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  • Writer's pictureMatt Fisher

Race nutrition for Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons

Something that regularly occupies the minds of novice triathletes as they gear up for their early races (even us experienced Age Groupers perhaps over-think it) is what to do with regards to pre and in-race nutrition.

So, I thought I'd take a few moments to share my experiences, what has and hasn't worked for me.

First, let’s get the caveats out of the way. The following advice is aimed squarely at shorter distance races – if you’re looking at a half or full Ironman you need specialist advice tailored to you (taking into account your body weight, fat mass, metabolic rate etc).

But if you’re gearing up for a Sprint or Olympic distance race, the following should stand you in good stead!

The Basics

For a triathlon (of any length), your fuel comes from a mix of fat and glycogen reserves stored in the body. Typically, your body will burn the easy-access and fast-acting glycogen in preference to your body fat stores (shame, eh?!). Studies generally concur that the body typically has enough glycogen in the body to last for up 90 minutes without refuelling (the exact time does depend on how hard you are working. In extreme cases, you could theoretically deplete your glycogen stores in as little as 20 minutes).

If you’re racing a sprint or supersprint triathlon, there’s a good chance that you’ll be finishing the race within this time. And as such, there’s an argument that you don’t need to worry about in-race fuelling at all. However, for Olympic distance or longer, even the professionals will take on some form of

Sprint distance races

We’ve established that assuming your race is going to be done in 90 minutes or less, you could opt not to fuel during the event itself. However, you should be looking to take on carbs in the lead up to the race.

There’s contradictory advice and thoughts on whether the concept of ‘carb loading’ in the days leading up to a race works or not. For me, I’d say there’s no harm in having good quality carbs (oats, whole wheats etc.) in the 24 hours prior to a race. Some people seem to rate brown rice over pasta or potatoes, but I think it’s really down to personal preference.

However, on race day itself you can follow these general guidelines:

1. Have porridge or a good slow-burn carb breakfast three hours before the event 2. Sip on a carb drink for the hours before the race – probably stopping about 30-45 minutes before the start time and taking care not to over-fill your bladder! 3. For an extra energy hit, take a carb gel around 10-15 minutes before the race start (with water if, like me, gels carry an increased risk of GI distress)

And then that’s it! You shouldn’t need any further fuel during the race.

Now note I say ‘fuel’…! There’s a difference between ‘fuel’ and ‘hydration’. During the summer months when you are likely to sweat more you may well want to have the comfort of a drink on the bike. The same also applies if you think the bike leg (typically 20km in a sprint race) is likely to take you an hour or more. My 2018 Giant Trinity has an integrated bottle between the tribars that you can sip from without leaving the ‘aero tuck’ riding position – as such, I always put at least 200ml of drink in there, no matter what the race length. Sometimes you just get a dry mouth and want a swig of liquid!

You may also want to opt for a runner's bottle for the last leg if you're looking at more than 30 mins for the 5km run. Although most races will have some kind of water station on the run, so it’s really more of a comfort blanket than a necessity.

You can fill both the bike and run bottles with a carb solution, but actually I’d argue that it’s the electrolytes (salts and minerals) that really deliver the benefits and the main aim is to prevent you becoming dehydrated.

However, be careful not to guzzle on the bike – it’s easy to come off the cycle not realising how much liquid you’ve taken on, which will then slosh around your guts on the run – not a nice feeling!

Olympic distance races

Unless you’re super-human, you’re not going to complete an Olympic / Standard distance tri in less than about 1hr 45mins. So you’re going to need some fuel.

The advice here varies a little more that with sprints, due to the longer distance meaning there is likely to be a greater difference between the faster and slower competitors.

I’d say that the same pre-race nutrition advice applies – although I’d definitely recommend taking a gel 10-15 minutes before the race itself – as you’re probably looking at a 22 minute-plus swim and then need to settle onto the bike before your next opportunity to take on carbs.

The bike leg is the most obvious place to take on fuel during the race itself – usually in a mix of liquid and gel form.

On a road bike, you’ll be perfectly ok with a normal frame mounted bottle which you can fill with a good quality carb/electrolyte mix such as Elivar Endure or Elivar Hydrate+. If you’re riding a TT bike with aerobars however, the 'hand held' bottles can be tricky to use, unless you want to sacrifice your aero position.

So most people seem to opt for one of two kinds of aero bottle. In 2010, I used the Profile Design aero bottle which sits between the aero bars and thus you can keep your hands on the aero bars while taking a sip from the bottle. Another advantage of the Profile-style bottle is that it can be refilled on the move in longer races. However, there are a couple of downsides too – the liquid sloshes around a lot and can spill out of the bottle quite easily, leaving you covered in sticky carb drink! The drinking straw is also quite stiff and you really don’t want it in your mouth when you hit a bump/pothole in the road!

[This is from the old version of the article, just kept for reference] For 2011, I’m going to be giving the Inviscid Design Speedfil bottle a try – an aero-shaped bottle that sits on the frame with a long drinking tube that can be positioned between the bars for ‘hands free’ drinking.

In 2018, as stated above, I ride a Giant Trinity which (like an increasing number of newer TT bikes) has an integrated bottle system between the tribars. An all-round neater solution.

Giant Trinity TT bike
The Giant Trinity has an integrated 'aero bottle'

Whichever type of bottle you go for – remember again NOT to guzzle! It’s much better to tip regular small sips that won’t leave you bloated and will be better absorbed by the body.

Assuming you’ve got a 10km run to do after the bike, T2 still means you’ve got at least another 40 minutes of racing ahead of you (unless you’re a superstar runner). As such, many triathletes opt to take an additional gel around 10 minutes before the end of the bike leg (remember it takes around 15 minutes for the gel to get absorbed and deliver any benefit) or at the beginning of the run.

A benefit to taking the gel on the bike is that your body is more stable and thus the gel is easier to digest. But you will likely have to ease up slightly while you fumble with the gel packet etc.

Onto the run and you’ll need to decide whether to take a bottle with you or rely on the water that is on offer (I can’t think of any standard distance triathlons where there are no water stations). Runner’s bottles come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s possible to find something to suit your needs – again filled with just water, an electrolyte solution or a carb mix.

I used to carry a small ‘gel bottle’ on the race, but rarely do that these days (at least not for Sprint or Olympic triathlons). These days, I will more likely emerge from T2 with a single gel that I will consume during the first 3-4km of the run, taking water from the aid stations if it’s a hot day (and probably not bothering if it’s not).

So there you go; it’s not highly scientific but follow the advice above and I’m pretty sure you won’t run out of fuel in your sprint or standard distance race (I can’t talk for aerobic fitness etc!). The main take-aways are: 1) don’t neglect pre-race fuelling and 2) don’t guzzle in-race drinks all in one go, sip them!

Post Race

Although it might be the furthest thing from your mind, it's no bad thing to get yourself some post-nutrition straight after the race as well! There are plenty of recovery drinks with a good mix of carbs and proteins available and they're usually pretty tasty too! :-)

I hope that’s been helpful – and as always if you have a different point of view, just shout!

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