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You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: nutrition is the fourth leg of triathlon. No matter the distance, how you fuel, when you fuel, and what you fuel with can make or break your race. This is particularly true for longer races, when you’ll need to top off your tank at regular intervals with fluids, gels, and real food. But how do triathletes eat when doing longer races, like half or full iron-distance events? The longer the race, the harder it becomes to carry all that fuel on your bike or person – which means you’ll probably need to swing through an aid station or two.
“I definitely use the aid stations to help me through a race, especially the tough spots in a race,” said coach and 15-time Ironman finisher Katie Colville. “I carry some of my own nutrition, but for things like water, ice, and cola, aid stations are invaluable.”
It’s rare to find a triathlete who doesn’t need to call upon an aid station at some point during a race. However, leveraging aid stations is trickier than it seems on the surface. After all, you not only need to get your food and drink, but you’ll need to do it on the fly – all without colliding with other athletes doing the exact same thing. Here’s how to navigate triathlon aid stations and efficiently move down the line of eager volunteers ready to wine and dine (okay, maybe not quite) you and your fellow athletes.
What are aid stations at a triathlon?
Aid stations are the free catering that comes along with your registration fee. These points on the course are, at the very least, usually stocked with water and some kind of electrolyte drink. In longer races, these locations will usually also offer other snacks that a hungry, weary triathlete might want to propel them to the finish line, such as:
- Potato chips
These aid-station foods provide critical nutrients that the body relies on when doing an endurance event, like salt, sugar, water, and (for some) caffeine.
Where are the aid stations located at my race?
For local sprint- and Olympic-distance triathlons, you can expect to find aid stations at some point along the run course. When you hit the half-iron distance and beyond, aid stations will crop up a few times on the bike course and are located just about every mile on the run.
Practically every triathlon, regardless of distance, will publish a race guide a few weeks before the big day. In this race guide, you should find an overview of where on the course aid stations will be and what food and drink they will have available. In the event the race guide doesn’t go over this critical information, reach out to the race company or race director (whose contact info should be on the race site) and ask. Race directors are often quick to respond to athlete questions like these.
What should I eat at a triathlon aid station?
Despite these all-you-can-eat pop-ups supplying a variety of munchies, don’t assume you will want – or tolerate – what’s being offered.
For example, if you’re someone who trains with caffeinated gels, you’ll want to race with caffeinated gels. If your race only offers uncaffeinated gels at its aid stations, you’ll want to plan to carry your own gooey goodness in your kit pockets. Ditto for special formulations of electrolyte drink – if you usually train with a specific brand, but the race is offering a different kind, make sure this new blend won’t upset your stomach.
If you know you’ll be relying on aid stations for fuel, it’s a good idea to find out early what your race will offer. Once you know what will be on course, begin incorporating those foods into your training so that your body and mind are well-adapted to those specific fuels come race day.
RELATED: Which Foods to Avoid at Aid Stations
How to navigate bike aid stations (without crashing)
The bike aid station is often a source of anxiety for triathletes because of the coordination required to successfully get your fuel on the fly. Bike aid stations are typically equipped with bottled water, bottled Gatorade, gels, and bananas. As you approach one of these locations, you’ll see volunteers holding their goods outstretched and calling out what they’re holding.
Yes, that means you’ll be grabbing your stuff while moving. While you definitely can safely pull over and get fuel at bike aid stations, it’s much more efficient to grab what you need while your bike cruises along.
How to ride through a bike aid station:
- Study the race guide in advance so you know where the aid stations are. Be on the lookout for signs or volunteers indicating an aid station is ahead.
- Take note of who is around you. Are you side-by-side with another racer? How far up ahead/behind is the next athlete from you?
- Note any “begin trash” or equivalent signs ahead of the aid station. You can now toss your empty bottles carefully (again – be aware of who is around you) to the side of the road.
- Approach the aid station by getting out of your aero bars, pulling over toward the side of the road, and using your brakes to slow down to a cruise. You should slow down to a point where your bike can comfortably roll without wobbling, but should not be so fast that you’re unable to grab a bottle.
- Release your brakes. Ride with one hand on your horns, using the other to reach out to grab the bottle or food. Remain aware of how slow or fast the bike in front of you is going. Tuck your bottle or fuel onto your bike or your jersey pockets.
- Check over your shoulder before merging left back into the main part of the road, where the race is taking place. Once safely merged, you can return to aero position if you wish.
- Safety comes first! If you’re uncomfortable riding through the aid station for any reason, pull off to the side and pick up your calories and hydration while stopped.
If the idea of riding your bike through an aid station sounds daunting, that’s understandable! Instead of shying away from the idea of using aid stations, practice so you feel confident come race day. “I encourage all my athletes, no matter their level, to practice bike aid stations prior to their race,” said Colville. “It’s something I still practice myself.”
Colville suggests recruiting a friend, family member, or training partner and setting up shop in a vacant parking lot or long driveway. Have this tri buddy hold out a water bottle, banana – whatever your heart desires – while you practice rolling through. If it’s tough to sync up with another person to practice, you can make this work with a table or stool, but ensure the bottle or gel is positioned at the right height to reach for it safely.
During these dry runs, you’ll want to execute both a bottle toss and a bottle grab. Even if you think you’ve gotten it after one try, run through it a few more times until you feel entirely confident.
What you need to know about run aid stations in triathlon
Acing the aid stations on the run can truly be the difference-maker when it comes to whether or not you bound or crawl across the finish line.
At run aid stations, cups of liquid (usually water and sports drink) are usually laid out on a table, along with nutrition like gels and granola bars. Sometimes, volunteers will hand you what you need, but most likely you’ll peruse and pick yourself. Just like the bike, the objective for run aid stations is to grab what you need and keep it rolling.
While race nutrition is unique to everyone, Colville noted some basic best practices for dialing in your run aid station strategy.
“This is where knowing what provisions each aid station has is so key,” said Colville. “Even if you bring your own nutrition on the run, you should always be focused on getting in water at nearly every aid station to wash down your gels, blocks, or whatever else you’re eating.”
Colville also suggested using the first couple of aid stations to get a lay of the land. “Take note of the order of goodies at each station,” suggested Colville. “At many Ironman-branded races, the run stations will flow: water first, then food and gels, then ice, followed by coke or Red Bull, and finish with a final table of water. Trying to remember a semblance of this pattern can help you better plan what you’ll grab and when.”
It’s important to be respectful of fellow athletes at aid stations, no matter how tired you are. Run aid stations certainly aren’t five-star dining, but that doesn’t mean etiquette goes away entirely. Some good rules to follow:
- Don’t abruptly cut in front of or reach out ahead of a fellow competitor.
- While you can definitely move to the left and run past others in the aid station, it’s frowned upon to bump, jostle, or jump ahead of someone who is reaching for something from an aid station.
- Don’t forget to say thank you to the volunteers. They gave up their weekend to hand you a cup of water, and we’re all the better for it.
It’s okay to slow to a walk if you need to. In fact, it could be a part of your race strategy, said Colville.
“I am a fan of run/walk methods, especially when it comes to aid stations,” commented Colville. “If you can hold yourself to only power walking the aid stations and then returning to running after getting your hydration and nutrition down, that’s great. Slowing down a tad bit for the aid stations means you’re actually taking in the calories and nutrients you need.”
However, that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to lounge. As the saying goes, it’s an aid station, not a rest stop. Sitting down, slowing to a zombie-like walk, or hanging around and talking with volunteers or other athletes can make it very difficult to get going again. If you’re dawdling in front of the table, you’re likely impeding the progress of other athletes.
Just like with the bike aid station, fueling up while on the run can and should be practiced. During a long run, set up a table with what you’re fueling with (ideally, sprinkling in some of the food offered on the race course). Loop your run to pass by the table every mile or so, taking in the sustenance you need each time.
Final tips for navigating triathlon aid stations
Colville noted that the temperature will greatly affect what you need from an aid station.
“If it’s super hot, you’ll want to prioritize getting ice and putting it in your hat, sports bra, or even your pants,” said Colville. “But if it’s getting to be nighttime and the temperature is dropping, you’ll want to start taking in the warm chicken broth that’s sometimes offered later in the day on the run course.”
It’s also essential to only throw out your trash at aid stations – and nowhere else on the course. Most races issue time penalties ranging from 1 minute to 5 minutes for each littering infraction that takes place outside of aid stations. If you can’t quite toss a cup or wrapper into an aid station trash can and it lands on the pavement, that’s ok, but do your best to do your part in keeping the race course clean.
As with all things in triathlon, practice makes perfect. Incorporating both strategic nutrition and hydration mixes into your training, along with the technical aspects of grabbing bottles while in motion, will only help you be more efficient and successful come race day.