Fueling up: nutrition for athletes

Fueling up: nutrition for athletes

Whether you’re planning to compete in the Half Olympic distance or take on the more serious challenges of the 3 Quarter Olympic distance in the ultra-FIT Tri challenge or an Olympic distance Tri, you’ll need to be nutritionally well-prepared to get you through the race.

The week before

With just a few days to race time, your goals are to maximise your muscle fuel (glycogen- this is a form of carbohydrate) stores, stay well hydrated and rehearse your race nutrition strategy. Here how to do it:


Fuel up: If you’re likely to clock a time under 90-minutes then all you really need do is continue with your normal diet. Stick to healthy eating principles as closely as possible but focus on carbohydrate-rich foods, such as potatoes, pasta, rice and bread – to replenish glycogen levels after each training session.

There is no need to manipulate the energy or carbohydrate content of your diet or carbohydrate-load. But if you will be competing for longer than 90 minutes, tipping the balance a little more in favour of carbs for the three days before the race will boost your glycogen levels and give you more fuel for the event.

Taper: This may mean reducing your training time and resting for a day or two before the event. The idea is to give your muscles an opportunity to fully repair and to refuel after an intense training period.

Drink enough: Drink plenty of water to replenish fluid losses after each training session. Try to drink at least one and a half litres of fluid per day, plus one litre for each hour’s training to ensure you are fully hydrated. Water is one of the healthiest options, but fruit juice, squash, sports drinks and milk also count.

Test in training what you plan to do during the race: Whatever you plan to do during the race, rehearse it in training. Practice drinking from a water bottle on the bike. Or if you plan to use a CamelBack in the event, use it during your training rides. On your runs, practice grabbing cups and drinking on the move without spilling or choking.

Experiment with different foods, such as gels, bars, and bananas, to find the types and amounts that suit you best. It’s a good idea to research the foods and drinks to be provided at the venue so you can plan what to take with you. Generally, it’s safer to take your own supplies.

Feeding in the saddle

– Many triathletes wear specially designed packs containing a plastic bladder (such as a CamelBack), which allow you to drink without having to take your hands off the handlebars. You can carry larger volumes of drink without needing to stop off to re-fill your bottle.

– For a cooler drink, add ice cubes to your drink or freeze half the bottle (or CamelBack) overnight and top it up before you get on your bike.

– Carry small snacks in the pockets of your jersey.

– You can open your bars and undo packets before you set off so the food is easy to get at with one hand during your ride.

– Wrap dried fruit and biscuits in foil or small re-sealable plastic bags.

– Practice riding without holding onto the handlebar so that you can balance more easily while you eat and drink.

On your runs, practice grabbing cups and drinking on the move without spilling or choking

The day before

This is your final chance to top up those muscle glycogen stores. You should also keep yourself well hydrated throughout the day and avoid eating or drinking anything that may jeopardise your race performance. Here’s how to do it:

Eat little and often: Divide your food into smaller more frequent meals than usual. Grazing will maximise glycogen storage without making you feel bloated and heavy.

Stick to familiar foods: Play it safe by sticking to plain simple foods. Don’t risk an upset stomach – steer away from anything spicy or salty, or any meat or fish that may be undercooked. Avoid gas-forming foods such as baked beans, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower), bran cereals and spicy foods the night before the race. They can make you feel uncomfortable.

Take to the bottle: Keep a water bottle handy so you remember to drink regularly throughout the day. This is especially important if you are travelling to the race venue on the day, as it’s easy to forget to drink.

Fueling up: nutrition for athletes

Don’t party: Do not over-indulge the evening before your race. A large meal – even if it’s high in carbohydrate – could make you feel sluggish the next day. If you must drink alcohol, restrict yourself to a maximum of two units (one pint of ordinary strength lager) otherwise you risk dehydration and a hangover on race day. Better still, avoid alcohol altogether.

On race day

By now, your muscle glycogen stores should be fully stocked and you should feel ready to go! All that remains to be done before the race is to top–up your liver glycogen stores at breakfast time (liver glycogen is normally depleted during the overnight fast whilst you sleep), replace any fluids lost overnight and keep your blood sugar level steady.

Get organised: Don’t rely on finding the right foods at food outlets en route nor at the venue — healthy choices are often limited at these places. Plan ahead and take your own nutritionally sound supplies for the journey as well for race day. Take extra water in case of delays.

Eat breakfast: Eat a carbohydratebased pre-event meal about 2 – 3 hours before competing. It should also be low in fat and contain a little protein. Try porridge, toast, cereal, fruit or yoghurt. If you find it difficult to eat when you’re feeling nervous, try a liquid meal, such as flavoured milk, sports drinks, milk shakes, yoghurt drinks and fruit smoothies. Alternatively, try smooth, semi-liquid foods such as pureed fruit, yoghurt, porridge, custard and rice pudding’. Skipping that prerace breakfast may leave you low in energy during the final stages.

Avoid fry-ups: Steer away from anything fried or high in fat, such as sausages, bacon, croissants, and pastries. These foods take longer to digest (especially for competitors feeling nervous) and may sit heavy in your stomach, making you feel uncomfortable during the competition.

Drink: Have a drink upon waking. If possible, aim to drink 400 – 600 ml of water; a sports drink or diluted fruit juice (1 part juice to 1 part water) during the 2- hour period before the race. As a hydration check, the urine should be pale in colour before competing.

During the race

Drink regularly: Obviously you cannot drink during the swim but start drinking as soon as you get on the bike. Your goal then is to continue drinking little and often, aiming for 150 – 350 ml every 15 to 20 minutes.

Remember that wind-chill and rapid evaporation of sweat can mask feelings of dehydration. As a rule of thumb, water is fine if you’re competing for less than 60 minutes whilst sports drinks are better for longer races. Drink whatever you used in training. Do not try anything new – even it’s freely provided by the race organisers – in case it doesn’t agree with you under race conditions.

Fuel on the go: For events longer than 90-minutes, you will benefit from extra carbs in the form of sports drinks (or diluted juice or squash), cereal bars, energy gels, bars, biscuits, or dried fruit to help maintain blood sugar levels. Take advantage of the food served at the rest stops but don’t eat anything you haven’t used in training.

Eat on the flat: It’s easier to eat and drink when you’re riding on the flat and in a straight line, climbing, descending and cornering demand your full concentration.

After the race

If you want to be able to walk around the next day without too much difficulty, start refuelling as soon as possible after passing the finishing line.

Keep drinking: Rehydrate before embarking on that celebratory drink. Aim for 500 ml of water within the first 30 minutes, and then keep drinking small regular amounts until you are hydrated – your urine should be pale in colour. If you are dehydrated, a sports drink or diluted fruit juice with a pinch of added salt will deliver fluid faster – sodium helps your body retain the fluid better.

Grab a snack: Your post-race snack should include a small amount of protein as well as carbohydrate – this reduces the time it takes to recover. The ideal recovery meal or snack should contain carbohydrate and protein in a 4 to 1 ratio. Good choices include low fat milk, flavoured milk, fruit with yoghurt, a cereal bar with a yoghurt drink, or a homemade milkshake.

Avoid fast food: Resist the temptation to eat fast food or junk food after a race. Just because the race is over doesn’t mean that it’s OK to load your system with fat, sugar and salt. Burgers, chips, kebabs, curries will sit heavily in your stomach at this time, impeding your recovery.