Nutritional Thoughts for the Quad Cities Triathlon

ORA Triathalon

This summer, ORA Sports Medicine Surgeon, Dr. J.C. Clark, proudly participated in the 21st Annual Quad Cities Triathlon for the first time in all three events! Before the big race, he connected with Let’s Move Quad Cities Blogger and Registered Dietitian, Jeni Tackett, for some advice on triathlon nutrition.

Dr. Clark: Hey Jeni! I’m taking a crazy leap and going to participate in my first triathlon at the Quad Cities Triathlon at West Lake in Davenport. I’ve done the swimming portion before on a team, but never a whole sprint triathlon by myself.

My training regimen fell off the wheels in early May due to some increased time at work, so instead of thriving, I’m looking more at just surviving the triathlon and learning what I need to work on for the future!

I’ve heard the four disciplines of triathlon are Swim, Bike, Run, and Nutrition. Can you help me with some nutrition questions?

Jeni: Wow, that’s exciting! Yes, nutrition is often the overlooked component of any sport, so the fact that it is even on your radar is a good sign. I’d be happy to answer some nutrition questions for you.

Dr. Clark: My first question concerns the age-old idea of “carb loading” the night before. I realize I need to fill up my glycogen stores the night before so I can dip into them for needed energy during the race, but what’s the best way to do that? Should I fall back on the plates of spaghetti, bread, and water meals during my swimming team days the night before a meet? Or is there a better way now?

Jeni: Carb loading is still the way to go! However, you also need to eat carbs on the days and weeks leading up to your race.

Having your glycogen stores (think – gas tank) filled up during your training is as important as carb loading the night before your race. Practicing what you are going to eat before the race will help you know what works best before race day. 

Jenny Tacket Blog Photo
Jeni Tackett, Let's Move Quad Cities

Never try anything new on race day. Great carbohydrate sources include pasta, rice, fruits, and starchy vegetables (potatoes and peas, for example). Include some carbohydrates at all of your meals and snacks, and make sure your evening meal before race day is carbohydrate-heavy.

Dr. Clark: How about fluid intake the night before a race? I don’t want to disrupt my rest the night before the race by getting up and going to the bathroom all night after pre-loading with a bunch of water. What should I be looking at as far as amount of fluid?

Jeni: Like with carbohydrates, you shouldn’t make drastic changes before race day with your hydration. Hydrate well throughout training so that your urine is a pale yellow color (lemonade, not apple juice). A great way to hydrate is with food such as rice, pasta, and oatmeal which are made with water. Also include lots of fruits and vegetables which are 80-90%+ water. When you are active, you will lose more electrolytes through your sweat, especially with the high temperatures we have had this spring.

Obtaining fluids through food means that you also are consuming sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium along with water. Just guzzling plain water can actually result in lowering blood electrolyte levels and work against you on race day.

ORA Triathalon

Dr. Clark: So, no bourbon?

Jeni: Yes, sorry. No bourbon until you celebrate after completing your first triathlon.

Dr. Clark: Well, I think we are done here if I can’t have bourbon. It’s been great talking to you, Jeni! Just kidding.

Jeni: Haha, J.C. Remember all things in moderation — except no bourbon the night before race day.

Dr. Clark: Okay, so I have an idea of what I am going to eat before the race. Let’s move on to the morning of the race. Since it is a sprint triathlon, I am hoping that I’m not exercising for hours and requiring more caloric consumption. But, based on my paucity of training, who knows. Should I be pre-loading again the morning of the race and when?

Jeni: Yes, you should top off your glycogen stores on the morning of the race. This is a meal that you should practice having before exercise. A lot of people prefer to exercise on empty, but when you compete in a race such as a triathlon or any strenuous workout, you need to have some fuel in the tank.

Eating a breakfast that is high in carbohydrates with moderate protein is best. You also don’t want to have a high-fat breakfast such as bacon or sausage which can sit heavy in the stomach. Examples of an easily digestible breakfast include oatmeal with banana, toast with peanut butter or eggs and berries, Greek yogurt and melon, or even a liquid breakfast of a smoothie made with your favorite milk and fruit. Have your breakfast around 2-3 hours before race time.

If you choose to go the smoothie route, you can have that even an hour before the race as liquids are rapidly digested.

Dr. Clark: Excellent, so nothing elaborate. Just keep it simple. How about hydration before the race? Water, sports drink, how about coffee? I heard caffeine can be a bad thing before a race. Is that true?

Jeni: If you normally drink coffee in the morning, go ahead and drink coffee before your race. Caffeine an actually help with sports performance but is not something you should add to your regimen if you are not used to it.

You don’t want to have a caffeine withdrawal headache midway through your race.

J C Clark M D
J.C. Clark, ORA Orthopedics

Just stick with one cup of coffee and not the entire pot as caffeine is a diuretic and will make you urinate more frequently. Have a water-rich pre-race breakfast and drink water before your race to a comfortable level. Again, you do not need to guzzle water or pound sports drinks before your race. Fuel with food and hydrate with food and water.

Dr. Clark: Alright, now the race starts. I am swimming first, so obviously I can’t drink or eat. Then, I hop on the bike where I have access to water bottles. What should I fill them with?

Jeni: Yes, don’t drink the lake water! Start hydrating on the bike and have one water bottle filled with water and one filled with a sports drink. Again, you should practice with the same sports drink that you use on race day. Sports drinks contain some electrolytes which enhance hydration and replenish electrolyte loss. Sometimes your stomach will not want a sports drink and will prefer to hydrate with water.

Listen to your body and have both options available. If the day is especially hot, make sure that you are taking in enough fluid.

ORA Triathalon

Dr. Clark: I guess I can also eat on the bike if I want. I’ve seen where people tape gels, chews, or energy bars to the bike frame so they can eat while biking. Have you heard of these things? What are they all about?

Jeni: Yes, gels, chews, and bars as all easy-to-consume products that are made for racing. During a sprint triathlon, you shouldn’t need too much fuel. Races that last well over an hour require refueling and athletes often use gels or chews. If you do opt for using a gel or chew, make sure to follow it up with water and not a sports drink. Combining these products with sports drinks can result in gastrointestinal distress as you will consume too much carbohydrate. I know that I sound like a broken record, but if you use these products make sure to try them when you train to see if you tolerate them.

Dr. Clark: On to the running portion now. I’m sure there are water stations set up where I can hydrate periodically. Anything else I should consider?

Jeni: You can opt to carry a water bottle if you want to make sure that you have water when you need it. An advantage to race day is that you will have access to water stops if you prefer not to carry anything while you run. If the weather is hot, make sure to take the time to stop and drink. On really hot days, pouring water over your head can help to cool you down.

Dr. Clark: The race is finished, and assuming I’m still alive, is there a nutritional protocol for recovery or is it just the classic post-triathlon beer, pork chops, and talk about how chafed my thighs are and how I outswam that shark in West Lake? (People — there are no sharks in West Lake, so don’t freak out. I’m kidding.)

Jeni: I’m certain that you will survive this. While I’m sure there are no sharks in West Lake, you may want to watch out for the other swimmers. After the race, rehydrating and replenishing your glycogen stores is important. At this point, you can go ahead and drink the beer and make sure to have carbohydrates and protein. Sandwiches, fruit, and even cookies are fair game at this point. Chocolate milk is a great recovery option as it has carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes, and fluid.

Dr. Clark: Well, thank you, Jeni! I think you have helped me conquer that fourth discipline of triathlon called Nutrition. I will update you on how I fare this weekend.

Jeni: Best of luck, Dr. Clark!