Nutrition for Triathlon Athletes: Rules, Tips, and Guidelines to Keep in Mind

Nutrition plays a crucial part in being active, whether you are a beginner taking your first steps in the sport, or an experienced triathlete bidding for gold. 

Triathlon is a challenging and time-consuming sport, with 3 different disciplines to prepare for: swimming, cycling, and running. However, there is a 4th discipline that athletes usually overlook – nutrition. An optimal triathlon nutritional plan can be the difference between a gold medal and an upsetting finish. 

In this article, we will talk about nutrition rules, tips, and reminders for triathlon athletes. 

An Ironman Nutrition Plan

Nutrition plans, particularly those designed for Ironman and other triathlons, can be quite complicated. Food measuring, calorie counting, resting metabolic rate calculations – the list goes on and on. However, it doesn’t have to be confusing. 

Of course, if you are an Olympic athlete, a pro athlete, or if you want to get a podium spot at Kona, you might consider working with a private nutritionist who can help you formulate an optimal diet plan for peak performance; however, not everyone has this luxury.  

The vast majority of triathlon athletes seeking proper nutrition are regular people, ones with regular jobs, who often don’t have enough time to incorporate such strict diet measurements and calculations into their daily lives.  

If you’re looking for a simple Ironman nutrition plan, you’re in the right place! Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts, and be on your way to properly fueling your body for the effort required when following an Ironman training plan. 

What Does a Good Triathlon Nutrition Plan Look Like?

The foundations of any good Ironman nutrition plan are quite simple: eat high-quality, whole and real foods; allow for flexibility in portion based on your body’s requirements; stay hydrated, and add variety to your diet. There are also other tips and guidelines that you should keep in mind. 

Below, we highlight some triathlon nutrition rules, guidelines, and reminders: 

  • Eat ‘real’ food. Most grocery stores are set up in a similar fashion – fresh foods on the outside walls and aisles upon aisles of processed food in between. If you are training for an Ironman event, everything that you should be eating exists on those outer walls. Of course, we are talking about fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, poultry, and seafood, with the occasional trip to an aisle for spices and olive oil.

    With an increased focus on ‘shelf life’ and lowering production cost, more and more low-quality foods have hit the grocery aisles for years. Microwaveable meals, TV-dinners, and sugar-filled drinks all make for tasty and convenient treats; however, they are not beneficial for your body and can even negatively affect your performance and overall health. 

Experts encourage everyone to focus on ‘whole foods’ – foods that are more nutrient dense compared to processed foods that are simple high in energy. The difference? Nutrient-dense foods provide a heavy dose of nutrients for your body, including fiber, vitamins, and key minerals with low added fat and sugar

  • Follow a flexible diet plan. Training for an Ironman even takes a long time. For some, it may even take well over a year to cross that finish line! If you are fully committed to the process, and also to following a triathlon nutrition plan, it’s important that you follow a flexible plan. Remember, everyone’s body is different and everyone has different nutritional requirements. 
  • Hydrate. What you drink is just as important as what you eat. Do you drink enough water during the day? Proper hydration helps with nutrient absorption and digestion; on the other hand, poor hydration can prevent you from achieving your goals. A popular hydration guideline is drinking 8 glasses of water in a day; however, it actually depends on the person and their level of activity. Pay attention to your body. When you’re training for an Ironman event, where you are losing lots of electrolytes, make sure to top up. However, please remember that many sports drinks are high in sugar and unnecessary ingredients. Make sure to read the labels if you are being conscious of exactly what you are drinking.
  • Don’t be afraid of carbs. Some diets such as the paleo diet eliminate most carbs. However, triathletes should not fear carbs, even if they are trying to lose weight. While carbs should not make up the majority of your diet, they do give you the energy that you require to successfully train hard. But remember, each triathlete is different, so you should experiment to see what works best for you. If you are brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and fruits are some of the healthiest sources of carbs. 
  • Observe proper meal timing. Ideally, you should eat your pre-exercise meal about 1 to 4 hours before long or intense workouts. Eating too close to your training session can cause gastrointestinal upset, while eating too far in advance can leave you lacking energy. Of course, 1 to 4 hours before exercise is still quite a long time. So, how do you know what’s the best meal timing for you? Practicing and trying out different meal timings is the best way to find out. 
  • Add some variety to your diet. Some people can eat the same thing for every meal, every day. If that’s you, you can skip this section. However, for most people, variety is key. Eating the same meals day in and day out can be quite boring, plus it can deprive the body of the various nutrients it needs to succeed in a high-intensity training environment. Adding some variety to your diet, while making sure that you are still preparing healthy and nutritious meals, can go a long way to keeping you on track for race day. 
  • Keep a food log. If you are just starting out with tracking your nutrition, keeping a ‘food log’ is an excellent way to monitor your eating habits and stay on track. It can also help you appropriately time your meals. Those getting in more than one workout per day may find it hard to know when to eat, and might end up feeling rushed and eating foods that do not suit the healthy diet they are trying to achieve. To avoid this, use your food log as a guide. Write down everything that you eat and when you eat it, and use it to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. Also, it’s a good idea to track and record your energy levels throughout the day so you can make any necessary adjustments.

Eating Before Competition

Combined with a reduced training load, you can achieve effective carbohydrate loading within 2 to 3 days before competition. This loading shouldn’t be achieved just by eating more food; rather, it should be done through a targeted intake of more carbohydrate-rich foods or fluids. Furthermore, eating any more than 2 hours before the race can be challenging, and pre-race nutrition needs to be modified to suit this. 

Ideally, a pre-race diet must be a carbohydrate-rich meal that’s easy to digest, such as porridge, toast, cereal, or muffins. For athletes struggling with nerves and poor appetite, liquid meals such as liquid meal replacements or fruit smoothies may be better tolerated. 

Top up snacks such as sports bars can be consumed over the 30 to 60 minutes before the race starts. Also, consuming a sports gel or drinking a sports drink 10 to 15 minutes before the swim starts can help give you some extra fuel. Of course, this strategy can vary from one athlete to another. 

Eating and Drinking During Competition 

For triathlon events longer than 3 hours, there is a correlation between increased carb intake and improved performance. With these findings, it’s recommended that carb targets during racing should be in the 60 to 90g range per hour. 

To achieve optimal carb targets, it’s crucial to start early in the ride and continue throughout the race. Sources of carbohydrate should be varied and can include a combination of gels, bars, whole foods, and drinks. Adequate hydration must also be considered and a fluid plan implemented to minimize the risk of dehydration. 

Post-Race Recovery

Recovery snacks and meals must contain carbohydrate (for fuel), some protein (for muscle repair), and plenty of electrolytes and fluids (to replace sweat losses). A recovery snack or meal must be consumed soon after training or racing. Due to the intensity of the effort exerted and the length of the race, athletes usually don’t feel like eating so soon after they finish. Further, athletes usually lack a desire for sweet foods after having a lot of sweet products for several hours without much savory or solid food. A small snack is often easier to tolerate at the finish line, which should then be followed up with a more substantial option that’s higher in protein. 

The Bottom Line

Nutrition plays a crucial part in being active, whether you are a beginner taking your first steps in the sport, or an experienced triathlete bidding for gold.  Nutrition plans, particularly those designed for Ironman and other triathlons, can be quite complicated. However, it doesn’t have to be confusing. 

Eating ‘real’ food, following a flexible diet plan, staying hydrated, observing proper meal timing, and keeping a food log – these are just some triathlon nutrition guidelines and tips that you should keep in mind. 

Disclaimer: The information on this article should be considered as general advice only and may not suit your unique circumstances and nutritional needs. Before modifying your diet, it is best to consult your doctor or a registered sports dietitian. 

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