Taking a bite out of your triathlon nutrition


Demystifying the ins and outs of fueling for your race

Food is your fuel. Proper nutrition while training, as well as before, during and after your race is the essential fourth element of a successful triathlon. What you eat will help improve your performance and supply energy to muscles as they get depleted. Prepping for your upcoming race whether it’s your first or twentieth triathlon must include a solid nutrition plan.


Four years ago, Mark Morgan of Glenview was new to triathlons, learning the techniques of training for the swim, bike and run race. The focus during his first sprint distance triathlon race in 2009, Harbor Lights in Waukegan, was to finish the race, but he admits he hadn’t given much thought to pre-race fueling. His run was a bit of a struggle. He drank and ate too much during the race leaving him with an unsettled stomach. Morgan has since gone on to finish all distances for triathlon: Olympic, Half Ironman and Ironman. Along the way, he’s tried various nutrition plans and is now guided by how he feels with sports nutrition products and how his body reacts to the food while training and racing. It helps, too, when it tastes good.


Practice while training

Your training diet starts the first day of your training, not just the day before a race. Establish a sound nutritional foundation by eating three balanced meals a day, with the proper amount of calories and variety of foods, notes the American College of Sports Medicine, including carbohydrates, protein and fats.


In addition to your regular meals, you may want to enhance your training with gels, bars, or energy chews, along with sports drinks, which all become part of the triathlete’s repertoire. These are some supplement options that are easily digested, compact, quick sources of fuel that will sustain your energy while you’re out for long workout sessions or racing more than an hour.


Each person is uniquely different so what works for your training buddy may not work for you. “The key is to create the situation you’ll have on competition day to get your body ready for what it will feel like,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, CSSD, of Chicago, dietitian for the Cubs and author of The Flexitarian Diet. Practice many times during race simulations what you plan on eating before, during and after the race so you know what feels good to you. Certain foods like dairy, high fiber foods or spicy sauces can leave you feeling bloated, lose energy or cause you to run to the bathroom. It’s best not to try anything new the night before a race.


Fueling up Pre-race.

Be mindful of what you eat a few days before, as well as the day and night before a race. “The day before the race I recommend people decrease their fiber content and avoid raw vegetables that might cause diarrhea during a race. In a race setting, the gastrointestinal system works faster because of adrenaline, causing everything to move through you a bit faster,” says Amy Baltes, RD, a wellness nutritionist and exercise specialist based in Mount Prospect. The night before a race, try eating a lean piece of protein such as chicken, fish, lean red meat or egg whites with brown rice pasta for healthy carbohydrates.


When your alarm buzzes at four or five in the morning on race day, the last thing you may want to do is eat. Nerves kick in and your stomach may not feel settled, but if you’ve got three hours or more before your race start it’s important to eat some breakfast for fuel. Deb Ognar, RD, CSSD, and Northwestern University sports dietitian, suggests a bagel with peanut butter or yogurt with cereal and some fruit. It will depend on your tolerance level, but your breakfast should be carbohydrate based. Take small bites frequently if you can’t seem to muster more. As your race wave approaches, take in some sports drink, water or a sports gel.


Ognar notes to have a back up plan on race day if you can’t tolerate a certain food or if something unexpected occurs. Be ready to adapt when it comes to fueling.


Out on the racecourse

On the bike is a great time to take in energy sources as you are sitting and it’s easier to take in fluids and food. After about 15 minutes on the bike, Morgan starts drinking his 20-ounce bottle of fluids. He then will have a gel at transition to take on the run and depending on how he feels take it around mile 4 in an Olympic distance race while sipping water from the aid stations and dumping the rest over his head to stay cool.


When exercising hard for 45 minutes or longer, no matter what your size, you need to hydrate with electrolytes and carbs. Blatner says that for every 15 minutes that you are active in a race you’ll need 4 to 8 ounces of fluid and 7 to 15 grams of carbohydrates. This equates to 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour. “The number one electrolyte lost is salt, so be sure you have salt in your drink so water can enter your cells,” says Blatner, or you’ll start to feel bloated.


If you can’t tolerate too much sugar or caffeine in some of the supplements, try an alternative supplement or go with whole foods, such as a banana.


While on the run, plan your hydration stops. The run course will have aid stations with water and sports drinks. Know which drink will be available and determine before race day which mile stations you want to grab a drink or will likely need a sports drink.


It’s key to stay ahead of your hydration as dehydration can negatively affect your performance, diminish your concentration and increase your likelihood of injury.


After the finish line

You’ve finished your race! Well done! Now is the time to replenish your glycogen stores and help repair muscle tears. Within 30 minutes of finishing, grab a good source of carbs and protein to help prevent fatigue. Blatner suggests chocolate milk or a banana smoothie, eggs with whole grain toast and berries, chicken or turkey, cheese, yogurt paired with fruit, crackers, pita or brown rice.


To help calm sore muscles, grab some wholesome foods such as beets, cherries and pineapple. All are known anti-inflammatory foods, studies show, and can help with recovery and get you back out on the course to continue your training for the next race.



Libby Hurley, President/Founder of Together We Tri triathlon training program and author of Tri the Journey, has completed over 50 triathlons and recently finished her fourth Ironman.


Hurley whips up these pancakes, as they are a great source of protein and complex carbohydrates for after your workout. These flapjacks are low in simple carbs and sugar.


Athlete’s Pancakes

(batch of 20)

12 egg whites beaten (or egg whites from a carton)

1/2 cup low fat cottage cheese or Greek yogurt

40 grams egg white protein or vanilla whey protein

1/2 cup ground oats

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 Tbsp coconut oil (or flax, olive, canola)




z sweet, stevia, or xylotol (optional)

dash sea salt


  1. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until smooth.  Measure out 1/4 cup per cake
  2. Cook on medium heat on skillet


Nutritional info:

Calories:  48, Protein:  5, Carb:  4, Fat:  1.0