Race Nutrition for Long Distance Triathlon

Michael Hanreck is a Serpentine long distance success story. In just a few years of racing he has dramatically improved his Ironman racing and has been selected for Hawaii. Part of the reason for this is his dedication to finding out as much as he can about how to train and race through research, practical experience and tapping into the knowledge of some of the world’s best. Here he shares his thoughts on race nutrition.

Race nutrition top tips

Get a clear plan, and 12 weeks out from your race, don’t change it. Your needs will not change and this will give you time to test your strategy. I’ll concentrate on two parts of race nutrition, working out what you need and how to carry it.

What to carry

Bottom line: you need 250 to 500 calories per hour:

Most energy drinks mixed to the recommended 6-8% strength, will provide about 250 calories per litre. This is the amount most lab tests agree you can consume in an hour. Any more are, apparently, not digested. However, many long distance triathletes disagree with the lab test and prefer higher calorie consumption, however, few triathletes consume over 500 calories per hour while cycling. In my world outside of the lab, if I only consume 250 calories an hour, I start to feel tired and low. For me, 400 calories per hour while cycling keeps me full and happy. I know this figure from training and racing with different nutrition strategies. Test what works for you during long rides. It is a simple exercise to check the number of calories of your chosen drink and drink an appropriate amount each hour.

Upset stomach or hunger pangs?

I strongly recommend getting most, if not all, your calories from liquid as solids put additional stress on your gastrointestinal tract. If you get hunger pangs, I recommend using a drink with protein in it. Apart from anything else, it takes energy to chew then break down solid food, liquid is broken down and can be absorbed quicker. I try to race as efficiently as possible and this counts in a long race. An upset stomach is often a sign of inappropriate pacing. Do not blame your nutrition strategy until you have ruled this out.

How to carry it

Rely on nobody and nothing. Self sufficiency keeps everything within your control. So for me targeting a 5 hour bike split I have: 2000 calories in liquid and 5 gels tapped to the top tube. Two bottles at over-strength (1700 calories approx) in the bottle cages. Tip: Aero bottles are great for mixing over-concentrate drink. One bottle at normal strength behind the seat (300 cal.) and one bottle of water. After leaving T1 drink half the bottle of water before mixing with one of the over strength bottles. Drinking should be relaxed and frequent. It is important to get the over-concentrate mixed with water but it is fine for this to happen in your stomach, it does not need to be rushed and messy. Pick up water from aid stations to continue mixing as the race goes on. So you are using the over-concentrate first and your normal strength bottle is your backup i.e. if you miss an aid station use the normal strength bottle or use the normal strength last. Gels are for emergency. You should have to pee twice during the ride, if you do not you are not properly hydrated.

Special Needs stations

The Special Needs station should contain spare drinks bottles and spare flat tire equipment, nothing else. Always check the situation with Special Needs at your race but it should only be used if you have a flat or drop bottles and considered as insurance, not part of your race strategy. Decide under what circumstance you will collect your special needs. For example, if you drop a bottle before Special Needs be clear if you will stop to collect your spares. Or, if you flat and repair it, will you stop to collect spares?


In T2 have gels, Vaseline, and sun cream wrapped in a hat, use elastic bands to hold things together and another band to hold everything in the hat. This allows a quick transition and removes the possibility of forgetting anything. Sort your items into your pockets as you run out transition. Fuel belts should be avoided; they are great for training but feel heavy and tight when racing. Switch to drinking Coke (standard on all IronMan run courses) and mix it with water at some point in the run. If things start going wrong, walk the aid stations; the reduction in stress will help you consume and digest.

Official race drinks

If you notice on the race web site that Michelle Roux is in charge of mixing the official race drink, and he is staking his reputation on perfectly chilled 7.2% isotonic, train with it and use it. Otherwise presume to have no idea what you are drinking and the varied concentration offers nothing but trouble.

Before racing

Pre race eat a low fibre breakfast, I like a couple of croissants with strawberry jam and a banana. This should be finished 3 hours before the race. Drink lots of water until 5 min to the gun, and then switch to a weak energy drink.

Michael Hanreck 2005