Whether you’re training for your first 70.3 or competing for a world title, you devote many hours and months of training. As registered dietitian Nancy Clark explains, not only are you training your heart, lungs and muscles during those long hours in the pool, on the bike and pavement, you’re also training your intestinal tract to keep your body well fueled and hydrated.
This is why you need a nutrition plan—without one, you’re cheating yourself out of your optimal race-day performance.
The most important fuel variables are how much and when. The answers can be found in what you do every day in training. “It's certainly a good idea to train with the foods you plan to race with,” says four-time IRONMAN champion and Bonk Breaker athlete Heather Wurtele. “Your body will be stressed on race day, so using types of calories that your stomach is used to is very important.” Another Bonk Breaker athlete, Mirinda Carfrae, the 2010 IRONMAN world champion, prefers solid food as well, especially in cold races. “The bottom line is that you can't do an IRONMAN on electrolytes and water,” says the Australian. “You need calories, and lots of them.” Carfrae finds that the more natural the energy bar, the better tasting they tend to be as well.
At the IRONMAN level, fueling is non-negotiable; it’s the type of fuel and quality that present choices. Food choices and efficacy vary from athlete to athlete, and you simply must experiment with what works best for you. Many triathletes invest in top-quality wetsuits, goggles, bikes and other essential gear: Why not do the same with what you put into your body?
Why real food?
Some athletes assume that less-processed whole foods will cause gastric distress. Everyone has specific, individual nutritional needs and tolerances, but eating real food does not generally cause GI distress. In a study performed by The Sports Performance Laboratory at UC Davis, researchers found running performance and GI symptoms were no different when eating natural foods versus commercially processed energy products.
Consider the amount of time you spend training and how much fuel you will be consuming over the season. With processed and refined foods, you may be burning the fuel for energy, but you’re still potentially consuming huge quantities of processed foods—often calorie dense with little nutritional value. Your body not only needs calories for fuel, but it also needs vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals found in whole foods to support all your body’s functions. Research shows that consuming multiple types of sugars allows for better absorption and better endurance performance, since different carbohydrate transporter systems are being used. Fueling your body with quality calories will result in quality workouts, high energy and good health.
Putting real food into practice
Start your training with a carbohydrate-rich snack 30 to 60 minutes before exercise to top off your stores. Having food in your system will support digestion and overall energy balance. If you are currently not eating before exercise, introduce food gradually and build up to about 200 to 300 calories within 60 minutes of exercise. Some pre-exercise snacks include: toast with nut butter and banana, a real-food energy bar such as Bonk Breaker bars (which you'll find on course at IRONMAN races in North America), oatmeal, juice or yogurt.
Consuming food during exercise takes experimentation and differs from athlete to athlete. During moderate to hard endurance training, carbohydrates are your main energy source, but some athletes find small amounts of protein and dietary fat help maintain blood sugar levels. Since real food provides a slower release of calories than processed fuels, the trick is to be on top of your food intake and eat prior to feeling hungry. “It’s a great way to stay on top of your fueling plan,” says Wurtele.
According to Clark, your body is able to maintain 60 to 70 percent of normal blood flow to your stomach during moderate exercise which is adequate to maintain digestion. As your pace and intensity increases, however, less blood is sent to the digestive tract. Which means timing for fueling with real food is essential.
During a race, try eating wholesome, real food, especially on the bike. During the run or when your intensity increases, you may eat smaller portions of solid food more often, or switch to gels and sports drinks. Fueling and hydrating consistently will help maintain blood flow to your gut, supporting digestion and absorption.
Just like training, your nutrition plan is an evolving process. Training doesn’t stop when your workout is done, so don’t forget to refuel immediately after exercise and maintain a healthy, balanced diet.