I’m fresh back from the Muskoka 70.3 Ironman race and still a bit stiff. Now is a perfect time to reflect on the race season and share some of my experiences. You already know there are 3 main disciplines to train for in a Triathlon race. There is a 4th that is often ignored – nutrition. I have learned that if you can master this 4th “discipline” you can make your race that much more enjoyable – and faster!
Ask any seasoned triathlete and they will tell you how important their nutrition is to their performance. What is nutrition in this context? Nutrition is anything that fuels your body through the event and can take the form of electrolytes, gels, nutrition bars and any source high in carbohydrates. This means that each racer will have their own combination of the above which is likely different than another. I will focus on the gels and share what I have learned in the nearly 10 years I have been racing.
I have made plenty of mistakes throughout my early triathlon years, and still learning today. Practice is key, especially when you are out for a long training ride or run. That is when you can put your nutrition to the test. A long ride would be anything over 90 minutes and a long run over 10 km. Less distance than that you can get away with just water if the temperature is less than 25 C typically.
I remember when training for my first Ironman, Coeur d’Alene, I took in mostly energy bars and drank electrolytes for my training. It worked pretty well for training as I was able to keep the extra bars in my bike jersey and was able to stop at local convenience stores to refill. However, I realized when I was trying to get setup for the race that I didn’t have the luxury of enough storage space on my bike. I tried cutting up all my bars and put them in my Bento Box but realized they all molded together when the sun came out. This made it very difficult to eat while racing on a bike. I also noticed that my stomach was no longer a fan of eating those bars.
I wanted to learn from my mistake so I switched and moved towards using gels. There are all kinds, some more affordable than others and different flavors to choose from. I found it easy to bring them with me on a long ride or run. But when you’re out there for a few hours and it’s really hot out, you quickly get sick of taking in the gels, especially when they get warm. It was important to take in lots of water after each one to clean my mouth. Your hands can easily get sticky as you take in the gel which then becomes uncomfortable if you’re on the bike.
I would say Gu Gels are among my favorite gels. I like the consistency – it’s different than some of the others, not as liquid. You don’t have sticky fingers (especially on the bike) or a sticky mouth after each one. They have great flavours like Espresso Love, Chocolate, Mint Chocolate, etc. But the advantages certainly come at a price. They are more costly than some others. It’s like they say, you get what you pay for.
The thing with nutrition is that you want to train with what you plan to race with. Cost is going to be something you will want to think about, especially considering how many you will need to take. I am definitely no expert. I have heard that you take 1-2 gels/hour, sometimes more. If you take 6 hours on the bike you could be taking in 10-12 gels. Then the run may take 4 hours which could be another 6-8. Think of all the training hours you put in where you are bringing gels along with you. It quickly adds up!
I’m not saying that you have to take in upwards of 20 gels in an Ironman or 10 in a half. At the end of the day, you need to find out the nutrition that fuels your body most efficiently. When you start your training run/ride or race, you come with some energy fuel already stored in your muscles, this is known as glycogen. The glycogen in your muscles will only last so long into your ride/run. If you do not take in carbohydrates in a long workout, at some point your muscles are going to give out and you will “hit a wall”.
The human body is an incredibly thing. If you continue to work at conditioning your body to longer, more intense workouts, and fuel your engine, your muscles will become more efficient. You’ll notice that some racers will set an alarm on their watch every 30 min or so to remind them to take in some nutrition. Trust me, it is easy to forget to drink fluids and take your gels/bars when you’re in the middle of an intense race. It is so important to ensure your engine doesn’t break down. That is why the training with nutrition is so important. You will get to the point of knowing when and how often you should take in a gel so you are charged up again.
Hydrating with water and electrolytes is extremely important – in addition to the gels and bars. Another learning experience I had was racing at Gravenhurst Olympic. I had a very fast bike but only was taking in water. When it came to the run I realized that I was lacking the electrolytes and felt horrible for the last 5k of the run. Luckily this was something I could learn from and took that into Ironman Mont Tremblant. Lesson learned: take in some electrolyte drink.
You could train really well all season in all 3 disciplines but ignore your nutrition in the race or even try something new in the race – this could result in a DNF or terrible performance. You could be having the best ride/run of your life but at some point along the way your body could shut down, you could get a horrible cramp, you could have unpleasant GI issues, you name it. I’ve been in that situation, your spirit may be strong but your body is weak and just cannot do it.
Here are some rules that I have come to live by;
· – Only race with what you’ve trained with
· – Always take a few big gulps of water after taking in a gel
· -Be sure to time how often you are taking in a gel
· -Be fueled prior to any difficult workout
Like I said earlier, I am not an expert, nor do I claim to be. I know what works for me and I don’t deviate. If you take anything from this article, take how important nutrition is to your training and racing. Realize that everyone is different and that you need to find what works for you. Happy racing and stay safe.