Ironman Nutrition

Michael Lovato posted his nutrition plan from Ironman Hawaii on the First Endurance Blog yesterday and I of course read it… and then I thought about it an awful lot in the past day. Of course, he’s got an agreement with a specific company to use their products during training and racing so there’s some impartiality lacking, but that’s besides the point. The details of a plan are given and it’s not a bogus plan, it’s real and accurate and the guy executed it and it sounds reasonable. Unfortunately there’s not as much of that on the internet as you might imagine. There’s people posting all over the internet what their strategies are for triathlon nutrition but there is no way that they’re accurate. There’s also just as many garbage plans posted to the web out there as there are good plans posted to the web. Lovato has a good one and there is a LOT of really good information in it. I’d recommend reading it.

While Lovato doesn’t explicitly state he’s trying to create certain hormonal condition for racing in addition to getting the fueling right I think the plan he gives does just that. I’ve been thinking about tricking your body’s insulin response quite a bit recently and some of the related things that go with hormones during both exercise and recovery. Joe Friel had an excellent article on his website today about RER & fuel sources during exercise. In it he provides a reference to a study I’d recently read the abstract of about pre-exercise fuel. I still can’t get the full text of it and the abstract doesn’t allude to the answer but I believe the authors likely would assume the source of the variation seen has something to do with the insulin response caused by the glucose versus the fructose. Also worth linking for the interested reader is an article about exercising under depleted carbohydrate conditions (this is a valid way to train your body to run at a lower RER despite what people may think) and another article establishing that consuming carbohydrates during exercise raises RER. Us as athletes can’t somehow select an RER during exercise, our body decides upon it based on our exertion… but because the relationship between RERs and exertion do sometimes change, it’s something that we probably can modify if we want to, in theory it can be trained.

An aside for the real geeks: The electrical engineer slash physicist in me wants to learn the dirac-response to all of the different things I could put in my body as though I function as a neatly organized linear system. Then I could make a “Nutritional Born Approximation” of my body and the protocol I’m following and have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with the macronutrient levels in my blood/liver/muscles during exercise. Clearly it doesn’t work like that and I think a lot of people then dismiss the question as “the body is more complicated than you think”. I agree, the body is more complicated than I’d like it to be in this regard but I refuse to believe that it is too complicated for me to study and learn. How do we learn to make any improvements to sports nutrition at all? I am far exceeding progress compared to where I could be based purely on trial and error so obviously some of the system is at least quasi understandable. The obvious question to ask then is what makes the system nonlinear. That’s the starting point to make a guess at how to best approximate a nonlinear system and as best as I can tell the answer is hormone levels. Insulin is the obvious one as well as the ones involves in regulating free fatty acids, and the more I reflect on the past couple seasons epinephrine has likely got to have something to do with substrate consumption. Paul Tichelaar mentioned while we were riding together at one point this summer that he thinks very very few coaches really understand hormones and that getting a grip on that would really help us out as athletes. I thought a bit about it at the time but I couldn’t see the course of action to learn to be better about it, now I’m starting to see it and I’d like to pursue it. If only I had more time.

Now that I’ve written a half page of ramble I’ll finally get to the point I was going to try and make. I had a great nutrition plan at Ironman. I practiced during training with it and I executed it very precisely on race day. Energy levels and gastric distress did not play a role whatsoever in my race which is exactly the role that you’d like them to play. So if you didn’t get the clue already I’d recommend reading Michael Lovato’s nutrition plan and if you’re so inclined feel free to continue reading and have a look at mine.

  • Friday is the day of my last workout (Sunday = Raceday). Total duration set to be close to my previously established duration of glycogen supply when my body is operating at Ironman pace. For me this is 1 hour 40 minutes and I did about the equivalent of a sprint triathlon with a 50% too-long bike leg. The workout is long enough that I’m going to generally drain out my muscles but I’m not going to drain then dry. Immediately following this workout I hit myself hard with good recovery food. Approximately 3:1 carbs:protein. Consume a whole protein source. I ate fruit, rice, sausage and nuts. I ate until I was full… and then ate a big lunch 30 minutes later. This marked the end of excessive eating. I needed to make sure the body would be reloaded but not stuffed.
  • Night before – Ate a bunch of stuff that I enjoy eating, not trying to stuff myself. I ate a bunch of Quinoa and half a pork tenderloin. If I wasn’t sharing with Dad I would have probably eaten the whole pork tenderloin though!
  • Breakfast – 4 fried eggs, 4 small pieces of bread, some olive oil on top to make things slimey, and a full tub of yogurt. I also had a few pieces of cheese as well as a banana and a kiwi fruit. Emphasis is on not being hungry and lasting from 4:30am when I ate the meal until 8am when I would be on my bike and beginning to eat in earnest once again. There’s no big sources of fiber here, and there’s a relatively high fat and protein content in this meal compared to what is often recommended for pre-exercise. Carbohydrates are there but the emphasis is on stuff that has low to medium glycemic load, I guess the fruit doesn’t really fit the bill. The idea is to get the digestive system running, and running above a minimal idle, not just to put the key into the ignition. Minimal insulin response to this meal and in that sense similar to Lovato.
  • Race Morning – brought water along but didn’t drink more than 500 mls. Banana at 30 minutes until the start. This will be hitting my bloodstream and leaving the stomach as the race begins. Note Lovato’s tip: don’t go into that long swim with a slightly dipping blood sugar. I wouldn’t go into any swim with a dipping blood sugar and that’s often the reason I’m the guy standing on the pool deck at triathlon club workouts while we wait for the group ahead of us to finish and I’m munching on something. Low blood sugar is a recipe for poor focus and low motivation and personally that’s a recipe for disaster during a swim.
  • During the bike – Targetting 2500 calories in the first 4.5 hours on the bike leaving me a full half hour for the descent off of Richter without any pressure to keep consuming. It is un-aero and inefficient to eat when you could be doing more than 60 kph. I also want to give my stomach a chance to empty out so I hit the run with my body loaded up with energy and fuel but without a brimming stomach.

    With me:

    • 2×24oz bottles of Gatorade = 350 calories
    • 2 tube shot bloks = 400 calories, (one before Richter, one before yellow lake)
    • 4 gels 4×110 = 440 calories
    • 4 clif bars = 960 calories

    Need to get en-route:

    • 5 bananas = 600 calories (try at every aid station if there’s time, there isn’t always if I’m trying to get two bottles)
    • 2 bottles of Gatorade = 350 calories
    • Drink Water the rest of the way. (Leave every aid station with more than half a bottle of water)

    Add up all the calories except for the gels and throw away 4x(1/4) full bottles of gatorade and you wind up at 2500 calories.

    The plan was not to eat any of the gels unless I felt like I needed to get more simple sugar flowing into my body in which case they could replace a clif bar or bananas if I couldn’t get them from the aid stations. I preferred to stick to a slightly more complex carbohydrate than powergel. Admittedly I could just choose to eat hammer-gels or carbo-pro or mix up a stiff bottle of perpetuem or something like that and achieve the same ratios and style of calories but I want to be able to happily get through this race without feeling hungry which I discovered can happen if I’m fully fueled but I’ve not been eating much real food. The end result is that I wanted to chew on something to tell the body I was eating and selected to eat clif-bars. They taste good, they chew a lot prettier than a powerbar, and they are at a pretty optimal level of carbohydrate complexity for the intensity I planned to race at. They’re not as low in fiber as all the other options I mentioned earlier but they’re not “high” like any oat based granola bar. That said, I am drinking gatorade as my primary source of electrolytes on the bike and am getting some pretty simple sugar from there as well as from the 2 tubes of shot bloks which I consumed at the base of each climb, with the intention of riding at a higher exertion on the climbs than on the flats and making sure that I was only asking my digestive system to to relatively easier work while I was asking my legs and lungs to be doing relatively harder work.

  • Can of coke in bike special needs… only plan to stop for it if I’m having a rough time, otherwise I want to conserve the caffeine boost until the run.
  • On my aerobars I had a list of landmarks and relative locations of aid stations as well as a guide to how many calories I needed to put in by certain landmarks to stay on track nutrition-wise. I also noted where I would be when each hour of the ride rolled over to the next if I was keeping pace for a 5 hour 5 minute bike split.
  • Leaving T2 – I had a disposable bottle filled with two cans of cola and extra electrolytes added (3xEload caps) which had been frozen overnight and wrapped in tin foil to keep it slushy/frozen in my T2 bag until I arrived. I took this in my hand as I left and used it as a reason to help me do the first mile slow enough otherwise I would likely totally overdo it. It also got the caffeine flowing in my system which is just what I wanted as I find it gives me a good boost. I had a second bottle of the magic mix stashed in the special needs bag along with all sorts of random crap thinking that I wanted to cover all the bases of what I might be craving. I wasn’t craving much when I got there so I didn’t take much other than a fruit leather (50 cals). A special note for people doing Ironman Canada, you should have something to drink in there as there is no aid station at special needs but the stations are spaced out along the way as though you are due for one when you get there.
  • Aid Stations – Gels at every third aid station with water (8 gels). Drink coke/gatorade at each of the other aid stations when possible. Don’t drink more than 500ml at any one aid station as it will make my stomach slosh. Always try to have one gel in my pocket. Stash ice into top at each aid station. Once through the aid station redistribute the ice how I’d like, into arm coolers and neck. Never leave without arm-coolers being wet. The game plan was to switch to water instead of coke and gatorade if I’m feeling like my belly is full. In the final 10 mile I was full up on energy and dealing with cramping in my legs as I ran. By this point I was largely just going through the motions and taking tiny sips at the aid stations rather than drinking anything of substance or consuming much fuel. The game had changed by that point, I had no doubt about my ability to finish strong energy-wise and by the time I hit the south end of town I was in good enough shape mentally and nutritionally to lax up the plan fuel wise and put the focus on the main task which was pain management with the cramps and just keeping on trucking. I took no gels during the last 10 kms and stuck with the coke/gatorade instead.

Post race I ate some pizza but not a lot. Drank some of this and that but didn’t really do that good of a job loading up my body with all sorts of good food. I was hungry but didn’t have much appetite to actually do the eating as I’d spent the whole day eating. Oh well, I ate some chips, drank my first beer in four months, and went to bed. Nothing fancy.

On a related note I wanted to mention that I am really happy to have a guy like Chris McCormack as world champion in our sport. I’ve had differing opinions of the guy over the course of the past few years with lots of the different spins that the media tries to put on this guy. Over the past season though I’ve paid better attention to what he’s doing and what media he’s putting out and how he’s contributing to triathlon. I’ll admit the swaying of opinion could be swayed a bit by the fact that I’m now consuming more “Chris McCormack sanctioned” media and him and his sponsors have had the opportunity to polish it up a bit, take the edge off the sharp bits that might stab you, and at the same time highlight the highlights. Sure, that might have something to do with it but we can also look at the facts.

Chris probably partied hard and reveled in his win as he alluded to in his victory speech… but a week later he was in California spending a week on a big bike tour with the CAF. Where’s Mirinda Carfrae following her victory on the womens’ side? partying in Vegas. I’ll make no illusion that I wanted Macca to beat Chris Lieto, the guy I’m totally rooting for to win Kona before he retires, or even Craig Alexander who is a consummate professional and great role model in his own right, but really I am mighty mighty happy to have Macca take the crown.



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