Intelligent Fueling for Race Day

By Brooke Schohl, MS, RD

Learn to give your body the right amount of food and drink to perform at your best with these tips.

They say that nutrition is the fourth discipline in a triathlon. Under-fueling leads to bonking and over-fueling can translate to gastrointestinal issues. When you learn to give your body just the right amount of food and drink in order to perform at your best, then you have mastered the elusive fourth discipline. But alas, this is not an easy task.

Use the following intelligent fueling tips to help you conquer this challenge and have a great race!

Only Fuel When Necessary
Most athletes are fueling way too soon and with too many calories (translation: carbohydrates). This mistake negates the body’s ability to tap into fat stores for energy before switching over to carbohydrate as the major substrate utilized. Even in extremely lean athletes, internal fat stores vastly outweigh carb stores, making fat the nutrient of choice to burn. Remedy this by waiting to fuel – two to three hours into a workout or race is just fine. Fat stores jump into action, providing energy to the body during this time period. After two to three hours have passed, you can begin feeding the body calories – carbs as well as fat and protein.

Consider the Race Distance
This tip goes hand in hand with the previous one. For a Sprint triathlon or even an International distance for some athletes, no dietary fuel is needed during the race. Challenge your body’s internal fuel stores to catapult into action rather than relying on dietary carb right away!

Remember — Nutrition is Cumulative
Crappy nutrition throughout the year plus great nutrition in the week leading up to the race equals selling yourself short. The positive effects of a solid everyday fueling plan will shine through on race day. You’ve heard the analogy of an athlete’s body being equated to a high-performance car. Give the car low-octane gas and its performance is limited. Give the car the high-octane gas and it reaches its full potential. Conversely, great everyday nutrition and terrible training nutrition also fail the athlete come race day. Example: the clean-eating athlete who trains with Pop Tarts and soda. The key is to keep it consistent. Eat clean all day, everyday – training and racing included.

Hydrate Properly
It’s the day before the big race. True or false: You should be drinking everything in sight to be fully hydrated and primed for the big day. False! Just hydrate adequately, making sure to use urine color as your guide. A pale yellow color deserves a thumbs up. Anything darker than that and you need more water. Add electrolytes as needed, dependent on factors such as sweat rate, race climate and length of the race.

Consider Fueling Options
Athletes have many, many options when it comes to sports products used during training or racing. Make your selections count: read and understand labels and be comfortable with the ingredients. Check out some of the more natural sports products hitting the market (i.e. Huma Gel, Pocket Fuel, Ignite products). CLIF Bar, with their efforts to include organic ingredients whenever possible, is another worthwhile option. Because CLIF is the official on-course nutrition for Life Time Tri, training with the products you will be using during the race could help you avoid gastrointestinal issues on race day.

Another viable approach is to use real food for fuel. Dried fruit such as figs and dates provide excellent carbohydrates. Don’t use training as an excuse to wolf down doughnuts or that king-size Snickers. Using them during training doesn’t make them any healthier.

Moral of the Story
Less is more. Despite what your friends or sport product packaging may tell you, more is not more. You don’t need 400 calories per hour. You don’t need to drink a gallon of water pre-race. You don’t need to refuel with as many calories as you burned. Be smart and seek the help of a Metabolic Efficiency Training Specialist for more guidance.

Brooke is a registered sports dietitian and the owner of Fuel to the Finish Endurance Nutrition Coaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an avid triathlete, having completed triathlons of all distances including 3 Ironman races. She integrates that personal experience and knowledge into developing customized, sport-specific fueling plans for her clients. Brooke and her husband, John, own Destination Kona Triathlon Store and Destination Kona/Triple Sports in Scottsdale, Arizona. For more information on her services and offerings, Brooke can be reached at

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