Short Course Race Nutrition

Food on BikeIt’s not uncommon to see new triathletes in their first short course races racking their bikes with 4 bottles of sports drink and 10 gels taped to the top tube — bringing an Ironman® nutrition plan to a short course triathlon.

Before we give you our recommended nutrition plan for short course racing, we want to share with you a few key points regarding endurance nutrition in general.

You have about a two hour gas tank

Your body burns primarily fat to fuel itself during endurance training and racing. However, this fat is “burned in the fire of carbohydrates,” that is, you’re body needs to burn carbs in order to burn this fat. Your body’s primary sources of carbs are:

  1. Glycogen, stored in the muscles and liver.
  2. Food, or sugars, eaten during exercise.

Very generally speaking, a well trained endurance athlete has about 1500-2000 calories of glycogen stored in their body and available as the fire in which to burn fat, our primary fuel during exercise. In our experience, this glycogen store is good for about 1:45-2.5 hours of exercise for a well-trained endurance athlete. Hold that thought…

Less is More

“Hey, Body, I want you swim very hard, bike very hard, then run very hard. Oh, and while you’re at it, I want you to also eat and process this fancy sports food I’m shoving down your neck.”

The key verb in that sentence above is process. Right now, sitting on the couch, your body can easily process that pizza on the coffee table because you’re not asking it to do anything other continue sitting on the couch. But the harder and harder you exercise, resources available for processing food become more and more scarce, as blood is shunted from the stomach to the limbs, hard at work doing the triathlon racing thing.

The lesson here is that the fewer calories you eat and ask your body to process during a race, the more resources your body has available to continue to swim, bike, and run very hard. When we combine the Two Hour Gas Tank with our “Less is More” guidance above, we find that the best nutrition strategy for short course racing is a minimalist, take-in-as-few-calories-as-I-can-get-away-with strategy.

Now that we’ve set the stage for you, here is our nutrition plan for short course triathlon racing:

Pre-Race

The conditions you are trying to create before your wave hits the water at 7:25am on Sunday are:

  • You are well-hydrated
  • If it’s going to be a hot race, you’ve pre-loaded your body a bit with sodium.
  • You’ve topped off your glycogen stores, ie, you have a full tank of gas (see 2hrs above!)
  • Your stomach and digestive tract is relatively empty — you are now in complete control of everything that goes into it.

Day Before the Race:

  • Lunch: Your largest meal of the day. No need to go crazy or eat anything special (a sandwich or pasta is fine), but eat a bigger lunch so you can have a lighter dinner, giving your body time to do it’s thing (see clean digestive tract above). Lightly salt your food. Drink water all day or, if tomorrow’s race is going to be hot, drink a sportsdrink instead of water. Don’t go crazy, no need to drink gallons of Gatorade!
  • Dinner: Light, high in carbs, easy to digest.

Race Morning:

While you sleep your body will burn about 800 calories, tapping into that gas tank. Also, it’s likely that your stomach will be doing flip flops as you deal with race day nerves. This will slow down your digestion. So we need to top off your gas tank, but give your body enough time to process your food so you can start the race with a relatively empty stomach and clean digestive tract.

HIGHLY recommend you do this by waking up at 2am and having a very easily digestible breakfast of 600-800 calories. A liquid fruit smoothie is a good example. Then simply go back to sleep and wake up at your normal time. That is a plan that thousands of our athletes have followed since at least 2002. Wake up, eat, go back to sleep, it WORKS!!

From Wake Up #2 to Race Start

You’ve got a full tank of gas and you filled it up early enough so that everything should be out of your stomach by that 7:25am wave start. We suggest you eat VERY lightly. Maybe a sports bar while you drive to the race, drink a bottle of sportsdrink while setting up your transition, maybe pop a gel and slug some water about 30 minutes before your wave. That’s all you need, if that…less is more.

Sprint Nutrition:

Armed with your Two Hour Gas Tank, you don’t really need to take in any calories for a sprint. You’ve got enough fuel to last through the entire race and, more importantly, the fewer calories you take in, the harder you can race. But if you feel you may want to some calories with you, just in case:

  • On your bike: A bottle of sports drink, about 150 calories for the bottle, BUT you’ll be lucky to drink maybe half of it during the race…you’re riding that hard.
  • On the run: Have a gel tucked into the leg of your shorts. Maybe pop the gel coming out of T2, grabbing a cup of water, and sip it for the first half mile as a tool to help you rein in the horses during the first half mile (see our short course pacing article here). Or grab a cup of sportsdrink at the first aid station. The simple fact is that with a 3k run, by the time that gel has a chance to do anything for you…you’re likely a mile or less from the finish anyway.

Bottomline is you just don’t “need” to take in any calories, at all, during a sprint and the fewer you take in the harder you can race…or you can fuel yourself with “maybe” 100-200 calories across the whole event, just in case.

Olympic Nutrition

Basically the same drill as a sprint, but you might drink the entire bottle of sportsdrink (~150cals) on the bike, and “maybe” take in another 100 calories on the run. The bottomline, again, is the less you eat, the less additional stuff you give your body to do = you can go harder with reduced risk of nutrition issues — cramping, side stitches, etc.

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