Triathlon burns a lot of calories. That’s great news if your goal is to get in shape or stay in shape. It also means you need to seriously consider how you are going to replenish those calories during your race. Eating will make the difference between crossing the finish line with your best time and crossing the finish line feeling miserable or not at all.
How to Eat During the Swim
In a word, don’t. Eating while in the water is difficult, potentially dangerous, and will cost you a ton of time. Instead eat a gel, bar, or banana 10-15 minutes before you start the swim. Even at Ironman distance, you should be able to make it through the swim without supplemental food. Plus, you can always refuel in transition.
How to Eat in T1
The strategy you choose here is completely dependent on your race goals and condition coming out of the water. If you are feeling good and looking for your best possible finish, run through transition without eating or drinking until you are on the bike and moving. If you exit the swim feeling exhausted or dizzy, spending a few seconds eating, drinking, and catching your breath can be well worth it. Strive to be efficient, like chewing while you buckle your helmet or put on shoes & socks, and focus on taking deep breaths through your nose. If you swallowed a bunch of water during the swim, your stomach may not be ready to take in food just yet. That’s okay. Get through T1 and do you eating on the bike.
How to Eat on the Bike
In a typical triathlon, racers spend the greatest amount of time on the bike. This, combined with the fact that you don’t get the all the stomach bouncing you get on the run, makes it the ideal place to stock up on calories. You can eat gels, bars, fruit, or any other real foods you and your gut are comfortable with. Bento boxes (small bags that attach to the top tube) make it easy to access your food as you ride. You can also attach gels to your top tube or stem by taping the tear-away tabs to your bike with electrical tape. When you need a gel, simply reach down and pull it off the bike. The tab stays attached to the frame, and the whole process requires only one hand. For longer races, extra food can be stashed in the back of your jersey. (Is that a banana in your pocket… 😉
How to Eat in T2
If you ate sufficiently on the bike and are feeling good, push through T2 without eating. You can carry a gel, bar, or chews with you and begin eating once you are out of the chaos of the transition area. If you didn’t eat enough on the bike or need to catch your breath before the run, go ahead and eat in transition. As with T1, be as efficient as possible about it but make sure you get the calories you need. It’s much better to spend a little extra time now than to bonk halfway through the run.
How to Eat on the Run
In short/fast races, a single gel and the drinks provided by the aid stations may be all you need to get through the run. For longer races, multiple gels, bars, bananas, or other food may be necessary. Find out what will be available at aid stations and plan accordingly. No matter what you eat during the run, be sure to do so carefully. Chewing and swallowing (especially solid foods) at full stride can be difficult. If you need to, slow down and make sure you get the nutrition you need. A common practice is running between aid stations, then walking through each station as you eat and drink. If you do this, fight the urge to keep walking once you’re through the aid station.
Now, Practice, Practice, Practice!
Before you try eating in your first race or adding some new kind of nutrition to your next race, test it out in training. It is important to know how your stomach will react on race day and how easy/difficult it is to eat specific kinds of food while moving.