Your nutrition during racing and training should really be considered the fourth discipline of triathlon. It is just as important as any of your workouts. You can train to perfection but if you miss the opportunity to really dial in your nutritional needs before your event your day could be over very quickly. The key to figuring this out is starting with a basic guideline but ultimately there will be lots of trial and error testing during your training. The following will help guide you through some strategies of practicing your nutrition while training so that you may be confident that you will get through your race with optimal nutritional requirements.
Start with a basic guideline. We will use the example of an Ironman race for this calculation. The average Ironman athlete will burn at least 500 calories an hour and can easily burn up to 800 depending on intensity, the harder you race the more calories you will burn. In other words, a 9 hour Ironman athlete would potentially burn more than a 14 hour Ironman athlete. The goal is to replace 30-50% of these calories during your race, so you will need to consume about 250-400 calories/hour. From these calories, an athlete should consume about 1 to 1 1/2 grams of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight per hour. For example, a 150lb (72kg) athlete burns about 150-225g of carbohydrate per hour, so this athlete should try and consume about 72-100g in that hour. For example, a PowerGel has 27g in 110 calories and a PowerBar has 65g in 240 calories which equals 92g of carbohydrate in 350 calories.
For shorter distance races, you may need more calories per hour as you are generally racing at a higher intensity. You need to calculate these calories from both your solid and liquid consumption.
Build off the guideline. The guideline is a good place to start but more often than not your personal caloric intake will be different from the exact numbers listed. The reason for this is everyone is different in their ability to absorb and use calories. Some people may find that that many calories gives them stomach issues while others may be able to take in more with no problem. You have to figure this out on your own by practicing during training and racing. It takes time for your body to be able to absorb and use these calories efficiently. You must keep a diligent watch on your consumption per hour and write it down when you get home including how you felt performance wise.
Use training races as nutrition guinea pigs. You should build in a training race or two into your program just to test nutrition. This is because as the intensity shifts so might your caloric needs and/or the way your body handles the intake. You need to consider things like the changing temperature as the day goes on, transitions, and logistics of how you will carry your calories to name a few factors that may differ on race day than in your regular training.
Transitions. After both your T1 and T2 transitions, you may want to wait 5-15 minutes before in taking any calories, till your heart rate settles down a little. The reason for this is it may cause gastric distress in some people to intake calories immediately after swimming or when they start running. Again, you will have to test this out in training and racing to see how your body reacts.
Bike/run differences in consumption. Another variable to consider is that your delivery method may differ from bike to run. For example, you may find that you like more solid food on the bike such as PowerBars but will move to a liquid form of calories like PowerGels for the run. Most people find they can take in more calories on the bike than run due to the low impact nature of the bike and ease of delivery.
Sodium. Again, many factors come into play for sodium requirements while racing and just like your calories you need to practice what works for you when it comes to your sodium intake. Race distance and intensity, temperature/humidity, and your personal perspiration rate will all factor in to your sodium requirements. It’s a good idea to train during the same time of day as your goal race from time to time so that you can get a feel for your needs. 500-800mg of sodium per litre of fluid consumed is a good guideline. Check what is in your products before taking sodium capsules. PowerGels already have 200mg of sodium for instance.
Try different brands. If you are having nutritional issues like cramping, bloating, or bonking to name a few, it may not be how many calories you are in taking but the type. Many brands offer sample packages of their products and you may have to try quite a few to see which one works best for you. Some contain pure carbohydrates, while others are a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. You should try different things to see what your body responds to best. Pay attention to both performance and recovery as you may find you recover faster with different types of nutrition.
Find out what the aid stations are serving at your race. This is such a common mistake many athletes make. They practice with one brand and then plan to only use what they are giving out at the aid stations at the race which potentially they have never tried before. Aid stations are a necessity in longer, hotter races but you should strategize on how you are going to carry all of your nutritional needs with you to the best of your ability. You may need to mount an extra bottle cage or rear cage on your bike, adapt to carrying a hand strapped water bottle or fuel belt for the run, and pack your half way bag at an Ironman event accordingly.
There is a lot of preparation involved when planning a nutrition strategy for triathlon racing. Your diligence in this preparation will have a big pay off at your events when you get to the finish line fuelled optimally. It will make for a much more pleasant racing experience and ultimately help you to perform at your very best.
LifeSport triathlon coach Jessica Adam has been a coach in Victoria, Vancouver and now resides in the Toronto area. She loves to share her years of experience with beginner triathletes and also experienced triathletes that are trying new distances like ½ IM or IM for the first time. She coaches athletes online all across the country.
If you are interested in working with Jess, write Jess@LifeSportCoaching.com