How to fuel the Olympic-distance triathlon

Carbohydrate intake is increasingly important before and during an Olympic-distance triathlon. So adopt a carb-strategy and also grab some coffee to help you out…


“As you’re now racing up to 4hrs, carb intake is the priority,” says Lucy Wainwright, performance nutritionist at British Triathlon. “I recommend that the last main meal is 3hrs prior to the start with a top-up carb snack an hour before the start.”

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There are many carb-rich choices but toast and jam is a endurance favourite.

When it comes to the race, Gatorade’s sport scientist Matt Furber says you should have a carb strategy when competing for over 90mins. “If you are, then begin fuelling as soon as you exit the swim,” he says. “Some athletes might want a gel as they’re warming up. This is fine so long as you can tolerate it while swimming.”

As you’ll see in our gels grouptest manufacturers either use solely glucose or maltodextrin, or a sugar combination that includes fructose. Furber advises that a glucose-only gel is fine for Olympic and around 60g per hour as soon as you hit the bike. This equates to two or three gels per hour.

Bars or solid foods aren’t necessarily needed for Olympic, though fluid consumption is important. That 5-7ml per kg bodyweight rings true, though you might want one bottle of water and one filled with an energy drink of around 6-7% carb solution.

How you transport your drink becomes crucial as distance grows. You’ll see many triathletes from Olympic distance and above using an aerobar-mounted drinks system, meaning you can drink while remaining streamlined.

You should also consume a pre-race coffee. Numerous studies have shown caffeine to improve performance, from burning more fat, lowering perception of effort to increasing power output.

How much caffeine you should consume depends on the desired effect. If it’s muscular, you’d need a significant 3-4mg caffeine per kg of bodyweight.

That’s up to 320mg (three cups of coffee) for an 80kg athlete. One strategy is to have a strong coffee before the start and top up with caffeinated gels or cola.

Post-race, immediately reach for a 20g protein shake before consuming a protein- and carb-rich meal. “Including a good source of antioxidants can help clear out the oxidative stress from racing,” says Wainwright.

Cherries are an option here. Also aim to hydrate with around 500ml of electrolyte in the hour after, but sipping not gulping.

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Illustration: Daniel Seex