A couple of years ago, I went to a very interesting talk on nutrition, held by Collin Allin. In view of an imminent half Ironman distance at the end of May, Dubai-based Tri coach Trace Rogers from Growings Coaching set up an evening for participants to receive advice on hydration and correct fuelling for this event.
Collin Allin has participated in over 100 multi-distance events, the Comrades Marathon and Ironman distances and ultra-marathons and has gone through the pain of improper nutrition and the consequences thereof. It is his view that successful racing is primarily down to pacing and nutrition. This article is quite long, so make yourself a cup of coffee before you start (oh, wait….)
First of all, don’t make your dietary requirements someone else’s problem. Your lifestyle choices are very personal, so if you are invited for dinner and you are served pasta, eat the pasta (unless it will make you violently ill of course). It’s a one-off, you can return to your regular eating plan the next day. Eat a quality diet consistently – and also monitor what are you eating when you are not training.
You know you are on the right track in terms of eating if your general meals consist of:
- Your meals are overflowing with fruits, vegetables, lean protein and complex carbohydrates
- You avoid junk foods (including large amounts of processed energy bars and gels) and fatty foods
- You limit your intake of alcohol to one or two drinks a day and keep caffeine to a minimum
If you are not achieving the body composition you need and you are prone to injury, then you need revisit your lifestyle and see if you are matching the above. Moderation is key.
Do not skip breakfast!
If you are training in the morning then you need to start the day with 800-1000 calories, but split these up into pre-training and post-training. For example, before training, eat some peanut butter (no sugar added) or avocado on some toast with half a banana, and after training eat your eggs. Your first meal of the day should make up a third to a half of your daily calories, to avoid getting tired in the evening and eating too much or improperly.
You know when your nutrition is failing when your training sessions are no longer enjoyable and you do not feel like quality sessions. You think about food constantly and you have hunger spikes in the evenings.
When do I eat?
Drip feed your body calories throughout the day and break up your meals into 6-8 sessions in small portions. Eat 1-3 hours before training and if you are training short and/or high-intensity sessions under two hours, you can benefit from teaching your body to rely on fat stores for energy, which requires consuming fewer carbohydrates, and gear towards liquid-based nutrition such as a sports drinks. For sessions more than three hours, eat 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrate one to four hours beforehand.
A successful eating plan should indicate some of the following:
- Your performance consistently improves
- You recover quickly
- You crave sweets infrequently
Many endurance athletes, despite fuelling their workouts properly while they are out on the road, can finish the day with a caloric deficit. The fear of gaining weight can result in an epidemic of under-fed athletes. If you feel satiated, energetic and light in all your workouts, no matter what time of day, you are on the right track.
If you are prone to GI distress in workouts, often diarrhoea or stomach cramps, this can be due to consuming too many carbohydrates. Your body will urge the offload of unwanted excess. If you are low on energy or feel heavy and sluggish before and during workouts you need to revisit your intake and importantly your meal timings.
During endurance exercise, you will expend around 600-900 cal/hr, but do not consume that much to keep your energy level up, as your body cannot absorb and process calories at that rate.
The limiting factors in caloric replenishment are gastric emptying and liver metabolism of carbohydrates. For most athletes, this is in the 240-280 cal/hr range, and this sets the limit of caloric intake. If you consume more than that, you will most likely experience some form of stomach distress.
Macro what? This is a new thing to me as I have been a philistine all these years when it comes to actually knowing really what I am eating.
I have only recently learned from sports trainer and UCI World Cycling Championship Qualifier of more than 20 years experience, Dee Boys, that macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) have several important functions in the body, and it’s crucial to give your body the right amount of each.
Quote: “A lifestyle programme is something you can do for the rest of your life. A balance of all food groups, and you are taking a natural multi vitamin pill everyday. There is so much emphasis on no carbs these days, that people are becoming so confused and are actually getting scared to eat essential healthy carbs that give us the energy to burn more fat. The reason the population has an obesity problems, is not because of bread, pasta and rice, it’s an abundance of processed high fat and high sugar foods that are now available.” Wise words indeed.
Collin Allin states that exact percentages of each will vary depending on what type of triathlete you are; an IRONMAN triathlete will need slightly more carbohydrate (the body’s primary energy source) than a short-course triathlete logging fewer training hours. As a rule of thumb, athletes should aim for getting 45-65 percent of daily calories from carbohydrate, 15-20 percent from protein and 20-35 percent from fat. If you are low on energy after workouts, revisit your intake.
If you are training over 3 hours, you will need to add some protein to your fuel or your body will begin to cannibalize its own muscle tissue for energy. The preferred protein for use during prolonged exercise is soy, primarily because its metabolization does not readily produce ammonia. Whey protein, with its high glutamine content, makes an excellent post-workout protein, but is not a good choice before or during exercise.
Measure your training by time and intensity, not by distance. You know you are on the right track with your nutrition and pacing if you recover quickly, even after high-intensity sessions, and you can’t remember the last time you got sick, or injured.
There is much talk on hydration, dehydration and overhydration. Note some similarities.
Symptoms of overhydration may not be recognized in the early stages but can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes in mental state (confusion or disorientation)
The signs and symptoms of dehydration range from minor to severe and include:
- Increased thirst
- Dry mouth and swollen tongue
- Palpitations (feeling that the heart is jumping or pounding)
- Sluggishness fainting
You are aiming to achieve the right balance of fluids and electrolytes (minerals not only essential to our sports performance but our overall health). How much you need to drink varies greatly between individuals based on size, sweat rate, activity levels, weather and altitude,pay close attention to your thirst and alternating plain water with low-sugar electrolyte drinks to top up your salts and minerals. There is no hard and fast rule – so practice your hydration during training, with care! Do not wait until race day.
If your urine is straw-coloured, you have achieved your correct levels. Could be tricky testing this during training!
Food – Friend not Foe
Food is your friend, have a good relationship with it. Don’t make yourself a long list of “can’t eats” and don’t eat mindlessly. Eating is like kissing. Slowly does it and without distraction is best!
Eat whole, real foods and avoid pre-packaged foods if possible. Eat at home, prepare your own. A family that eats together, stays together.
So what do I eat on Race Day?
Avoid coffee before the swim. I didn’t know this and have always downed that super espresso before training and a race. Apparently, you will elevate your heart rate unnecessarily and if the water is choppy and that “Big Green Monster” is after you in the water you could bring on a panic or stress attack. Don’t overeat. Peanut butter or avocado on toast and 500ml of energy drink should suffice. Avoid carbo loading the night before to avoid excessive water retention (1g of carb retains 1ml of water).
Don’t eat or drink. Wait 15 minutes after exiting the water before you mix anything with the salt water that you may have imbibed during your arduous swim. Also, give the body a chance to get upright after being horizontal for your distance.
Get on the bike and now this is your chance to eat some solid foods. Try to get in bar, or small buttered rolls with bacon or avo, good slow burning food. Drink 550ml of fluid for every hour that you are on the bike. Drink before you get thirsty and even if you don’t feel like it, as you are putting liquid away in the bank for later on in the race when you start your run.
Wait 10 to 15 minutes again before hydrating and eating. Your body has been crouched up for some time – let it settle into a vertical position again.
So it’s now the home straight and you could be running from anything from 20 minutes to 4 hours plus. Avoid solid foods now, and use liquids, gels or chews. if you start on the Coke, then stay with the Coke to avoid excessive sugar level drops and maintain the “high” for the duration. Try to mix it with 1/2 water to avoid strong sugar rush into your stomach.
During your race, your body will drop in weight due to water loss. Monitor this during training by weighing yourself before and after. A 2% loss is acceptable. on the table of 0% – 8% water loss, 8% is life threatening and 2% and over hinders performance, increased thirst and also hinders your body’s natural heat regulation. Your internal air conditioning system will shut down at 6% and at 7% collapse is likely.
If you finish an event or training session weighing more than what you started you have overhydrated. Do not assume that you can drink unlimited amounts of water or fluid during exercise and expect that all of it will be absorbed and the excess will be lost in sweat or through the kidneys. You will instead bloat, dilute your blood, urinate excessively, and develop water intoxication.
So you have followed all the rules for lifestyle eating and pre-training nutrition, and nutrition during training and post-training. To the book. yet you get cramps. According to Collin, cramping is the result of going too hard for your ability and setting your body beyond it’s limits. This is not necessarily due to speed but length of time of training or the race. Night cramping could be lack of magnesium, iron and vitamin B. He also said that quinine is a good mineral for avoiding cramping – clink clink gin and tonic!
You may also cramp from acidity and need to revisit your eating habits. for example, O+ is an acidic blood tryp and may require the limited intake of acidic foods.
Nutrition is everything, and so is sleep and rest.
See you out on the tarmac!
Note: the content of this article are the views of many and not just a singular athlete. Do consult a sports nutritionist and a sports physician before taking on any major endurance event.