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Triathlon Training: How to Fuel for Your Best Race

If you’re an endurance athlete, then you already know that what you fuel with in preparation for—and during— your race is just as important as your physical training. Your body needs to have the right nutrition and hydration in order to do what you are asking it to do. Zoot Sports athlete and Ironman World Championship qualifier, Jennifer Vogel, gave us the low down on how to fuel up on race day.

Figure out your sweat rate.
You have to know how much you lose in order to know how much to replace. Here’s how:

1. Strip down and weigh yourself right before an hour-long, race-pace workout.
2. Do your workout and keep track of how many fluids you take in, measured in ounces.
3. Towel off, strip down again and weigh yourself immediately.
4. Subtract this weight from your pre-workout weight and convert to ounces. Then add to that number however many ounces of liquid you consumed during your workout.

For example, if you lost one pound (16 ounces) and drank 16 ounces of fluid, your total fluid loss is 32 ounces.

And a math breakdown:

Pre-workout weight — Post-workout weight = New number, measured in ounces

New number + Liquid consumption = Total Fluid Loss

Once you figure out your loss, you’ll know around how much you need to take in per hour. You can divide that number by four to figure out how much you should drink every 15 minutes. If you’re a salty sweater (you’ll see white marks on your clothing or your skin will feel gritty after the sweat dries down), then you need to add electrolytes to your water as well. We like Nuun tablets or Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix.

Find the foods that work for you.
Figuring out what tastes good to you—and what sits well with your stomach—will take some trial and error. Depending on how long the training session or race is, solid foods work better on the bike and gels and chews can work for either the bike or run. For real food, Vogel suggests peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (Ed note: these work really well for me when cycling), and bananas because they are portable and the potassium helps balance your sodium intake to prevent cramping. If you can make rice bars, those are great as well. Skratch Labs has some great recipes here. As for gels and chews, buy a few different kinds and test them during training.

Start your plan days in advance.
For longer distances like an Ironman, Vogel starts to emphasize carbohydrates about 72 hours before the race and will indulge in Mexican food to up her salt intake. Two days out, more carbs like sweet potatoes, plantains, and proteins like fish or white meat rotate through her diet, and she cuts out red meat. Then, within 24 hours, Vogel slurps down a lot of smoothies so she can still get the nutrients she needs from veggies, without worrying about digestion issues (greens are difficult to break down, but the blender does the work for you if you take them in smoothie form). Her go-to meal right before the race: a baked potato with hummus and salsa, thanks to it’s portability and the simple fact that it’s easy to find anywhere. She’ll also drink Ensure to get glycogen (energy that’s converted from carbohydrates) stores up.

You can follow a similar plan for shorter distances, but be mindful about calorie intake—your body doesn’t need as much for an Olympic distance as it does for an Ironman. For your typical Olympic-distance triathlon, you want to top off your stores so your body has something to pull from during the race and then replenish as needed throughout.

Recover the right way.
After a hard workout or race, everyone falls into two camps: you either have no appetite whatsoever, or you want to reach for the nearest cheeseburger and beer. But it’s important to refuel properly for the best recovery. Vogel suggests veggie smoothies, and often reaches for one with turmeric, ginger, beets, kale, and lemon juice. The vitamins and minerals in the smoothie help your body restore what was depleted during strenuous activity. Also aim to get in 12 to 14 grams of protein within 30 minutes of your workout to aid muscle recovery and limit delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Best bets: a cup of Greek yogurt with berries or half a bagel with peanut butter.

Photograph by Diana King