A good nutrition plan is essential for long distance events like Ironman as it is not possible to complete the event without taking on carbohydrates and electrolytes. In sprint and Olympic distance events it is possible to perform optimally by taking on limited sports drink on the bike and water on the run, not so when competing for 9 to 17 hours.
So what does an athlete need to consider when building a nutrition plan? Your plan is best built during your training period, start with a baseline plan, continually improving based on what is working, or not, in your longer sessions.
Fructose forms the foundation of race fuel and fructose is sweet, if you don’t like sweet, well then you may need to learn endure it.
Race nutrition is not complicated, and is purely meeting carbohydrate, electrolyte and water needs. In training there is a strong focus on aiding recovery, however on race day recovery supplements like protein and amino acids will provide limited gains. Trying to cater for non essential supplements can create risk through complexity.
Given the points discussed in this Nutrition post, getting the correct balance between water, carbohydrates and electrolytes is a key part of performing well, some referring to nutrition as the forth discipline in triathlon. It could also be said that fuels in the form of solids are about personal preference. It is safe to say taking on carbohydrates in a drink form is more easily ingested in the liquid form.
The following are the 5 key nutrition phases in a race which need to be designed and tested in training:
- Pre race nutrition starting 2:30 before race start.
- Post swim nutrition, including the first 30 minutes on the bike
- Bike nutrition, where most carbohydrates are consumed.
- Run nutrition.
- Run – Later stages.
Sports nutrition manufacturers frequently tout “magic” supplements and ratios. It is true that performance improvements can be found in advanced fuels, however, it is essential to train with your race nutrition. It is worth noting that you will need to carry your specialty nutrition, rather than taking course supplied fuels. If you calculate the gains of the specialist nutrition out weighs the risks and the stops to pick up special needs bag, go for it.
It is also important to consider taste, but don’t get hung up on it. Remember, fructose forms the foundation of race fuel and fructose is sweet, if you don’t like sweet, well then you may need to learn endure it.
Base Nutrition Plan
The following base nutrition plan is a good starting point which can be built on during training through trial and error. This plan is based on liquids only, following the principles of 0.9grams of carbohydrates per hour per kilogram in weight, 6 to 8% carbohydrates to water on the bike. When you work it out, that’s around a litre of fluids an hour for the average weight athlete. Your system will find ways of dealing with this volume, losing water through sweat on hot days, on cooler days you will need to lose more through urinating. Taking on this amount of fluid needs to be practiced in training, most new to the long forms of the sport battle to adjust to this.
Nailing the correct ratios of carbohydrates to water and taking on sufficient electrolytes while on the bike is essential to a good performance in the rest of your race.
- Pre race nutrition – Sports recovery drink which included protein 2:30 before race start. – 200ml Sports Drink 15 minutes before the race start.
- Post swim nutrition – Water for first 15 minutes on the bike if stomach unsettled.
- Bike nutrition – Race supplied sports drink to support 0.9 grams carbohydrate per hour per kilo body weight.
- Run nutrition – Sports drink for the first 21km, generally a cup at each 2km aid station. Adjust according to experience gained in training. Around 500ml per hour.
- Run – Later stages. – Consider changing to degassed Cola, late in the race for the simple sugar and some caffeine.
Pre race nutrition: A light easily digested meal, the same as your big training days. A liquid meal with a small percentage of protein. Personally I have a sports recovery drink which includes protein / amino acids. Have this 2:30 before race start, it will take 1:30 for the fluids to go through your system allowing you to empty your bladder before the start.
200ml 15 min before race start swim provide the hydration and some fuel for the swim.
Post swim nutrition: Taking on carbohydrates immediately after the swim can be difficult, especially with a salt water swim. Some can, but some battle and need to drink water for the first 15 minutes or so. Personally I can get straight into the carbohydrates. Test this training, a challenge of your race has an ocean swim and you live inland.
Bike nutrition: The majority of race fuel is consumed on the bike. Nailing the correct ratios of carbohydrates to water and taking on sufficient electrolytes while on the bike is essential to a good performance in the rest of your race.
As a starting point a sports drink only plan will meet all the essential nutritional needs without having to calculate on the fly. Your body will learn deal with the water intakes provided you train for it. The benefits of this strategy is that the combinations are correct, you can rely on race supplied nutrition reducing the risk of complexity and weight carried on the bike.
Some athletes will not adjust to liquid only and will need to move to gels, sport bars and fruit. This will create a need to calculate on the fly or have a comprehensive plan of when and how much to eat. If you choose solids, remember to take care of your electrolyte needs, maybe some salt tablets will be required.
Drinking specialty sports fuels, not available on course, can present logistical challenges. These can be overcome through carrying enough on the bike, maybe a triple mixed bottle and diluting with water in a aero bottle on the road, or using special needs pick-ups. Remember to have a plan in case you loose your bottle. Carrying 4-5 bottles of specialised sports drink may negate the benefits of the mineral additives, especially on a hilly course.
Run nutrition: Sports drink for the first 21km, generally a 100-150ml at each 2km aid station. Adjust according to experience gained in training. This will be at least 500ml-700ml per hour, there is no need to hit the levels consumed on the bike. Grab some sweets or lollies if you feel like it, but don’t have too many and stress out your digestive system with a high percentage of carbs.
Run – Later stages. – Consider changing to degassed Cola late in the race. The simple sugars and some caffeine will give you a much needed kick. Taking on some course provided savoury solids may provide an enjoyable break to the sweet drinks while providing some salts to your system.
If you plan to rely on coke as your only fuel drink later in the race, make sure you mix it 1/3 cola 2/3 water at the aid station. At 27% carbohydrate it can cause stomach shut down or cause your stomach to hoard water, leading to cramp. You will also need to consider some salt tablets as, unlike sport drink, cola has no added electrolytes.
Test, test, and adapt
This is a base, starting plan with you will need to tailor to your individual needs through your training. Try to simulate the race conditions with swim / bike bricks, measured drinking with refuel stops on your long runs. Remember, a simple plan has less risk, but meets your essential needs.