12 Guidelines for Fueling Your Triathlon

Post written by Susan Lacke.

Like most new triathletes — especially those who started out as runners — I had a lot of really strange questions when I first decided to take on a triathlon.

Though I was comfortable as a runner, learning how to add a swim and bike turned me into an inquisitive pain in the ass around my triathlete friends:

“Why do you wear those pointy helmets? Can I wear arm floaties on the swim? Where did all the men’s body hair go?”

One of the questions I had was particularly puzzling:

How the heck does anyone eat at these things?

I know I’m not alone in that bewilderment. As I’ve worked on the upcoming No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, I’ve encountered a lot of people who once felt the same way. For many runners-turned-triathletes, their fueling routine for running was nailed down, but triathlon was weird.

In a marathon, I knew to fuel early and often, taking in carbohydrates nearly from the start of the race. So in a triathlon, did that mean I was supposed to start eating during the swim?

What? How? Didn’t Grandma say something about waiting an hour?

With time, of course, I began to learn that fueling for a triathlon isn’t so confusing after all. It just takes a few rules of thumb and a lot of experimentation.

In triathlon, nutrition and hydration are so important, they’re often referred to as the “fourth discipline” of the sport. But no matter what distance you’re racing, whether it’s your first sprint or a full-on Ironman distance, the key elements of fueling for your triathlon are the same.

Here’s a look at 12 basic guidelines that apply to triathlons of most any distance:


1. The morning of your race, take in between 200 and 500 calories.

It’s a wide range of caloric intake, and your pre-race breakfast should be based on your own preferences. Also consider how much time you have before the race – if you’re eating three hours before the starting gun, that will give you more time to digest a bigger breakfast.

2. Get a good mix of carbohydrate, protein, and healthy fats.

As Matt points out in the 5 Essentials of Pre-Workout Nutrition, 3 grams of carbohydrate to 1 gram of protein is typically said to be the perfect ratio, with a splash of healthy fats for good measure. Some typical race-morning breakfasts:

  • A smoothie with protein powder
  • Bread, English muffins or toaster waffles with peanut butter
  • Cereal with almond milk
  • Fruit and yogurt
  • A banana with almond butter

There are also a lot of atypical race-morning breakfasts: cold pizza, ice cream, and soup are some race-morning breakfasts I’ve seen fellow triathletes consume. It’s up to you to decide what works. Some people do well with fiber, while others experience gastrointestinal issues with it. Some like a big breakfast, while others would rather just eat a gel or nutrition bar. Again, experiment during your training to find your perfect race-morning nosh.

3. Caffeinate (maybe).

If you’ve had coffee, tea, or another caffeinated beverage on training days with no ill effects, then go ahead and drink it on race morning. Some people drink it for the caffeine jolt, while others pick it up because it makes things – ahem – move before you start moving. If you’ve ever visited a port-o-john before a race, you know what I’m talking about. (Wink. Nod. Air-gun.) You don’t specifically need coffee for that – a mug of hot water will do the trick, too.

Race morning is not the time to suddenly start a coffee habit! Some people resemble a rabid labrador on crack cocaine after a cuppa Joe. This sounds like it’d be perfect for getting some free speed in a race, but in actuality, it just makes for anxiety, difficulty focusing, or nausea – not at all what you want on your big day.

4. Drink water.

Guzzling gallons of water on race morning will not really do anything for you except make you have to pee. Instead, drink lots of water throughout the days before the race, and drink some on race morning to “top off the tank.”

During The Race

5. Fuel the machine.

Your main objective during the race is to stay on top of nutrition and hydration. In shorter races, this is easy to achieve, since the body’s natural stores of glycogen will often suffice. Longer races, however, require strategic planning.

Your body’s stock of carbohydrates will keep energy levels up while you’re racing. No matter what distance you’re racing, take 100 to 200 calories of easily-digested carbohydrate (gels are perfect for this, as are dates) with a healthy gulp of water 15 minutes before the race. This will give your body an extra boost to draw from during the swim.

That’s right — the answer to “How do you eat during the swim?” is … You don’tIn terms of time, the swim is usually the shortest leg of a triathlon, so by eating a good breakfast followed by a small amount of calories immediately before getting in the water, you can tide yourself over until you get into transition and hop on the bike. Don’t worry about bonking during the swim — if you’ve done a good job of fueling in the days and hours before your race, your body’s natural reserves will suffice plenty for this short time frame.

And that old wives’ tale about waiting an hour after you eat before you swim? It’s exactly that — an old wives’ tale. Take in a gel and get in the water already!

On the bike and run, fuel wisely. For races lasting more than an hour, typical recommendations are to take in 120 to 240 calories with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. In long-course races, such as a half or full iron distance, you may want to consider taking in more calories (if your stomach can handle it).

6. Consume mostly liquids.

Liquids are the ideal way to get your nutrition during a triathlon – not only will liquid hydrate you, but many sport drinks contain calories, carbohydrates, and electrolytes in a format that’s easiest for your stomach to process.

7. Take in electrolytes.

Most people think electrolytes and sodium are interchangeable. But electrolytes are actually several different salts – sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate, to be exact. These elements keep your body running by balancing hydration, nerve impulses, and muscle function.

The amount of electrolytes you need to take in during a race will depend on a lot of factors: how much you sweat, how hard you’re racing, and how hot/windy/dry it is outside. Most sports drinks will fulfill this need, though some people choose to drink water and take their electrolytes in capsule form.

8. Choose a drinking routine.

Some people take in a certain amount of fluid at scheduled intervals — say, 4 ounces every 10 minutes, or 6 ounces every 20 minutes. Some make it a point to empty one bottle of fluid over the course of an hour. Others simply drink to thirst. Find what works for you.

9. If you must eat “food,” make it easy to digest.

Eating while cycling or running is taxing on the body. Whether propelling you forward or digesting your food, muscles need resources — energy, water, and blood — to work. Doing both simultaneously requires those resources to be diluted throughout your system instead of concentrated on one function (moving or eating). To avoid having your moving resources diverted to your stomach, choose easy-to-digest foods like store-bought or homemade gels, chews, soft candies (I’ve been known to carry Swedish Fish in my bike jersey!), or dates. For shorter races, you won’t need a lot of food – just a small baggie should do.

For longer efforts requiring more calories (like a half or full iron distance triathlon) you may want to eat something more substantial, like pretzels, energy bars, or a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. Always eat these on the bike — it is much easier to digest than while running — and don’t eat it all at once (see above: diverting resources). Instead, spread out your bites over time, and always take in a good drink of water with each bite of your solid food.

10. Caffeinate, maybe (yes, this again!).

There are gels and sports drinks which contain caffeine. Some triathlons also offer Coca-Cola on the run course. Some people utilize this bonus ingredient – cola has brought back more than one triathlete from the deep, dark recesses of a bonk – but others have found it causes stomach upset. During your training, try caffeine to see how your body reacts to it.


11. Eat soon, drink often.

There’s a fuel window in the 15-60 minutes following a race where you want to take in your recovery meal to optimize muscle repair. Matt discusses this window (and six other important tips) in The 7 Secrets of Post-Workout Recovery.

12. Treat yourself.

After eating an appropriate recovery meal, it’s perfectly acceptable to use that day’s race as an excuse to eat whatever the hell you want that night. I’m a fan of the Mexican-food-and-cupcake dinner myself. Treat yourself – you’ve earned it!

You’re fueling like a triathlete, but do you dress like one?

I know, horrible segue.

But there’s really no way for me to nonchalantly drop this news: We have No Meat Athlete Tri Tops! (Cue flashing lights, music, and go-go dancers!)

I’ve been relentlessly and annoyingly pestering suggesting to Matt that we expand the NMA apparel offerings beyond running tops and casual wear for some time now. He’s finally admitted that I was right (he didn’t use those exact words, but I chose to hear them anyway) and we now offer not one, but two items for No Meat Athletes of the two-wheeled variety: a cycling jersey (modeled here by NMA Mike) and a triathlon top.

[Mike image]These items are only available through pre-order only, now through May 1, 2013. Since the vendor we’re working with prints the jerseys to order (about the only way we can make this work), it does take a little while, so expect your order to be delivered to your door at the beginning of August.

Sound good? Pre-order your cycling jersey or tri-top here. Please consult the size chart before ordering, as the print-to order process prevents our vendor from being able to do refunds or exchanges due to wrong sizing.

About the Author: Susan Lacke alternates between proposing marriage to her bike and wanting to throw it off a cliff in disgust, depending on how many hills she’s ridden that day. After serving as No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete for the past three years, she’s excited to announce her very first e-book for NMAs: The No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap.



Dig this post?
Spread the word!

Keep in touch:

The 7 Foods Worth Eating Every Single Day

wooden signpost near a pathOur 7-Day Kickstart Plan is unique in that it focuses on the highest quality whole foods (including the 7 foods worth eating every day), to make sure you get everything you need on a plant-based diet.

The Kickstart Plan includes:
  • A 7-day meal plan, built around the foods worth eating every single day
  • 14 of our favorite recipes that pack in the nutrition, taste great, and are easy to make
  • Focused on simplicity and speed, to minimize stress and time commitment
It's the best way we know of to get started with a whole-food, plant-based diet, for just 7 bucks. Learn more here!


  1. Gina @ The Runivore says:

    Great post! I did my first triathlons last summer, and it was definitely tough to determine how to apply my marathon fueling strategy to that. I was very new to cycling so even just learning how to drink/eat on the bike was really tough initially and took practice. Will keep your tips in mind next time I do a triathlon. Thanks!

  2. This post is absolutely spectacular! I love that you covered pre, during and post race nutrition, and so thoroughly. I am also super excited about the Triathlon roadmap and the new NMA gear, woo hoo, it’s a good day!

  3. Great post Susan. It is about time we had a roadmap for vegan Triathletes. Love the bike and Tri shirts. My order is in!

  4. I am now attempting to run again after a bone spur injury in my heel (and it has been tough). The comments you made regarding electrolyte replenishment is really important. I used to run some 75 miles a week, and one summer, I was helping someone move furniture from an old home to a new one, and I ran out of potassium after having a particularly active week of running. It took me about a week to recover. Going without electrolyte replenishment is not only stupid, it could be life-threatening. It pays to know where you stand with them every day, particularly if you are a runner or a triathlete.

  5. A few things to consider: especially during longer events, in the first 15-25min you are out from the water, consume only liquid calories, as your body need time to adjust from horizontal to near vertical position. But anyways, up to 12hours of exercise the most efficient way, is to consume only liquids, said by Joe Friel. Though Mark Allen say, that back than, the only sports bar was bananas and he ate 10 large bananas and loads of coke during the Ironmen, then he went on the win 😀 several times.
    My preference is not to have a real breakfast on race morning, but I eat loads of calories, the 3-4 days before. 5-6000kcals a day. . My preference is always fruit, so I am gorging on bananas, melons, grapes, fresh dates and so on. Like this I don’t need to do anything with salt, sugar or minerals, neither think about my hydration. The night before race, around 17:30, I like to have some easy to digest starchy meal. For instance 2 huge sweat potatoes, with some light seasoning, red pepper, curcuma, nutritional yeast, and maybe a cup of rice and one stalk of fresh celery. Really focusing on chewing a lot, eating slowly.
    Race morning, the first thing is 6-8dl of spring water, always. Then maybe 3-4 large medjool dates 3 hours out from the start. And as you said too, 15-20 before swimming, one gel of about 100kcals.
    This all needs practice guys, so just take your time, and not only train, but do some pre race practice during your preparation.

  6. For fuel, maltodextrin is a thing of the past. Vitargo S2 is derived from Barley and has been tested in labs to be superior. Gluten-Free, too, which happens to be important to me. You can slam up to 900calories per hour without bloating (if you need to, which you probably don’t). I alternate bottles of water and/or nuun or take SaltStick tablets for electrolytes on long (over 2hr) sessions. This is especially important in the heat. I’ve been racing triathlons and adventure races from 24hrs to over 100hrs nonstop for over 20yrs in all environments. Trial and error left scars but I’m dialed now.
    Woodland Hills, CA

    • I agree with the vitargo. It is said to be the revolution in these days. Ultra long chain carbs.
      Though I still encourage everybody, to try these powders and gels a few times a year; use them in races too, but if you have a chance, use real food, as that will pay off, on the long term. Health first, then performance. Maltodextrine still has it’s own place, as sometimes you need a little bit faster carbs, also dextrose, fructose and sucrose. Cause once you hit the wall, the only thing what can pull you up is coke. So better not hit it !

  7. Wow, stumbled on this site because someone mentioned this article. Awesome! I like everything about this site and the writing is easy to understand and without fluff…my kind of stuff.

    I will happily be tweeting about this article and the site across my 5 twitter accounts. Thanks for doing this monumental task!

  8. Great post! Any chance its still possible to order one of those tri tops? they look divine!

    • Hey Athena! They’re not available right now, but if you keep up with No Meat Athlete Facebook page or blog posts, you’ll hear about it when we do another pre-order. Thanks!

Leave a Comment