All About Carbohydrates for Triathlon Training, Performance and Recovery

People have strong feelings about carbohydrates, despite the fact it is essential for the human diet. Carbohydrates can have both positive and negative effects on health, performance, and recovery, depending on when, why, and how much they are consumed.

Carbs are an essential fuel for performance and recovery for endurance athletes. It’s important to understand how carbohydrate intake affects sports nutrition to optimize performance. Here’s a guide to adjusting your carbohydrate intake before, during, and after training, as well as in your everyday diet.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found in a wide array of both healthy and unhealthy foods—bread, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, cookies, spaghetti, soft drinks, and corn. They also come in a variety of forms. The most common and abundant forms are sugars, fibres, and starches.

  • Bread, grains, and pasta.
  • Nuts and Legumes.
  • Starchy Vegetables.
  • Milk and yoghurts.
  • Fruits.
  • Snack Foods.
  • Sauces and condiments.



Carbohydrate is one of three macronutrients that humans rely on for energy intake, along with fat and protein. Monosaccharides are the simplest form of sugar and are the building blocks for more complex carbohydrates. The three monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and galactose. Different types of sugar can be combined to form different types of disaccharides. For example, maltose is formed from two glucose molecules, sucrose is formed from one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule, and lactose is formed from one glucose molecule and one galactose molecule. All forms of sugar are eventually broken down to glucose and then oxidized in mitochondria to provide energy for working muscles. Glycogen is a chain of glucose molecules that are stored in muscles and the liver.

Carbohydrates: The Body’s Fuel Supply for Cycling

Even though we have a lot of energy available in fat, we still need carbs in our diet. What about low-carb training? In short, carbohydrates are easier and faster for the body to use for energy than fat. Carbs are king because they are stored in modest amounts. No professional cyclist in the bunch performs without having a lot of carbohydrates on board.

Marc Fell, a sports nutritionist at Liverpool John Moores University, explains the interaction between carbs and fats for fuel: “At low intensity, you don’t need a lot of carbs. But carbohydrate is a more efficient fuel than fat. The average cyclist’s body begins to metabolize carbohydrates instead of fat at around 70 to 75 per cent of their VO2 max. This is not an on/off switch, but more like a dimmer switch, where the harder the cyclist works, the more their body turns towards carbohydrates as its main fuel source.

If you are working above your FTP (Functional Threshold Power which is around 85 per cent of your VO2 max), you are almost exclusively burning carbohydrates. The body finds it easier to extract energy from simpler carbohydrates than complex ones when demand is high. Why do the pros prefer gels to cheese sandwiches in races? At lower intensities, a cheese Sandwich might be a better choice than energy gels.

The key to maintaining energy levels is to match the amount of energy being consumed with the amount of energy being expended. The amount of energy needed for training and racing will depend on the goal of the session, the intensity, and the duration.

Since each training session has unique fuel demands, it makes sense to tailor your fueling plan accordingly, which is the idea behind the mantra ‘fueling for the work required’ – we discuss how best to go about matching what you eat to your training here.

The main idea behind fueling is homeostasis – the human body’s preference for stability. We often create a training deficit when we try to upset the balance. We need to refuel and rehydrate as closely as possible to our training to optimize performance. When we do not take in enough fuel or water, we put extra stress on the body, making it go into ‘protect and conserve’ mode. Even if you are trying to lose weight by cycling, you should still eat enough to fuel your training and racing.

Carbohydrate Availability Training

Some athletes and coaches will change their carbohydrate intake to target how their body uses energy during training. Two of the more popular methods to train with limited carbohydrate stores are “Train Low” and “Sleep High, Train Low.” The goal is to start rides when your glycogen stores are running low to prioritize burning fat. To learn more about how to cycle using Train Low methods.

At the other end of the spectrum, athletes should focus on having a lot of carbohydrates available before interval workouts. The training zones that you should focus on include moderate-intensity aerobic intervals like Tempo and Sweetspot Tempo, as well as high-intensity intervals that are above your lactate threshold. The amount of carbohydrates you consume affects how well you’ll do in these workouts because being able to reach and maintain specific power outputs is key to success.

Pre-Ride Carbohydrate Intake

Cyclists who want to perform well should start their workouts with plenty of glycogen in their muscles and normal blood sugar levels. In other words, you want carbohydrates on board. It is especially important to warm up before moderate-intensity endurance rides, moderate/hard group rides, and high-intensity interval workouts and races.

How full your glycogen stores are at the start of a workout depends on your daily nutrition strategy, as it can take up to 24 hours to replenish glycogen in muscles. The purpose of eating carbohydrates before a ride is to either fill up glycogen stores or raise blood sugar levels.

Eat 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight for each hour before training/racing, up to a maximum of 4 hours or 4 g/kg. This means that you should consume 4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight 4 hours before your event, and then reduce your intake to 1 gram per kilogram of body weight an hour or less before the start.

The number of carbohydrates you eat should be reduced as your workout approaches. You should also eat simpler carbohydrates. Meals that contain complex carbohydrates, fat, protein, and fibre take 2-4 hours to digest. As the workout approaches, prioritize simpler carbohydrates. Before training, have a snack that is mostly carbs 60 minutes beforehand.

Carbohydrate Intake During Rides

It has been shown that consuming carbohydrates while riding can improve your power output, as well as delay the depletion of glycogen. This in turn provides you with the fuel you need for high-intensity efforts later on in the ride. Shorter rides that last around 75 minutes can be fueled by glycogen stored in the body. Some research indicates that rinsing your mouth with a carbohydrate solution can improve your performance during short, high-intensity workouts. Athletes should start consuming carbohydrates 15-20 minutes into a ride and continue consuming them until the end of the session if the ride is longer than 75 minutes.

How many carbohydrates cyclists should consume per hour varies depending on how intense the workout is. The standard sports nutrition recommendation of 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of aerobic exercise is based on the fact that most people can only absorb about 1 gram of carbohydrate per minute.

Athletes can improve their absorption of carbohydrates by consuming a mixture of sugars and undergoing training. Doing so can help them to absorb up to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. According to recent research, a person could consume up to 120 g/hr without any negative effects.

Although you can consume more food, it isn’t necessary to do so. Most cyclists perform best when they consume carbohydrate calories that make up 20-30% of their hourly energy expenditure. At an endurance intensity of 600 Calories per hour, you should consume 120-180 food Calories of carbohydrates per hour. This means that if you want to consume between 120 and 180 calories from carbs, you would need to eat between 30 and 45 grams of carbs.

Carbohydrate Intake After Rides

Ingesting carbohydrates after a ride helps your body recover by quickly replenishing the muscles’ glycogen stores. When the rest interval between training sessions or competitions is shorter than 24 hours, it is most important to maximize the rate of glycogen replenishment. In cases where athletes are trying to improve their performance, they benefit from recovery drinks that contain carbohydrates and some protein. It is less important to have an exact percentage of carbohydrates to proteins in recovery drinks than it is to have more carbohydrates than proteins.

Reactive glycogen replenishment strategies are more necessary when athletes have at most 24 hours of recovery time. The 60-minute post-workout “glycogen window” is not useless. The glycogen window is an opportunity to restore glycogen to its fullest. If you miss the window, it’s not the end of the world. You can Replenish your glycogen levels by eating the right foods.

If you train 3-5 times a week for 6-10 hours, you should eat a balanced meal with carbs, fat, and protein within an hour of your training session. It is a good idea to have a carbohydrate-rich recovery drink after a long or strenuous bike ride, and then to have a meal within about an hour.

Post Recovery Food: When and What to Eat After You’ve Ridden

The best time to refuel after a ride is within the first 20 minutes. This is when nutrients are taken up more efficiently and transported to the muscle stores. Eating a meal with lots of carbohydrates after cycling will help your body’s energy stores refill faster, which will affect how much energy you have available for your next ride.

Eating 1 gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight is the ideal way to refuel, so a 70kg cyclist should eat 70 grams of carbs. This combination of protein and carbohydrates has been shown to reduce the likelihood of getting injured, help with muscle recovery, and reduce muscle soreness. It has also been shown to speed up carbohydrate muscle refuelling.

There are a few options that would work well as a post-workout meal. A milk-based drink, a whey or soy protein-enriched smoothie, a jacket potato with beans, or a specialized recovery drink are all good choices. Some specialized formulas contain ingredients like glutamine and colostrum, which are two proteins that can provide extra immune support after strenuous training sessions or races.

Caffeine: Good or Bad?

Some people avoid caffeine and others use it for its performance-supporting effects. If you’re a fan, you’ll find most sports physiologists are with you with studies showing that three to six milligrams (mg) of caffeine per kilo of body weight can result in enhanced performance, increased power output and improved mental focus, with larger doses generally offering no additional benefit.

For example, a 60kg cyclist would take between 180-360mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent of two or three cups of coffee.

Interestingly, it appears that caffeine’s effects are negated by heat, with studies in hotter climates showing no benefit. The reason for this may be that fatigue is caused by thermoregulation in these conditions, not by fuel supply.

If you want to try taking a caffeinated drink or gel during a race, it’s a good idea to try it out during training first. However, it’s not for everyone. If you have high blood pressure or a heart condition, you should not drink caffeine, and if you are taking any medication, you should check with your doctor before drinking caffeine.

Good Vs. Bad Fats

The kind of fat you select is very important for your health, how well you do, and keeping the same weight. Fats are grouped into ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. Some good fats to incorporate into your diet are polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats) as well as monounsaturated fats (Omega 9 fats).

You should limit the amount of saturated fat you eat from things like meat and processed foods. However, you need Omega 3 and 6 fats for good health, and you can find them in things like nuts, seeds, fish, and oils like flaxseed, borage, and starflower oil.

The benefits of these fats also include reducing inflammation in the body, which is great for those with asthma and allergies. They also stimulate metabolism, which can help with weight loss.

Good fats can help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and improve heart health. A good rule of thumb is to consume around 20 grams of healthy fat each day to support your health without adding too many extra calories from fat to your diet.

What is Starflower Oil?

Also known as borage oil, starflower oil is pressed from the seeds of the Starflower plant and is a rich source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid. GLA has several health benefits for both men and women, including heart function, skin appearance and vision.

Ketogenic and Low-Carb Diets for Endurance Athletes

The popularity of low carbohydrate diets among the general population has grown due to claims of weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, and various other health benefits. This article does not discuss low-carb diets in-depth, but we do not recommend them for endurance athletes.

Some athletes find that they can improve their performance and lose weight by following a ketogenic or low-carb diet. Because they started with room for improvement, they have been able to make a lot of progress. If the training had been better or the calorie restriction had been less extreme, the improvements would have been just as great.

Even though some athletes might think that a ketogenic or low-carb lifestyle would help them perform better in the long term, most athletes would actually lose opportunities to maximize their performance if they adopted those lifestyles. Even though the article is written for ultrarunners, the same concept applies to cyclists.

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