I’m Racing My First Off-Road Triathlon—How Do I Fuel?

A: Rock hopping, puddle dodging, log jumping, white-knuckle descending—the unpredictability of race day can be intimidating, especially if your skills are still a work in progress. But ask any XTERRA athlete and they’ll tell you that the thrill of off-road racing—and the easygoing atmosphere—will keep you hooked. If you’re ready to trade the pavement for the trails, study up on these three nutritional differences so you don’t face any fueling surprises on race day.

Road triathlon: Fuel/hydrate on a schedule.
Off-road triathlon: Fuel/hydrate when you can.
While your body will perform at its best if you aim to meet your hourly carbohydrate (30–60 grams), electrolyte (400–1000 milligrams) and fluid (20–28 ounces) needs, don’t rely on sticking to a schedule. Off-road bike/run courses are difficult, requiring great skill and focus as you manage the terrain. When you get a chance to fuel or hydrate, take it. Although liquid calories are recommended, as they provide a one-stop shop for meeting energy needs, stuff your pockets with extra gels, chews and bars for those “just in case” scenarios.

Road triathlon: Rely on the aid stations.
Off-road triathlon: Bring your nutrition with you.
Practice fueling/hydrating during training with your preferred sport nutrition products. You need experience drinking (and possibly eating) while dodging rocks and roots. A hydration pack on the bike and hydration belt on the run can make fueling/hydrating less complicated and free you up from relying on aid station support that may not pop up at predicted intervals.

Road triathlon: Push your limits.
Off-road triathlon: Be conservative.
On the trails, your off-road adventure will take significantly longer than the same completed distance on controlled terrain. So your intensity and nutrition will play a big part in your ability to manage the obstacles you overcome on race day. Knowing that no amount of nutrition can help you race like a pro, pacing is critical to your racing success. Because the course dictates your effort and energy expenditure, be sure to preview the course ahead of time. Instead of setting a goal/time pace, focus on small segments of the course that you can execute to the best of your ability.

The technical demands of the trails make it challenging to meet energy needs, but nutrition shouldn’t be an after-thought. Consider off-road racing a constant work in progress. With continued skill and physical development, you’ll become better prepared for the unpredictable, fun moments that come on the trails.

Marni Sumbal, R.D., is a board-certified sports dietitian and the founder of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition (Trimarni.com).