I am in the experimentation mode right now. I am trying out different foods and drinks that I can eat before and during training, and prior to long bricks and long race days (over 90 minutes). I'm actually working on a list of what tastes good, how well I can get it down, and the nutritional breakdown of it. My goal is to have it fine-tuned enough so I can try it out during training camp when I will be pushed to my physical limits. If it works there, then I feel confident it will work on race day.
I am summarizing the information I have learned thus far, mostly for my own benefit so I can read and re-read it as needed, but hopefully it can help others that struggle with triathlon nutrition and hydration too. I was surprised by how much conflicting information there is on the web. I did my best to research and consolidate it, but (disclaimer) I am not a nutritionalist, or a doctor, or a triathlon coach, so please do your own research and consult with a professional for guidance.
In the Days Prior to a Race or Long Training Session:
On Race Morning or A Long Training Session Morning:
On the morning of the event, drink 16-20 ounces of water 3-4 hours before the start to give your body time to process the extra fluids. This will go along with your pre-race morning meal. Drink another 16-20 ounces of fluid in the hour or two before the start.
Make it a habit to reach for your water bottle every 15 minutes and down at least 3-8 ounces (several big swallows) of liquid. It's a good habit to rotate between water and a sports drink, or to mix them together in your water bottle. If you struggle to remember to drink, set your alarm on your watch or Garmin to sound every 15 minutes as a reminder.
Vary your fluids and experiment to see what works best for you. I am finding that I can't always get electrolyte drinks down, so I have to either water them down, or recently I have been mixing some cranberry juice in with my water to give it some flavor. If you are able to train with the fluids that will be offered during the race you are training for, you will know how well you can handle them and can make adjustments accordingly.
Post-Race or Training:It is recommended that you drink up after your workout to replenish fluids that are lost. At least 20 ounces of fluid, including 200mg or more of sodium will boost absorption. Sports drinks and recovery shakes are good choices. Low-fat chocolate milk is a good combination of carbs and protein as well.
Skip the booze. (Well, it is a recommendation so I am putting it down.)
Keep hydrating for the next 48 hours.
Understanding what you need to power through a long workout can be confusing, at least it is for me. Everyone is different and what works for some doesn't always work for others. Add in GI issues, heat intolerance, and nerves and it can be a recipe for disaster if preparations haven't been made.
Twenty-Four Hours Before Your Race/Training
As a general rule you want to avoid those foods that are slow to empty from your stomach, such as those that are high in fat, high in fiber, or other highly processed meals. The more simple the meal, usually the better. Once you find what works for you, stick with it. When I researched what many of the pros ate before their races, most were pretty obsessive about eating the exact meal each time. In general there was a lot of grilled chicken, steak, sweet potatoes, brown rice, and pasta.
Your last large meal should be finished approximately 12 hours before your scheduled start. This will ensure everything is fully digested before the race kicks off. If it's a 7am start, then dinner should be done by 7pm.
Pre-Race/Long Training Morning MealResearch shows that consuming 1.5 - 1.8 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight is ideal for improving performance. For a 150-pound athlete, that translates to 225 to 270 grams of carbohydrate (or about 1000 calories) before a hard effort. As that sounds like a lot, the key is to get it in early.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine you should have this pre-race morning meal 3-4 hours prior to the gun going off. The main purpose of this pre-race meal is to fill your liver with glycogen. Liver glycogen fuels your nervous system while you sleep, and as a result your liver is roughly 50 percent depleted when you wake up in the morning. Your muscles, inactive during the night, remain fully glycogen loaded from the previous day. By consuming this early morning meal, it gives your body time to digest so that your stomach is fairly empty and your liver is totally fueled. This time frame allows for insulin and blood glucose to normalize and hormonal levels to normalize. Muscles burn glucose for fuel and the body stores glucose in the form of glycogen which can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need an increased fuel supply. The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.
The appropriate size of your pre-race meal depends on three factors: the duration of your race, your size, and the timing of the meal. The longer the race, and the heavier you are, the larger the meal should be. The closer the meal falls to the race start, the smaller it should be. If you are able to eat 3-4 hours out you can safely consume up to 1,000 calories. If that is too big a meal you can divide it up into two smaller meals, eating 200-400 calories four hours before the start (along with 12 to 20 ounces of fluid) and eating the remaining carbs 90 minutes to 2 hours before the start.
If you choose to eat your entire pre-race meal just two hours before the start due to not wanting to get up so early, eat only 1 gram of carb per body weigh (or 150grams, or 600 calories, for a 150-pound athlete) and stick with foods you know are easy on your stomach. Since you are consuming less, you do risk running out of liver glycogen, which will cause your blood sugar to plummet and may mean you hit the wall. So be vigilant about fueling early in the race (consuming about 30-60 grams of carbs per hour) to keep your energy levels high.
Finally have your last 25 to 30 grams of carbs 30 to 60 minutes prior to the start. This could be an energy gel or chews (with 12 to 16 ounces of water) or 16 ounces of sports drink.
The best pre-race breakfast consists of mainly carbohydrates (at least 80%) since they're digested more rapidly and are your body's preferred fuel source. Small amounts of protein will stave off hunger during the later miles. Limit or avoid fat and fiber as the former takes too long to digest, and the latter can cause bloating and GI problems.
The types of carbohydrate are not important (as long as the meal is timed in this 3-4 hour window) as the GI index of the meal will have no effect on performance.
Recommended breakfast foods:
Bagel and Peanut Butter or Almond Butter
Oatmeal with milk and dried fruit
Yogurt and toast
Banana and high-carb energy bar
Waffle with syrup and strawberries
Bowl of rice
Meal replacement shake (Ensure has about 250 calories and 40 grams carb)
If queasiness is a problem on race morning, liquid carbs may be the way to go. Smoothies, juices, breakfast shakes, and sports drinks are good ways to pack in carbs that can easily empty from your stomach.
Pre-Race Meal Plan Example (150 pound athlete)
3 to 4 hours prerace
1 cup cooked oatmeal with 2 tablespoons honey 62g of carbs
6 ounces yogurt 17g
1 large banana 31 g
2 tablespoons raisins 16g
4 ounces juice 14g
12 to 20 ounces water 0g
Total Carbs = 140 g
90 minutes to 2 hours prerace
1 slice of bread with 1 tablespoon jam 28g
24 ounces sports drink 47g
Total Carbs = 75 g
30 to 60 minutes prerace
1 energy gel or serving of energy chews 25g
8 to 12 ounces water 0g
Total Carbs = 25 g
During the race/training session
Calories burned should be mirrored by calories consumed as closely as possible.
Instead of eating a large amount of food mid ride, nibble high carb foods throughout the ride. Ingest something (about 15-20 carbs worth) every 30-45 minutes (and 150-400 calories per hour depending on your needs) and start the process during the first hour on the bike. Use the alarm on your watch to signal the time to eat, and carry your snacks (already unwrapped and in bite-size pieces) in a baggie in your fuel bag or pocket for easy access. Think of nutrition/hydration as an IV, just keep the drip flowing by constantly sipping or snacking on small amounts at a time. The amount you ingest will depend on your body size, training intensity and duration, as well as what your stomach can handle. Your goal is to keep your blood sugar steady.
Suggestions for solid foods on the bike:
dried fruit (raisins or dates)
low-fat bite size cookies (fig newton)
Caffeine can increase focus for some athletes. Some people limit their consumption of it the week of the race for improved potency on race day. Save your caffeinated gels for the end of the bike or for the run. Take in some coke if needed along the run.
After exercise you want to eat a balanced, mixed meal (a 4:1 carbs to protein ratio and around 200 calories) within 30 minutes to promote optimal recovery. Aim for a half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of weight. For a 150-pound athlete that's 75 grams, or the equivalent of a bagel and banana. Consume 15 to 20 grams of protein to kick-start muscle repair. Just after a training session is when there is maximum blood flow to muscles, cells are more sensitive to insulin and glycogen synthase (the enzyme responsible for making glycogen) is most active. Try and eat a full meal within an hour.
Suggestions for post-workout foods:
A glass of milk and a PB&J sandwich
A turkey sandwich and an orange
A bowl of cereal and a sliced banana
A sports drink
Sports nutrition for endurance athletes can be very technical and should truly be tailored to an athlete's individual needs based on their physical makeup, training goals, and environmental factors. This continues to be a work in progress for me, with lots of trial and error...often more error than success. With each training session I have an opportunity to experiment and rule out potential foods and drinks that can be used to fuel my efforts. The more I try, the more I learn.
Information consolidated from a variety of sources. Some content copied verbatim from the following:
American College of Sports Medicine, Selecting and Effectively Using Sports Drinks, Carbohydrate Gels and Energy Bars
American College of Sports Medicine, Selecting and Effectively Using Hydration for Fitness
Monique Ryan, M.S., R.D. "Perfecting Your Pre-Race Food Strategy"
Sarah Currie, M.S., R.D. "A Meal Plan For Triathletes"
Tuned In To Cycling Blog, "Cycling Nutrition: Eating on the Bike"
Matt Smith, Triathlon Nutrition Guide