Fueling for Endurance

fueling for

triathlon / swimming / cross country / track and field 


Training and race fueling is as individualistic as the physical training that accompanies it. I always advised my athletes to test or try new things at workouts before ever doing it before a race. I would however stress that as long as you are eating a balanced and moderate diet there is no magic meal for pre race.  My thoughts have always been, “the less the better”. For Swimming, Cross Country and Track & Field events the warm-up takes more calories / nutrients than the actual event. If you have been fueling properly on a regular basis the emptier the stomach the better.

With endurance events you have to teach your body to burn fat in your training program. 70.3 and Ironman races are all about burning fat. If you are always eating on the bike and drinking and using gels at the pool your body will never learn or be stressed enough to make fat metabolism the primary fuel source. 

Everyone is different and everyone responds to training stimulus’s differently, so there is no blanket method. I had not really competed in almost 20 years. But my training lifestyle has held on to the fat metabolism gains from long ago. That was a process that was started as a competitive swimmer from age 8 to 21. The last 4 years having regularly topped 10-12,000 yards a day. We never drank or ate a thing during those workouts. Over time your body learns how to mix a majority of fats with glucose in order to maintain higher blood glucose levels. Hitting the wall in training is not a bad thing. In order to make adaptations and get positive gains you need to stress the metabolic system.  You want to hit the wall in your training at some point…..

For me, my pre-race meals were determined long ago. ½ cup of coffee and either a ½ bagel or ½ pop tart. Is this right for everybody? NO WAY. As a Collegiate swimmer it was total liquid (called Nutrament at the time now similar to Ensure) But it worked for me. Also, at our Conference and NCAA meets we used a liquid called glucola or hycal for 3 days, no solid food. The lighter the better.

2 weeks ago I did Kansas 70.3. I got up at 2:30AM. ( I like to get up real early to trick my body into thinking the competition is later in the day rather than early in the morning) Did a 10 minute shakeout run then I ate my usual pre race meal at 2:45 AM. I ate and drank nothing between then and my warm-up at 6:10 with the swim start for me at 6:40AM. The water was choppy enough so that I was drinking pond water during the swim. (BIG HINT- never choke on water during the swim – swallow it immediately – the gag reflex will cause all types of misery) During the bike I consumed 28 ounces of Skratch Labs fluid replacement and 3 Vi gels. At the start of the run (mile 1) I took my last gel. Then from the mile 3 to 11 mile aid station I drank a total of about 8 ounces of coke and 8 ounces of water, put ice in my hat at each of those aid stations (1 ounce of each at each aid station). Did I run out of fuel? Become dehydrated? Slow down? NO. I did begin to run slower at 6.5 miles knowing I had a 10 minute lead in my age group and the fact that I had not run more than 10 miles in almost 5 years, I was playing it safe. But again what works for me is not right for everyone else. My point is if you want your body to be more fat metabolism efficient you have to make it learn to burn fat. Training rides for me of 40 miles and less I never even take a water bottle. At 60 miles I will usually take and finish a bottle and 1 gel.

For short intense races (Olympic and shorter) I would encourage to keep fueling as liquid as possible since at those work outputs (Intensity) the stomach really shuts down and all you are doing is adding stuff in there that is not going to benefit you in the least and at worst it will cause problems.

However, post workout fueling and rehydrating is a MUST within 30-60 minutes of your long and/or hard interval workout and races. Recovery for the next workout begins immediately after the last workout is finished.

Ed Burke wrote an article in the late 80’s promoting this fact along with telling you that the replacement should be 4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein. At the time they produced Endurox (which I still think is the best recovery drink on the market- although I do believe there are some ingredients that are on the NCAA ban list). But he also gave a grocery store list of items that you could consume that was similar but easier and less expensive to purchase. Of course he stressed that the more liquid the better for faster absorbtion. Lo and behold he told us in that article that low fat chocolate milk and pop tarts were a great post workout replacement. Because of this I had encouraged my swimmers, runners and track athletes since the late 80’s to use this to recover the quickest. Every athlete is an experiment of one. Don’t follow anyone else. Find out what works best for you. And then continue to refine and develop that, whether it is your training methods or nutritional practices.