Real Foods for Race Day: Supplement the Supplements

What to Eat

When choosing foods for a long-course race, look for ones that are low-fat, low-fiber and high-carbohydrate. Below are several common foods that athletes can use on race day to supplement the supplements, either to help meet nutritional requirements or simply to give the taste buds a break. By way of comparison, a 63-gram PowerBar Sport energy bar has 2.4 grams of fat, nine grams of protein and 41 grams of carbohydrate.

  • Bananas have it all, plus good packaging. A banana has 140 calories, no fat, 36 grams of carbohydrates and three grams of fiber. Other fruits that pack well and have high carbohydrate values include dates (31 grams for five dates) and raisins (31 grams for a quarter cup). Dried prunes, apricots, figs and apples are not recommended because of their higher fiber content and a relatively low glycemic index.
  • Not just for Aussies: Vegemite doesn't have much in the way of fat, calories, carbohydrates or fiber, but it does pack a good sodium punch: 200 mg for a four-gram serving. And who knows, maybe Vegemite tastes good at 120 kilometers into the bike.
  • White bread and bagels have a high glycemic index and low fiber content. Basic white bread has 12 grams of carbohydrates per slice and less than a gram of fat. Eat it plain or add a small amount of almond or peanut butter and jam, Vegemite or bananas and honey.
  • Some vegetables make good Ironman foods. A small salted, steamed potato with the skin off (the skin has fiber) has about 15 grams of carbohydrates, no fat and only two to three grams of fiber. For another savory taste try boiled, salted parsnips cut into chunks or sticks. Half a cup of parsnips contains 15 grams of carbohydrates, and the high glycemic index means this food will go to work quickly.
  • While chocolate bars and most cookies have too much fat to be of much use for quick and sustained energy, sometimes you just need a chocolaty tidbit to look forward to in your special-needs bag. A small portion of animal crackers, Arrowroot cookies, jelly beans, chocolate or Nutella spread thinly on white bread can give you a taste-bud break.

The logistics of lunch on the fly

Packaging, storage and ease of delivery are important considerations when selecting foods to use during a race. You need to have the full food portion available for consumption (not squashed all over your bike-jersey pockets), and it has to be easy to consume (small bite-size pieces in a plastic bag or wrap).

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Make sure you can open your snacks while your heart rate is 160 and you have one hand on the bars. Food that's spoiled, melted or too cold will not be eaten, leaving you short on calories.

It's important to be fairly systematic about fuel and fluid consumption. Based upon your training and previous race experience, you should figure out your eating plan and try to stick to it. According to sports nutritionists at the Australian Institute of Sport, you should view the bike leg as a rolling buffet for your food and fluid intake. It's easiest to eat on the bike, and you should look at the bike leg as a way to set you up for the run, where your caloric intake will be significantly lower.

Also, know and use the course to aid your eating. Take advantage of hills, tailwind sections and flat areas where you can spin for a bit. Be aware of factors that limit your caloric intake, such as bad weather and just feeling off, and be extra diligent about getting in what you need. Once you're on the run, you may have to walk through aid stations in order to ingest food and get something to drink.

It cannot be stressed enough: Practice eating in training what you plan to eat on race day. Include in your training the foods you want to consume, experiment with quantity and pay careful consideration to transport and ease of delivery. Chances are your dad isn't going to be there at the start of the race with a steak sandwich, but if he is, make sure you've eaten a few in training.


Thanks to Lucy Smith for her contribution to this piece. Over the past 20 years, Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman and Olympic champions. Beginner and experienced triathletes can contact him at LifeSport Coaching (coach@LifeSport.ca) or visit LifeSport.ca.

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