For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Once you have your training plan set and have a weekly schedule for getting yourself prepared for the distance, there are a few other details to get to the start line in optimal comfort and speed. How to eat and drink for your training is a crucial concern once your sessions start to creep up over 90 minutes.
Ever been out running and started to feel lightheaded and a bit weak in the knees? Or finished your long Saturday ride dreaming of milkshakes and bacon? Perhaps you have been laughing about “hitting the wall?” Chances are your body needs more calories, even if you feel you ate a good supper the night before. Depriving yourself of calories has no benefit at all in endurance running and cycling, and there have been a lot of scientific papers written on the affects of fluid loss and not replacing calories as being directly proportional to performance loss in endurance sports. If you are limping home in the last hour, dreaming of food, about to pass out from hunger then the training benefits of that last hour of riding are negated and the recovery before the next session is prolonged. Eating while on long workouts is like taking care that you can perform strong today, and recover as fast as possible, and be ready faster for the next workout.
For cycling sessions over 90 minutes, triathletes should plan to take in 200-300 calories per hour. For fluids the general rule is to have one bottle of fluid per hour. This can be purely water, as long as you take in about 150-250 calories and electrolytes an hour as well, in the form of a gel or some other easily transportable calories.
On the bike, having water is nice and basic, and you can fill up at various locations for free. So then all you have to do is take gels in your cycling jersey pocket.
Another thing that helps when riding is to eat a small carbohydrate-rich meal closer to the workout than you typically would with running workouts. You don’t have to ride with an empty stomach as you would with running.
Your body has roughly two hours worth of carbohydrates available for exercise and you need to start replacing those calories early in the workout, not after you start to run out of fuel. The body burns through carbohydrates in strenuous exercise and replacing calories lost has been proven to improve performance in endurance racing and training. Athletes who take in calories while training finish their long runs stronger and therefore receive a greater training effect. Taking a PowerBar gel with sips of water (200-400ml) every 30 minutes starting 30 minutes into the training session is one of the easiest ways to replace calories and electrolytes lost through sweat. There are a plethora of carbohydrate drinks and gels on the market and the only way to figure out the correct formula of calories and type of replacement fuel for each athlete is to try it out in training.
Glycogen is a readily available fuel stored in your muscles and organs that can be called on immediately for energy needs. When topped up, your body will store about two hours worth of glycogen for endurance activities. However, when this glycogen starts to run out and is not supplemented with nutrition, the muscles will become depleted of fuel and begin to falter. In extreme circumstances the body eventually goes into a self-preservation mode and directs the remaining fuel to the vital organs to stay alive, thus depriving the muscles. This is the ultimate bonk and you may have observed it in marathons and Ironman when people start crawling to the line.
How many calories (through carbohydrates) are needed?
The amount of calories you burn is generally proportional to your weight. Therefore, usually, the more you weigh the more calories you must ingest. It also varies from individual to individual and should be tested in training and racing. The range for caloric intake should be about 125-250 calories per hour. To give you an idea of what that means, the average 500ml sport drink has 120 calories with 30 grams of carbohydrates. The sports bars vary, but average around 200 calories with 25-40 grams of carbohydrates (check the label) and a sports gel will average around 100 calories with 25 grams of carbohydrates.
On the run, most athletes will stick with gels and liquid while running and racing, but can move to solid nutrition during biking because of the less impact.
Practice opening packets and sipping gels at timed intervals in training, and run with a water belt to practice taking small amounts of liquid while running.
You will have stronger workouts and be better prepared for race day if you practice good fueling and hydration during every long run and ride.
LifeSport coach Lucy Smith is the author of First Triathlon: Your Perfect Plan for Success and has helped and inspired hundreds of triathletes and runners through her coaching and motivational speaking. Lucy has been competing for over 25 years, is a 19-time Canadian Champion in running and multisport, a two-time silver medalist at World Duathlon Championships and recently was second at the 2013 XTERRA Trail Running World Championships.