By Matt Fitzgerald
What do Leanda Cave, Chris McCormack, Michellie Jones, Greg Welch, Karen Smyers and Mark Allen have in common? All of them have won both the Ironman World Championship and the itu Triathlon World Championship. That’s a sizeable list, and it proves that the type of fitness required for success short-course triathlons is not so different from the type of fitness required to excel in long-course tri’s. All triathlons, regardless of distance, are almost 100 per cent aerobic in nature, requiring the ability to sustain moderately high intensities for long periods of time.
Consider this: Hunter Kemper averaged 44.1 kilometres per hour on his bike for 40 kilometres in winning the 2013 Chicago Triathlon. Frederick Van Lierde averaged 40.7 kilometres per hour on his bike for 180 kilometres in winning the 2013 Ironman World Championship. That’s less than an eight per cent difference in intensity despite a more than fourfold difference in distance.
Because the physiological challenges presented by short-course and long-course races are similar, the ideal race fuelling strategies for these events are also similar. Yet there are also key differences. In this article I will discuss both the universal rules of triathlon fuelling and distance-specific race nutrition guidelines.
3 Rules of Race Fuelling
There are three key principles of race fuelling that apply to triathlons of all distances. Let’s take a close look at each of them.
Rule 1: Keep it simple
Whatever the race distance, aim to get your nutrition from as few sources as possible. The simpler your race nutrition plan is, the less likely it is to go awry. The one essential nutrition source for triathlons is a sports drink containing water, electrolyte minerals and carbohydrates. I have raced entire Ironman events – and finished strong, even negatively splitting the marathon in one case – with nothing but a sports drink.
In most cases, though, it is best to supplement your sports drink intake with an additional source of carbohydrate such as an energy gel. Anything else you consume during a race will provide no additional performance benefit and will only increase the chances of a mishap such as gastrointestinal distress.
Caffeine enhances triathlon performance, but you can get that from the same gels you use for supplementary carbohydrate. Consuming a little protein during longer events may also boost performance, but you can get that from sports drinks and energy gels that contain protein or amino acids along with carbs. Extra salt has no effect on the risk of muscle cramping, contrary to popular myth.
Rule 2: Prioritize fast energy
Sugars and other fast-acting carbohydrates are the most performance-enhancing nutrients you can consume in a triathlon of any length and should be the centrepiece of your race fuelling plan. This was clearly demonstrated by the results of a study recently conducted at the University of Bath, England. Ten recreational triathletes completed two simulated Olympic distance triathlons. During one test they consumed a 14.4 per cent carbohydrate sports drink on the bike. During the other test they consumed an equal amount of f lavoured water. On average, the subjects completed the bike leg four per cent faster and the run leg 4.3 per cent faster when they used the high-carb sports drink.
How much carbohydrate is enough? The more your body can absorb, the better you will perform. Research has shown that consuming carbs at a rate of 60 g per hour is more effective than consuming them at a rate of 30 g per hour, which in turn is more effective than 15 g per hour. The subjects in the English study I just described took in 108 g per hour.
Rule 3: Listen to your body
Sports nutritionists used to teach athletes to drink as much fluid as possible during races. But it turned out this was bad advice. The latest science indicates that drinking more than thirst dictates during strenuous exercise neither enhances performance nor improves thermoregulation – but it does increase the risk of gastrointestinal distress. So the new guideline is to drink by feel during races.
Generally, triathletes cannot tolerate as much fluid intake while running as they can during cycling, so always be prepared to drink more on the bike. Fortunately, as the University of Bath study showed, the benefits of drinking on the bike can carry over onto the run.
The same principle applies to carbohydrate intake. There is a high degree of individual variation in the amount of carbohydrate that athletes are able to absorb during triathlons without experiencing GI distress. You may need to experiment to determine the maximal rate of carb intake that you can tolerate. Race experience is more useful than training practice in this regard. Because racing is more stressful than any workout, many athletes find that they cannot tolerate as much carb intake in competition as they can in training.
Summary of General Guidel ines for Triathlon Fuelling
• Get your nutrition from the fewest sources possible
• Aim to consume at least 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour
• Drink by feel (i.e. by thirst and stomach comfort)
• Be prepared to take in less nutrition on the run than on the bike