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The Kona Fuel-Belt

How does an elite Ironman athlete prepare for Kona by eating-- and just what do they eat?

In her Ironman World Championship debut, former long distance duathlon world champion Yvonne Van Vlerken powered her way through a stacked women’s field to take second place in front of the jubilant Kailua-Kona finish line crowd.

In preparation for the 2009 race, Van Vlerken honed her nutrition as much as she did her swimming, biking and running. Four weeks before the race Van Vlerken knew exactly how much she wanted to weigh on race day in order to get the most from her legendary cycling and running ability. Which raises the question, just how does an Ironman athlete prepare gastronomically for Kona?  In other words, what does she eat?

It’s no secret:  Ironman athletes eat a lot of food.  To the untrained eye, the copious amount of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, protein powders, energy drinks, energy bars, energy gels, electrolyte powders, chips, cookies, ice cream, and desserts devoured by an athlete training for Kona might look a little unpalatable.  But athletes need fuel, especially Ironman triathletes who are known to spend as many hours in the saddle as most executives do in their office chairs.

“I had quite a hard time maintaining my weight last year,” Van Vlerken says. For the uninitiated, in this age of the expanding waistline, that means that she struggled to keep weight on. In 2009, she focused more on her diet and she feels it paid off in her ability to recover from training sessions and maintain muscle strength. She alternates between high carbohydrate and high protein meals, depending on the intensity of the next training session.

She and her partner, Austrian Thomas Vonach, an elite age-group triathlete who has raced in Kona seven times, swear by their post-training protein smoothies. Can they be tempted by a treat?  “If I have a hard session late in the day and I need carbs, then I would not say no to fresh apple pie from Thomas’ mum,” Van Vlerken allows.

Three-time Ironman champion, Australian Luke McKenzie and his fiancée and fellow professional Ironman triathlete, Amanda Balding, have spent enough time exploring Kona’s highways and by-ways in the past few years to know what to eat – and what they want to eat – while they’re in town.

High on their “healthy option” list is the “everything salad.”  Eaten in the midst of the most grueling training days, the “everything salad” includes a variety of: chicken, fresh local fish, cherry tomatoes, greens, croutons, blue cheese, apples and walnuts.  Their favorite recovery meal is penne arrabiata with spicy sausage and a few secret ingredients. The foods that dance as visions in the vapors that rise above the lava fields during their “five-hour bike rides with a run off” are local Hawaiian fare – barbecue ribs with macaroni salad, and Huli Huli chicken, fresh off the roadside grill.

Kona’s own professional triathlete Bree Wee has learned to (generally) stay away from the local temptations, such as Spam musubi – a little wonder of a bundle featuring white rice, seaweed and a slice of Spam.  Instead, as she’s turned serious about her sport, she’s embraced a diet of fresh local fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market and organic grains and nuts.

Getting ready to race her first Ironman World Championship as a professional earlier  this year, Wee was undertaking a training volume that she’d never before experienced. This meant consuming more fuel than ever. Wee said she burned 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day at her peak training. “I eat most of that back so I can do it over again the next day,” she said. Her favorite foods at the end of a bike ride to Hawi and back?  “Eggs, rice and salty snacks.”

With so many caloric needs to fill and a seemingly infinite array of foods to consume, dare we ask the question: is there a special Ironman diet that athletes should be following?  Kailua-Kona naturopathic physician Michael Traub doesn’t see it that way.  “There’s no one answer for every athlete.  Every individual will have unique needs.  To answer the question, ‘what should athletes eat as they get ready for Ironman Kona?’ you’d have to ask each of these athletes what their unique genetic code is.”  In other words, we can expect an Ironman triathlete’s diet will be as individualized as the play list on his or her iPod.

Triathlon coach and elite level masters triathlete, Kona’s Luis De La Torre, has learned over the years that one size does not fit all.  Competitive in triathlon since 1985, De La Torre has seen many diet fads come and go, and has tried some of them himself.  In twenty-five years in the sport, he’s tried diet plans that range from a strict vegan diet to the 40-30-30 model of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

These days, he tells his Ironman clients to “be conscientious of what they eat.”  This includes opting for natural and organic products when possible and practicing dietary habits in moderation.  There’s room in his approach for the occasional splurge.  “There’s something to be said for giving oneself a reward,” says De La Torre.

“One factor that triathletes would be wise to pay attention to, besides the quantity of food in their diet and the relative proportion of calories from carbs, protein and fat, is the quality of these nutrients,” advises Dr. Traub.  “The vast majority of carbohydrates should come from complex carb sources rather than refined sugars and white flour.  High quality protein should come from animal as well as plant sources.”

And those “bad” fats we’ve been told to stay away from in recent years?  According to Dr. Traub, it’s not just about the calories.  Fats are essential to endurance sports; we need them to fuel our bodies through training and racing.  But some types of fats come with an unattractive side effect – they work with our bodies’ natural processes to increase inflammation.

“Athletes who want to minimize inflammation in their muscles and joints without relying on medications, with their attendant side effects, would be wise to decrease or eliminate pro-inflammatory foods such as fatty red meat, pork, lamb, whole milk dairy products, margarine, vegetable shortening, fried foods, and partially hydrogenated oils,” says Dr. Traub.  Instead, make room in the diet for fats that have an “anti-inflammatory effect, including fish, nuts, seeds, olives, avocado, coconut, and extra virgin cold pressed olive oil and coconut oil.”

Bottom line?  Pre-race, triathletes training for an Ironman, especially the Ford Ironman World Championship, should stick to the farmer’s markets and order up some fresh fish. Save the visit to the luau until after the race.

Hungry?  Try Bree Wee’s Coco Caribbean Cookies

2 cups of dates (no pits)

1cup of coconut shreds (no added sugar)

1 cup of walnuts

1/2 lime freshly squeezed (just the juice)

Process all the ingredients in a food processor till they begin to “clump” together. Roll into cookies. Bake at 350* for 7 minutes. ENJOY.