Nutrition is such a critical part of triathlon that it is often referred to as the “4th discipline.” It also can at times feel like the most overwhelming of them all. What, when, and how much to eat and drink are common questions facing beginners and veterans alike. Even if your swim, bike, and run fitness are up to the task, poor nutritional choices before or during a workout or race can quickly derail your goals. I've been meaning to do a nutrition post for a while now in an attempt to demystify the subject at least a bit. Mutual friend Guilherme Ferreira Campos put me in touch with Craig David and Brad Seng, two nutrition experts based in Boulder, Colorado. Craig studied exercise science and nutrition at Colorado State University and has owned Boulder's Max Muscle Sports Nutrition (MMSN) since 2008. Brad Seng is a professional triathlete, coach, and motivational speaker who is also affiliated with MMSN. He has several top 10 finishes in his career, including Ironman Lake Placid (2010 & '12) and Ironman Wisconsin (2010).
I asked readers for questions and chose the most common topics for Craig and Brad.
"Generally speaking, how many calories should the average person target per hour on the bike and run? Is it better to err on the side of getting too many calories or not enough on race day?"
Brad: Generally speaking more calories per hour are required during the bike than the run with a 30-40% reduction for the run. Our bodies are only able to process/digest/breakdown approximately 20-30% of what our expenditure is per hour. For most athletes the range during long training rides and races will be 150-300 calories per hour. Of course many factors influence this with respect to athlete size, intensity, weather, etc. A common mistake by many athletes is to try and match their expenditure which ultimately results in GI distress. Long training sessions provide the best opportunity to get this sorted well before race day!
"Do I need to drink plain water in addition to a sports drink on the bike? I'm running out of places to carry stuff!"
|MJ had a high sweat rate|
Craig: Ha! This can definitely present a pickle.. My suggestion: find an electrolyte/sports drink that works for you & stick w/ it. If you need straight water or more water, take advantage of that at aid stations in order to save some “bottle” space!
"How much sodium does the average person need to replace per hour? Should I be popping salt tablets like some of my friends?"
Craig: This comes up often and the answer is there is no good answer. Everyone is so different, we’ve seen it as low as 200mg/hour up to 800+ an hour. The first step to this is figuring out what your sweat rate is, then work backwards based on replacing fluids & sodium content.
"Could you share a few nutrition tips that you personally use on race day? For example, what do you typically eat for breakfast and what time? Should I get up in the middle of the night to eat before my Ironman or take all the sleep (if any) I can get?"
Brad: I do not have a specific pre-race meal the night prior to races, but simply eat what I’m craving (fish tacos, chicken/rice/veggies, pizza w/salad, salmon & sweet potato). Race mornings I time my meal 2:30-3:00 prior to the start which consists of a toast with peanut butter & honey, banana, bottle of Skratch or EFS and coffee. I will top off my glycogen stores 20-30’ before the start of the race with a gel or hit of EFS Liquid Shot. Sleep is king and I would never recommend waking up in the middle of night to eat. Additionally, I do not change my eating during race week and stick with what my body is used to from months of preparation. If we have effectively fueled, recovered and stayed on top of things during the specific race prep, our bodies will be primed for race day and no need to look for that “magic meal”.
“What leads to GI issues and what can I do to avoid? Is there anything I can do during a race if my stomach’s refusing to cooperate?”
Craig: This is a great question. GI can be related to several issues…some of the more common would be not enough water, or possibly too many calories. If you’re starting to experience stomach distress, consider pacing down for a short duration, let your heart rate decrease a bit, and try to get in a steady stream of water in order to help whatever calories in your body digest.
To avoid it: 1st, find an electrolyte that doesn’t upset your stomach. 2, play with whole food & liquid calories to find a mix that tastes good & that you can also stomach. Sometimes we consume too many calories too soon. Depending on your distance, shoot to get in 150-200 calories every 30-40 minutes. If you do this consistently, you’ll help avoid some of the possible “back up” in your GI that leads to the stomach distress.
"I'm a newbie. Do I need to worry about nutrition for sprint and olympic distance races?"
Craig: Do you put gas in your car for your 1st road trip? Absolutely! We see a lot of people trying to “wing it” going into a shorter race with no strategy to hydrate, only to find race day extremely uncomfortable & lacking energy. If you’re a “newbie,” nutrition is equally important as your training plan; if your body doesn’t have the quality fuel, you won’t be executing that training plan very well. Extended muscle fatigue, weakened immune system, soreness, lack of energy during your typical day, etc.. can all be related to not adequately fueling your body.
"Should I try to get fancy with my 'own' nutrition for Ironman and Ironman 70.3 or just adapt to what's on the course in my training?"
Brad: I typically have what I need with me on board and via special needs bags to not rely too much on what is on course during Ironman races. This may take some planning up front and practice during long rides and runs, but will alleviate any potential stomach issues and guess work on race day. If an athlete is planning to use what is on the course then he/she should definitely train with the same fuel to make sure it will not cause any GI stress or adverse reactions.
"Do you foresee a time when some substances that are currently banned from sports will be readily accepted and used to enhance performance?"
Craig: I think it depends on the perspective of what kind of “substance” you are asking about; a “nutraceutical” substance vs a “pharmaceutical” substance? If we consider the 1st, we can think of something like caffeine; it’s known to increase heart rate, burn more calories, and increase physical exertion... it’s been studied for decades. You’ll find it accepted & in a rising number of products aimed at helping our bodies to better manage stress, amongst many things. “Optygen HP” from First Endurance is one such product, and we see a high level of results from this. If we think of the latter, I’d highly doubt we see a ban “lifted” from certain items. They are banned for a reason; why would we comprise health over performance?
"What over the counter supplements would be most 'worth it' for triathletes? It seems like there's a lot of stuff out there, and I'm skeptical about some of their claims."
Craig: Skepticism is common & rightfully so. With certain “claims,” you have to understand that a lot of the testing was likely done in very specific environments. We talk about the “ifs” in our business. If you’re training consistently, stressing the muscle, taking your body beyond any training limit it has ever seen, then yes certain things are going to work better. What’s worth it? Well, calories for starters, is a great one. I’d say 75% of the triathletes we see are taking in too few calories. Think about the basics of what our body needs in order to sustain normal function (whether you’re an athlete or not) and avoid distress: vitamins, minerals, essential fats, amino acids, etc... these are “essential,” meaning the body cannot manufacture them. Regardless of the person, you still need to get them. If you’re missing this, how do you expect your body to be healthy, much less perform? For starters, amino acids can significantly increase recovery time and decrease soreness. Fish or flax seed oil are going to help keep the joints lubricated, cognitive function high, and maintenance of a healthy cholesterol & blood pressure, not to mention recovery. Get in a protein, carbohydrate, electrolyte mix post training so your body starts putting itself back together! Start here, then you can add the fancy stuff!
"What trends do you see coming out of Boulder with regards to nutrition and sports performance? Are there any products that you recommend in particular?"
Craig: People are realizing that if you maintain a consistent diet & focus on nutrient timing, then you’re going to be able to “play up” your bodies strengths & either handle a greater training load or handle the current load with less distress. The more we can keep the body's overall “perceived” level of stress down, the better. “Stress” is and will continue to be a key word when it comes to recovery. CNS is a night time formula of aminos designed to help get into a more restful sleep w/out feeling groggy… it’s been amazing! Optygen HP mentioned earlier has also been a raging success for the last few years. We see athletes not only performing better w/ these, but their daily lives on the job, at the office, and at home are improved due to their overall ability to better manage physical & mental stress.
Thanks Craig and Brad for your insights and time!
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