,000 calories. Some may find it difficult to consume this much food in one go so an option is to split the meal into two. Eat 200 to 400 calories four hours before the start, along with 12 to 20 ounces of water or sports drink (giving you plenty of time for a toilet break).

Most of the remaining carbs should be consumed within 90 minutes to two hours before the start, choosing easy-to-digest options to prevent stomach problems. Consume the last 25 to 30 grams of carbs during the last 30 to 60 minutes before gun start. This last shot of fuel should last until you get into the rhythm of refueling as the race progresses.

For races that start at an ungodly hour, it may not be realistic to wake up extra early for breakfast. An option is to have your pre-race snack two hours before the race but only consume a gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (150 grams or 600 calories for a 150-pound runner) to ensure proper digestion. Munch on your favorite sports bar and down it with coffee (if you’re a regular coffee drinker) on the way to the race venue, sip on sports drink while setting up your transition area, then take an energy gel 30 minutes before gun start. That should be enough to rev up your engine.


Keep it simple

Your pre-race meal should consist mostly of carbohydrates since it is your body’s preferred energy source and takes the least amount of time and energy to digest. Small amounts of protein can help stave off hunger during the last few kilometers. Limit fat as it takes more time to digest as well as fiber since it can cause bloating and stomach problems. Choose foods or fluids that are not only easy to digest but also familiar and tried-and-tested during training to prevent unnecessary discomfort on race day.


Short course fueling strategy

Try this nutrition plan for topping up your tank for a sprint or Olympic distance triathlon

Race Distance Leg Suggested Nutrition Calories
Sprint Bike 1 bottle of sports drink (you might only be able to consume half of it, depending on how hard you’re riding) 75 of 150
Run 1 energy gel (take with water as you exit T2 so it has time to take effect); OR 100
A cup of sports drink at the first aid station Less than 100 calories
Total calories 100-200 (not absolutely necessary but you can fuel just in case)
Olympic Bike 1 bottle of sports drink (you might be able to consume all of it) 150
Run 1 energy gel (take with water as you exit T2 so it has time to take effect, plus another one at the half-way mark); OR 200
A cup of sports drink at the first and every other aid station About 100
Total calories 350-450


Use these guidelines to determine the best way to top up for your upcoming short-course event. Balance your fueling needs with the practicality of consuming calories while racing hard. Take in the least amount possible in order to limit the risk of nutritional issues such as cramps and side stitches. The less you eat, the less you divert your body’s resources from the demands of intense racing, and the harder you can push yourself beyond your limits.

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