Many times I have gone into Ironman races (I have done 16) with great fitness, only to be done in by a poor race day plan. Sometimes I would get caught up in the race and have too much intensity, other times I would take on too many calories and sometimes just the opposite, not enough. My experience has taught me that each race is different just like each person is unique and in reality we are an experiment of one.
As an endurance athlete, nutrition plays a key role with your everyday fitness and this is especially true at long distance events. Training and racing more than three hours requires an athlete to conquer an additional obstacle, nutrition. The natural progression for a new triathlete is to start with sprint and olympic distance races and after a few years of experience, move up to half or longer events. Along with increasing training volume, an athlete will also need to develop a nutrition plan. Deciding what works best for you is often a trial and error experience that needs to be tested in training and then executed on race day. What works for you may not work for another person. More maddening is that what once worked for you, may not work the next time you try to replicate it. Even a small change to your nutrition plan can potentially have a dramatic effect on your finish.
The common thought for fueling your race performance is to intake between 250-350 calories per hour (solid or liquid). This is dependent on a person's body size, intensity of the event and weather. It should be noted that solids require more liquid to digest and this is one reason why some athletes prefer to rely on sports drinks or gels and pass on solid food. In my early days of racing, Pedialyte, baby food and honey were common fuel for long distance racing. Of course over time endurance training and science have progressed to a point that testing can determine exactly a person’s nutritional requirements for an event and several companies have developed plans specifically for an athlete’s needs whether they are a professional or novice. However, don’t be afraid to develop your own nutrition plan by what foods work for you.
As a competitor of 30 plus half ironman distance races, I have only had a few instances of poor nutrition that affected my race performance. Racing under 5 hours doesn’t require continual fueling and refueling so poor nutrition isn’t as reflective in your finishing time. Additionally, when you are racing at shorter distances they don’t usually include extensive periods of walking like at an Ironman event and this can dramatically affect your ironman time. If you have to walk a combination of four miles over the 26.2 marathon, a racer will add about one hour to their finishing time. By managing your fuel intake, you will hopefully be able to have enough energy to finish the final leg with a steady pace. You can often get by with just a few gels and bottles of a sport drink on the bike plus water on the run at each aid station and you should be fine. When you have decided to take on the ironman distance, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t will take time to figure out. Nine times I raced in Hawaii and all but the first time (I was very naive) did nutrition play a major factor in my finish. One memorable time, I was walking up “Pay and Save Hill” about mile 9 of the old course and a spectator kiddingly offered me a burrito (Taco Bell was on the corner) and I took it. I know outside assistance is not allowed but I was totally bonking. Since it was 1991 I am way over the statute of limitations so I freely provide this as a fueling strategy if you are fortunate enough to get to Kona. As I walked up the rest of hill, I consumed the bean burrito along with a cup of Coke and by the time I got to the top I was ready to run again. Sometimes any calories that you can consume will help when you are on the brink of falling apart.
The real issue for race day fueling comes down to processing the calories that you take in compared to how many calories you burn per hour. For most people, they are only capable of digesting about 250-350 calories. Therefore the problem of burning more calories than you can consume puts an athlete in crisis mode after a few hours of intense racing. This is especially true the longer the race distance and the more extreme the weather conditions. Heat and humidity create a bigger obstacle than your competition because it is even more difficult to process calories when your body is trying to cool itself through perspiration and blood flow. Both of these functions take away water that would normally be used to digest your fuel intake.
It can be helpful to use foods that you are comfortable with and have been using on a continual basis for training. If you have not been using sports drinks or gels then ensure to train with them before implementing something different on race day. Consider using 1-2 gels per hour along with a sports drink (12-16 ounces) for middle to long distance races. It doesn’t mean that a candy bar taped to your seat post won’t work because pictures will confirm that the best women’s long distance triathlete ever relied on a Pay Day and Snickers Bar during her 112 mile ride on the Queen K. Additional calories can be taken in by liquid or a PowerBar type of solid nutrition. PB&J works wonders too. However, don’t overdo a good thing. Consuming too many calories in too short of period can result in an upset stomach, and a shutdown of your digestive system. If you have been exclusively using sugar products then you can also have a shutdown of processing these calories. If you then are unable to take in any calories because you don’t feel well, you will soon find yourself in a difficult struggle to continue racing. Another issue with racing longer events is that you may just get tired of eating. If this happens and you go off your nutrition plan, you may not be able to recover from it quickly. It will take a good 20-30 minutes once you take in something for it to make a noticeable difference.
Your long distance race day nutrition plan should start days before the event. Make sure to eat responsibly and take in liquids. However, I personally think that drinking too much water days before a race can be a detriment to your performance because it flushes sodium from your body. This can prove vital on a hot and humid day. On race morning consider taking in 500-700 calories several hours before the start. If you are able, have another 100-150 calories (a gel works well) about 30 minutes before the start of the race. Once you are out of the water and on your bike leg start taking in calories about 20 minutes into your ride. This allows for your blood to transfer from your upper body from swimming to your lower body for cycling. About every 15 to 30 minutes you will want to intake 50-75 calories all the way up to the last miles of the bike. For the Ironman distance, even at the 100 mile mark you still have 30-45 more minutes remaining before you start your run so it is vital to top off your fuel because it is much easier to take calories on the bike than the run.
Most often you will only take a few gels for the entire run plus what is on the course for liquid and food sources. Salty items like chips and pretzels are offered at most IM courses and can be a way to add sodium into your plan but do require water so plan accordingly. Sometimes fruit is another favorite food and its water and sugar content proves to be very helpful in refueling. One of the most difficult parts of long racing is to balance the food consumption with digestion. Too much means bloating and stomach distress...you get the picture. Practice makes perfect but it is not easy to practice (simulate) a 5-10 hour or more day of racing and have it ever go the same.
Best of luck with your experience of one.
Doug Marocco is a 9-time Hawaii Ironman finisher with a IM PR of 9:23:04, USAT Age Group and 4X Military Triathlon National Champion.