In the three-arm ‘gold standard’ non-inferiority design, an experimental treatment, an active reference, and a placebo are compared. This design is becoming increasingly popular, and it is, whenever feasible, recommended for use by regulatory guidelines. We provide a general method to calculate the required sample size for clinical trials performed in this design. As special cases, the situations of continuous, binary, and Poisson distributed outcomes are explored. Taking into account the correlation structure of the involved test statistics, the proposed approach leads to considerable savings in sample size as compared with application of ad hoc methods for all three scale levels. Furthermore, optimal sample size allocation ratios are determined that result in markedly smaller total sample sizes as compared with equal assignment. As optimal allocation makes the active treatment groups larger than the placebo group, implementation of the proposed approach is also desirable from an ethical viewpoint. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.