Nutrition for Cycling and Triathlon Events

Many well-trained endurance athletes have once failed to perform up to expectations or complete an event due to a lack in a key component in proper training and competing: nutrition.  

The gastro-intestinal system can make or break an endurance athlete. Proper nutrition prior to an event and proper fueling during an event are critical and should be included in the event’s overall planning and execution.  You can build a strong engine with training, but you must give it fuel for it to perform properly.

Sources of Energy: The energy intake needed for an endurance event like long distance cycling or triathlon demands preparation and timing. The main source of energy used by your body during an endurance event is carbohydrates stored in limited quantity in the body as glycogen, which is mainly found in muscles, but also in the liver in smaller amounts.  The average person can store about 400 grams of glycogen, which equals about 1,600 calories.  This reserve of energy is sufficient to fuel your efforts for about ninety minutes of moderate to high intensity exercise.  Of course, stored fat can also be used as a source of energy, but you will have to keep the intensity lower as it is harder for the body to access and process this form of energy.  

Energy Needs Vary:  During a long distance cycling or triathlon event, your energy needs will vary slightly.  For example, when climbing a hill, your body uses more carbohydrates and, on a flat portion of the course, you might be able to use more stored fats as fuel.  If your event or training session exceeds ninety minutes, you will have to take in some food to maintain your energy level, preferably in the form of fast acting carbohydrates because they are easily digested and will keep your energy consistent and sustained.  It is important to have a well-planned strategy, and it is best to practice it during training.  Just like the swimming, biking and running parts of a triathlon, all aspects of a sporting event require planning and practice – nutrition included.  I recommend consulting with a nutritionist to help you make that plan, which will vary not only depending on the type of event, but also your weight.  Someone who is 6’ 3” and weighs 200 pounds will have different energy needs than someone who is 5’ 3” and weighs 125 pounds.

Fueling Your Training Sessions: If you plan to train or exercise for sixty minutes or less, hydrating yourself with water or a sports drink should be enough. 

If you are exercising for one to three hours, you should take in up to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour in the form of gels, chews, or easily digested carbohydrates that are low in fat, protein and fiber.  It is best that you ingest these carbohydrates in short and regular intervals of fifteen to twenty minutes.  For events that last more than three hours, you should also take in 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour and plan your energy intake.  Studies have shown that athletes who get accustomed to fueling during exercise have less chance to develop gastro-intestinal distress.  Use your long training sessions to practice your race day nutrition.

Fueling after exercising is very important and often neglected. Energy intake following a training session or exercise helps replenish the reserves of glycogen and make up for the loss of muscle protein, fluids and sodium loss.  There is a window of about thirty to forty-five minutes post-exercise when it is important to fuel.  Research has shown that a solution composed of 25% protein and 75% carbohydrate helps speed up recovery.  After all, exercise is a stress for the body, and eating afterwards helps reduce the stress and starts the recovery for the next training session.

Race Day Strategy: Eating in preparation for a race or an endurance training session should start a few hours beforehand. In fact, it is best to eat one to four hours before any major training session or event. It is important to plan your day according to when you are training or racing: in the morning, afternoon or evening.  Eating well during the day can greatly affect the quality of your training and will ensure that your glycogen reserves are adequate for your energy needs.  Avoid foods too high in protein, fiber or fats the closer to your training session you eat.  Make sure you hydrate well before, during and after.

Feed Zone Portables is a great book I highly recommend which provides many very good recipes so that you can prepare your own sports meals.  Make recipes that meet your needs and fuel your body so that you can perform at your peak.

Fuel Right, Perform Well:  Not only is it important to maintain a healthy and balanced diet while training, but consideration must be given to proper training and a race-specific diet.  With the arrival of the cycling and triathlon season, remember to give your body the fuel it needs to maximize all of your efforts.

I’ll be watching for you at the finish lines this season.

Robert Roy
Kinesthesiologist and Ironman Certified Coach

Sources:

  • Ironman University web site

Books:

  • Feed Zone Portables
  • Sports Nutrition for the Endurance Athletes
  • Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance