Let’s be blunt about this: If you don’t consume carbohydrates, and lots of them, while you are racing you will not go as fast as you could, period. Don’t give me your anecdotal evidence of how you went fast in a recent 5k fun run. I am talking about events lasting more than 90 minutes and up to 100 milers. There is study after study showing this to be true, it’s not a deniable fact, yet getting athletes to eat enough during their races is a daunting task. Why?? Mostly athletes worry about gastro intestinal distress and it seems they would rather try and to suffer through a race instead of getting an upset tummy. Let’s explore what’s really happening.
Current recommendations encourage athletes to consume between 60 to 120 grams of carbs per hour when racing. 120 grams is 480 calories PER HOUR, now that’s a lot of calories. Think about it minutes that is about 2.5 grams per 60 seconds, you can see how fast you can fall behind! Regular gels weigh in at somewhere between 23 to 25 grams. So in gels alone that is 3 to 5 each hour. What I am trying to impress upon you is the volume of intake we are talking. This will give you some context when comparing what you do now and where you need to go to be successful.
Another important thing to note is the wide range of recommended intake. There are a lot of variables to be considered. Women need less intake then men. Athletes vary in the amount of calories they can actually digest per hour. While doing an Ironman you can process more calories then in an Olympic tri because you are operating at a lower heart rate. This all needs to be determined before race day in order to prevent GI distress while taking in the optimal amount of carbs.
So let’s explore why athletes have so much difficulty dialing in their nutrition? One of the biggest problems they run into is lack of practicing food intake at this level and then jumping up to it on race day. If you are currently taking in less then the recommendations you WILL NOT suddenly be able to just start chowing down. Take a realistic look at what you are eating now when you race. A REALISTIC look, not a guess. Now we need to bridge that gap between today and a goal of at least 60 grams per hour. Think incremental gains, a little more each time you work out till you are at your goal.
This brings us to our next problem, cost. Nutrition should be considered with every workout. If I workout 7 times a work the price tag can get to be a little expensive. Try not to just ingest gels, liquid calories are often a little cheaper in the long run. Buying in bulk can offer some savings, once you find something get a bunch of it. Also remember to check with your tri club or coach for discounts. Don’t be afraid to add in some whole foods like bananas or dried fruit. Plan ahead so you always have enough nutrition for 2 weeks of workouts, especially for those efforts lasting over 90 minutes.
Another big hurdle athletes face with this amount of calories is delivery. You can’t call ahead for on course delivery, so how do get all those calories? First read up on the “on course” nutrition for you race. Often you find the aid stations will have a sport drink like Gatorade, gels, bananas and maybe something like a cliff bar. Check the carb content of this food, buy some and practice with it. On course nutrition is your biggest friend in meeting your needs. Second helpful hint is liquid calories. You can pack a lot of calories into your bottles, especially the 24oz bike bottles. In an Ironman distance race, special needs is a chance to totally refuel your stores. And of course gels. Transitions are also a great place to fuel. Take a few more seconds to eat a stinger waffle at T2 so you don’t have to find a place to carry it during your run.
Lastly your fuel must contain the right balance of sodium, magnesium, calcium and other electrolytes for you. Without these electrolytes digestion and absorption will be slowed. Just water and a ton of gels won’t cut it. Do you need extra sodium because you are a big time sweater? Will some amino acids help you feel more energized? How do you figure this all out? Practice and you coach will be your two biggest friends!
A look at the DNFs at many big endurance events and you will find GI distress is the most common cause. I believe this is because most triathletes and runners start in shorter races, where nutrition is not a big factor, so good race day nutrition is the last thing they consider and conquer. It’s a very complicated process but once you have it down your will see your race times dramatically improve.