Image credit Nils Nilsen
Nutrition is the single most complex issue in long course triathlon, and the most subjective from individual to individual. While less of a concern for the sprint and Olympic distances, by the time you look at half Iron and Iron distance events it can be the difference between finishing strong and not making it off of the bike. Many marathon runners talk about “Hitting the wall”, a point in the race where you are suddenly blindsided and unable to walk. In triathlon we normally refer to this as bonking (pipe down at the back), but by the time you reach this stage you’ve already made a mistake by letting your energy reserves become depleted. The bad news is that you can’t simply “push through” the wall, your body is literally empty and will start breaking down muscle fibre in search of energy. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable with the right fuelling strategy.
During any event over 90 minutes you need to take on extra calories to maintain performance, let’s take an Ironman as an example. We normally start around 6:30AM, and most people are on the bike by 8:30AM when your body is already expecting the calories from Breakfast. We need to keep topping up our energy stores throughout the day, and the only way we can do this is by taking on calories in a way that won’t upset our stomach. If we pull over to enjoy a Sunday roast halfway through the bike and then jump back on our trusty steed to put out 200W our stomach will be less than cooperative. We need to find a way to take on calories in a consistent and measured manner that is easy for our digestive system to process.
Fuelling slows us down, that much we can’t deny, and when you’re feeling strong tearing up the bike course, you don’t want to slow down by reaching into your back pocket/bento box to extract and unwrap our fuel source of choice. Our heart says to keep pressing on, but our head tells us to be smart and take on food, guess which one we should listen to?
There are various different ways to take on calories, each with their pros and cons which we’ll look at here:
A sweet semi solid substance that you slurp up, these provide a (nearly) instant injection of energy, breathing life back into tired muscles. If you’re wobbling all over the road and shaking, nothing will get you back in the game quite like an energy gel, it achieves this by containing very simple sugars that are easily absorbed. However as soon as you start to get back in your rhythm you will start to crash again as they quite simply put you on a sugar high, followed by a predictable crash. I wouldn’t want to fuel any event longer than an Olympic triathlon solely on energy gels, something that releases energy in a slower, more sustainable manner is essential for success at middle and long distance.
Pros: Easy to digest, give you an instant boost
Cons: Can be sickly, some require water to wash down, only give a short term pick up
All nutrition manufacturers will have their patented energy bars, these vary from brand to brand but are generally oat based, very dense and energy rich. These are a much more sustainable way of replacing depleted energy stores than energy gels, and are a much more natural way of taking on energy which will appeal to many simply out of principal. The oats will release energy slowly, and the bonding agent is normally sugary, as a result these can still be fairly sweet and are normally very chewy. This is all well and good if you’re rolling along at 70% of FTP chatting to friends, but I’ll never forget the time I came across a 20% gradient in Yorkshire with a mouth full of an apple and blackberry energy bar.
Pros: Sustainable energy release, individually wrapped for easy transportation
Cons: Can be very expensive, difficult to chew, still quite sweet
As time goes by and I see past the marketing that brands push, I have found myself moving towards real food over branded energy products. This is a personal choice as I have very low fat reserves so my nutritional demands are quite unique, but I find myself craving something substantial to line my stomach, items such as pistachio cookies, crisps and ginger cake to keep my stomach from turning itself over and protect against stitches and cramps. This is also the cheapest way to fuel yourself, a batch of homemade flapjacks will cost far less than half a dozen branded energy bars and allows you to control the texture, sweetness and portion size to taste.
Pros: cheap, more satisfying, enormous variety
Cons: Can be difficult to transport, preparation time for homemade food
I use this as an umbrella term to cover various branded products that contain carbohydrate in the form of sugars and electrolytes to replace lost salt. This is a fuel source favoured by many long distance athletes due to its easy consumption and transportation, some (very successful) athletes even manage a diet of nothing but sports drink and energy gels. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse but we’re all individuals and need to find what works for us.
Pros: Very easy to digest, take on fluids and calories at once, less likely to neglect hydration
Cons: Has to be mixed (difficult mid race), slow absorption into bloodstream, easy to take on too many calories.
It’s worth mentioning here the role that course nutrition plays, for most middle and long distance races fuel stations will be provided for athletes to get a drink and something to eat. I encourage my athletes not to rely too heavily on these stations and to be as self sufficient as possible, it’s not unheard of for feed stations to run dry, and the products there may not be to your liking. Aim to be self sufficient, but do your research on the nutrition that will be available at the feed stations, the brand and the products they will be stocking, if this information isn’t available on the race website, E-mail the organiser and ask. If they are only carrying peanut and vanilla Powerbars, then buy some and try them while training, if you find one of them really upsets you, then you know to avoid it on race day. Many races will also provide you with a special needs bag at the halfway point, make use of this and ensure you have enough nutrition in there to comfortably get you to the end of the race, just in case you previously hit a pothole and jettisoned all of your nutrition in the process.
Electrolytes is simply a fancy sounding word for salt, but if they tried to sell salt tablets they’d probably sell an awful lot less. As I alluded to earlier, replacing salt is critical for endurance athletes, especially if you’re a heavy sweater, we work with all of our athletes to create a bespoke hydration plan to improve performance and avoid a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia where the blood becomes so diluted that it starts to affect brain function. Luckily getting your electrolyte balance right is a lot simpler than food, and there are four ways to keep yourself topped up.
Yes, sports drinks again. The vast majority of sports drinks will include electrolytes required for peak performance without having to worry about taking on extra supplements. If unsure, check the ingredients and look for potassium, sodium and/or chloride.
There is such a thing as too many calories (more on that later), so electrolyte tablets in water allows us to keep our levels topped up without excess calories. These will often be mildly flavoured, and are more palatable than sports drinks although personally I find myself craving good old plain water when I hit the 4/5 hour mark in an event.
If you don’t take to the taste of dissolvable electrolytes you can use a small oral tablet at regular intervals instead. These are easy to swallow and tasteless, although easier to forget to take, and can be fiddly to transport, if you lose your stash of tablets you can find yourself in big trouble.
Some athletes simply prefer to take some pretzels with them, providing calories and electrolytes in one tasty combination. The only issue is how you plan to transport them, although salty snacks will be available at most aid stations.
Now we have an idea of how we are going to replace our calories and electrolytes, we need to understand how much to eat and when, there are two main problems people can run into, eating too little, or eating too much.
When you bonk, it’s not something you can push through, it is your body quite simply breaking down like a car spluttering its way to a halt with an empty fuel tank. This can come almost without warning, and is often preceded by a feeling of strength as you throw yourself out of the saddle and hurl yourself up a hill, before your body starts to shake and you start to weave around the road. Once this has happened to you a few times you don’t take any chances out there and always make sure you have a spare gel or bar to fall back on, picking a cornershop flapjack up on your way through the next village when you use your last bar up. You can also find yourself in big trouble if you get lost and have to ride/run longer than you were expecting, nobody ever regretted taking extra food on a ride.
While the effects are less dramatic than under fuelling, taking on too many calories poses a risk in itself. Once you’ve bonked a couple of times you find yourself taking all precautions to try and prevent it happening again, which can present other issues. The primary issue is stomach emptying rates, your digestive system can only work so fast, especially when exercising hard as it’s diverting the vast majority of its energy to the muscles. Think of how long it takes to digest a big Sunday Roast, now imagine trying to digest that while running an Ironman marathon rather than in front of the Antiques Roadshow. If you keep pushing food down your throat when your body is already full it will protest violently, and this is often the cause behind the gastronomical distress that athletes experience during a race. This can result in stitches, stomach cramps, violent bowel movements and/or vomiting, which you want to avoid at all costs.
The easiest way to avoid over fuelling is to ensure your carry some water without any carbohydrate content. A lot of athletes know they have to keep hydrated throughout a race, but if all they have is sports drinks they will start taking on 500ml+ an hour of sugary liquids along with energy gels, bars and real food, a recipe for disaster as the stomach simply can’t keep up with the calories you’re filling it with.
One point I’ve tried to hammer home is that what nutrition is incredibly individual, and you shouldn’t try to copy the nutrition plans of your training partners or favourite pro athletes. There are more factors that affect nutritional needs than I could possibly list without boring you all to death, but it’s important you experiment in your training. Standing at the side of the road draped over your handlebars struggling the find the energy to clip back in is a rite of passage in triathlon, and you have to get it wrong a few times to find out what works for you. It’s important you make these mistakes in training rather than on race day, so play around and find what works for you. Unfortunately the chances are you will experience GI distress to a greater or lesser extent during a long distance triathlon, which leads me onto arguably the most important piece of advice in this entire article.
Never trust a fart during an Ironman.