Triathlon Nutrition Guide: by Matt Smith

HomeNutrition TipsTriathlon Nutrition Guide: by Matt Smith

Nutrition is often looked upon as the 5th discipline in triathlon training and racing as proper nutrition can either make or break your training and racing goals. As nutrition is a very individualized discipline, this simple overview is designed to help you as you plan your nutritional requirements for racing triathlon on a daily basis as well as directly leading up to a race, race day and post race. It is not designed to be a prescribed diet you must follow, just guidelines to help you as you develop your own strategy. The products recommended are ones I enjoy personally. For those of you seeking personal attention, I would recommend the advice of a Registered Dietician who specializes in dealing with athletes.

Macro Nutrient Guidelines:
The macro nutrients that your body utilizes for fuel are carbohydrates (glycogen), protein and fat. Contrary to some “fad” diets for athletes, it has long been proven that an athlete training for an endurance event of any kind should focus on a high carbohydrate diet as this is the body’s primary fuel source during an event.

It is recommended to follow a 70% carbohydrate, 15% fat and 15% protein diet when training for an endurance event.

Carbohydrate: (6.5-8.5g per kg of body weight recommended during training times)
– Look for complex carbohydrates that come from natural sources first
o Fresh fruits and vegetables and juices
o Whole grain (no white) rice, breads and pastas, cereals
o Some (not a ton) sweets like chocolate, ice cream, etc.
o Sports drinks, energy bars

– It is recommended to look for the most natural protein sources possible
o Milk (soy milk, almond milk too)
o Yogurt
o Cheese (some)
o Eggs
o Protein Powder (recommend whey protein and buy the natural stuff)
o Protein Shakes (Mix 1 is great)
o Lean meats (fish, chicken, turkey are best or steaks like a flatiron cut)

– Healthy fats provide good sources of Omega 3 fatty acids
o Avocados
o Nuts
o Olive Oil
o Some butter is OK
o Stay away from other oils and processed foods

Micro Nutrient Guidelines:
One highly overlooked area of nutrition is the micro nutrients which help keep your body up and running regularly. These are your vitamins and minerals. There are lots of choices out there for vitamins, anti-oxidants and performance supplements. With any supplements other than your daily vitamins, do consider cycling off of them at some point in the season to make sure your body will continue to feel the benefits of using them. It is recommended to do this in the winter/off season for at least a 3-4 week time span.

Daily Vitamins:
– Take a daily multi-vitamin (Premium Insurance Caps from Hammer Nutrition or Multi-V from First Endurance are specifically formulated for endurance athletes)
– Plant based vitamins or liquid vitamins are the best source as your body can utilize them the most efficiently (Inner-Prime, or go to a natural grocer and look for green foods supplements)

Omega 3/Fish Oil:
– A good fish oil supplement is something that will help your body best process other nutrients
– Make sure it comes from a natural source and is burp free (can be nasty)

– There are lots of choices, but you can usually get this through your multi-vitamin (pomegranate, berry extracts, green tea extracts are the most common, natural sources)

– There are supplements that help your body process energy at the mitochondrial level
– I do recommend taking something like Race Caps Supreme from Hammer Nutrition

Endurance Supplements:
Since there are so many options out there to help you perform better (legally) here is a list of things I would consider supplementing.

Green Foods
– Green foods supplements come highly recommended by a lot of endurance nutritionists. They come packed with high levels of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. Personally I don’t use them, so don’t have a recommendation on what to buy, but know that most natural grocers have a good selection.

– Yes, like the pet! Chia seeds are the main fuel source for the Mexican Tarahumara runners known as the greatest endurance athletes ever. Chia can be sprinkled on cereal, baked into breads or you can mix it with water and let it sit for a few minutes and make a paste to eat. You can buy it in bulk at Sunflower Market or natural foods stores.
– This is a mushroom extract (exotic) that is found in supplements like the World Championship Pro (DBM endurance) or Optygen. Usually it comes combined with a supplement like Rhodisia to aid in increased V02 max. I like the Optygen HP supplement and have found it to make a difference in being able to workout and recover quickly at a high intensity.
– This supplement is found in Optygen, Kona Endurance and can be purchased in by itself as well. It is designed to help raise your lactate threshold by helping your body better process lactic acid.
– I recommend either Optygen HP or DBM World Championship Pro

Beta Alanine
– An essential amino acid, Beta Alanine is proven to help increase endurance capacity by raising your lactate threshold, your body’s ability to process lactate derived from burning glycogen through more ATP.
– I recommend the Power Bar or DBM Citra Beta Shot products

Daily Nutrition:
Your goal in for daily nutrition is to keep your glycogen (energy stores) fully stocked to fuel your training load, rebuild your body to continue to adapt to training while preventing infection and injury. Starting out your workouts on an empty or depleted tank is a recipe for injury and or substandard training.

You are only as good as the fuel you put in your body on a daily basis, so the number one recommendation is to eat as high quality as you want to race. If you want to have a great race, put good stuff in your body and avoid processed foods as much as possible. Pay close attention to sodium content in the foods your purchase. If the ratio of calories per serving and sodium is not 1:1 stay away. This will eliminate a lot of the food you buy at the store and “think” are healthy for you.

As carbohydrates are the main source of an endurance athlete’s dietary needs, it is recommended that your carbohydrates come mostly from whole grain sources vs. processed, “white flour” sources. Whole grain breads, pastas and natural cereals are recommended.

Nutrition Timing:
I recommend that people eat three, regular meals each day and have a morning and afternoon snack (mostly carbohydrates) to buffer any spike in insulin during the day. Most workouts are done before work, at lunch or after work.

For workout recovery, it is best to replace your glycogen (carbohydrate) stores immediately (no more than ½ an hour) after the workout. This can be done with something easy like a Mix 1 shake or Clif bar, but if you can eat real foods, that’s even better. If you do a morning workout, try to eat breakfast directly following the workout. If you need fuel before the AM workout, grab a banana, apple or energy bar. For a lunchtime workout, have a piece of fruit for a morning snack before the workout and lunch following. Usually I recommend some fruit or an energy bar for an afternoon snack before an afternoon workout and dinner directly after.

Specific Recommendations for Daily Nutrition:
a. Brown, long grain rice is a great source of carbohydrate as well and if you have a rice cooker, you can cook a large batch at the beginning of the week and use it all week. Serve as a side with fish or chicken or in stir fry.

b. Quiona, an African grain is a favorite of mine for a side, as a salad or even for breakfast. It has been used by Kenyan runners as a primary dietary staple for many years and has great carbohydrate fuel as well as protein, so it can substitute for meats.

c. Oatmeal (steel cut) is another personal favorite, I like the Coach’s Oats you can buy at Costco. Mix with fresh berries and a bit of brown sugar.

d. Fruits and veggies are unlimited in your diet. I believe you should eat fresh fruits or veggies with every meal. Have berries in your cereal in the morning, a piece of fruit for lunch and a nice salad with dinner as well as your vegetable side. You get a lot of carbohydrate from fruits and vegetables as well as vitamins and minerals.

e. For protein, lean meats are the best and remember that you should always have more carbohydrate and vegetables on the plate than meat. For most people a fist sized portion (8oz) of meat is plenty. Fish (not farm raised if possible), chicken and lean cuts of beef like a flatiron steak are best choices.

f. Milk is a great source of carbohydrates as is soy milk or almond milk. Some people have lactate issues, in which case soy or almond is great.

g. Cheese isn’t bad in moderation. Grating cheese extends the flavor with less of it. Feta and mozzarella are great, lighter cheese choices. Use the real stuff vs. the processed cheese products. Even if the real stuff has a higher fat content, it’s better for your body.

h. Fat is OK. Remember that 15% of your diet should come from healthy fats. Things like avocados, nuts, olive oil are all not bad things to eat. If you’re a butter person, use less and use real butter vs. the processed kind, it will process in your body better and a lot of the chemicals used in processed foods stick to your body.

i. You’re not always on a diet. It’s OK to eat sweets, ice cream, your “vices” in moderation. Instead of banning yourself from what you love and binging every now and then, I recommend constant moderation. I’m an ice cream lover, so have a small bowl every night vs. a BIG bowl once a week. I also love French fries. I will eat them every few weeks (more with homemade, baked sweet potato fries) and never feel bad about it.

j. Take time to plan your meals. If you know what you’re eating ahead of time, it’s less likely you’ll make a poor choice out of convenience. I tend to plan meals at the beginning of the week for dinner at least for the rest of the week. Take 5 minutes the night before and prepare you lunch and snacks for the next day. This will help you avoid going out to lunch for fast food and grabbing a candy bar at the vending machine for a snack.

k. Hydration is key. Make sure you drink 4-5 large glasses of water daily. I don’t recommend soda or sports drink, but do think it’s OK to do sparkling water or add an electrolyte only (emergen-c or NUUN) to your want.

Daily Meal Outline:
Here are a few suggestions for a daily food intake for an average endurance athlete. (note that this may differ based on your personal caloric needs and the time of year/training load)

Pre-Breakfast: (if you need to eat before a workout in the AM)
– Energy bar, banana or energy gel and or drink (keep it simple)

– Cereal or Oatmeal with milk and ¾ cup of fresh berries
– 1 cup coffee (DO NOT USE ARTIFICIAL SWEETNER) (Raw sugar or stevia is OK) (limit your coffee intake so that you can better use caffeine to help performance on race day)
– Glass of juice
– For a long training day add: English muffin or toast with almond or peanut butter

Morning Snack:
– Piece of fruit (banana, apple or orange)
– Yogurt

– Turkey sandwich on wheat bread with mustard and veggies only (can add grated cheese)
– Add a slice of tomato, salad and avocado
– Piece of fruit (apple)
– Pretzels or crackers of some kind (2-3 servings by what the package says)
– Carrots
– Chocolate piece (3 squares)

Afternoon Snack:
– Piece of fruit
– Celery sticks, carrots, healthy trail mix
– Energy bar or Mix 1 shake
– Dates or Figs

Post Evening Workout:
– Mix 1 shake or Honey Stinger Protein bar

– 8oz lean protein
– 1 cup steamed brown rice or quiona
– Steamed vegetables (broccoli, etc.)
– Salad
– Whole grain bread on longer days/high training times
– Ice cream (small bowl) or popcorn for dessert/ (your choice in moderation)

Work-Out Specific Nutrition:
As you are conducting your workouts in training, it is crucial that you go into workouts properly fueled, stay fueled during a workout and refuel after to recover and be able to best absorb the training stimulus to your body. I can’t emphasize this point enough, before, during and after fuel and hydrate properly. For longer days, this starts the evening before.

Pre- Work-Out:
Make sure that you have fuel in your body before your workout. If this is a morning workout, this can be a banana, small energy bar or piece of toast. For longer days, you may want to wake up earlier and eat a normal breakfast. This is great race day preparation. Eat what you plan to eat on race day and see how your stomach responds and your energy levels. For morning workouts 1 hour or under, I recommend doing them fasted with water only so your body learns to better process fat as a fuel source. I don’t recommend a large breakfast before a workout as you’ll rarely, if ever do this on race day/ all it does is upset your stomach.

For an evening workout, your daily caloric intake should be enough to fuel you through the workout. You can choose to have an electrolyte replacement drink with the workout or an energy bar/snack an hour or so before an evening workout. I have found the Honey Stinger waffles to be a great pre-workout pick-me-up.

During Work-Out:
In most training workouts, it is recommended to just drink water or a sports drink unless the workout lasts over one hour. For longer workouts, I recommend following your race day fueling protocol to test it in different situations. Most resources recommend approximately 300 calories per hour as the maximum your body will absorb during aerobic exercise, but some people can take more or less depending on your body and how you digest.

For work-out nutrition, carbohydrates and liquid/electrolytes are the two most important elements of fueling. You should get the majority of your calories from carbohydrate sources and replenish water or an electrolyte drink as well.

I personally recommend easy to digest products for during workout fueling such as Infinit nutrition’s all liquid formula, Honey Stinger bars, Power Bars, Clif bars or the chews made by Honey Stinger or Clif. For biking, solid foods will usually be OK and you can even supplement on longer efforts with things like a PB & J sandwich or pretzels if you want solid foods. For running, gels such as Honey Stinger, Clif Shots or Power Bar gels are good choices as you can’t usually chew and run at the same time.

I do recommend trying different products to figure out what works best for you as some people really like Gu for example, but personally, I find that I crash after ½ an hour of taking one as it has so much sugar.

After Work-Out:
The 30 minutes after you complete a workout is the most essential nutritional time in your entire workout. Making sure that you replace fluids lost as well as glycogen(carbs) and protein to help your body start rebuilding your muscles right away is key to a quick recovery and sustained training. It is recommended to take in some kind of fuel immediately following hard workouts. This should be something with a 4:1 carb/protein ratio like a Mix1 protein shake, Hammer Recoverite or something similar. The more simple this first round of food after a workout, the better as the calories and essential nutrients can get to your system right away. Personally, I enjoy the flavor, natural make up and formula of Mix1’s product the best for a quick, recovery drink.

It is also important to make sure you replace fluids right away. If you weigh yourself before and after a workout and have lost weight instantly, it is mostly water weight which is essential to keeping hydrated. Replace your fluids by drinking an extra bottle of water or electrolyte drink.

Lastly, within ½ an hour of the workout, make sure you get a healthy, real meal into your system to aid your body in rebuilding. The quality of the food is most essential here. Sometimes it’s tempting to grab a burger or fast food, especially when you’ve been on your bike for hours, but eat something that will replace the nutrients you lost first, then give yourself a treat if you still want it.

Race Specific Nutrition:
Pre-Race Nutrition:
This phase in the nutritional cycle allows you to prepare your body for race day by loading up on the proper fuel to get you through your race to plan. It is recommended to eat a high carbohydrate breakfast on race day at least 2-3 hours before the start of the race. A bowl of oatmeal, cereal or energy bar are good choices. Definitely leave out the eggs and bacon.

If you usually drink coffee, make sure you limit it to one cup on race morning and focus on drinking a water bottle on the way to the start of the race instead.

Race Day Nutrition:
On race day and during a race, the name of the game is replenishing what you have lost as you race and keeping the energy stores in your body as stocked as possible to keep you going as long as possible. While the intensity at which you race primarily dictates what your body needs, there are general guidelines to follow for any race.

Sprint and Short Distance Races – For races under 90minutes, your liver and muscles should have enough glycogen stored to perform well during the race. Even though you should have enough carbohydrates stored in your body, you should plan to have about 100 calories of sports drink or a gel with you in case you need it. Any carbohydrate based sports drink is acceptable.

Sample Race Nutrition Plan: 100 calories of carbohydrate based sports drink on the bike/ 1 gel on the run if you need it

Matt’s Sprint Nutrition:
Pre: 1 bottle of Infinit (200 calories) to sip while warming up
Bike: 1 20oz bottle of Infinit (short course formula) with 200 calories on the bike (drink ¼ of the bottle)
Run: 1 Honey Stinger gel if needed

Olympic Distance or Races Over 90minutes – 90 minutes is the point where muscle glycogen stores are stressed and you need to take in additional carbohydrates to maintain fuel for working muscles. It is recommended to have 30-60 grams per hour or approximately 200 calories of mixed carbohydrate source fuel for a shorter race. Sports drink, gels or chews work great for an Olympic distance race.

Sample Race Nutrition Plan: 200-300 calories of sports drink on the bike/ 1 gel on the bike/ 1-2 gels on the run

Matt’s Olympic Nutrition:
Pre: 1 bottle of Infinit (200 calories) to sip while warming up
Bike: 1 20oz bottle of Infinit (short course formula) with 200 calories on the bike with 1 Honey Stinger gel approximately 15min before the start of the run
Run: 1-2 Honey Stinger gels 35 min apart

½ or full Ironman Distance – For longer distance races, you will deplete everything you have stored in your body, so your goal is to keep replenishing as much as you possibly can without GI distress throughout the race. For most people, this is in the range of 200-400 calories and most studies recommend 300 calories per hour. For the type of food, it is dependent upon what your will tolerate, but should come from a mixed source of carbohydrates (maltodextrin, sucrose, glucose) and be in liquid and solid form. Some athletes can only take in liquid calories and some can tolerate bars and more solid food, so testing before race day is crucial.

Some studies recommend adding protein for longer distances, but it is also known to lead to GI distress in some athletes.

Sample Race Nutrition Plan: 300 calories of sports drink/bars on the bike / sports drink/ 1 gel + water every 45 min on the run/ coke on the run if you want it

Matt’s ½ Ironman Nutrition:
Pre- 1 bottle of Infinit (200calories)to sip while getting ready/ Honey Stinger chews 10min before swim start
Bike- 2 x 20oz bottles of Infinit (long course formula) with 350 calories per bottle on the bike with 1 bottle of water with a vial of Right Stuff in it. 1 Honey Stinger gel approximately 15min before the run.
Run- Gel flask with 4 Honey Stinger gels and a vial of Right Stuff/ water at aid stations and coke at aid stations starting at mile 6

Matt’s Fulll Ironman Nutrition:
Pre- 1 bottle of Infinit (200 calories) to sip while getting ready/ Honey Stinger chews 10min before swim start
Bike- 4x20oz bottles of Infinit (long course formula) with 350 calories each on the bike/ 1 bottle of water with a vial of Right Stuff. 2 packages of Honey Stinger chews (hours 2 & 4), 1 Honey Stinger gel approximately 15min before the run.
Run- 2 x Gel flask with 4 Honey Stinger gels and a vial of Right Stuff(gel every ½hr)/ water at aid stations and coke at aid stations starting at mile 12.

Post Race Nutrition:
Post race nutrition can be the most critical nutrition window. Make sure you get 200 calories of 4:1 carbs to protein in within a ½ hour of your race, no matter the distance and a full meal within one hour. I recommend a Mix 1 drink, then whatever they have for post race food for the meal. Make sure you eat well the night after the race too as your body is replacing what was lost.

Post race hydration is also important and you should make sure you consume plenty of water (2 bottles is my recommendation) directly after the race to replace what you lost during.

Race Nutrition Recommendations:
As race day nutrition is specific to the individual and testing products, timing and caloric consumption during training will dictate race day nutrition, here are some general tips and tricks for race day fueling.

Caffeine- Caffeine is proven to be effective at increasing athletic performance and focus. It is recommended to limit caffeine intake the week of a race so that race day intake will be more potent. Most athletes will have some caffeine in the morning before the race. During the race, caffeine should be consumed toward the latter part of the bike and on the run primarily.

Tip: I recommend having caffeinated gels for the run and drinking coke on longer races ½ way through the run to perk up at the end of the race. You can experiment with Red Bull shots/drinks for the run as well.

Electrolytes- Electrolytes are key in any racing environment. Make sure you salt your food a bit extra the week leading up to the race to top off electrolyte stores before race day. On race day, you should consume approximately 500-700mg of electrolytes per 32oz of water consumed. If you are a heavy sweater or experience cramping, more electrolytes are necessary.

Recommended Electrolyte Supplements: Salt Stick, Hammer Endurolytes, The Right Stuff

Tip: I use a water bottle with a vial of The Right Stuff on the bike and mix another vial into a flask with gels for the run (2 for Ironman) You can also dose your electrolyte pills per hour in mini baggies available at vitamin shops. I would recommend 2 Salt Stick pills and 1-2 Hammer Anti-Fatigue or Sport Legs pills per hour for ½ Iron or Ironman races.

Hydration- You should be drinking approximately 10oz of water each hour of a race depending on how hot it is out and how much you sweat during the race. In a hot race, you can consume upwards of 20-30oz of water per hour. You can also use an electrolyte/sports drink such as Gatorade, but in most studies, you should also consume just plain water.

Tip: For longer races, use an aero bottle or Speed Fil for water and keep it full at each aid station. I usually grab a bottle at each aid station and put ½ in the Speed Fil and ½ over my head depending on how hot it is that day. If you are hydrating appropriately in a longer race, you will most likely need to pee on the bike. (don’t worry, you don’t have to get off)

Liquid/Solid- Depending on the level of exertion and the sensitivity of your stomach, you can mix and match the amount of fuel you get from liquids and solid foods on the bike and run. Some athletes can stomach things like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pretzels, fig newtons or candy bars on the bike. Usually on the run, liquid or gel based fuels are the best way to go. The most important thing is to know how things affect your stomach before the race.

Tip: Personally, I can only do liquid or gel calories as if I eat solid food, my stomach gets upset, but I try to add some chews or something with different flavor for longer races as just the drink can get boring quickly. I do know a few athletes that will pack some small candy bars for midway through longer races as a reward.

Timing- Timing your nutrition is crucial for any distance race as you don’t want to take in too much at one time as it will move blood to the stomach to process the fuel vs. staying where you need it in your working muscles. You should think of racing nutrition like an IV, just keep the drip flowing by having ½ a bar at a time or constantly sipping your liquid fuels.

Tip: You can pre-cut bars to put in a bento box. Also, some athletes set an alarm on their watch so it forces them to eat every 15 min in a longer race.

Products- There are a ton of nutrition products on the market to choose from today, so it really is a personal choice. Stay away from things with high fructose corn syrup (look at your Powerade label next time) and make sure you test things in training before racing with them.

Brands I Use:
Infinit Nutrition- for the same price as other fuels, you can get a consultation with Infinit’s nutrition team to blend a liquid fuel that’s right for you and your specific caloric needs and taste profile.

Carbo Pro- a simple, carbohydrate only drink that just plain works and is used by most pro athletes in some form. You can purchase a version from them that has 1200 calories per 20oz bottle, enough for a full Iron bike.

Honey Stinger- gels are tough. Most are simple sugar and burn very quickly and you get a peak and crash sensation. Honey Stinger is made from it’s namesake, Honey and burns at a more gradual rate for sustained energy. Their chews and bars are great flavor wise too!

The Right Stuff- for electrolyte replacement, with over 1500mg of electrolytes per vial, they make it easy to make sure you get enough in during a race.

Salt Stick- for electrolyte replacement pills, they are by far the best.

Mix1- for recovery, they make the best 4:1 carbs/protein product.

PowerBar Perform- usually this is the drink on course for WTC/Ironman races, so I recommend getting used to it. I like it better than Gatorade personally.

RedBull- I have been known to put Red Bull in my Fuel Belt for a full Ironman for the last ½ of the run and it really does give you wings.

Nutrition Periodization:
Just as you would with a good training plan, your nutrition should be periodized as you lead into important races.

Off Season- As your training is reduced in the off season, you should also cut some calories from your peak training times. Most of these calories should be carbohydrate calories as you won’t be burning as many when you are not exercising as much. Much of these calories should come from your refined sugars in the energy gels, bars and drinks you won’t need when you aren’t training as much. It is actually recommended to do a lot of your off season base training without significant carbohydrate intake to teach your body to process fat more efficiently in the lower heart rate zones.

You can gain weight in the off season, but you should limit your gains to 3-5%. The off season is also a good time to loose weight if that is your goal. If you are aiming to loose weight, one pound is equal to 3000 calories, so you need to cut no more than 3000 calories per week as one pound per week is safe weight loss.

Peak Training- In peak training, fueling for your workouts and recovery is key. You should be consuming mostly a carbohydrate based diet (8grams per kilo of body weight) to fuel your workouts. You should spread your carbohydrate intake evenly throughout the day for maximum benefit.

Taper- As you reduce your training load a week or two prior to a key race, you should also, very carefully reduce your calorie intake. Plan to reduce your intake 500-700 calories per hour of training reduction during a taper phase, but make sure you are focusing on getting high quality carbohydrate calories still. You are building your stores for race day. Also 2-3 days before the race, you should increase your sodium intake and start focusing on hydration.

Self Study Resources:
Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald
The Athlete’s Plate Cookbook
Performance Nutrition Handbook by Pacific Health Laboratories
The Endurance Athlete’s Fueling Handbook by Hammer Nutrition

Guide developed by: Coach Matt Smith
September 2011

Written by

Pete Alfino is a level II USAT certified coach and the owner of Mile High Multisport. An accomplished triathlete who has completed 4 Ironman races, he has successfully coached triathletes of all ages and abilities from sprint to Ironman races. You may contact pete at to learn more about the triathlon coaching services he provides via Mile high Multisport.