Sports nutrition: how to fuel the race season

Sports nutritionist Renee McGregor explains what to eat as your triathlon training volume increases and your body’s needs change

Make sure you are fuelling properly for the race season

The transition from low training volume and intensities during the off season to higher volumes during the race season is a critical period that needs to be managed well in order to prevent fatigue, injuries or a depressed immune system.


Just as ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ training loads need to be increased incrementally in order to achieve optimal performance. Build up too quickly and you may reach burn out before you’re “A” race but take it too easy and you will start on the back foot.

When we are juggling work, home life and training, planning, contingency planning and organisation are essential. I’m not just talking about bulk buying and preparing food for the week ahead, I’m actually talking about separating your life into these blocks.

Plan it out so you know the training times, home life time and work time – have different colours if need be. This not only helps you to commit to training, but also allows you to switch off and on mentally between these different areas of your life. What happens when you take work stress into training? Likewise, if you take training mishaps into home life? Having purposeful blocks of time can not only help with time management but also improve your performance and enjoyment.

Once this structure is in place, the next step is to start thinking about how your energy needs are going to change and how you are going to meet this demands.

For most, as training increasing, appetite will follow suit. However this is not always the best indicator for energy intake. After high intensity training sessions, where you are working at 80% or above your maximal HR, you may find that appetite is actually surpressed. It is after these sessions particularly where recovery food and choices are crucial. If glycogen stores are not replaced sufficiently, this will hinder your performance during your next training session, particularly if this is also high intensity. Recovery doesn’t always have to be food, milk or flavoured milk make an ideal choice, particularly when appetite is low.

Another common mistake many triathletes make is only thinking about what they are going to eat in the meal immediate prior to training. However, this is too late.

This is where your planning can really come into play.

For example, if you know that on a Tuesday you will do a threshold swim at lunchtime and then a interval turbo session later on that evening when you get back from work, you know that your carbohydrate requirements are going to be high and so ideally you need to be considering this 24-48 hours before.

Thus you can plan meals with appropriate quantities of carbohydrate to build glycogen stores necessary for those tough sessions. You can also ensure that on your shopping list for the week ahead, you have suitable carbohydrate based snacks to top up stores, as well as portable recovery options for work or in the car if necessary. This forward thinking will prevent you from making poor choices that may not sustain your training or provide you with sufficient energy. In addition, it will allow you to be prepared for your session physically and mentally, resulting in better performance outcomes.

In this same way you can also start to consider your race day strategies. Can you identify from your planning when would be a good time to trial a pre-race dinner and breakfast process?

When will you do your long brick session –can you practice with gels, energy drinks or real food you will use? What works best for you? Are you going to use the sponsored product? If so better to try it out in training than using for the first time on race day.

This will build confidence as race day grows closer. A well-practised plan allows you to go into race feeling like you have ‘controlled all the controllables.’ It also helps you to consider contingencies:

What happens if you get to transition and your bottle and gel are missing? Have you thought about this in training and what solutions did you come up with?

What happens if your swim doesn’t go to plan because race day conditions were rough? Have you thought about what this might mean from an energy perspective?

Have you been in a situation where this might have happened in training, where you ran out of fuel? How did this feel physically and what did you do to get over it?

While we know that training and technique are fundamental to a successful performance, the fine tuning and planning often get over looked and these are the things that can really help with those marginal gains.

5 top tips to get the most out of your diet 

  • Plan your week ahead, considering what meals you are going to make in order to ensure appropriate fuel choices around key training sessions.
  • Make a shopping list and designate a time to go to or do an online shop –this will mean you have everything you need for the week and you are less likely to make poor nutritional choices.
  • Keep a check list of what products you are trialling for race day as this will help you to see what works best for you.
  • Cook in bulk or use a slow cooker –this will mean that even on late work or training days, you have a nutrient dense meal to come back to and will not be tempted to ring for a takeaway.
  • Tailor your nutrition to training so as training load and volume increases, so should nutritional density; this is critical in preventing fatigue, injury and illness.