You’re probably familiar with the three legs of a triathlon: swimming, cycling, and running. But there’s another leg many triathletes overlook, and it’s nutrition. Proper triathlon nutrition can make all the difference to your progress and performance. Since you have to tackle three sports in a single race, understanding what to eat before a triathlon is tricky.
If you’re planning to take on a triathlon this year, you need to learn what to eat when and how to find the right fueling strategy for you.
Here’s our guide to the essentials.
Understanding Endurance and Carb Loading
When it comes to sports nutrition, you should remember one rule – if you eat a balanced diet, your body will already have nearly two hours’ worth of stored energy before a race. This energy is stored in your muscles as glycogen and serves as fuel to power your muscles during a race. For races under two hours, you don’t need to think about having a fueling strategy other than eating healthy foods.
However, for a triathlon, be it Olympic, half ironman, or ironman, you must learn about carb loading and fueling during the event. Carb loading is a nutritional strategy to increase your body’s glycogen levels more than the normal amount. This dietary strategy involves several days of eating more carbs than usual before the race, usually a week.
Your Daily triathlon Diet
While fueling during a triathlon is important, it’s what you eat before the events that make the biggest difference in endurance and performance. You must embrace a wholesome daily diet to help your body maximize training adaptations and recovery. A triathlete’s diet doesn’t vary much from standard healthy eating recommendations.
However, you should anticipate eating more closer to the race to account for changes in energy output. If you eat the same way throughout, you might not use all of the stored glycogen, resulting in weight gain. You can break down your triathlon nutrition into three essential pillars. These concepts will help you understand what to eat before a triathlon:
- Eat high-quality snacks and meals while avoiding processed foods.
- Treat yourself to your favorite foods occasionally without compensating for your workouts.
- Maintain a healthy weight while training your body to meet the needs for swimming, cycling, and running.
Know Your Macros
Carbs, protein, and fat all serve an important purpose in triathlon nutrition. Since every individual has different in terms of genetics, training regimen, and medical conditions, there’s no exact amount to eat for each macronutrient. However, we do know the function of each of these macronutrients.
Carbohydrates are your body’s energy source. You should aim for 45-65% of calories from a meal. For energy before a workout, have simple carbohydrates like bananas. For a post-workout meal, eat vegetables.
Protein supports muscle repair and recovery in your body. Aim for 10-30% of calories from a meal. Timing is important since your body doesn’t store protein. You should consume throughout the day, ideally after a workout.
Fat enhances satiety in your body and boosts overall health. Aim for 20-35% of your calories from a meal. This dietary management will improve nerve function, organ protection, and fatty acid content. However, a high-fat diet can slow you down.
What to Eat Before a Triathlon
The week before the race is the time to optimize your triathlon nutrition. Let’s take a day-by-day look at what to eat before a triathlon during race week:
1. 7 Days Out
The week before the race is all about hydration during and outside of workouts. You can include your favorite sports drink with carbohydrates and sodium on all workouts. For every pound you lose, drink 20 to 24 ounces of liquid, and include a protein and carbohydrate snack within an hour of your workout. This snack could be Greek yogurt, a banana, or a frozen fruit smoothie with whey protein.
2. 6 Days Out
With 6 days to go, head to the grocery store and stock up on fruits and vegetables for antioxidant, and lean protein like eggs, fish, turkey, chicken, and minced beef for muscle repair. You’ll also need complex carbs like pasta, tortilla, and whole-grain bread to build your glycogen stores. For healthy-fats, stick with olive oil or nut oils.
3. 5 Days Out
Start thinking about your pre-race and race-morning breakfast. Stock your fridge with portable snacks like grain, fruit, milk, nut butter, and meat, so you don’t miss out on eating every couple of hours. Keep a few protein bars as well to hold off a hunger meltdown.
4. 4 Days Out
While it’s important to eat regularly, avoid eating massive meals to prepare this far out from race days. Since you’re not burning as many calories, overeating will increase fat storage. So, even if you’re bored or fighting off a craving, eat a normal diet in small portions.
5. 3 Days Out
This is the time to taper down fruits and vegetables, so the fiber keeps your digestive tract working. However, you want to do the opposite on race day. If you love your veggies and greens, make sure this is the last day you enjoy salad for lunch or dinner.
6. 2 Days Out
With 2 days to go, it’s time to cut our fresh vegetables and add other carbs to your diet like pretzels, bread, and crackers. Increase your salt intake to retain some extra for race day, unless you have high blood pressure. Most importantly, avoid greasy and fatty food so you don’t have an upset stomach.
7. 1 Day Out
A high carbohydrate breakfast like bagels, waffles, pancakes, or toast should be your biggest meal of the day. However, you must eat small meals at regular intervals and drink sports drinks to make sure you retain electrolytes for your big day. Have a sandwich for lunch and easy-to-digest carbs like pasta, rice, or bread for dinner at 6 pm, then stop eating. Go to bed a little hungry to slow down digestion.
8. Race Day
Three hours before the race, consume 400-600 calories of carbs that are easily digested, like low-fiber oatmeal, cereal, or white rice. Eat foods that are high in calories, not many low-calorie foods. So, don’t fill your stomach. Sip on sports drinks or caffeinated products regularly, but not on an empty stomach.
Our Final Thoughts
Following a smart triathlon nutrition plan during race week will allow you to race with a full tank of gas without tiring easily. There’s no one-size-fits-all diet that can fit everyone, as your training schedule, body type, genetics, and food preferences will be unique to you. Now, you know what to eat before a triathlon. So, it’s all up to you to choose the right nutrient-dense whole foods for your training.