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The Importance of Carbohydrate for Triathletes - 52 Weeks to Mont Tremblant - Week 29

This is the third article in a five week series where we discuss proper nutrition for triathletes. The week focuses on the importance of carbohydrate in the endurance athlete’s diet. Moving forward we’ll explain the importance of protein as well as share strategies to calculate your daily caloric expenditure and the proper macronutrient breakdown to improve your athletic performance.


Each macronutrient (fat, carbohydrate, protein) plays an important role in health and performance. For example, different carbohydrate will affect energy and performance depending on nutrient timing and type of carbohydrate a triathlete eats. Fats are the most calorically dense macronutrient and if over consumed can negatively affect body composition. Protein during and after workouts, for example, will be used for energy and repair, respectively.

Body composition, current health, and athletic goals will play a key role in determining the best macronutrient manipulation for a specific athlete. For example, a body builder will require more protein and fewer carbohydrates than a long-distance triathlete. Additionally, different body types (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph) utilize the macronutrients in different ways. Ectomorphs have a higher carbohydrate tolerance than endomorphs who generally store excess calories as fat more easily. Mesomorphs have a tendency to build muscle easier than the other two body types. Of course, different health attributes of the individual athlete will play a role in macronutrient protocols as well. If an athlete is deficient in one area, it may require a particular focus on a specific macronutrient until the deficiency is remedied. 

The importance of carbohydrate

For carbohydrates, generally athletes should consume 6 to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Athletes logging lower training hours should be closer to the lower end of that range, and those training longer durations will be more towards the higher end. 

Given the need for adequate carbohydrate intake, it should make up 60% of the total daily calories. Carbohydrate (and protein) contains 4 calories per gram. So, to arrive at the daily caloric needs for carbohydrate and then reverse further out into grams needed per day, multiply daily calories by .6 to arrive at calories from carbohydrate and then divide that by four. 

How much carbohydrate do I need?

This is the recommended targets for myself using the calorie totals I determined. I’ll explain how you can do that for yourself in an upcoming article.

Training days: 2,055 calories worth of carbohydrate, which is 514g

Competition days: 2,840 calories, 709g

Recovery days: 1852 calories, 463g 

What should I eat?

I focus on consuming this amount of carbohydrates through potatoes, rice (brown and white), beans, fruits, vegetables, and dietary supplements pre-, intra-, and post-workout. Those supplements will include energy gels which contain a mix of glucose and fructose, and a dextrose carbohydrate powder for post-workout recovery. 

Because of the increased carbohydrate intake in relation to fats and protein, each meal should contain a fair amount of carbohydrate. The timing of carbohydrate intake as well as the type of carbohydrate matters too. For example, it’s my recommendation that complex carbohydrates be consumed at meal time and leave the simple carbohydrates for in and around a workout. An example of this would be to have a high protein and carbohydrate shake 2-3 hours ahead of a session, roughly 30g protein and 80g of fast digesting carbohydrates. During the workout, taking in around 100-125g of carbohydrate to fuel a quality session is ideal. Then post workout, another shake with 20g of protein and 70-80g of fast absorbing carbohydrate. This is important to help start the recovery process as quickly as possible which is why simple carbohydrate is more advantageous in and around workouts.

Outside of workouts, carbohydrates will come from fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and rice as mentioned earlier.

Courtesy: Precision Nutrition

Courtesy: Precision Nutrition

As we continue to dive into proper nutrition for training and racing, we’ll cover a variety of topics. Next week we’ll focus on protein, how much we should be consuming, how to calculate that, plus the best protein sources to build muscle, burn fat, and maximize recovery.