March 7, 2013

How to Avoid Nutrition Meltdown On Race Day

Imagine you spent the last few months training diligently for your big race. Suddenly, within a few hundred yards of the finish line your body shuts down and you can’t take another step. Your energy is shot and your thinking is scrambled.  This can happen to all of us; in fact it happens all the time, even to the best.

Look no further than the Ironman World Championship for some real life examples.   Paula Newby Fraser, in my opinion, is the greatest Ironman distance champion of all time… yet there she was, going through a full nutrition meltdown 400 yards from notching another win in a race she was dominating.

So how do you ensure this doesn’t happen to you?  Here’s my three-step approach.

Train Your Body

You must teach your body to absorb nutrition DURING training sessions. Start anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before your big race:  the longer the race and the more sensitive your system the earlier you need to start. A few guidelines to get started:

  1. Incorporate a “nutrition” plan into each and every training session.
  2. Mix it up so you don’t rely on the same type of calories day after day.
  3. If possible, find out what’s being served on the course and build it into your training on occasion.  This allows you to easily adjust when bad things happen, such as your gels falling out of your pocket.

Here’s how to use nutrition to make a difference in your next race.

Swim training:  Obviously you can’t take any calories in the swim. But do take in some calories before every swim workout by consuming a gel.

Bike Training:  Practice taking in calories before, during and after your ride.  On long rides, carry two bottles on your bike and use a different sports drink in each to prep your body for the possibility of multiple sports drinks given at events.

Run Training:  Consuming calories on the run can be more of a challenge, however, just like the bike, practice consuming calories before, during, and after the each run.  Be consistent because the run leg at any distance is quite demanding, which limits your ability to absorb calories.  Your goal is to keep your blood sugar stable so you can maintain a solid pace.

Meal Planning 101

Never leave your nutrition to chance!  Plan it, write it and review it on a regular basis.  Test it out at least once or twice in training in the weeks leading up to the race. Specifically this means getting up at the time you plan to get up, eating what it is that you think you’d like that morning, and going through the process of a simulated triathlon consuming the calories you plan to consume.

Build your plan by taking a lined sheet of paper and on the left side start with the time you intend to get up in the morning and in 15 or 30 minute increments write out what you are going to do leading all the way through the end of the race. Make sure you have a plan for all three key components:  your pre-race meal and snacks, your actual race nutrition, and your post-race recovery calories.  Some pointers:

Pre-race:  Identify exactly what you’re going to eat when you get up in order to minimize the drama.  Plan in some snacks that you’re going to consume in the hour or so before the race and account for any possible delays or extended waiting time that results from being in a late start wave at a large race.  And be sure to pencil in what you’re going to consume just before the race start.  Here are my rules:

  1. Liquid or blended is best.  This is easier to process on what may be a nervous digestion system.
  2. Minimize the fat and fiber because they slow down digestion process.  Use smooth nut butter instead of higher fiber chunky nut butter, for example.  Avoid healthy whole grains and choose white bread, bagels, and rice instead.
  3. Just a little protein.  Protein powder in a smoothie or mixed with some apple sauce works well and maybe a little cinnamon to improve the taste.

Race Nutrition:  The most important thing to remember is that you’re limited by the number of calories your body can absorb. The old rule of thumb is about 250 calories/ hour; more current research places that number closer to 320 to 380 calories/hour. The new research also identified different transport mechanisms in your body for different types of sugar which is why most sports drinks have more than one sugar source. This is particularly important for longer races because of the higher overall calorie needs of those races.

For sprint and international distance races large amounts of calories aren’t necessary.  The higher intensity of the shorter course races makes calories absorption more difficult.  And your body has adequate energy stores, for the most part, to handle the race duration.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consume some calories.  In short course races focus on taking in 100 to 200 calories/hour to keep your blood sugar stable and possibly giving you that energy bump you need to run strong towards the end of the race.

For long course races your needs are greater.  As a general rule look to consume twice as many calories or more on the bike than you do on the run.  If you plan to consume 300 calories/hour on the bike then 120 to 150 calories/hour on the run works well.  If you prefer solid food like energy bars try to consume them in the first half of the bike leg when your body is less dehydrated to minimize the stress on your digestive system.

When you build your plan be sure to give yourself options. Just because something worked in training doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get it down your throat on race day.  And when bad things happen, such as bottles flying off your bike, expect it and prepare for it:  carry an extra gel flask or some other calories source like chews or blocks just in case.  The additional weight is minimal and the peace of mind is worth it, particularly in long races.

Post-race:  The formula is pretty simple.  Consume 50-100 grams of carbohydrate and 6-20 grams of protein within 15-20 minutes of finishing, preferably in liquid form.  There are a number of pre-measured recovery drinks on the market that work well.  If that’s not an option then do what I do and drink a can of cold cola as soon as possible after crossing the finish line.  It’s not perfect but it tastes good and works pretty well.

Once the race is done quite often the party is on.  Hold off for a little while and focus on getting in some good quality nutrition first.  You’ll recover faster and there’s a good chance you’ll reduce your muscle soreness, particularly if you’re going to race again soon.

Stress and GI Distress

Stress has a huge impact on your ability to digest new calories.  The physiology is simple. When you get into high stress situations or what’s commonly known as fight or flight you engage your parasympathetic nervous system. One of the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system is to get you away from danger as quickly as possible. That means any unnecessary body bodily systems are shutdown. One of those systems is your digestive system because when you’re in danger processing calories is not a priority. The bottom line is your body doesn’t know the difference between running from a lion or panicking in the swim. So how do you deal with this?

In the weeks leading up to the race train yourself to be calm. Practice mindful meditation or deep relaxed breathing before and during training on a regular basis.  Be sure to build time for some relaxed breathing into your training plan. You want to visualize yourself being calm and handling the swim start and all the other drama in the transition areas with ease. The more relaxed you are the morning of the race the easier your body can access and shuttle those valuable calories to your working muscles they so desperately need!

Related Posts


More on the Real Secret to Triathlon Fitness

  My last blog post generated quite a few questions from athletes.  So, I thought I’d sha


The Real Secret to Triathlon Fitness

Do you want to know the secret to getting more triathlon fit?  Yeah, me too. The fact is there


Are Your Habits Helping or Hurting Your Training?

Get Triathlon-Fit First Triathlon training is simple. All you need is enough swim, bike, and r