What I Learned About Eating for My First Long Distance Triathlon

Eat this. Don’t eat that. Eat exactly this every “x” minutes on the race course. Eat carbs. No, wait! Eat high fat. Wait. . .


How is anyone supposed to eat right for a long distance Tri with all this technical, math heavy (and expensive) diet advice!

Answer: Is doesn’t have to be this complicated. At all.

Yes, if you want to PR and make it to Kona or Powerman, you probably need special nutrition to maximize your velocity at every turn. I get that. In fact, here are some good links to Matt Fitzgerald and Dave Scott, each with some interesting views on racing body weight and diet fueling.

But I just wanted to FINISH in 17 hours. That’s it. Make it. Hear Mike Reilly call me an Ironman as I crossed the finish line.

Even after finishing a number of smaller triathlons over the decades and being married to a 14x Ironman finisher, when I see all the diet recommendations out there my head wants to spin. Plus- it takes all the fun out of it.

So, what was I going to do? I admit I was totally jealous reading about the “old days” when some of my heroes of Ironman Tri’s would eat a Snicker’s bar on their long distance training ride. That WAS the nutrition back then. There was no Gatorade, or Cliff anything.

And I got a little fed up with the fancy (read: EXPENSIVE) product driven Tri nutrition world. My training rides were literally costing me $6-8 in specialty fueling. Holy crud. I couldn’t keep that up.

Consider everything below an experiment with an “n=1”. (Personally, I felt the results statistically significant, but that may be because I finished all my Girl Scout cookies and Oreos during the race.)

During training, I started experimenting with the basics.

  • Rule # 1- THIS is the most important walk away for YOU. Figure YOUR body out during training. Eat THAT during the race. Don’t get all experimental the week of the race or, worse, on race day unless you want to risk a DNF* or meeting the nice people in the medical tent.
  • Rule #2– be prepared for Rule #1 to go wrong. Make sure you know what is on the race course that you CAN keep down in an emergency. At least have tried some of them so you know which ones will make you retch and with ones will make your tummy happy.

The Swim!

  • I started by testing with a few calories in fluid about 30-60 minutes before long swim workouts (for me, that means 3,000-4,000 yards). I used ~ 300 calories+ electrolyte blend in a 20 ounce bottle. My testing questions were:
    • Did it stay down?
    • Did I cramp? ( get some more electrolytes next time)
    • Did I throw up? (well, change the timing or doing less).
  • If it worked, I kept it.
    • Also- I used to train with water at the end of the pool, so i could swig at the end of sets. In Phoenix, I get so dehydrated. But remember, there is NO WATER out on the swim course (well, not the kind you want to drink). So I changed my training to mimic race day.
  • Eating on the Bike
    • Totally my favorite!
    • BTW- Girl Scout peanut butter cookies work in Arizona on 100 mile rides in 105 degree temps. (I ate about 2 per/50 miles)
    • Also, during Ironman, 2 double stuffed Oreos and a Diet Coke (Yeah! I did want diet. Don’t judge) at the half way “Special Needs” bags was an emotional GODSEND. Literally sat down to afternoon tea at the aid station and ate these. On the road shoulder. The volunteer teen was eyeing the Oreos.
    • About ~300 calories/ hour- between liquids, chews, cookies over the 60-100 mile training rides. I made sure there were either electrolytes in my drink, or I used salt tabs (see below).
      • NEVER just plain water- you can dangerously lower the salts in your blood and create all kinds of cramps (or worse, seizures).
      • You NEED electrolytes and carbohydrates– I don’t care if it is Gatorade or a fancy sport drink. Make sure you can KEEP IT DOWN and not get bloated.
      • When you get off a long training ride (60-100+ miles), watch for your body response.
        • Are you hydrated?
          • Did you pee clear on the ride (1x/50 miler or 2x/100 miler)?
          • NO? you need more fluids/hour.
        • Did you cramp?
          • Yes? you need to add more electrolytes. Good sources include pretzels, that gross pickle trend, Base Salts, or Salt Stick. 
          • ONE big difference in training for a long course– you WILL need to consider electrolyte replacement.
        • Are you drained? Maybe you needed to eat more next time. Look at the calories you took in and increase them next time. You won’t be able to eat everything you expend. But about ~300-400 calories/per hour was what I could keep down and digest without bloat. Test your own tolerance. You will need to eat some ahead for the run, and some on the run, too.
    • You will NEVER eat enough to make up for the run. 
      • I totally didn’t believe that, because I was doing a “run-walk” thing. Until I tried it. Lessons- don’t go for the bloat or you’ll be at the port-a-potty instead of the finish line.
      • Eat what you can, knowing you need to train to eat some on the run.
  • The RUN! 
    • I can’t speak exclusively to fueling on a run, cause I do a walk-run combination. (See jeffgalloway.com for details or my previous blog post on Wogging.)
    • Oreo cookies fly out of your jersey pocket, be careful. There is a park in San Diego were I may accidentally have made some birds were happy.
    • I carry a small water bottle with me ( I learned I CAN’T drink those cups at the station)
    • I tried for ~ 300 calories/hour, but couldn’t get that in during the race, even though it worked on my training runs.
    • Cliff Blocks work well ( they’re horrible to open, though).
    • Pretzel at the Ironman run stations are great when the stomach is sloshing and you need carbs and salts.

I did finish in under 17 hours. It was a cool day, so I needed less liquid, and was glad I took pretzels on the run. Use every training day to figure out your tummy and your nutrition. It will pay off in the end. 

See you at the finish line!

*DNF= Did Not Finish


  1. Hi Miffie – thank you for the shout out! And well done on simplifying a complicated process; racing nutrition can be daunting, but as you say, it doesn’t have to be. — The SaltStick Team

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