How to Plan Your Race Day Triathlon Nutrition

The first rule of race day triathlon nutrition is to stick to the plan that worked best during training.

The second rule is to learn in advance which hydration and energy products will be served at the aid stations in your upcoming goal race. Then you should experiment with those products throughout training until they work best for you.

Prepare with race rehearsal sessions that feature high levels of energy and low levels of GI distress. Then, ideally, you’ll only need to carry the supplies that aren’t available on course.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of how to plan and prepare successfully for your race.

Race Day Triathlon Nutrition Plan for IRONMAN 70.3 Distance

Jill is training for IRONMAN Boulder 70.3. She checks the race website a few months before the race. She sees that Gatorade Endurance, water, Clif Shot and Clif Bars will be available at aid stations. She begins to work these products into her training regimen. This helps her learn to learn how to blend each in order to meet her nutrition goals.

Bike Leg

About eight to ten weeks before the race, she carefully reads through the race athlete guide. Jill earns that aid stations for the bike leg will be 18 miles apart, while run aid stations will be placed about a mile apart. She projects a 16 mph pace and hot weather on race day.  She decides that she’ll need to carry enough fluid to last more than an hour between refills. This could mean carrying up to three bottles on her bike at any one time. So in addition to the two bottle cages already on her bike frame, she decides to add an aero bar-mounted hydration system (such as the XLab Torpedo Kompact 100, $49.95), which is one of the most aerodynamic and convenient locations for adding an extra bottle.

As for her energy needs, she could choose to receive her choice of Clif products at the aid stations. She realizes this option increases risk. This is due to the distance between stations and the inherent risk of taking them on the fly. She wisely rethinks using solely on-course nutrition. She adds a top tube-mounted “bento box” (such as the Zipp Speed Box 2.0, $29.99). Jill can fill the box with her choice of favorite snacks before the race. Now she can snag a Clif Shot or two at the aid stations only if needed.

Run Leg

For the run, she is delighted to see that each aid station will be offering not only the expected products. They will also be providing fruit, pretzels, cola and Red Bull! With this good news in mind, she decides to forego the added weight and discomfort of a fuel belt. Instead, she will eat and drink every mile or so at the aid stations.

Race Day Triathlon Nutrition Plan for International Distance 

Tony’s A-race is the Panasonic New York City Triathlon. He is an experienced triathlete, and is able to project his race time to be approximately two hours and 30 minutes.

Triathlon nutritionists estimate that an athlete may have between 90 minutes and two hours of stored energy. This is assuming he or she has done a great job of consuming mixed macronutrient meals over the preceding 24-48 hours. As such, Tony knows he will need to ingest supplemental carbohydrates along the way. Given the likelihood of warm and humid conditions on race day, Tony will need to consume 20-24 ounces of fluid per hour. This will help him avoid dehydration and electrolyte depletion.

Bike Leg

Through training in the anticipated environmental conditions, Tony is comfortable consuming up to two 20-ounce bottles of sports drink. He estimates this will take about one hour and 20 minutes. From the NYC Tri website and race athlete guide, Tony learned that Skratch Labs‘ lemon-lime flavor sports drink will be served on course. So, he uses that product in training and has found that it agrees with his stomach and tastebuds.

If he consumes a bottle and a half of Skratch while on the bike, he will take in about 150 calories of carbohydrate, 30 ounces of fluid and ample electrolytes, which should put him in great position as he heads out on the run. For safety purposes, the NYC Tri does not provide an aid station on the bike course, so Tony plans to carry his two bottles of Skratch in his bottle cages during that leg of the race.

Run Leg

Through training, race rehearsals and practice races, Tony feels confident that he will come off the bike with most of the energy he needs to get through the run. As such, he plans to take a few gulps of water at each aid station and then a GU Energy Labs gel around mile 3 in order to stay strong through the finish line.

Final Notes

To sum up, your nutrition strategy leading up your race should include the following steps:

  1. Preview the on-course nutrition products for your goal race and use them in key workouts and race rehearsals.
  2. Carefully read your race’s athlete guide so you know where and at which points in the race on-course nutrition will be available.
  3. Make realistic decisions about your anticipated pace to determine your caloric and hydration needs.
  4. Commit to a plan that leverages on-course nutrition as best you are able, and plan to carry any supplemental nutrition.

Bonus Tip: Write down your race-day nutrition plan and ask a coach or veteran tri buddy to review it for you. While they may not have any suggestions, just the process of writing it down will significantly lower any anxiety you may have about your plan.

Scott Fliegelman is the former owner and head coach of FastForward Sports, which was one of the nation’s largest triathlon and running training groups for more than ten years. He now coaches a select group of athletes, writes for numerous endurance sport magazines, and helps people pursue their two-wheeled dreams while working at Boulder Cycle Sport.