First and foremost, each athlete is unique. You will need to experiment with foods and fueling products to figure out what works best for you. Remember that the product your buddy says is “the best” might not be the best for you. Once you find a combination that works well for you, write it down. Note that you may need to make adjustments on any given day depending on changing factors such as heat/humidity, and hormone cycles for women.
First and always:
Hydrate! This is more than just drinking water when you sweat. The water you are drinking TODAY is your hydration for TOMORROW. Your body will perform best when it is fully hydrated, so aim to begin your training fully hydrated. If you start a hard training session dehydrated, you will not be able to catch up.
Average rehydration rates are 17-28 oz per hour (so think one bottle per hour), and 300-700 mg of sodium per hour. A sweat test can help you dial in your specific needs.
Have a breakfast or snack that is mostly carbohydrate with some protein between 45 minutes and 3 hours before your session. How much you eat will depend on the length and intensity of the session. It may seem difficult to eat before early morning sessions, but in order to get the most out of your training, it is important to fuel your body properly. If you can’t stomach a lot of food that early, try just a half a banana, a handful of nuts, or a performance drink that contains carbohydrates. (Pre-workout supplement drinks that do not contain calories, by themselves, may be an option for strength sessions, but are not the most effective solution for endurance training.)
Banana or apple with a blob of nut butter
Granola or energy bar
Oatmeal with nuts and fruit
Bagel or toast with nut butter
Yogurt with granola
You won’t need additional fuel for sessions that are an hour or shorter – you can easily rehydrate and refuel afterward. If your session is longer than an hour, in addition to hydration, aim to take in 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour. The average person can assimilate 240-280 calories per hour on the bike, and 150-250 calories per hour while running. This may seem like a lot of calories – by practicing your fueling during training, your gut will become more adept at absorbing nutrition.
Many athletes like to eat real food on the bike when it’s easier to carry and digest. Some athletes who have GI issues prefer calories that can be taken more frequently in smaller amounts (sipping a sports drink, or smaller chews or jellybeans) rather than a bar or a gel that lands in a larger amount all at once. Another consideration is the separation of hydration and fuel. Many products combine fuel (carbohydrates) with hydration and electrolytes together in one drink. Some athletes find this convenience works well for them. Other athletes find that the combination leads to them consuming too much of one or the other. For example, if it’s a hot day and you are drinking more because you need more hydration, you could be also taking in more carbohydrates than your body is able to absorb, thus causing GI distress. For this reason, some athletes prefer to carry liquid hydration/electrolytes and fuel (gels, chews, bars) separately.
Boiled and salted baby potatoes
PB&J sandwiches pinched into small bites
Date/nut energy balls
For high-intensity sessions or those longer than an hour, replenish with a recovery drink or snack that contains 20g of protein and around 1g carbs per kg of body weight, within 60 minutes after your session (within 30 minutes for women). Follow this with a regular meal of whole foods within a few hours. For short or easy sessions, you don’t need additional recovery nutrition; your regular daily meals/snacks should suffice.
Use your longer training sessions to practice your nutrition for race day. An important part of your training is training your gut to be able to absorb the amount of calories you will need while in motion. By the time you get to race day, you will know exactly what you will eat before and during your race. DO NOT experiment or try new things on race day! If you want to rely on the on-course nutrition, find out what it is and try it out during your training. If it works well for you, great. If it doesn’t, be prepared to carry your own. For long-course triathlon, your race will likely be longer than any of your training sessions. Be sure that you are taking in sufficient calories before the race and early on. Write down your plan in detail and stick to your plan. If you get behind on your hydration or nutrition, it will be very hard (if not impossible) to catch up.
A note on fasted training:
You have likely heard touted the benefits of fasted exercise when it comes to teaching your body to better use fat as fuel. Indeed, studies show that men can improve their ability to burn fat as fuel by exercising in a fasted state. Women, however, do not show the same results (likely because they are already more efficient at burning fat as fuel). In addition, fasted training over the longer term can cause endocrine dysfunction. And for either gender, this adaptation takes time and consistency, and even then it does not directly translate to better performance. Training fasted inhibits your energy availability (for longer sessions) and your ability to hit higher intensities. So while it is not necessarily detrimental to periodically train fasted for shorter, low-intensity sessions (provided you replenish well after the session), you are better off fueling your training sufficiently to achieve your desired training adaptations. If you are counting macros or trying to reduce body fat, save that for later in the day – or better yet, make that a focus during the off season.