Race-Day Carb-Loading for Triathletes
Peak Performance Lite
Issue number: 268 September 5, 2016

Hi Coach,

A question commonly asked by triathletes however is "What's the best way to time my carbohydrate drink intake?" Part of this is dictated by logistics. You can't consume drinks or gels during the swim leg, and if you've properly carbohydrate loaded before your race, you shouldn't need to! This leaves the bike and run legs to think about and here there are different approaches.

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One strategy is to drink regularly through both the cycle and run leg to spread out the drink volume and provide additional energy right up to the final stages of the run. An alternative approach is to take advantage of the seated and relatively steady position on the bike to try and consume extra fluid/carbohydrate, to help "get you through" the run. Some triathletes prefer this method because it's even harder to consume the recommended volume (at least a litre per hour) of energy drink while running than on the bike!

Providing answers

To help answer this conundrum, a British study on Olympic distance triathlon performance provides some useful insight(1). This study looked the effect of ingesting a relatively concentrated solution of carbohydrate (a 2:1 glucose/fructose solution - one of the new breed of so-called "2:1" carbohydrate drinks) during the cycle leg only of a simulated Olympic distance triathlon - i.e. the second approach as described above.

Six male and four female amateur triathletes completed two simulated Olympic distance triathlons. In both trials, the swim and cycle legs were of fixed intensities. However, the run leg was completed as a time-trial. Two minutes prior to completing every quarter of the cycle leg, the triathletes consumed 200mls of either:

  • A 14.4% solution of 2:1 carbohydrate drink (i.e. over twice the normal concentration), which provided them with 72g of carbohydrate per hour, or;
  • A sugar-free fruit-flavoured drink (placebo).

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the triathletes ran the 10km significantly faster when they consumed the drink on the bike. Importantly however, drinking the "double strength" carbohydrate solution on the bike caused no reported gastric distress during the run leg. This suggests that a good way to top up carbohydrate before the run leg is to drink a smaller volume of a much more concentrated drink while on the bike.

These findings tie in neatly with some US research on how the timing of fluid (water only) intake during the cycling leg affected subsequent running performance in highly-trained triathletes(2). In this study, drinking 177mls of water at each of 8, 16, 24, and 32 kilometres into the bike leg produced significantly better running performance than when the same volume of water was consumed at 10, 20, 30, and 40 kilometres into the ride. What this study seemed to suggest is that drinking plenty early while on the bike might actually be better than trying to gulp down gallons in the final stages of the bike leg or during the bike-run transition!

Applying theory

If you've got an Olympic distance triathlon event coming up, how can you use this information to your advantage? Here are some tips:

  • Drink early and drink often on the bike - it may help get you through your 10km run more easily than drinking later on the bike or during the run.
  • If you struggle to consume the recommended 1 to 1.3 litres or more of 6% carbohydrate solution per hour on the bike, try mixing up a double strength solution and aim to consume a smaller volume (600mls per hour), or replace some of your drink with gels.
  • Related to the above, use "2 to 1" drinks and gels, which are more rapidly absorbed than glucose-only products.
  • Regardless of your feeding strategy, ensure you arrive at the race start line fully hydrated and carbohydrate loaded.
  • Never experiment with feeding strategies on the big day itself - always test them out first in training and make sure they really work for you!

Yours in fitness,

Andrew Hamilton signature

Andrew Hamilton,
Editor, Peak Performance Lite

1. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012, 37(4): 664-671
2. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006 Dec;16(6):611-9

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About Andrew Hamilton
I am the editor of Peak Performance Lite and commissioning editor of and contributor for Peak Performance.

I am a sports science writer and researcher, specialising in sports nutrition and I've worked in the field of fitness and sports performance for over 30 years, helping athletes to reach their true potential. I am also a lifelong endurance athlete myself.

Andrew Hamilton
Andrew Hamilton
I'm dedicated to helping you improve your performance by unravelling the latest sports science and translating it into plain English and by giving you practical training recommendations that you can start using straight away.

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