Health

What (not) to eat on race day: My triathlon challenge

In three weeks, I will stand at the start line of my first triathlon, confidently clothed and geared up. But a triathlon is not only a multi-sport race; it is also a test of endurance, and what's on the inside — quite literally — could make or break a performance. It's time to consider: what food will fuel me on race day? The short answer is: nothing new!

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In three weeks, I will stand at the start line of my first triathlon, confidently clothed and geared up. But a triathlon is not only a multi-sport race; it is also a test of endurance, and what’s on the inside — quite literally — could make or break a performance. It’s time to consider: what food will fuel me on race day?

The short answer is: nothing new! 

While some athletes can eat anything during a hard work-out, others are nauseated after a sip of sports drink — not exactly information you want to discover mid-race. So it’s important to test out everything in advance, during training.

The longer the race, the more critical it is for athletes to stay hydrated and to keep their bodies fed. Guidelines differ, but generally speaking, you will need to replenish yourself during any activity lasting more than an hour. The longer you’re on the course, the more food and drink your body will require.

With so many edible energy products on the market, and so many flavours and textures, I decided to experiment. I consulted a salesperson at a running store and left with a selection of protein bars, and some specially formulated sports beans, gummies and gels to try out.

Gels and gummies and beans are easiest to consume mid-work-out, while protein bars are generally eaten immediately afterward. However, there are lots of other ways to get protein and satisfy hunger. My favourite pre-work-out meal, which I’ll be eating on race day, is toast with peanut butter and banana. Bananas make great post-work-out snacks, too.

On long training runs (of more than an hour), I carry sports drink or water in bottles on a belt, and remind myself to take several sips every fifteen minutes. I also carry gummies or beans to suck on for extra sugar and energy. I’ve tried the gels, but find them messy because I can’t suck back an entire package in one go. Despite practicing, my body prefers not to down much solid food during a hard work-out; good to know!

On race day, I won’t wear the water belt. Water stations are provided at regular intervals along the course, and grabbing a drink as you run by is a good way to ensure you’ll stay hydrated throughout. (You might want to practice throwing water at your mouth while keeping race pace; it can feel pretty comical). I will carry a water bottle on my bike, and some gummies or a gel in the pockets of my jersey, as the cycling leg of a triathlon is the best time to take in solid food. Extra water and food can be stashed in the transition zone, too.

A note on real food: at my activity level, as an amateur, my daily fuel is a healthy, balanced diet. As my family’s chef, I’m in charge of meal prep, and we eat lots of veggies, whole grains, and legumes. Throughout this training process, I’ve learned to eat according to my appetite, which is often frighteningly large after a hard work-out. And I eat often, snacking on cheese and crackers, or nuts and fruit during the day.

But race day is different. On the long and demanding course, I will need extra bursts of portable energy and steady hydration, and I will need to know in advance how my body responds. Like everything else in this challenge, practice makes perfect — or, in this case, prevents a surprising mid-race detour. 

Let’s not go there.