It’s not a 4-letter word.
Nutrition planning for training and events should be a simple process but for many athletes, it is not. The tired old statement “Use what works” often doesn’t apply because we see many athletes do not put the same care into figuring out what works for nutrition that they put into figuring out what shoes or other gear works. At the other extreme, it is easy to get too wrapped up into details. Keep it simple and practice your nutrition strategies so on race day, you know what does work for you.
What are carbs and why are they important? What can protein do? Do you do better with added fat? What components are more important for a training ride or run versus general nutrition? You can read an article or listen to a training mate or even mindlessly follow your coach’s advice but you need to test what will work for you and sort it out.
It’s easy to understand the training results of biking 30 miles and run 2 for a solid brick workout. it is a much more subtle learning experience to do the workout but tweaking caloric consumption and getting an idea of what kept your energy level up and and your brain working. Fueling properly can also aid your recovery from workouts. You spend however many hours per week physically training, planning for your nutrition needs doesn’t require as much time and can make a huge impact on your performance.
At lower intensities, you may be able to tolerate certain foods but have issues when going harder. If something doesn’t work during a training run at a (true) easy effort, it will not work at race effort. Ultimately you need to keep it simple. At long distance events, your brain will not be working well. What you practiced in training and know works will save you on race day. For some that is as simple as 3 gels per hour with 2- 20 ounce bottles of water for a 12 hour event. For others who know they cannot tolerate gels or cannot tolerate that many calories or the monotony, they will need to experiment with other types of gels, real food, powdered drinks etc but keeping it simple enough to replicate on race day when you may not be able to control all variables.
Often in long events, variety is important. After so many hours, your may not be able to choke down your preferred food one more time. It may taste too sweet, too dry or be too bland. Variety can help you look forward to that next food stop and keep you fueling which is the goal.
Generally we like to see athletes take a minimum of two “nutrition training sessions” per month where you go out for that long ride, run or brick session and eat and drink as you plan to during a race. Understanding what works during a nutrition training session is a vital step in bringing your performance to the next level. As we begin to ramp up towards the race season, NOW is the time to work on this.
Some sample athletes and what they do.
Endurance Runner A: she has no trouble eating or drinking anything during any training session. However she tends to need more calories than would be expected for her weight and has issues with electrolytes which affect both power and lung function. Now for any endurance running event she’ll often carry her own small water bottle that she carries during training runs. She takes a gel every 4-5 miles (approximately 30-40 minutes depending on race pace) and an electrolyte tablet every 6 miles. If she feels like she needs more calories because of the way her body feels, she will switch gel consumption to every 3-4 miles. She rotates between favored gels but stays away from fruit flavored ones which she finds too sweet.
Endurance Runner B: He is a larger runner and struggles to get in enough calories during training runs. He uses gels every hour and supplements with quartered pbj sandwiches. In addition he uses a carb powder within his water bottle and partakes of water at aid stations. He has trained himself to be able to take in more calories and generally does well. If it is warm, he knows he’ll need to add in electrolytes and has those at the ready.
Triathlete A: She is of average build and has practiced enough so that she can get in enough fuel. To get the 40-60 grams of carbohydrates she knows works for her, she likes to eat a variety of foods. Pop tarts, PBJ, trail mix, fruit bars and shot bloks are her preferred foods. Also, she has one bottle of water and one bottle mixed with electrolytes at all times. This triathlete can also use anything for the run but prefers gels, water and an electrolyte capsule. This helps keep it different from what she eats while on the bike.
Triathlete B: He loves pizza and pizza is his magic food! He is fit and of an average build but is a busy middle-aged dad. He trains as much as he can but sometimes life gets in the way. He tries to get in the nutrition planning that he knows he needs but often cannot make it work. His secret weapon is pizza. He always eats this the night before a long brick workout and always the night before a triathlon. He makes sure to order extra pizza to have for breakfast and then again in T-1. He feels the combination of carbs, fats, protein and sodium sets his day up right. Once on the bike he may still have some of his pizza in his back pocket for the first part of the ride and then switches to water, electrolytes, bars and gels.
What will your magic food be? You will never know until you experiment!