Food, Fuel and Hydration - Sprint v Olympic Distance

You swim, then bike, then run. The disciplines and the order are the same, so it’s easy to think that a Sprint and Olympic distance race require the same planning, preparation and practise when it comes to nutrition. However, there are several key differences that can make or break your performance, so we thought it super useful to go over some of these so you can best prepare for the big day!

Good Nutrition

Let’s start with something that is key for both Sprint and Olympic distance athletes - nutrition. Eating the right foods will support your training and help you get fitter faster - but what are the ‘right foods’? Research has constantly shown us that natural, unprocessed foods are what we should all be basing our diet on. Ask the following 3 questions: 1) Does it look natural? 2) Does it come in a packet? This may suggest it’s been processed. 3) Recognisable ingredients? If all the ingredients read like something from a chemistry set, it might be best to stay away.

In addition, eating the most colourful diet possible is another way to be healthy as the nutrients in different natural foods show themselves in a variety of colours. You can’t out-train a bad diet, but a good diet will definitely boost your training!

To carbo-load or not to carbo-load?

Sprint and Olympic distance nutrition can differ when it comes to how you eat in the days leading up to the race. We store readily available energy in our muscles to help us race at a high intensity and carbohydrate foods (basically anything that comes from a grain or has sugar in it) are key in filling the tank. In longer races it pays to fill the energy stores, by eating lots of carbs before the race and this is what is known as carbo-loading. However, shorter events don’t seem to benefit from this.

So, a big question to ask is, ‘how long will my race take?’ If you are likely to take less than 90mins for your race, you don’t need a huge intake of carbs in the days beforehand. Longer than this however and carbo-loading can help. Even the fastest Olympic distance athletes will take around 2hrs, so if that’s your distance, eating slightly more, simple carbs (i.e. white pasta, bread and cereals), a day before the race will help you. However, if you are doing the sprint distance you may take less then 90mins, in which case light meals and snacks that don’t leave you feeling too full are the order of the week.

Race Day Fuel

As highlighted before, for athletes taking less than 90 mins to complete their race (unless you’re superhuman and racing in the Olympic distance) there is often no need to fuel your race. Again, it comes down to that 90min guide; take longer and you might need to fuel, less and you probably don’t. As a rule of thumb, aim to take on a gram of carbohydrate for every minute over 90mins that you’ll be racing (assuming your effort is high enough that you couldn’t speak in full sentences).

Also, spread this out as much as possible, rather than all at once as this is likely to cause stomach issues, especially if you aren’t used to fuelling your body this way. This energy should be simple to digest, but exactly what form it comes in is up to you. Clif Bloks, sweets, gels and energy drinks all work, but so does dried fruit or banana. Sprint distance athletes taking longer than 90mins will also need to follow these guidelines.

Race Day Drink

How much you drink again depends largely on how long you will be racing for and by understanding how much you need, you may be able to save time as you don’t necessarily have to weigh down your bike with litres of fluid. It’s difficult to reach a level of dehydration that will impact performance within an hour, so the fastest sprint athletes may need very little fluid to get through the race. However, a good guide is to drink 300-800mls of fluid per hour depending on weather conditions (if it’s hotter, you’ll sweat more, so need to drink more). Work out how long you’ll be out there and prepare your drinks accordingly.

Drinking more than 800mls isn’t recommended, even for heavy sweaters as your gut is unable to absorb it. Instead, to maximise fluid absorption most athletes should look to include 250-750mg sodium in their 500ml drink and there are lots of commercially available products to make this super simple.

So in summary, how you fuel for your race all comes down to how long you’ll be out there. Over 90mins and nutrition and hydration become more important factors, so pay attention to the guidelines discussed here and test everything you plan to consume on race day in training.

Joel Enoch. Is an award winning triathlon coach for the Hartree JETS, 9-time GB Age-group triathlete and CLIF Bar’s nutritional ambassador in the UK.

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