When you're stumbling around your kitchen at 5 a.m., sometimes it's hard to remember how many grams of carbs per kilogram you need to fuel that early-morning swim (1g carb/1kg body weight one hour before is recommended, in case you forgot). Or, if your evening tempo run is feeling a bit lackluster, maybe the break room doughnuts are to blame.
Don't sweat it, we reached out to our IRONMAN Certified Coaches to bring you the best tips for what to eat before swimming, biking, and running. Besides fitting training in everyday, trying to dial in your nutrition can be one of the most difficult aspects of triathlon training. Each discipline is different and requires different fueling, so read on for expert advice on what works best before you get to work.
Cherry juice & egg whites: Cherry juice and egg whites contain 20 grams of quality carbohydrates, along with 5 grams of lean protein, which is perfect 1-2 hours before a swim session. Tart cherry juice is sold as a concentrate—just mix with 8-12 ounces of water to assist in pre-workout hydration. Tart cherry juice is also an inflammation fighter that is packed with nutrients. This pre-workout meal has less than 1 gram of fat, so digestion should be easy. This snack is also gluten, wheat, peanut, and dairy free and contains no added sugar.
-1 serving tart cherry juice
-2 egg whites
Fruit & yogurt: Greek yogurt is packed with protein and adding a fruit of your choice will add carbs and a little sugar to burn off during your workout. Bananas pair well with yogurt and the potassium will help with your post-workout recovery. Aim to consume this meal 45 to 60 minutes before your swim.
-½ cup Greek yogurt
-1 banana (or ½ cup fruit of your choice)
-¼ cup of granola (optional)
Toast & nut butter: This is the perfect high carb, low fat, and low protein snack to eat 60 minutes before a morning swim session. Organic whole grain bread and almond butter are always a yummy choice, but with the variety of nut butters on the market, you might opt to try something new like cashew or sunflower seed butter.
-1 piece of organic toast
-1-2 tablespoons of nut butter
-1 sliced banana and ½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
Gatorade Endurance Formula: On days when you don't have a lot of time (i.e: 30 minutes or less) to digest food before a swim workout, stick to fueling with a high-quality sports drink that contains carbs and electrolytes like Gatorade Endurance Formula. The liquid carbs will give you the fuel supply needed to get through a workout and enter the bloodstream quickly to allow for faster absorption, while the electrolytes will keep you from cramping.
-12 ounces of Gatorade Endurance Formula
Banana & nut butter: Eat this before cycling because it contains 30 grams of quality carbohydrates, as well as a small amount of protein. This small amount of protein along with 10 grams of healthy fat will keep you energized for a longer workout. Make sure to limit the almond or sunflower butter to a 2 tablespoon serving. Consuming this snack roughly 60 minutes before a cycling workout will go a long way toward stabilizing your energy over the first few hours of your ride. This snack is also gluten, wheat, peanut, and dairy free and contains no added sugar.
-1 serving of almond or sunflower seed butter
Breakfast smoothie: An hour before a moderate bike session, blend fruit, protein powder, and milk together for a quick and easy meal. Fueling with a smoothie never gets old because of the variety of combinations you can put together.
-1 cup of fruit of your choice (Tip: freeze the fruit before blending and you won't need ice)
-1 scoop protein powder (try IRONMAN Endurance Optimized Protein)
-1 cup of milk
-¼ cup raw oats (for extra carbs)
-1-2 tablespoons figs or dates (for added sweetness)
Protein oatmeal: Oats with protein powder is the perfect pre-workout meal. Oatmeal with protein powder plus half an avocado and a dash of honey mixed in will give you both short and long-term energy to power through your workout. Two hours prior to a long bike ride is the best time to consume this meal.
-½ cup of oats (cooked)
-1 scoop of protein powder
-½ avocado (optional)
-1 teaspoon honey (optional)
Scrambled eggs & English muffin: If you have 90 minutes to two hours, make yourself a plate of scrambled eggs and toast an English muffin. Not a fan of the nooks and crannies? You can substitute the muffin for toast or a tortilla. The carbs in this meal are key for shorter and/or more intense workouts.
-1-2 eggs scrambled
-1 English muffin toasted
-Substitute muffin for toast or tortilla (optional)
CLIF Bar: For runs lasting 60-90 minutes, fuel up an hour before with an energy bar and be sure to drink 8-16 ounces of water pre-workout to rehydrate and wake up the digestive track. For short, easy runs, consuming an energy gel is sufficient. Remember to only use caffeinated energy gels if your body is accustomed to caffeine.
-1 energy bar with about 50g carbs, 5-10g protein, and less than 5g fiber. (Our pick: Oatmeal Raisin Walnut CLIF Bar)
-1 energy gel (Our pick: Vanilla CLIF Shot Energy Gel)
Avocado toast: If you have 30 to 60 minutes before a run, simply mash about ¼ of an avocado onto a slice of brown rice bread. (The rest of the avocado can be used for a meal later in the day.) Brown rice is a great carbohydrate energy source and is far superior to wheat based products for nutrient quality and digestibility. Avocados are also known for their quality nutrients and fat. This snack contains close to 30 grams of carbohydrates, 7 grams of fat, and about 4 grams of protein, and is easy to digest besides being gluten, wheat, peanut, and dairy free.
-1 slice brown rice bread
-1/4 of an avocado
-12 ounces of water
Sweet potato: With more time to digest pre-workout fuel (90 minutes - 2 hours), we can increase the carb load slightly and add in a small amount of fat and protein to help sustain energy levels.
-1 small sweet potato cooked
-Toppings of your choice (as long as your stomach can handle it) cinnamon, butter, scallions, Greek yogurt, cheese to name a few.
-12 oz water
Coconut banana bar: This recipe combines key ingredients for optimal performance and can be eaten just 30 minutes before a moderate run. The coconut adds essential fats that can be broken down easily by the body during exercise and used for "high-octane fuel." The dates provide quick-release energy and are well digested while running. The banana and sea salt combination add the perfect dose of electrolytes for a complete pre-training snack.
Simply mix the oats and coconut in a bowl and puree the rest of the ingredients in a food processor or blender. Combine all ingredients and press mixture into a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Place in the refrigerator for two hours and enjoy before your next long run.
-2 cups raw oats
-½ cup dried coconut
-½ cup pitted dates, chopped
-¼ cup melted coconut oil
-¼ cup maple syrup
-1 mashed banana
-1 teaspoon cinnamon
-1 teaspoon vanilla
→ Avoid excess spice, fiber, and super-sugary foods right before your workout.
→ If you can't eat a couple of hours before a workout, still take in some fuel even if it's 30 minutes before. This is where a simple banana, energy bar, or sports drink comes in handy.
→ Rule of thumb: eat one hour before exercise: 1g carb/1kg body weight.
→ Eat as much "real food" as possible.
→ Know the demands of your workout as it will often dictate your pre-workout fuel.
→ Never start on an empty stomach.
→ Experiment with what works for you. Just because a professional triathlete has a certain pre-workout meal ritual doesn't mean it will work for you.
Thank you to our IRONMAN Certified Coaches who contributed to this article: Phil Jarvis, Susan Kitchen, Carrie Barrett, Ryan L. Ross and Jason Lentzke. This article originally appeared on Ironman.com.