How to approach Ironman eating during race day can be a bit confusing.

This is especially true if you are taking on the Ironman challenge for the first time. Triathletes usually fall into two categories when it comes to Ironman eating during race day. Either they don’t give nearly enough thought to race day nutrition or they obsess about it.

Here are a few important things to always keep in mind when it comes to your eating plan for race day.

  • It’s extremely important to test out different foods during your Ironman training.
  • It’s important to be aware of when to eat on the course, because timing is everything.
  • Don’t make the mistake of purchasing the latest greatest gel or protein bar at the Ironman expo and actually using it in the race.
  • There will be many food choices at the aid stations. Be extra careful what you choose to eat from those stations.

TEST FOOD IN TRAINING

The best time to be testing different food choices is out on those long bike training rides as it’s your nutrition choices during the Ironman 112-mile bike that will play a key role on how your race day goes.

You won’t be eating in the swim and if you do everything right in during the bike you will need very little food in the marathon.

ironman eating during race

Try different foods on long training rides.


When you go on your longer training rides try different foods and concentrate on three different things. Does the food agree with you and not cause any stomach issues. How much energy does it provide you with during the actual session? Do you seem to recover better after eating certain foods?

Also keep in mind that what you eat and what you drink combine to dictate how you feel. So on race day you don’t want to make sure you are using the exact combinations that worked well in training.

WHEN SHOULD YOU EAT?

Timing is everything when it comes to eating during the race. Lets assume that you have topped up your glycogen stores by heating your favorite complex carbohydrates in the days before the race.

The trick in the Ironman, or any endurance race for that matter, is to conserve your glycogen for as long into the race as you can to avoid hitting the dreaded wall.

As your Ironman race progresses the goal is to try and keep refueling as well as you can in order to maintain your stores of glycogen for the late stages of the bike and for the marathon. If you overextend yourself and don’t replace lost glycogen during the 112-mile bike you are pretty much destined to be part of the Ironman Death March.

Some people are eating in the swim/bike transition as soon as they exit the water. For many it’s not a good choice as it can cause stomach issues. This is because you have been in a horizontal position for 2.4 miles and once you stand up and become vertical your body needs some adjustment time.

ironman eating during race

Getting out of transition is not a good time to be eating. Wait about 15 minutes.


If possible wait until you settled on your bike and a bit clear of the crowd before you begin eating….say about 15 minutes.

It’s vitally important to take on complex carbohydrates early on in the bike and to do most of your eating in the first half of the bike course. This will give your body time to digest the food and convert it into long-lasting energy. This is the energy that will propel you through the late stages of the bike and the marathon. Taking on food at the right time is critical to your ironman eating during race day plan.

If you’ve got twenty-five miles to go in the bike there’s really not much benefit in eating a lot of food as the marathon looms. Yet this is exactly what many first time Ironman triathletes do. They know the runs coming up soon so they start eating lots under the assumption that it will fuel their run. Your body simply won’t have time to assimilate it. You should be finished the bulk of your eating long before you get to that point.

You might want to pre-set your watch timer to beep at intervals that will remind you to keep eating and drinking on a regular basis. Say for example every 30-35 minutes in the first half of the bike course. You could eat more often if it suits you but the goal is to keep your food intake constant.

Eating is much like drinking during the Ironman. It’s better to take on manageable smaller amounts often as opposed to eating all your food in the first hour of the bike. If you estimate your bike time to be six hours, then eat at regular intervals up to about the 3:00-3:30 mark of your total bike time….or the 66-75 mile mark. If you’ve done everything right in your Ironman eating during race plan you really shouldn’t have to eat much after that point in the race.

Ideally, it would be perfect if you did the entire marathon without eating at all. That way all you have to worry about is getting your fluid intake right. Chances are, all you’ll need is water at every mile. A mile apart is the standard spacing for Ironman marathon aid stations.

My best ever Ironman marathon time was achieved when I didn’t eat a thing during the run. I ran non-stop from start to finish. That’s difficult to do in the Ironman for age-group athletes and it took about 7 Ironman races before I figured out how to do it. I used exactly the plan I mentioned above.

I took on all my complex carbohydrates in the first half of the bike. I had my best bike split ever, my best Ironman marathon time, and my personal best finish time.

WHAT SHOULD YOU EAT?

Try taking something like three whole wheat bagels with peanut butter and honey. Cut them in half and put them in individual bags so they fit easily in your bike jersey pockets. This was actually my food of choice when I had my best result.

This is just an example of what worked for me as an age-group athletes. I found it provided a good balance of protein, fat, simple carbohydrates, and complex carbohydrates.

Choosing what foods to eat comes down to personal preference, but for longer lasting energy complex carbohydrates should make up the majority of food consumed in the first half of the 112-mile bike. Choosing foods you’re used to eating while exerting yourself in training are an important consideration for Ironman eating during race day.

[bctt tweet=”What and when you eat during the Ironman has a big impact on your race results. via Ironstruck”]

ironman eating race day

Not very aerodynamic

Sometimes when people start running out of energy they will eat everything at the aid stations. Chocolate chip cookies, grapes, cantaloupe, gels, bars, and a host of other foods they have never eaten in training.

They feel like crap and they’re looking for a magic bullet. It’s just not there. They’re running on empty. Actually, they’re more likely to be walking on empty.

Not fueling properly long before the run begins can be a recipe for disaster. Eating the right food at the right time is a crucial component of Ironman eating during race day.

There’s no doubt it’s difficult to come up with foods that are practical to carry with you on the bike. I mean a plate of pasta would be great but the logistics are a bit difficult.

Rice cakes made from brown rice are complex carbohydrates and could be easily carried in your jersey in small plastic bags. To make them a bit more enjoyable you could put peanut butter or sliced banana in between two of them.

Rice cakes with banana were one of Dave Scott’s favorite foods after a hard workout. It’s hard to argue with someone who won Ironman Hawaii six times.

Pretty much all fruits are simple carbohydrates but bananas are the best choice as they are converted into glucose a lot slower than an orange, apple, or berries. Bananas are also an excellent source of potassium. On most ironman bike courses you will be able to get bananas at the aid stations

Always keep this in mind…..simple carbohydrates RUN through your system and Complex Carbohydrates WALK through. This is why complex carbohydrates provide an energy source that lasts over a longer period of time.

However there are times when simple carbs like gels or even a chocolate bar is the only solution. If you get your body so run down that there is no blood supply getting to your muscles, then an instant fix of energy might be the only answer.

That’s the reason they have flat coke at aid stations. Many pro triathletes will take on large quantities of coke because they need that instant sugar boost to get then through the final miles of the race. The thing is, once you start with coke it would be wise to continue taking it at all the aid stations right to the finish of the race.

In his autobiography I’m Here to Win (published by Center Street) McCormack says: “[During an Ironman] your muscles are demanding blood to supply them with oxygen, and your body takes the blood from your digestive tract and shunts it to your quads, calves, and so on. This limits your ability to digest anything complex, which is why you see people throwing up. Simple carbs are the only choice in this situation.

ironman eating race day

Is real food better? Have you considered making your own energy bar? Oats, nuts, dates, are possibilities.


From what McCormack had to say, it makes perfect sense that trying to eat complex carbohydrates late in the race can have a negative effect. Your body is playing catch-up and it’s just too late.
That’s why it’s important to take on complex carbohydrates early in the bike and in doing so, preventing your body from getting into a depleted state.

If you want to experiment with a great power food you can make yourself that has a balance of Complex Carbohydrates, Simple Carbohydrates, Protein and quality Fats, then check out Ironman Triathlon Power Food.

I actually came up with this after my racing days were over. I believe it might just be perfect for the Ironman.

BEWARE THE EXPO

There are some great new products introduced at Ironman expos. There’s not a thing wrong with buying them, but you should be buying them to try in the next years training.

It’s amazing how many triathletes will try something completely new and untested during a race they have trained months or perhaps years for. It’s a very risky thing to do.

There’s no way of knowing if it will even agree with and it could cause digestion problems. You will also have no way of knowing how it will interact with your replacement drink of choice.

The keys to Ironman eating during race day should be given thought. The important thing is to formulate a tried and tested eating plan long before race day.

RELATED: Ironman Death March
RELATED: Complex Carbohydrates

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