Nutritional Adjustments Ironman vs. Short Course

Transition products laid out ready for a race
January 12, 2017

Mike Ricci


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As we all know, there are different training regimens for short course triathlon versus long course. For short course, typically people will be doing less overall volume and higher intensity bouts. And with long course triathlon, the overall volume increases while intensity may be more in the tempo range for longer periods rather than VO2 max efforts.

Our bodies use energy differently during high-intensity, shorter bouts of exercise versus longer, slower endurance zones. Shorter, harder intervals tend to burn more carbohydrate for fuel while longer, slower training days expend more fat for fuel. For this reason, it’s optimal to plan your nutrition around these facts.

**Important details:**

When training longer and slower, encourage carbohydrates combined with fat and protein in your meals. This will help the fat and protein carry the carbohydrate energy longer. For shorter, more intense training, use lower amounts of fat and protein (during and around training), and higher amounts of carbohydrate.

Not only is there a difference in overall training and nutrition for various triathlon distances, but nutrient timing is also something to pay attention to. For example, after doing a workout where glycogen stores are depleted (something longer than your body does on a regular basis, or something high in intensity), it’s important to follow that up with a higher glycemic carbohydrate and protein combination.

For shorter distance races, nutrition importance is emphasized more in the dinner the night before and the breakfast before the event. For longer distances, nutrition DURING the event is critical as well. As I’m sure you’ve all heard or learned, nutrition is the 4th discipline in Ironman, and learning about nutrition ‘during’ is essential to that distance success.

Setting the stage before workouts is similar in each distance; combining fat, protein, and carbohydrate will all be essential, but amounts of each may differ.

Hydration is key to any endurance sport. Just 3 percent dehydration drastically hinders performance. Drink water and/or electrolyte water throughout the day; pale yellow pee is ideal. Eat foods high in water content like fresh fruits and vegetables. Drink plenty of fluids during training as well and use electrolytes when necessary.


*Long training:* oats with coconut oil, nut butter, and banana, OR 2 eggs, turkey bacon, zucchini, coconut oil, avocado, and tomato, mix in leftover rice. Allow sufficient time after eating before training; everyone is different.

*Short training:* banana, with honey and nut butter mixed together, OR applesauce with protein powder mixed in and topped with a few chopped nuts. Shorter training with high intensity may not allow for as much food beforehand; either add time before training and increase servings or make sure to get enough to replenish post-workout. A sports drink may help during workouts for easy digestion.

*Post-workouts that require higher glycemic foods:* smoothie with protein powder, banana, small amount of juice, berries., OR white rice and chicken in a wrap with fresh fruit.

*Dinner before a short event:* rice, chicken, olive oil, cooked veggies (emphasize rice and do only about 2-3 ounces of chicken), OR sweet potatoes with organic butter, cooked broccoli, fish.

*Breakfast before a short event:* This all depends on YOU and how long you give yourself before race start.
 - 90 min-2hr: applesauce with protein powder, salted nut butter, and banana.
 - 3 hrs before: quick oats, banana, nut butter, some may also do additional protein via a small smoothie.

*Dinner and breakfast before a long event:* Should be similar to what you’ve done in training for long days on the bike and/or bricks. Don’t change what you’ve been doing. For longer races, it’s imperative to eat about 3 hours prior to your event. You’ll need ample calories, and in order for it to digest and assimilate before your race, you need to give it time.

*During Ironman distance:* This is a whole other article topic, but to summarize, you will need to take in anywhere between @200-350 calories per hour during the race. ELECTROLYTES become a KEY component to this as well. Knowing your sweat rate and using your knowledge from training and electrolytes used, will help you determine the amount of sodium and other electrolytes needed per hour. Most sports drinks are equipped with a good starting point, however some athletes sweat a lot more and expel a lot more sodium then the base of a typical sports drink. The range of sodium needs can be anywhere between 200mg/hour-2200mg/hour. That said, work with someone that can help you navigate this if you are running into trouble deciphering (like D3’s own Nick Suffedin!).

In conclusion, the nutritional needs of a long course athlete are going to differ quite a bit from a short course triathlete. Adjust as needed, but always keep in mind what is working for you as an individual, track your progress and how you feel so you can better determine YOUR best scenario.

Megan Forbes is a Registered Dietitian who received her degree from Colorado State University in Human Nutrition and Dietetics. Her postgrad work was done in Boulder

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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