Planning your long-course nutrition

Have you ever had a bit of a nutrition fail during a race? I am talking anything from cramping, bonking, gut upset or just feeling lethargic. If you are one of the many athletes that have raised their hands to that question, let us step you through the essentials when it comes to race day nutrition planning.

Triathlon nutrition holds the ability to either make or break your day. If you haven’t planned, practised and perfected your race nutrition before race day, it can all come crashing down (sometimes spectacularly) mid-race. As a sports dietitian, it hurts me to witness this suffering of others when I am out there racing or spectating. Too much time, money and commitment has been invested for it all to come down to forgetting one of the crucial components to successful racing.

Step 1: The Pre-Race Prep

Fuelling

Carbohydrate (or ‘Carbo’) loading has got to be one of the most incorrectly performed sports nutrition strategies that I witness. This is not about overindulging or ingesting tonnes of sugar. Done incorrectly, you will be left feeling sluggish and fatigued come race day.

The aim of carbohydrate loading is to maximise the storage of muscle glycogen. As your heart rate rises to race pace, carbohydrates become the key fuel source, so you want to be maximising the amount of carbohydrate you have available. As a long-course athlete, you have been fine-tuning your body’s ability to create and store glycogen in the muscle with all that training. So, with the taper of exercise in the lead up to the race, you will be doing a bit of carbohydrate loading without even trying.

To maximise storage further, you should not have to eat too much more than normal. Instead, it is about adapting your macro’s a little to place greater priority on carbohydrate than usual. As a general guide, we aim for anywhere between 6-10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight in the days leading up to race day. But the amount you need, individually, depends on your habitual intake, your fitness level and body composition.
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Let’s use breakfast as an example. Your typical recovery breakfast may look like eggs on toast with some avo, and coffee. In the days leading up to the race, you may want to switch this to a more carbohydrate-centric breakfast, such as Bircher Muesli topped with yoghurt, maple syrup, berries and a banana. The portion doesn’t need to be excessive. However, by switching to a more carbohydrate-centric breakfast, your carbohydrate intake has just doubled.

Hydration

To further maximise your carbohydrate intake, without increasing food load (or fibre!), and to assist with hydration, it is handy to incorporate some higher carbohydrate fluids into your day – fluids that you wouldn’t usually have. These could include juices, milk-based drinks or carbohydrate-containing sports drinks. To further maximise hydration, ensure you drink frequently over the day, and include water with each meal and snack. The natural electrolytes in foods will help your body maximise absorption.

Step 2: Race Day Breakfast

Now, this is something you need to practice well before race day. Practice your planned race-day breakfast choices before a race simulation session or a practice race. This will ensure that you know that your breakfast of choice not only works for you but that you can tolerate it at ‘ridiculous-o’clock’.

To give yourself plenty of time to digest your pre-race meal, aim to have it at least two hours before race start. What you choose will depend on what your individual preferences are, and what you can tolerate. Some of you may be able to eat right before a race with no issues (lucky things!), while others will need to space out your intake and be smart with your choices.

If chowing down whole foods early in the morning is no drama, then options may include toast topped with the basics such as spreads, boiled eggs, fruit toast, crumpets, muesli or porridge. However, if the nerves have got to you, or you just cannot face food at that hour, there are some handy liquid options to try. Fluid options may include smoothies, and liquid meal replacements such as Sustagen Sport, Endura Optimiser, Energize Up & Go and Ensure (available from the chemist). These are convenient and energy-dense. You could also have a combination of food and fluids. It is all about getting in energy, protein and carbohydrates while minimising gut upset.

Closer to race-start it is good to follow-up with a small, well-tolerated snack. About 30-60mins before that horn blares, try to get in something small and carbohydrate-based, such as a banana or sports drink, which usually sit well in the gut and are great options when you are on the go, setting up your transition area.

An example of a pre-race meal may look like:

  • 90-120mins pre-race: 200-300mL serve of Sustagen Sport and 1-2 x toast with
    your choice of spread, water/sports drink
  • 30-60mins pre-race:
    1/2-1 banana, water
  • 10-15mins pre-race:
    1 x gel, water

Step 3: The Swim

As you are not going to get much nutrition in the swim other than maybe a bit of electrolyte in the form of salt water, you need to maximise your intake before and after the swim. In long-course, it can be a significant amount of time between the start of the race and then refuelling again on the bike, so minimising the amount of nutrition catch-up should be a priority.

To maximise intake, and to assist in reducing the risk of an insulin rebound at the start of the swim as adrenalin kicks in, you may like to add in a gel, or a sports drink about 10-15mins pre-race start. An isotonic based gel is a good option here because it doesn’t matter if you have access to water, and it tends to be better tolerated.

After the swim, it is all about getting on that bike, rinsing the mouth out and starting the real race nutrition!

Step 4: The Bike

Bike nutrition is where the magic happens. Optimal intake and hydration on the bike can make your race. It is where you are in the best physical position to tolerate and absorb your nutrition, so maximising timing and starting early is key. The most common mistakes witnessed when working with athletes in long-course are:

Started their bike nutrition too late in the course; OR

Chosing the wrong sports nutrition products (or chose completely new options purchased at the expo!); OR

Having more carbohydrate per hour than you have trained the gut to cope with or that it can physically get through.

The maximum amount of glucose you can absorb per hour is 60g – this is capped no matter what your weight or gender. However, research shows that if we combine glucose with some fructose, we are able to absorb and tolerate anywhere from 60-90g of carbohydrate per hour, with enhanced performance. Start this intake early in the ride and find an intake pattern that works for you. Gaining nutrition from a range of sources is perfectly fine and may help with intake and tolerance. Options such as gels, gel chews, sports drink, water and whole foods are all perfect.

The key to optimal nutrition on the bike is to start small and work your way up. As you incorporate nutrition in training, you are not only training your legs but also your gut. Ideally, start to consider race nutrition 6-8 weeks out from a key race, and build up from there. If you are limiting nutrition in your sessions to aid with weight loss, consider a different option. Although the concept of ‘training low’ may be advantageous at well-timed sessions, for key rides with intensity, it is best to fuel well to adapt and recover at your best.

To achieve this, an hour example on the bike may look like:

  • 250-300mL of (carbohydrate containing) sports drink:
    20-25g carbs
  • 1 x sports gel: 25g carbs
  • 1 x banana: 20g carbs
  • Sipping on water as able/needed

Total carbs per hour = 65-70g

Step 5: The Run

during Ironman 70.3 World Championship on September 3, 2016 in Sunshine Coast, Australia.

We have made it to the business end of race day! You get off that bike with your jelly legs and hope that all that training and your awesome nutrition on the bike will get you through. Most athletes will find it difficult to tolerate the 60-90g carbohydrates per hour on the run. So, instead, a more reasonable 30-60g per hour is a good guide in what to aim for on the run.

This may look like: 

  • 1 x sports gel every 40-60mins
  • Sip on sports drink/water/coke at aid stations as needed

When we run at race pace, blood gets shunted to the muscles that need it most (‘shut up legs!’) and away from the gut. So, if you have too much fluid sitting in your gut when this happens (like if your bike nutrition and hydration was less than ideal), chances are it is going to want to empty at whichever end is easiest! No more graphics needed here, I’m sure.

In working out your nutrition for the run, you need to decide:

  • What am I happy to carry during my run?
  • Am I ok to shove things in my suit?
  • Wear a fuel belt?
  • Carry things in my hands?
  • What’s available and what am I comfortable with using from the aid stations?
  • Do I only want to use the stations for water or will I also use their foods and the sports drink?

These questions will help you sort the logistics of running with nutrition. If you plan on using the nutrition on course, please train with it to make sure it is right for you. Most athletes will rely more heavily on gels during the run leg than sports drink. This is mainly due to it being much easier to get down while on the move and easier on the gut than a big fluid load. Similar to the bike, you need to be trialling your planned run nutrition strategies in your race simulation sessions. This will help you work out at what intervals you can tolerate nutrition and hydration, and the logistics of what you will be able to comfortably carry.

Step 6: The Extras

Additional to fuelling, you may want to consider the extras that can play a part in performance and maximise your result. These require so much more detail than we have space for in this article, but are worth a brief look. Some of the most common inclusions you will come across are electrolyte replacements via salt capsules, caffeine supplementation and beetroot juice. These all come with their positives, but there are also risks, so it is worth doing your research and getting in touch with a sports dietitian who can help to nut out the perfect plan for you and your racing goals.

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Step 7: Time to Recover!

After a long-course event, most will have a decent amount of time to recover before the next training session or event. As such, although recovery post-race should be a priority, it doesn’t need to be rushed or stressed about as compared to an event with a short turnaround.

If you can, aim to get a snack in that contains both carbohydrates and protein within an hour of finishing the race. If your appetite is suppressed, this can be achieved through fluids, such as milkshakes, smoothies, protein shakes made on milk or sports supplements that contain both carbohydrate and protein for recovery.

After the initial recovery snack, try to eat something more substantial in the following hour. This doesn’t need to be fancy or complex, it just needs to tick the boxes of the four R’s: Refuel (carbohydrate), Repair (protein), Rehydrate (fluid) and Revitalise (vitamins and minerals). Some options are all day breakfasts, lean meat and veggie pizzas, burgers or café meals such as wraps or sandwiches.

Nutrition for a long-course triathlon can be complicated, with many variables. Sports dietitians are specifically trained in forming an individualised race program that integrates your individual needs, history and goals while minimising the risk of gut upset. They will adapt your plan as your training leads into race day, and have it perfected as much as possible by the time the big day rolls around. Think of it as one, amazing return on investment in minimising nutrition failure after all the training, time and financial commitment required to get to the start line.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alicia Edge

Alicia is an Advanced Sports Dietitian with an online sports nutrition business, Compeat Nutrition. She is also a mum and triathlete, so advice extends beyond the basics and is instead focused on providing effective and achievable nutrition for both training and racing.

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