The obvious difference between different triathlons is the course distance, which varies from a short duration known as the 'sprint' that takes the pros around an hour to complete to an IRONMAN that can take over 8 hours. Athletes competing at the top level of these events might train 15 hours a week for Olympic distance events and closer to 25 for iron-distances. However, being trained and ready for a sprint versus an IRONMAN takes more than just a bump in total training time. There are several nutritional differences to consider between the various race distances.
Sprint & Olympic
These events take less reliance on fueling during the actual race as most well-trained athletes can complete the effort in a reasonable time without much additional fueling. While you don't need much, you'll still benefit from taking in calories during the race to give your body carbohydrates to burn.
Carbs are what your body pulls from and utilizes most efficiently for these shorter, higher-intensity events. Make sure to consume roughly 30 to 45 grams of fast acting carbohydrates per hour of racing. A couple gels, sports drinks or sports chews will do the trick.
During training, make sure to practice taking in these carbohydrate sources during intense sessions to prepare your stomach for digesting and utilizing the fuel without gastric disasters. The short competition duration comes with hours and hours of daily training, which is where the real nutritional considerations come into play. Completing multiple sessions within a 24-hour time spans calls for a real focus on recovery nutrition. These athletes should prioritize rapid recovery and hydration by consuming a shake of roughly 60 grams of carbs to 20 grams of protein after each session, especially the intense ones.
Short course athletes should also pay more attention to consuming a general diet high in nutrient and antioxidant rich plants, grass fed and wild animal proteins and complex carbohydrates to help promote a healthy gut environment, gain lean muscle, maintain a healthy competition weight, increase blood flow to working muscles and keep energy levels high.
Half & Full IRONMAN
These two distances still have a huge gap in duration, but they both come with nutritional difference over shorter distances. IRONMAN races are considered endurance events as they will last several hours, meaning the event itself takes a huge amount of fuel to complete. Weekly training for these events can take up to 25 hours with individual sessions lasting up to 6 hours. Long days and back-to-back sessions require a high amount of fuel. Athletes will need to consume a large meal of several hundred calories hours before long training sessions, as well as on race day, and be careful to choose foods that are well-practiced and well-tolerated.
In addition to training the gut to tolerate a large pre-workout meal, athletes will benefit from practicing tolerance of taking in up to 100 grams of carbohydrates an hour throughout long sessions to prepare for race day demands. While short courses rely almost exclusively on carbohydrates, endurance races will pull from mixed fuel sources, meaning you'll want a little bit of fat and protein throughout the race to replenish working muscles and provide sustenance.
Adding granola bars, fig cookies or a nut butter sandwich throughout the race will be beneficial. Outside of race day, you should focus on taking in a large amount of food day to day. A generally healthful diet will only be sufficient when it includes several additional portions at meals, and snacks and liquid calories are typically needed to meet the excessive energy demands of these athletes. Guidelines point to 8 to 12 grams of carbohydrates needed per kilogram of body weight per day with healthful fat sources increased to fill the energy gap once protein and carb needs are met.
Total calories and carbohydrates needed are the most variable factors between the different triathlon durations, but fuel tolerance, general diet, recovery, fat and protein also shift depending on training durations and racing goals. To make sure you're getting what you need to support your race day efforts, work with a board-certified sports dietitian.
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