By Ryan Kohler, CTS Coach and Sports Nutritionist
I spend a lot of my time counseling athletes on their nutrition choices during training and competition, especially as part of the “Race Day Nutrition Planning” service offered by CTS. After doing several hundred of these planning sessions with athletes, common threads have emerged. Some of the most common hurdles I see triathletes running into include overconsumption of calories, making their nutrition too complicated, and generally not planning as much as they should when compared to how they approach the physical side of training.
On the first point, overconsumption of calories tends to occur because athletes are unsure of just how much they are burning and what a reasonable replacement would be. Generally, aiming to replenish 25-35% of expenditure on an hourly basis is a good starting point. For an athlete who is burning 800 kcal per hour, this would amount to about 200-250 kcal, which is completely reasonable. You can achieve 200 kcal an hour with a combination of sports drinks, GU energy gels, chewables, or bars very easily; and this amount is within the roughly 60 grams per hour limit on exogenous carbohydrate oxidation. (Some research says you may be able to utilize more than 1 gram/min of exogenous carbohydrate, but 1g/min is a good starting point). And keep in mind, 800 kcal per hour is going to be race pace or a very hard interval session for most athletes; a more endurance-paced session will be closer to 600 kcal per hour.
However, I have seen athletes preparing for half- and full-Ironman events with planned intakes approaching 400 kcal some hours and 150 on other hours. This mis-matched approach doesn't lend itself to consistent fueling and can lead to GI distress or inadequate energy levels late in the game. Obviously you have to schedule feeding during a triathlon to account for the inability to eat in the water and the limited ability to eat on the run, but you still have to recognize the body’s limitations when it comes to the amount of energy it can take in and process in a given period of time. Overloading the system slows it down; starving it brings it to a halt. Learning what you need to take in relative to your expenditure and your tolerance on the bike and run will help match your intake with your needs and can prolong your endurance as you get into the run.
Keep it simple
Next, nutrition planning should be relatively simple. Not so much in the numbers or individual planning, but just in the sense of using what works. I like to stress the point of, "Know what works, and use what you know," because it starts with fact that athletes should first know what they need. Why do I need carbohydrates and what will they do for my body? Will protein play a role? What about fat intake? Knowing what these nutrients do and why you might need them is a key component in designing an individual nutrition plan. It is not enough to blindly take the promotional content in ads or on product packaging as gospel. It’s not even enough to blindly follow my instructions. The best athletes are those who educate themselves on the basics of training and nutrition; you gain the ability to interpret, apply, and adjust the guidance of coaches and nutritionists in effective ways.
"Use what you know" means that you shouldn't make it too complex. Test everything out in training. If you decide you’re going to need 65g of carbohydrate per hour, try it in training and see if it works, and make sure you are matching the training/racing duration and intensity as closely as possible. You may be able to tolerate more calories at lower intensities, but have gastric distress with the same foods when you’re going harder. If it doesn’t work in training, there’s little chance it’s going to magically work in competition when the stress and intensity are even more of a factor. But if it works in training, then you’ve proven it’s a viable option for your race. Keep the nutrition plan simple. It's when things get too complex that we lose focus of what is important.
I have seen plans that include a very simple approach of 3 gels per hour + 2 bottles of water for every hour in an Ironman. This may work great for some athletes; it may be too much or too monotonous for others. I have also seen approaches that include a 300 kcal bar here and there, sandwiches, specific drinks mixed with 1 scoop, others with 2 scoops, varying amounts and types of carbohydrates, and all of this according to a schedule that was almost invariably going to change during the race. In long races like an Ironman, variety is important because it keeps an athlete from getting complacent about eating. Changing the flavors and textures is very effective for motivating fatigued athletes to continue consuming calories. However, overly complicated plans often create more stress and cause more problems than they solve. Anyone who has completed an endurance event longer than nine hours can tell you a story about a plan that had to be changed; it’s the nature of endurance racing. When your nutrition strategy is simple and built on a sound foundation, it can be adapted relatively easily and remain effective. The more complicated it is, the more easily it will fall apart and become ineffective.
Give nutrition your full attention once in a while
Finally, I often see a disconnect between the ways athlete approach nutrition planning and physical training. I always encourage athletes to put the same amount of dedication and focus into their nutrition training and planning as they do with their physical training. It makes more sense to go out and ride, run, or swim because we see the results and we feel good about it after a hard workout. But with nutrition, the immediate results are very subtle (feeling a bit better in intervals later in a workout, feeling fresher the day after a hard workout, etc.), and the substantial results come later. Without the immediate feedback or gratification, it's difficult to keep the eyes on the prize. But suffering through a “nutrition malfunction” during a 100-mile training ride can be a great learning experience. If we never try your race day nutrition routines in training, we can't expect it to just work on race day. I like to have athletes take a minimum of 2 "nutrition training sessions" per month where they go out for that long ride, long run, or brick session and eat and drink as they would in a race, mimicking the intensity and volume as much as is reasonable. It is often during these sessions that athletes realize their nutrition selections are too sweet, too syrupy, difficult to open/eat at higher speeds, too dry to eat at high intensities, etc.
Ryan Kohler is a Senior Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, holds a Masters of Science in Sports Nutrition, and is studying to become a Registered Dietitian. For information on CTS coaching, camps, nutrition and performance services, visit www.trainright.com.