“What Do I Eat On Race Day?” Nutrition for Optimal Endurance Performance (Part 3)

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Training is a dress rehearsal. It provides the structure for the body to build, adapt, and repair. It also provides the triathlete an opportunity to hone in on sustained race-specific intensities over a target distance, terrain, climate, and through unforeseeable weather patterns. The triathlete develops through training. He or she takes stock in what worked and what did not – including nutrition. It’s race week and you are on your way to the starting line of the Wildflower Experience. Now is the time to put it all together and dial in what to eat on race day.

Given that this is a 3-part series, if you missed Part 1 and Part 2, that’s OK. Don’t try anything new at this point. Just move forward and read on! If you’ve followed the entire series, then you’ll understand why what you eat on race day has everything to do with daily nutrition.

Without any further adieu, here is Part 3 of “What Do I Eat on Race Day?”


Nutrition for race day consists of making sure you’re getting in adequate energy through calories, specifically carbohydrates, and replacing lost fluids with an electrolyte replacement fluid. As discussed earlier, carbohydrates are consumed pre, during and post exercise to top off and replace muscle and liver glycogen, and blood glucose.

Before Race.

pexels-photo-885468.jpegTriathlon Eve – For years, athletes have used “carb-loading” as a way of toping off glycogen stores prior to an event. Another side benefit is that it improves water retention because carbohydrates hold water and thus the body is more hydrated. Be careful not to over-consume the carbohydrates. Over the years, I’ve seen many carb-loading dinners turn into carb-frenzy fests. It’s no fun going to bed on a full stomach. Eat slowly and enjoy what you eat.

Stick with what you know works. This includes not only what you eat but when you eat it. If dining out, anticipate what foods will be available to you – plan ahead. Or pack your own foods and come prepared.

→ Tip! Avoid food containing high amounts of fats as well as red meats the night prior to race day. Both take longer to break down and absorb and can cause GI distress. Too much fiber, such as a jumbo salad-bowl, can also lead to other stomach issues (if you know what I mean). Keep your meal balanced.

Pre Race Dinner Examples

  • Sweet potato + chicken breast + string beans
  • Seasoned tempeh or tofu + brown rice + roasted vegetables
  • Pasta + salmon + small side salad

Race Morning Hop out of bed and eat! Race day nerves are bound to kick in and you’ll more than likely lose your appetite. If this happens, take small but frequent bites, but EAT! Those racing half distance triathlon will want to eat two to three hours prior to their event in order to top off glycogen stores and allow the body time to digest. Those racing sprint to Olympic distance can eat roughly one to two hours prior to the race. Again, this is something that you’ve practiced. Be prepared to have additional calories available to you in transition in case your hunger kicks in. This is a good time for a sports bar or drink.

Pre Race Breakfast Examples

  • 2 slices whole toast + 1 hard boiled egg + 1 oz avocado
  • 1 cup oatmeal + 1/2 cp blueberries + a handful of walnuts
  • Almond butter and jelly on two slices bread

→ Tip! Consume an electrolyte replacement fluid as 5 to 7 mL/kg (or 1 ounce for every 10 pounds body weight) fluid per hour. That is 14 ounces per hour for a woman weighing 135 pounds and 17 ounces per hour for a man weighing 170 pounds. 

→ Tip! 20 to 30 minutes prior to race start, consume 1 serving Generation UCAN drink mix or bar OR 35 to 45 grams carbohydrate (Clif or Gatorade Endurance). 

Coach Duane Franks of Trifiniti endures the heat at the Wildflower Triathlon

During Race. 

Once the triathlon has started, it will be easier to think of when to eat in terms of convenient opportunities to eat, such as in transition, before approaching a big climb, or on a flat road. While small amounts of protein over prolonged exercise can improve protein balance, carbohydrate remains the primary macronutrient of focus during training and racing.

Carbohydrates – Race day “fuel” comes in the form of gels, blocks, powders, or liquids. What you used during training may be different than what is being offered on the race course.

→ Tip!Know what’s being offered at the aid stations on the course and practice using it prior to race day. If relying on aid station support, note at what mile marker the aid stations occur and your anticipated duration to reach the aid stations.

Some athletes opt to self-support by using carbohydrates drink mixes or bars that are specifically formulated to slowly enter the blood stream providing a steady release in energy (such as Generation UCAN). This approach offers the endurance athlete the ability to “refuel” with “1 Serving” every 60 to 90 minutes while avoiding the highs and lows in blood sugars (again is something that has been practiced prior to race day).

Photo Credit: Annie Mac

Other athletes opt for the more traditional approach that provides a fast acting carbohydrate replacement (using Gatorade Endurance or Clif Blok Energy Chews). Recommendations during training and racing are to consume 30 to 60 grams per hour of carbohydrate-rich fluids or foods. These recommendations will vary based upon duration of event and race pace intensity. Remember, the higher the intensity, the more quickly the body moves through it’s glycogen stores – and they are limited. If you see people running the run with some gusto in their legs, then I guarantee you they held back on the bike.

→ Note! Gatorade Endurance formula provides both carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement. Whereas, Clif Blok Energy Chews or Gels are specifically designed as a carbohydrate replacement.

Jen Temperley takes the handoff from her son.

Hydrate Right! – Sodium is the primary electrolyte lost through sweat and needs to be replaced, most especially during hot race environments. Sodium facilitates muscle movement and mental acuity. Dehydration also leads to a decrease in performance. Individual hydration needs vary because sweat rates (how much fluid one looses) and the amount of sodium contained in the sweat is highly individual (to be discussed in a later post).

→ Tip! Set your watch to chime every 8 to 15 minutes as a reminder to sip fluids if you’re thirsty. 

Exercise Associated Hyponatremia – This is a condition caused by over drinking water during and after the event. Consuming great amounts of water dilute sodium to plasma concentrations (meaning volume of water is much greater relative to sodium concentrations). Those most at risk of EAH are typically on the course for more than 4 hours and over-consume water. It is rare, but does occur. Signs and symptoms include: bloating, nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, confusion, and in severe cases, seizures and coma. If you think you are experiencing or see someone experiencing EAH, then seek medical attention right away!

→ Tip! Replace lost electrolytes usingan electrolyte replacement fluid instead of drinking just water.  

Post Race.

Jessica Frazier refuels.

Replenishing muscle and liver glycogen, restoring sodium balance, and aiding muscle repair is essential to recovery. Carbohydrates can be consumed in small amounts every 15 to 30 minutes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consuming carbohydrate at the rate of 1 to 1.2 g/kg/hr for the first four hours. Eat 15 to 25 grams of a high-quality protein. Some fat is fine, but be wary of foods containing high-fats; these slow down digestion and absorption and delay the recovery process.

Post Race Snack Examples

  • Pretzels + orange slices (if stomach if feeling queasy)
  • Pasta salad + chicken breast
  • Burrito with beans + rice (or chicken)

→ Tip! Hydrate right with an electrolyte containing solution to replace lost sodium. The endurance athlete should typically drink 24 ounces of fluid for every pound lost. This helps to achieve rapid recovery from dehydration. Sodium can also be obtained through foods (1/2 teaspoon salt supplies 1,000 mg sodium).

Although, it may seem as if knowing what to eat on race day is like rocket science, it really isn’t. The greatest thing to remember is to stick with what you know works. Reflect upon the moments when your training was at its best. What did you eat? When did you eat it? What did you use as an electrolyte replacement fluid? How often did you sip this? Did you try anything new during training that surprised you in a good way? Let the training be your guide.

Ultimately, the goal will be to keep your nutrition plan simple and to stick with what you know works. As they say, “Don’t try anything new on race day.” Stick with what’s tried and true.

And as I always say, “Fuel Right!”

Got questions? Comment below.

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