Short-Course Triathlon Fueling

July 2, 2015

You’ve logged the miles, completed all of the training.  But you have a nagging feeling you’ve forgotten something, as race day looms closer.  Oh yeah…. Your FUEL PLAN!   All too often, nutrition takes a backseat to all of the other aspects of race day.  Consequently, fueling-related challenges are very common during triathlons of all distances.  But there’s a solution!  Use training to determine what works/doesn’t work for you, develop a play-by-play plan for race day, and follow that plan. 


Whether your next race is an all-out sprint or a dig-deep endurance-fest Ironman, make sure your fuel plan is on track and specific to the task at hand.  One of the coolest things about our sport is the variety of options when it comes to race distance, but determining what to eat and drink when can get rather complicated.  Use the following plans to remedy nutrition-related setbacks and perform your best at your next race! 


The days of carb-loading and over-consuming dietary carbohydrate are behind us.  More and more athletes are turning to metabolically efficient fueling strategies, which involve training the body to better utilize fat stores for energy rather than being a slave to carbs.  Benefits of this way of life include stabilized blood sugar, boosted energy levels, improved body composition, elevated performance, and better general health. Metabolically efficient fueling is achieved by fueling/hydrating only when necessary, by combining nutrients at meals, and by maintaining stable blood sugar throughout the day.  These concepts are interwoven into all of the tips and plans below. 


There are a few givens on race day that can be applied to all distances.   

  • Pre-Race Dinner - Balance, balance, and balance.  Make sure that all macronutrients are represented in the meal – carbohydrate + fat + protein.  Don’t avoid carbs, but no need to carb-load either. Hydrate normally with water and avoid copious amounts of alcohol.  

    • Example:  Salmon, sweet potato, and green beans

  • Pre-Race Breakfast – First, eat breakfast!  Next, balance is essential.  Avoid post-breakfast hunger and energy fluctuations by pairing fat and protein with a carb-containing breakfast. Eat well in advance of the race start, usually 2-3 hours. 

    • Example:  Steel cut oats, walnuts, and a hard-boiled egg  

  • Race Foods – Use training as your trial-and-error time to determine what works best for you!  There are many new choices when it comes to more natural sports products – look for fruit puree as the main sugar source, natural flavors instead of artificial, and don’t hesitate to include some protein and fat with race day carb-laden foods.  Avoid heavily processed carb sources and products with food coloring and dyes.  More natural foods mean less gastrointestinal distress! 

  • Post-Race Recovery Fuel - Replace lost nutrients during racing by consuming carb + fat + protein.  The carb replenishes glycogen stores, and the protein halts muscle breakdown incurred during your race.  Depending on the length of the race, or logistics – it may not be possible to eat a meal right away.  That’s ok!  Get in what you can, focusing on each of the 3 macronutrients.

    • Snack example:  Nuts and fruit 

    • Meal example:  Chicken tacos with vegetables, avocado, and salsa

THE SPRINT – .47-mile swim, 12-mile bike, 3.1-mile run

  • Race Fuel – NOTHING!  No calories are necessary during a sprint triathlon (or any activity <2-3 hours).  You can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that after eating a balanced pre-race breakfast, you’re good to go. 

  • Fluids – Hydration requirements are largely dependent on the time of race, climate, and sweat rate of the athlete.  Drink water as needed, but no need to guzzle it down. 

  • Electrolytes – Most athletes don’t require electrolyte supplementation during this distance race, but again it is an individual thing.  If electrolytes are consumed, ensure that they don’t contain any calories.  Examples:  Salt Stick, Recovery e21, Hammer Endurolytes, or Vega Electrolyte Hydrator. 

THE OLYMPIC – .93-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run

  • Race Fuel – Technically, no replacement calories are needed during the actual race.  However, if breakfast is consumed 3 hours pre-race and the race takes roughly 3 hours, you will be running on empty.  An option is to eat breakfast a little later, 1.5-2 hours pre-race, or fuel one time with 75-150 calories while on the bike if you go with an earlier breakfast time. 

  • Fluids – 12-24 ounces of water per hour (assess hourly needs during training by paying close attention to urine color – pale yellow is ideal)

  • Electrolytes – Again, electrolytes shouldn’t contain any calories here.  Examples:  Salt Stick, Recovery e21, Hammer Endurolytes, or Vega Electrolyte Hydrator. 



As the demand for natural sports products has increased, some fantastic brands have emerged: Pocket Fuel, Huma Gel, EnduroBites, Ignite products, Vega sports products, Macro Bars, Sly Fox Bars, Picky Bars, UCAN, Beet Elite, Skratch Labs, and OSMO.   

Some “real food” race fuel options are:  dried fruit (cranberries, dates, figs), bananas, nut/fruit trail mix, homemade bars or granola, coconut water, and almond butter on crackers. 




Your fuel plan can make or break your race.  With the extensive training time commitments that go into preparing for a race, it’s temping to wing it with nutrition.  Don’t do it!  Start developing a plan in advance.  Try everything out during training. Seek the help of a sport dietitian to help guide you along the way.   



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