What do athletes eat and drink before a triathlon?

by Mark Miller April 14, 2016

What do athletes eat and drink before a triathlon?

Triathletes consume up to 10,000 calories on Ironman race days. That compares to about 2,000 for a normal person on an average day. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

The ultimate in endurance sport is an Ironman triathlon. These athletes swim 2.4 miles, bicycle for 112 miles and then run a marathon of 26.2 miles (140.6 miles total) in one day, so they really need to be prepared. The best do it in about nine hours. We wondered: What do triathletes eat and drink before a race?

It turns out a lot. The typical Ironman athlete burns 7,000 to 10,000 calories on a race day, so they need to really consume a lot of food. They also metabolize a lot of water, so they need to take in copious amounts of fluids on race day.

The average adult gets a fourth of that or fewer, about 2,000 calories a day or a bit less for women and a bit more for men.

What do triathletes eat and drink before a race?

There are many articles telling Ironman athletes what types of foods (carbohydrates) and how much they should eat just before and the day of the race. Caffeine, a known performance-enhancing substance that was once banned by the Olympics, figures in there. Viter Life did a blog on whether taking caffeine before a workout is a good idea. The answer: yes.

The Ironman website has this advice from athlete and triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki on caffeine consumption just before the race:

Avoid caffeine during race week and early on the day of your race. This fast will help keep your sensitivity to caffeine high so that you can maximize its effect come go-time. Don’t consume caffeine until at least two to three hours into your race (since it may wear off and make you fatigued when you need energy most); it’s your friend later in the day, helping you maintain a high heart rate and drive proper pacing. (And as a general rule of thumb, try to keep caffeine intake below 200 milligrams per day/1,000 milligrams per week.)

Kropelnicki gives a 10-point article on exactly how much to eat and drink before and during the race.

180 to 360 calories per hour

At another article on Ironman.com, the advice is to take in 180 to 360 calories per hour after the athlete’s body has burned its stores of carbohydrates. That article states:

Your body has enough carbohydrate stores to fuel about 60 to 90 minutes of endurance exercise. So, as you exit the swim you are most likely already in a calorie deficit. Start fueling during transition or within the first 10 to 15 minutes on the bike. A sports drink, gel, or small snack will help replenish your carbohydrate stores as you ramp up for the next leg of the race.

You may not feel hungry, but you still need to fuel. You can manage your carbohydrate load by fueling consistently and often. The recommended calorie range for exercise lasting over three hours is 45 to 90 grams of carbohydrate (180 to 360 calories) per hour. That means calories—don’t get confused by calorie-free electrolyte drinks or caffeine. They do not provide true energy; fuel means calorie! Try to consume a combination of liquid calories and solid calories.

The various articles on triathlons recommend a good, healthy diet at all times, of course. An athlete can’t perform at optimum level if he is under-nourished.

Another coach writing on the Ironman site, Ben Greenfield, advises:

We all know the drill—if you eat your fruits and vegetables, expose yourself to adequate sunlight, get plenty of sleep, and stay well hydrated, your body shouldn’t really need a supplemental source of vitamins and minerals, right? Not always.

The bottom line is this: if you are a serious athlete looking to enhance your physical performance in an IRONMAN or other endurance event, you should be serious about the energy sources you’re putting into your body. In most cases—unless you’re living on top of some pristine, unadulterated mountain with organic soil and a huge garden—then you most likely need to add high-nutrient supplements to your healthy diet.

Greenfield then lists five reasons why long-distance athletes need supplements, including that nutrients are depleted the longer produce is in transit and on the shelf and because soils are depleted of minerals that provide nutrition.

Training 6 days a week

Remember, a triathlete or people running long distances (sometimes up to 100 miles) train constantly and sometimes run, bike and/or swim for hours several times a week.

Take an Olympic triathlon competition. That is a much shorter race than an Ironman at a 24-mile bike ride, a 6.2-mile run and a 0.93-mile swim. Of course athletes competing in the Olympic distances of triathlons eat and train much less than Ironman athletes. But let’s see what the recommendations are for training:

Runner’s World has a six-week triathlon training plan that includes:

You can see that people who train for the shorter distances of Olympic triathlons also put in some serious practice.

For the Ironman, one coach advises swimming four to five days a week at 12.5 to 15.5 miles; cycling three to four days at about 250 miles; and running three to four days a week at about 55 miles. All that exercise means long-distance and endurance athletes should consume many more calories than people who don’t exercise.

People who perform at such extreme levels of athleticism surely have reason to be proud. As the Ironman Triathlon Twitter account’s bio says: “Swim 2.4 miles … Bike 112 miles … Run 26.2 miles … Brag for the rest of your life.”

Mark Miller
Mark Miller


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