Practical Nutrition Tips for Training and Racing This Summer

25 06 2008

Posted by FastForward TRI Coach Michael Kelly

Nutrition is easily one of the most individual aspects of training and racing.  Every person has a different likes and dislikes, every race distance / intensity is different, and even weather can change your nutrition.  The key to success is understanding your baseline nutrition needs, practicing your nutrition intake religiously, and sticking to your plan on race day.  This is a long post, so I’ve provided a summary for those short on time to read:

1/2 Half Ironman targets (per hour): 200-300 calories, 30oz of fluids, 600mg of salt
Olympic targets (per hour): 150-250 calories, 25oz of fluids, 500mg of salt
Sprint targets (per hour): 100-200 calories, 20oz of fluids, 500mg of salt

Practice these nutrition targets on longer training rides and see what works for you.

If you’re interested to learn how it all works, here goes:

Sodium
Bloated? Sloshy belly? Nausea? All may be symptoms of insufficient salt while racing. Without enough sodium your stomach loses the ability to absorb anything – water or calories. Everyone is different in this regard, but most people need MORE THAN 500mg of sodium per hour. Heavy salty sweaters may need 1000mg of sodium per hour or more. It doesn’t particularly matter how you get the salt – you can use salt tablets or even plain old table salt mixed in with your sports drink of choice. Your sports drink has surprisingly little sodium, check the label and supplement as necessary. You’ll find that the rest of your nutrition will be so much easier! Food will digest better, drinks will go down easier, and when you’re well hydrated and fueled, you’ll feel like a rock star!

Fluids
Most of you are well aware of the need to take in some form of liquid while exercising. A good guideline is 24-28oz of liquid per hour, but it will depend on the conditions, with hotter days requiring more. Weigh yourself (w/o clothes) before and after a long workout. Multiply the number of pounds lost by 16. You should aim to increase your fluid intake by that many fluid ounces on your next workout. You’ll also need to increase your salt intake too!

Calories
You need two things to power your muscles: glycogen and fat. You can easily store over 50,000 cals of fat, but at most about 2,000 calories of glycogen. To ensure you start with 2,000 cals of glycogen, eat a good breakfast, and snack or sip on something until the race starts. While running or riding, you’re burning around 800 calories/hour, about 600 of which is glycogen (the rest fat). If you run out of glycogen, you bonk. Your stomach can convert about 300 calories/hour of food into glycogen. As intensity rises, your stomach can convert fewer calories. You can never convert as many calories as you are burning, but you can hold off bonking long enough to finish the race.

It doesn’t particularly matter what form calories come in: solid (Clif Bar), semi-solid (Clif Blok), semi-liquid (Clif Shot), or liquid (sports drink of your choice). Generally speaking, the more liquid the nutrition the easier it is to digest (convert), but everyone’s stomach is different and some people need something solid or semi-solid at some point during a long day to help settle the stomach. Use whatever works best for you, but stick to the general calorie guidelines above to get the most out of your workout. Talk to lots of people and try different strategies to find the winning combination that will become your race plan.

Practicing Race Nutrition
The best place to practice race nutrition is on your long rides and runs. Whenever possible, try to eat and drink what you plan to race with. There are so many variables (intensity, duration, weather, etc.) that it pays to practice under as many different conditions as possible to learn how your body reacts to nutrition and what works best for you. Before your race, try to spend some of your workout time at your intended race intensity because something that goes down well while you’re riding in Z1 may not go down as well in Z3. Finally, pay attention to how your body feels after your workout. Many of your workouts will be shorter than your race, so if you’re bloated (not enough salt?) or nauseated (too many undigested calories?), you may not do as well near the end of the race. Dial in your nutrition plan and take it for another test drive on your next workout.

Sticking to the Plan
When it comes to race day, you need to be disciplined. The excitement of racing leads many athletes to forget all about the plan until it’s far too late and they’ve already started to suffer the effects of malnutrition or dehydration or hyponatremia (too much water and not enough sodium). Make a plan, practice it, and stick to it on race day. Only if something starts to go wrong nutritionally on race day should you deviate from the plan. If that should happen, put on your troubleshooting hat and try to figure out, based on all your nutrition practice, what might be going wrong. Have I been eating enough? Drinking enough? Did I get enough salt? How does my body feel right now and what can I do to make it feel better? Especially in a long race, back off the pace for a little while and often your stomach will come around, start processing again, and you’ll be feeling like a rock star in no time.

Final Words
Nutrition is different for everyone. I’ve tried to lay out some general guidelines to serve as a starting point for you, but you may find that some (or all) of this advice doesn’t apply to you for one reason or another. That’s fine! Talk to other athletes, talk to other coaches, or talk to Bob Seebohar (Fast Forward’s nutrition partner) to get ideas about what might work well for you. Everyone has a different strategy, and by hearing lots of different ideas you’ll find the one that works best for you.

Eat Smart!
Michael

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