As an endurance athlete myself, and working with triathletes, I always say that the fourth part of a triathlon is optimal nutrition. Without fueling your body with what it needs, your body may not perform as well as it could, and you run the risk of burning yourself out, both mentally and physically.

While many athletes are incredibly driven when it comes to their athletic training schedules, getting serious about the foods you put in your body is just as important.

In this article, we are going to talk about why fueling your body right is just as important as the training aspect of getting your body in peak shape for a triathlon.

Triathlon, Nutrition

The Importance of Nutrition for Endurance Athletes

When it comes to fueling your body for a triathlon, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Nutrition for endurance athletes really encompasses what you will eat before, during, and after training. For triathletes, this is super important simply because of how rigorous training for a triathlon can be.

When you train for a triathlon, you are training for multiple different athletic events such as swimming, cycling, or running that will all occur during the triathlon. As you can imagine, your body is going to need some additional fuel to power through these athletic events. Not only will nourishing your body with the right foods help to support exercise endurance, but a healthy and balanced diet can help keep you healthy and reduce the risk of becoming depleted in certain nutrients.

Nutrition for athletes training for a triathlon is also very important for recovery. Since training can be hard on the muscles and joints, it’s important to fuel the body with clean protein sources to help nourish those tired muscles and promote optimal recovery. The body will also require adequate amounts of carbohydrates to help restore depleted glycogen stores.

Nutritional Guidelines for Triathletes

To help support energy reserves, it’s important for endurance athletes to get enough carbohydrates to support energy demands, protein to help repair worked muscles, and healthy fats to support energy and satiety. Adding a variety of fruits and vegetables to the diet can also help ensure that athletes are getting a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to help them stay in tip-top shape.

Here are some general macronutrient requirements to keep in mind when training for a triathlon.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are essential for the endurance athlete, and they will serve as an immediate fuel source both during training and during the actual triathlon. It’s important to make sure that you are consuming enough complex carbohydrates as carbohydrate depletion can lead to things like fatigue, poor concentration, and poor athletic performance. It’s important to nourish your body with enough carbohydrates to help restore those glycogen stores that may have been depleted during athletic training. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 6-10 grams of carbs per kg of body weight per day. The actual amount you will want to get will depend on your physical fitness level and how long you train. Your body will require closer to the higher end of that range the longer you train and the more active you are each day.

Quality is also super important as you don’t want to consume just any type of carbohydrate. Strive to enjoy complex carbohydrates from things like fruits, veggies, and other fiber-rich options like rolled oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes, or brown rice.

Protein: Protein is going to play an essential role in supporting muscle recovery throughout training and even before, during, and after the triathlon. The general guideline for low to moderate endurance athletic training is about 1.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. For very intense endurance training, that recommendation goes up to 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day.

Fats: It’s important to get enough healthy fat in the diet for a couple of reasons. For one, fats serve as another great energy source. Although the primary and immediate fuel source for athletes is carbohydrates, the carbohydrate stores in the body are limited to approximately 2,000 calories. During an intense athletic event like a triathlon, your body is going to need fat to help prevent the body from completely burning through and using up those carbohydrate stores. Since there are plenty of fat stores in the body, consuming enough healthy fats during training and as a regular part of a healthy diet can help ensure that your body is going to have the nutrient stores it needs throughout a triathlon. 

Triathlon, Nutrition

What About Nutrition DURING a Triathlon?

Since a triathlon involves three different endurance training events, it’s important to know that as you progress through each stage of the triathlon, your body requires different energy as well as nutritional needs.

One of the most important things to remember is to stay adequately hydrated and to replace those lost electrolytes you will be excreting through sweat. Staying hydrated can also help prevent cramps as you go through each event.

In addition to hydration, you also want to make sure that you are fueling your body with the right foods before the triathlon begins. You will want to enjoy your pre-event meal about 2-2.5 hours before the race starts, and aim for 1-2 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight. It is also recommended that you stick to foods you have enjoyed in the past to avoid introducing anything new that could potentially cause stomach upset. Stick to something fairly bland like oatmeal and fruit. NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY!

During the triathlon, you will also need to continue to fuel your body to support energy demands. It is recommended that athletes consume 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Consuming healthy sources of carbohydrates throughout training is essential since carbohydrate stores in the body are limited. To make sure the body doesn’t run out, you can snack on things like sports granola bars or fruit. Just be sure to choose a food source that is free from any artificial ingredients and avoid anything with artificial sweeteners to avoid potential stomach distress.

After the triathlon is over, it’s time to support your body and replenish glycogen stores and nourish your tired muscles with the right foods. You will also want to rehydrate right away. Strive to consume a protein and carbohydrate-rich meal after the event with about 20-25 grams of protein.

The Best Foods to Fuel Your Body Right

So, we know that fueling your body right is an essential part of training and participating in a triathlon, but there is more to eating enough carbs, protein, and fat. Quality also matters, as quality is king when it comes to how well your body will perform.

Here are some great options when it comes to fueling your body with the right foods.

Healthy Carbohydrate Options

  • Rolled oats
  • Brown rice & brown rice pasta
  • Sports bars that are free from artificial ingredients
  • Fruits
  • Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes

Healthy Protein Options

  • Grass-fed meat
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Eggs
  • Unsweetened Greek yogurt
  • Nuts & Seeds

Healthy Fat Options

  • Avocados
  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts & Seeds
Triathlon, Nutrition

The Takeaway

To help break this all down, here’s a reference on how you can fuel your body right when training for a triathlon.

  • Support your body with enough complex carbohydrates getting 6-10 grams of carbs per kg of body weight per day.
  • Aim to get 1-1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day.
  • Consume enough healthy fats each day to help support energy levels and prevent burning through your carbohydrate stores too quickly.
  • Enjoy a carbohydrate-rich meal about 2-2.5 hours before the triathlon with 1-2 grams of carbs per kg of body weight.
  • Consume about 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour during the triathlon.
  • Enjoy 20-25 grams of protein with some complex carbohydrates after the event to help support muscle recovery and to replenish glycogen stores.

Optimal nutrition is such a key piece to athletic training. Getting the right balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat is a critical part of making sure your body is nourished and can make a massive difference in how well you train. Strive to make nutrition a key part of your training plan, and use it as a tool to help you get the most out of your training, be at your best on race day, and recover more efficiently!


If you’re looking to learn more about sports nutrition, create flexible, sustainable, and indefinite habits when it comes to healthy food choices, and have a knowledgable Coach in your corner throughout the process, check out our Nutrition Coaching program.

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About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) Certified Coach, a level 2 certified Training Peaks coach, a USA Cycling certified power based training coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a licensed physical therapist assistant. He is also the creator of Zwift's "Build Me Up" Flexible Training Plan. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com for any cycling or training related questions.

2 comments

  1. hi,

    you recommend 30 g/hr whilst one of your sources, namely asker jeukendrop recommends 90 g/hr for ultra endurance events, which a triathlon probably is? Please clarify

    1. Hey Jaques –

      Great question! It is unfortunately impossible to provide an exact number for an athlete to shoot for as everyone has an individual level of maximum carbohydrate absorption before they experience GI distress, which can also change over the course of an event / depend on what foods the athlete is consuming.

      So, the range is 30-90g of CHO/hour, with most athletes settling into the 60-80 g of CHO/hour range. However, I would advise practicing during your training, and seeing what your CHO ceiling is to avoid an GI distress and have a successful race day.

      Cheers!

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