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08-09-2021 - Reading time: 8 minutes

What’s the best nutritional strategy for a triathlon?

Swimming, cycling and running – in a triathlon these are the three disciplines that are combined. When participating in a triathlon, especially one over a longer distance, the right nutritional choices are crucial. Together with former professional cyclist Bekim Christensen from Denmark, who is now a triathlete and talent coach, we will put you on the right track.

Particularly the combination of three completely different disciplines is what makes a triathlon extremely challenging. For each discipline you use a different muscle group. Triathlons come in different shapes and sizes. There’s the Sprint, which consists of 500 or 750 meters of swimming, 20 kilometres of cycling and 5 kilometres of running. The Olympic distance is 1.5 kilometres of swimming, 40 kilometres of cycling and 10 kilometres of running. And the mother of all triathlons is of course the well-known Ironman, good for a 3.8 kilometre swim, 180 kilometre bike ride and 42.2 kilometre run.

The food choices you make beforehand and along the way help determine your success. Not only is it important to be conscious of what you eat, when and how much you eat and drink is also crucial. And afterwards, the right nutrition helps optimise your recovery.

What should you eat and drink beforehand?

In the days leading up to your triathlon, you should reduce the training load. The tapering period commences. In this phase, you must pay even more attention to your diet than before. In the three days before the triathlon, increase your carbohydrate intake. This so-called ‘carbohydrate loading’  results in carbohydrates being stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. This supply of energy is quickly and easily available in the first hour and a half or so of the triathlon.

When loading, choose the right amount of carbohydrates. Research shows that you need 7 to 12 grams of carbohydrates (per kilogram of body weight) the day before the event to get the best possible preparation. For someone weighing 75 kilograms, this comes down to about 500 to 900 grams. Spread this out between the regular eating moments: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Make sure you build up the intake in the three days before the event, don’t suddenly start eating a lot all at once. This can lead to abdominal pain.

Also choose the right nutrition. Not all carbohydrates are suitable, some are high in fiber and fat. Good choices are: white pasta with tomato sauce, rice, couscous, white bread with jam, and bananas. For now, skip fiber-rich carbohydrates such as legumes, vegetables, peeled fruits, whole-wheat bread, and whole-wheat pasta. Milk products and meat (products) are not a good idea either, because of the amount of proteins.

Try to eat your dinner on time the day before the triathlon. That way you avoid going to bed with an overfull stomach. Moreover, this gives the body enough time to digest the food. Do not eat too excessively, but make sure the meal contains 7 to 12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of your body weight.

Your last actual meal should be about three hours before the start (usually your breakfast). Again opt for white bread with sweet toppings or honey, and bananas. Also make sure you mix a good sports drink, such as the Eurosport nutrition Isotonic Sports Drink. It contains more than enough carbohydrates. Have a pre-race snack about half an hour before the start, the Eurosport nutrition Oat Bar for example. It contains both slow and fast carbohydrates.

What should you eat and drink on the way?

Most middle and full distance triathlons are good for hours of physical exertion. For three hours or less, you need up to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. For more than three hours, you’ll need 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. It’s best to get these carbs from sports nutrition, because it contains everything an athlete needs. Sports-specific nutrition consists of a sophisticated mix of different carbohydrates. It allows the body to absorb more energy.

A Eurosport nutrition Energy Bar (with the 2:1 ratio between glucose and fructose) contains 32 grams of carbohydrates. A water bottle (500 millilitres) of Isotonic Sports Drink (with the same ratio) provides another 30 grams of carbohydrates. The sports drink ensures the supply of carbohydrates and fluids.

Of course once you’re in the water, you can’t eat or drink. That’s why that pre-race snack is so important. During the race, take the first bar or gel and the first sip of sports drink when you are on the triathlon bike. Or take 300 to 400 millilitres of sports drink in the transition zone in case the swim took longer than expected. The first 10 to 15 minutes on the bike can be stressful, it can make you forget to eat and drink. More than 1 hour without any energy intake must be avoided.

Make sure the bike is adequately stacked with sports nutrition: put large 750 millimetres water bottles on the bike and stick a few gels and bars on the top tube if necessary. This is especially important if the cycling distance is longer and there are no pockets in your outfit. Drink approximately every 20 minutes.

When the cycling is over, only the running awaits. Place a few gels in the transition zone that you can grab on the go (make sure this is sports nutrition your body has already become accustomed to during training). Carry them in your hand or better yet: take them with you in a running belt. The belt often also fits small squeeze bottles with sports drinks. While running, it’s better to use only liquid sports nutrition, because it’s easier to consume than bars. An extra tip: use the Eurosport nutrition Energy Gel + Caffeine while running. The caffeine gives you a very welcome energy boost.

What should you eat and drink afterwards?

You should take a recovery drink within 20 minutes after the finish line, the Recovery Shake, for example. This contains not only proteins (for the repair of muscle damage), but also carbohydrates and electrolytes (to replenish what is lost along the way). After an hour you could take a protein bar to speed up muscle recovery. Then switch back to regular food. Do not eat too fat and avoid alcohol. Drink another one or two bottles of Isotonic Sports Drink in the 24 hours after the event because of the electrolytes that it contains. Restoring the fluid balance is extremely important.

  • Also read Bekim Christensen’s five triathlon tips