As promised, here are my thoughts about race day nutrition. This critical element can ruin your race, no matter how well prepared you are. Under eating will lead to a lack of energy required to fuel you to the finish. Over eating can result in bloating, stomach issues, and potentially a DNF. Then, for longer distance races, you need to take into consideration electrolyte replacement and understand your rate of salt loss. It seems that the more you learn about nutrition, the more questions you have and more there is to understand.
WARNING: I’m going to try to keep this relatively basic and light, but it might get a little wordy in spots because there is so much to this topic.
In shorter distance races (those that will take you approximately 90 minutes to two hours to complete) most people can get away without needing much in terms of nutrition during the race. Your body has enough energy stored in it to get you through a race of that duration. As long as you maintain a good level of hydration, you will be fine. Anything longer than that, you definitely need to fuel yourself or you will see a decline in performance. With that being said, I generally choose to use some nutrition products during an Olympic distance race, which takes me just over two hours. It comes down to getting to know your body and what works. Part of it might be mental as well. I feel more energized going into the run if I had a couple hundred calories on the bike and what that does for my mindset is helpful.
In longer distance racing (anything that is going to take you over two hours), you should consume somewhere between 250 and 400 calories per hour. The exact number is dependent on many factors, such as your body weight, the intensity level at which you are racing, and the type of calories you are consuming. A 120 pound woman is probably not going to need as many calories as me (a 170 pound man) because she will probably not burn as many as me when working at the same intensity level, so it balances. Personally, I aim to take in around 350 calories per hour when racing at the half ironman distance. Where do these calories come from? Let’s break it down.
The harder you are working, the slower your stomach will digest food. The blood in your body is busy, so it will not go to your stomach as quickly. If you are racing with the goal of completing the race and not trying to finish on the podium, your intensity level (and heart rate) will likely be lower, allowing you to consume more solid types of food because your body will be able to process them.
There are so many nutrition products to use during competition and training. To make it as simple as possible, I have made this chart with some types of nutrition that you would find in each category.
Semi-solid food (chews)
Soft/liquid food (gels)
Clif Mojo Bars
Clif Shot Bloks
PowerBar Energy Blasts
Clif Shot Energy Gel PowerBar Energy Gel
Gu Energy Gel
PowerBar Ironman Perform
HEED Sports Drink
Perpetuem Sports Drink
Like I said, there are tons of products out there and these are but a few, but you get the idea. Basically, the lower your heart rate and intensity level, the further to the left you can eat and process. As your intensity level and heart rate increase, you should start to shift toward the right of the chart as those foods are more soluble and easier to digest. Keep in mind that sports drinks do contain calories and need to be accounted for when tallying your total calorie intake.
Another thing to consider is whether or not the product has caffeine. Some people like using caffeinated products and others do not. It is really personal preference. I tend to use products without it toward the beginning of the race and, as it gets toward the end of the bike and into the run, I switch and start using products with caffeine, including flat Coke. It is like a magical potion that immediately gives you an energy boost (albeit a short lived one).
Another important race day nutrition factor comes before you toe the start line, and that is your breakfast. You could ask 50 triathletes what their breakfast routine is and I would bet that you’d come up with nearly 50 different ways to do it. Personally, I like to keep the meal pretty light so I’m not racing with heavy food sitting in my stomach. I want something that can be easily burned. I am also somewhat superstitious, so my prerace meal is always the same. I will start drinking a Gatorade when I wake up to ensure my electrolyte levels are topped off. About 90 minutes before the race I will eat a banana. Then, about 45-60 minutes before the race, I eat a big blueberry muffin. It is high in calories and easy for my body to use because of the simple sugars. Throughout the morning I also sip on water to make sure I am hydrated (Be careful not to overdo it with the water and sports drink though. You can drink too much and your stomach will not like you for it).
I think we will leave the electrolyte and salt talk for another day, as this seems like it is probably plenty for now. To help others develop their own nutrition plan, I have provided my general outline with products I use (and these companies don’t even pay me for these shout outs… geez). Remember, this is what I have come to find through trial and error and by using different products while training. You need to try your nutrition strategy while training at the intensity level you expect to race at to see how your body responds to them. My Olympic distance bike time is approximately one hour and my half Ironman distance bike time ranges from 2:20 to 2:30.
Olympic Distance Race
1 sleeve of Clif Shot Bloks (200 calories)
1 bottle of Gatorade (125 calories)
1 caffeinated gel (I may or may not use this. If I feel like I need a boost I will eat it early in the run.)
Half Ironman Distance
2 sleeves of Clif Shot Bloks (400 calories)
2-3 Hammer Gels (200-300 calories)
2 bottles of Gatorade (250 calories)
Water as necessary depending on temperature
2 caffeinated gels
Coke and water at every aid station