Taking on an Ironman was previously the realm of seasoned triathletes, with the rest of us mere mortals happy to watch in quiet contemplation of both their impressive athletic ability and their sanity. However, with Ironman events becoming more accessible, many sporty types are opting to try the ‘zero to hero’ approach and tackling a 3.8Km swim, 180-Km bike and 42.2Km run as their first ever ‘three-discipline’ race.
My friend and fellow Dietitian Helen West shares her advice for flawless Ironman fuelling.
Unlike many other sporting events, the distances involved in an Ironman competition mean that nutrition plays an enormously important role. Having a plan is not just a priority for the elite few trying to shave that little bit more time off their personal best, but a firm necessity for all competitors who wish to cross that finish line.
So, for those of you taking on the beast, here are my tips for making sure your race day nutrition goes as smoothly as possible:
1. Have a plan (and a back-up)
So this might seem obvious, but it’s really important to be prepared and know your needs. Sports Dietitians of Australia recommend taking on between 1-1.2g of carbohydrate per Kg body weight per hour of the race. E.g. a person who weighs 70kg needs approximately 70-84g of carbohydrate per hour. However, as any seasoned triathlete will tell you, race day doesn’t always go to plan. Taste fatigue, lost drink bottles and gels can and do happen. So in case of disaster, have a back up plan to keep your fuel on track.
2. Keep it simple
There’s a plethora of sports nutrition products designed for purpose. However, mixing things up too much can make things confusing and increase your risk of tummy upset on the day. If this is your first or a one off ironman, It’s worth checking the race website to see what nutrition products will be supplied on the course and practising with them in training to see if they work for you. It is does – great! If not, you might have to put a bit of extra effort in to making sure you have your preferred food sources available when you need them – check with your race organiser to see what provisions are available. Find what works for you, and stick to it.
3. Check the location of aid stations
Just as important as knowing ‘what is’ at the aid stations is ‘where are’ the aid stations? Knowing where the aid stations are before you start takes the guess work out of some of your planning. It sounds like common sense, but checking this out well before race day will help you predict how long you will have between fuel stops and what you will need to carry with you.
4. Consider the weather
You have a food and fluid plan, but if you have been training in cold weather and you turn up on the day and it’s 30 degrees and sunny, you might need to make some changes! It’s important to cover extra sweat losses but equally important not to overdo it. Drinking a little more before the race starts (your urine will be a good indicator of hydration status) and making sure you have an adequate sodium intake throughout the race will ensure you remain hydrated. Most sports drinks & foods will ensure this, but heavy sweaters may wish to speak to a sports dietitian about using salt tablets.
5. Have a pre-race meal
Starting the race well hydrated and fuelled to the max (without any discomfort or bursting for the loo) is a little bit of an art. And, unfortunately, as you need to eat about 2 – 2.5 hours before the the race, you are going to need to start your prep pretty early in the morning. As well as being palatable, your meal should include 1.5-2g of carbohydrate per kg and should be low in fat and fibre.
6. Top up in transitions
Obviously you can’t take fuel or fluid on board while swimming, so make sure in your excitement to get going you don’t forget to have a top-up (in the form of a sports drink or water) at T1 before you jump on the bike. Preparing special ‘bike’ and ‘run’ transition bags can ensure you have the right fuel available to you as you switch disciplines.
7. Carry Food Supplies to The Race
If you are competing abroad or away from home, it’s definitely worth taking some ‘normal’ foods with you (rice, pasta, spreads, jams etc) to the location to make sure you have familiar foods to eat in the lead up to the race.
8. Set a timer
The race can be intense, so set a repeated alarm on your watch to remind you to drink and make sure you take on fuel at regular intervals. Taking on fuel regularly will reduce your chances of hitting the wall later in the race.
9. Walk through the aid stations
The vast majority of us mere mortals are out to finish the race not break any records. However, even if your pushing for a personal best, taking your time through the aid stations by slowing or walking will give you time to regroup, see where you stand, take on your fuel and adjust your plan if you feel necessary. It will also allow you to take onboard appropriate fuel and fluid with less spillage, giving you the advantage of being better fuelled for the remainder of the race.
10. Never try anything new
In the excitement leading up to race day, many previous competitors and triathletes might share their nutrition secrets with you and perhaps offer you that ever elusive ‘silver bullet’. But don’t be tempted to add-in any unknowns on race day. Stick to what you know works for you and leave “their way” to your training plan for the next race….
Have you ever completed an Ironman?
What nutrition tips would you give?
Let’s discuss in the comments!
Helen West is a UK registered dietitian & blogger who is passionate about spreading practical and evidence based nutrition information. Helen currently lives in Bali with her husband. She spends her days researching and writing articles for her blog, surfing and working on her new found love of yoga. Helen believes healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated and should always be fun! You can read more about Helen’s life and her thoughts on nutrition related issues on her blog Food & Nonsense.