It’s important to think about your nutrition leading into your first triathlon as more than just the foods you eat the night before and the morning of your race. Let’s assume you have been training smart and recovering well and you’re hitting the week of your race with butterflies but also feeling confident in the work you have put in. This week is a critical component to all of that work, where the body recovers “just enough” to still fire on race day and support your recovery/taper, but not dip into the “too-relaxed” state that misses the mark for top performance. This week is not the time to go crazy on the carbs to try to carbo load, but you do need to be conscious to eat consistently across the day and dial in recovery after each training session, no matter how short, as this is a time where your body is best at pulling in nutrients for glycogen recovery and muscle repair.
One mistake that many novice athletes make is to under eat during this week leading into their race as their appetite is a bit muted (from nerves) and they may feel that they don’t need to eat because their training volume has decreased. Remember, though, that this is a week that should be all about recovery, repair, and preparation: give your body fuel to do this! Seek out complex carbohydrates and good quality protein (for example, legumes, pasta, or quinoa) and aim to eat a good mix of fruit and vegetables to keep your gut microbiome happy. If you tend to have gastro intestinal (GI) issues on race day, you might consider lowering your fiber intake in the two to three days leading up to your race.
And what about nutrition for race day itself? Ideally, your pre-race meal before your first triathlon will happen three hours before bed to ensure digestion and a good night’s sleep (although one night’s poor sleep won’t affect your race). Then, on race morning, it is just a matter of topping off your glycogen stores that may have dropped overnight. A very light meal two to three hours before your race start will be more than adequate to get you to the start line all fueled up. This could be something like a low fiber smoothie and a piece of toast or instant oatmeal (yes, instant oatmeal is good here because it is high in sodium and sugar!) I have some athletes who mix the instant oatmeal with almond or other nut milk and drink it cold. If you’re a coffee drinker that’s fine too, especially if it is part of your usual routine.
For nutrition in a sprint race, hydration is more important than fueling. The general recommendation is to sip 0.08 to 0.11 oz per pound of body weight (5 to 7 ml per kg body weight) per hour. This is approximately 10.5 to 15oz per hour for a 130lb individual. Fueling can take a backseat in a sprint as you have plenty of glycogen stores to make it through the race. If you need a quick boost during the run, try a few glucose tablets or energy chews.
If your first triathlon is an Olympic-distance race, a little more in-race nutrition planning is needed. Hydration recommendations for an Olympic-distance triathlon are similar to the sprint, but just remember you will be out there for a few more hours, so be sure you have enough hydration (ideally whatever you’ve been training with). In an Olympic-distance race, eating on the bike becomes a necessity. You can opt for energy chews or gummy candies if eating a bar is a bit out of the comfort zone, although one bar or other solid food per hour not only helps keep blood sugar even, but also helps for the first part of the run. On the run, using energy chews or glucose tablets works well to bring you to the finish line. Most of all, do not forget the fun factor! Choose foods you like and are easy to eat—sometimes even Mike-n-Ike’s have a place on the race course.