Episode 66 - When Do You Start Planning Your Race Nutrition for a Triathlon Event?

When Do You Start Planning Your Race Nutrition for a Triathlon Event?

Here’s the truth about triathlon race nutrition…

Failing to plan is planning to fail. So many triathletes completely wing it when it comes to race nutrition. They’re not prepared at all or it’s way too late. They haven’t practised and rehearsed and that can end badly on race day. You spend months training in preparation for the big day - why would you leave something like race day nutrition to chance?

If you want to be successful on race day, whatever that looks like for you - you need to start preparing early. When do you start planning? That will depend on the distance you’re racing.

Tune in for my dietitian approved tips to get organised with your race nutrition plan depending on the next event you’re preparing for. We know that athletes with a plan perform better than those that don’t.

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Episode Transcription

Episode 66: When Do You Start Planning Your Race Nutrition for a Triathlon Event?

Taryn Richardson  00:00

Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. The show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy-to-digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.

Taryn Richardson 00:41

When do you start planning your race nutrition for triathlon? This is such a good question and something that you should all consider. So we're going to talk about that today. What a lot of triathletes fail at when it comes to race nutrition is that their planning is so last minute. It's really too late. They're not prepared. They haven't practiced and rehearsed what their race nutrition plan is. And my number one rule of racing is "Never try anything new on race day". Unless you're racing purely to practice a plan, then that's a whole other story. But if this is ... if this is your race, then we don't want to be winging it with our race nutrition.

Taryn Richardson 01:25

Without a plan, you're more likely to have a not ideal race. It may not be (the) 'completely horrible' end of the spectrum, where you're bonking or hitting a wall, or you're vomiting your guts up, or you're running for portaloos or things like that. But it could be that you don't have energy in your run for that back end of the race. Or you're not sure how hard to push yourself, because you're not sure if you're going to keep your nutrition down or not.

Taryn Richardson 01:52

But I want you to stop and think for a second ... aren't we doing all this training to piece it together into a decent race? Isn't that the aim of the game? It doesn't mean we're trying to race to win, or to get a spot to Kona - it could simply be doing a better race than the last one. It could be racing and having a smile on your face for that event. It could be not bonking and being absolutely smashed after the race, rendering you completely useless for the whole rest of the day. Success for you could mean whatever it is, but aren't we doing this sport, to race?

Taryn Richardson  02:30

And so we spend a lot of time on getting our bike perfect, and we train but why on earth do we not put that same level of preparation into our racing nutrition? Because what I want for you is to have confidence in your race nutrition plan. It's well rehearsed, it's well tested, and you've tweaked it in the lead up. And your race nutrition can evolve over time, it doesn't have to be the exact same plan for every single race. And it should. I think that it should evolve over time. As you get better you get fitter you get faster, you understand what products work better for you. But it has to be very well practiced for that one event that we're leading into. I don't want you second guessing yourself and wondering if what you're doing is right or if it's wrong, because if you're uncertain, you are way more likely to get distracted by what others are doing and do something weird at the last minute. I worked with an Ironman athlete for her first Ironman event. She was doing Port Mac Ironman a couple of years ago. And we spent months getting her day to day nutrition right so that she could survive her training build, and also spent months perfecting and dialling in her race nutrition plan for this first Ironman event. We had it nailed. It was well practiced, she was super confident and comfortable in her plan and was ready to just leave it all out there on race day. But the day before an older, fitter, more experienced athlete told her that she should eat bananas on the bike because they're good for you. And she listened to him because hey, he's done, you know, many Ironmans - he must know what he's talking about. And she suffered for the entire run! She spent her entire marathon vomiting because bananas were not part of her plan on the bike.

Taryn Richardson  04:24

Now, I don't want that for you. I want you to have a plan and stick with it. Don't get waylaid by others. Even if you think they know more than you. They don't know you and how you work.

Taryn Richardson  04:38

So what I thought we would do today is go through each of the distances and have a chat about some things to think about when you're planning your race nutrition, and roughly how long ahead you need to be doing that. The longer the distance, the more time you need to prepare.

Taryn Richardson 04:56

So let's start with the short stuff first - Sprint Distance (or thereabouts). For this distance event were out there for an hour (or less for some people, depending on how short it is or how fast they are), up to, sort of, 1 hr 15 mins / 1 hr 30 mins, sometimes even a little bit longer than that. Now with this distance, you need the least amount of time to prepare your race nutrition, because what you're doing in the event is less important - still important, but less important - compared to the other distances. If you're a seasoned triathlete, and you've done a lot of racing before, this distance may just be another training session for you. Or you're using the sprint distance as a bit of a testing ground.

Taryn Richardson  05:41

But if you're brand new to triathlon, and you're heading towards your first ever race, and maybe it's some form of sprint distance, then it's probably going to take you a couple of months to get everything prepared for what your race nutrition looks like, on that day. If you're new to riding a bike, you're going to need to practice taking your hands off a handlebar to grab your water bottle, pull it out from its cage without falling off, and then get it in your mouth to drink it. That's not something that you can do the first time in a race -  in a stressful situation - if you are not a cyclist, and you haven't done that before.

Taryn Richardson  06:18

Are you going to use any sports nutrition in the actual event? And if you are, whatever you're doing, really should be tested and practiced in training, particularly if you're new, and you're not used to having gels or blocks or sports drink while you're exercising. That is a mad skill. You have to eat and consume and breathe. But you also have to teach the body to digest and absorb and that doesn't happen immediately or instantaneously either. You can't try that for the first time in a race, when your stomach's probably not working as well as what it would in a less stressful situation in training.

Taryn Richardson  06:56

What are you eating before you go and tow the start line as well? What is your pre race meal look like for a sprint distance event? And have you practiced that before it gets to race day? Again, if you're new to eating before exercise, it is another mad skill that you're going to have to perfect before you lay that into a racing situation. What are you doing now before training and is that working or not? Let me tell you that when you're nervous and anxious before a race, you are less likely to consume what you think you should or think you can or think is normal when you're not so stressed. So you need to practice this ahead of time. Give yourself a couple of months to do that. Figure out what options feel good. Figure out what options don't feel so good. And practice, practice, practice.

Taryn Richardson  07:46

So that is going to take weeks, a couple of months even. If you're fresh and new and a complete beginner, it might take you six to 12 months to get yourself prepared to do a triathlon race. But over that time, you should be thinking about "Alright, the end result is your sprint distance event. What am I doing on that day, and I need to start thinking about preparing for all of that NOW."

Taryn Richardson  08:10

Next up is our standard or Olympic distance racing. Now here we're racing for anywhere between, sort of, two to three and a half hours. So it's definitely a glycogen depleting exercise session. So we're going to need to do things differently to sprint distance racing. And we're going to need more time to prepare our race nutrition heading into this event. I would give yourself at least, sort of, three to six months to dial in and perfect your race nutrition for this distance event.

Taryn Richardson  08:41

More can go wrong here in a standard distance Tri compared to a sprint because it is glycogen depleting. We're going to bonk or hit the wall if we haven't optimised our muscle glycogen or the fuel that we store in our muscles, we haven't done the right thing with our pre race meal or we've completely avoided it because we're too nervous. And the same as what you're having during. You can get into a massive dehydration hole and under fuelling hole in this distance, and maybe not even make it to the finishing line. So three to six months before, you want to be dialing in your carbohydrate loading plan and practicing at least twice.

Taryn Richardson  09:20

I get my Academy athletes to do it early and practice it as many times as they can. The first time is always the hardest and then it gets easier. But the more times you can do it and figure out how to do that in training means better success on race day. Your pre race meal for this distance of event needs to be practiced as well. And how long that takes is definitely personal. I would suggest your pre race meal is probably going to look a little bit different to your sprint distance event. So what are you going to do differently and how you're going to practice that in a training situation so you know exactly what it feels like and how your body responds when we turn up to the start line of the actual race?

Taryn Richardson  10:03

The same as what you do during an Olympic distance or standard distance race - that takes time to perfect what your racing products are, whatever that may be. How much you have. When you have it. As well as dialing in your hydration needs. We are heading into summer here down under, and it is 32 degrees Celsius today. So all of our events, as our season begins, are going to be hot. And I teach my Academy athletes how to manage that when it comes to nutrition in the heat, which is different to our cooler racing strategies. And again, something you want to practice. If you go from a hot race to a cold race, what does your racing nutrition look like? That's different. And then how do we actually dial that in, so it feels good for us.

Taryn Richardson  10:52

So give yourself a fair few months, when it comes to thinking about standard distance race nutrition - it's not something that you can just turn up and see what's available at the expo and roll with that. You also want to practice whatever nutrition is on course, - like what sports drink are they going to offer on the run, at the aid stations and have you practiced with that? So think more strategically and think more long term when it comes to this, because then you're more likely to be successful and have a good outcome.

Taryn Richardson  11:21

Alright, 70.3, or half Ironman distance. This is an even longer preparation when it comes to race nutrition than the first two. You want to do everything that you did to set yourself up for your standard distance event. But you need more preparation for what you're going to do during a 70.3. You're out there for way longer on the bike. You're out there for way longer on the run. And so your 'during' racing nutrition becomes really important to your success on the day. As well as everything you do to set it up, you know you're going to need to carb load and be a bit strategic around this.

Taryn Richardson  11:58

You can carb load it a little bit differently for a 70.3 versus Olympic and Ironman - they're all kind of different. You also want to think about doing your gut training so that you can absorb fuel and nutrition while you're exercising and you're under that stress of exercise. The longer you go, the more shuts down. So we really want to be comfortable and confident in our fuelling plan and that preparation starts months out. We don't really know how long it takes to gut train. We talk about gut training in Phase Three of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program. And I give my athletes a specific and structured program to be able to do that. Depending on the distance, some of those gut training protocols go for 20 weeks, so it's not something you can go, "Oh, quick, I'm just gonna gut train for this one session ahead of my race next weekend." That's not how it works. It takes time. You've got to be patient. But you also have to be organised and plan to do that as your training builds heading into that event.

Taryn Richardson  13:01

Ironman distance, or 140.6 - the longer you have for preparation, the better. At least five to six months - minimum. But some people prepare for an Ironman Distance event for one to two years. And that's totally fine. The longer duration we are away, then you're probably more so focusing on what you're doing on a day to day basis, and understanding your fuelling during those longer training sessions. But as we get closer, we're doing the gut training. We're carb loading. We're really dialling in what you're doing on the day. What's your plan for the bike? And have you practiced that and gut trained yourself to absorb that really well? What's your plan for the run? And have you practiced that and know that you can tolerate it? That takes time - it takes weeks and months to get that right.


That's the main reason why I turn athletes away if they enquire about getting an Ironman race nutrition plan a few weeks out from a race, or even a month or two. It's just not enough time. I don't want that pressure. Because I want you to have a really good race. But you need the time to prepare and practice when it comes to Ironman distance racing. The same as 70.3. If we're starting a long time away, we might be really trying to focus on what our day to day nutrition is and making sure we can absorb that training. And we're fuelling our longer sessions well and building that up and learning how we work and learning what products we like and don't like and potentially starting to challenge and tackle some of the carbohydrate phobia that so many triathletes have.

Taryn Richardson  14:45

We're potentially doing that a year or two out from an Ironman distance event so that you can make peace with the amount of fuel required to absorb the training. You won't survive Ironman training, if you're afraid of carbohydrate and avoiding it. You will end up sick, injured, low energy availability and you know, worst case, having a stress fracture or a stress reaction, right when you're peaking. I don't want that for you. So let's think about tackling that stuff early, rather than second guessing what we're doing and being our own worst enemy, when we're in a big training volume heading into Ironman.

Taryn Richardson  15:23

Now, for my crazy Ultra Endurance listeners, anyone gearing up for something like an Ultraman, Ultra 355, or any of those multi day stage events, your preparation for your race nutrition for this is years in the making. It's even longer because we take everything we've learned from those other distances and compound that. Not only do you have to do one event on one day, you have to learn to back up and go again on the next day and the next day. And that's a mad skill that takes practice. You need to practice what all of your recovery nutrition strategies are to back up and go again, really quickly and fuelled. You need to do some serious gut training to make sure your fuelling during those days is as good as it can be for you and is dialled into what you specifically need for you as well. We're not just blindly following the person that wins and copying their race nutrition. We're not pulling random target figures off the internet and hoping for the best. If you are going to do that to your body, then you want to make sure you've got all of the right nutrition to support that and it's practiced, it's rehearsed, it's perfect for you, you've got no question in your mind that what you're doing isn't right.

Taryn Richardson  16:36

One of the Academy athletes in the program at the moment did Ultraman a couple of years ago. Maybe it's a year - I have this massive time hole since COVID. I've got no idea what's happened the last few years. But she is keen to go back and show Ultraman who is boss! She started the Academy program, maybe four or five months ago now -  she's halfway through in Phase Two, which is perfect. She is laying a really solid foundation with her nutrition now in preparation for Ultraman in 2024. So two years away - like how organised is that?

Taryn Richardson  17:11

That is what I want you to start to think about when it comes to your race nutrition. We seem to leave it to the last minute and then wonder why it doesn't work for us. If you have a big hairy, audacious goal, and you've got all your ducks in a row with your bike and your running shoes and your training program. Now we're going to put nutrition onto that to do list as well. It's not simply turning up and seeing what's at the expo or what's been given to you free in your goodie bag, or see who's around and has some spare freebies that you can borrow.

Taryn Richardson  17:43

I want you to have a successful day on race day - whatever that looks like for you. But your preparation needs to start early. I don't want you to get to race week and go, "Oh shit, I don't have any sports drink powder for the weekend. I'm just going to have to go quickly grab some random thing from the supermarket, because that's easy and I haven't got myself organised". Or it's race week, and "I should probably carb load. So let me just see how you do that on the internet". Nah. Nah. I want you to have that already planned and you've practiced it in training more than once.

Taryn Richardson 18:17

It takes a little bit of time to understand exactly what you need. For each of those distances of events. No two are the same nutritionally - they're all physiologically different. You can't halve your Ironman race nutrition to get your 70.3 plan and vice versa - it's not going to work. So you really want to have a race plan for each of those distances, and practice it and perfect it over time. You need a plan. We know that athletes that have a plan perform better than those that don't. But developing that plan does take time. The longer the event, the more time it takes to prepare - mentally, physiologically, gut wise and nutrition.

Taryn Richardson 18:58

So I want you start thinking a little bit differently. Wherever your racing is, I want you to start to think about what your race plan for that is NOW. No matter how far away it is. If you've got an Ironman this weekend, it's probably a little late, not gonna lie. But if you're doing an Ironman in, say, six months or 12 months, think about your plan, NOW. You could have a plan now and be working towards that if you know how to do that. And if you're a last minute Larry, don't stress this is probably not the last race of that distance that you're ever going to do. Right? Tick this one off as a learning experience and prepare properly for the next one.

Taryn Richardson 19:39

So hopefully that helps you a little bit more to think about your planning and preparation for an event. If you've had any lightbulb moments or any aha moments from today, please let me know - send me a DM on Instagram - I would love to hear. Sometimes they hide in the request folder and I don't see them straight away but I'll always go deep diving and search in there, in time. So I will catch it eventually if it does end up in that little secret hidden folder.

Taryn Richardson 20:05

And if you're sitting there thinking "Shit, I don't have a plan for anything. I need a plan. Taryn help me with a plan!" then make sure you jump on the waitlist for our January opening of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy. Head to dietitianapproved.com/Academy. That is the only way to work with me in 2023. And we go through every single distance so that you have a specific plan for you for sprint, and Olympic and 70.3 and Ironman distances events - as well as everything that goes with that! You need to plan for carb loading, your pre race meal, your hydration, what caffeine are you using? how much do you need? What do you use? When do you have it? What are you doing in the event? What are you doing on the bike? What are you doing on the run? What the heck are multiple transportable carbohydrates? Don't worry, this is my jam. I've got answers to all of those questions for you. So come and join us in January, it's going to be an epic year.

Taryn Richardson 21:00

And it's never too late to start. If you're racing really soon. Start now with what you're doing on a day to day basis. And then for the next one, you'll have more information about what you actually need to do for that key event. I have a number of people that are always like, "Can I just jump to Phase Three? I just want Phase Three?" And the answer is "No". You have to go through our foundations of nutrition first, before we move on to more top tier, advanced strategies and the sprinkles on our icing on our cake. Because if we don't build that solid cake foundation layer first, there is nothing for the sprinkles to stick to - you're putting sprinkles on the floor.

Taryn Richardson 21:40

But so many triathletes do that first! They take every weird supplement and pill and potion because the marketing got them - the Facebook ads got them. Their training buddy got them. Their coach, she's probably getting money kickbacks for recommending that product - got them. But you get the best bang for your buck out of what you do consistently on a day to day basis. It's those small little habits compounded over time, that make the biggest difference. It's not the random supplement that you use once in a race. So let's get organised. Let's get a plan. Let's practice it well ahead of time so that you have the best race yet for your next one.

Taryn Richardson  22:22

Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned, email me at [email protected]. You can also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media, @dietitian.approved, so I can give you a shout out, too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to www.dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smashed in the fourth leg - nutrition! 

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