Fred Maggiore – USAT Level 1 Coach
With the Wildflower weekend already behind us, I hope people had a nutrition plan in hand on Sunday at the Olympic distance triathlon. We all know for longer distance races, or for efforts out beyond three hours or so, that we need to take on calories to be able to “race” the event. But what about for shorter races, in the 2-3 hour range?
As has been well documented over the years, we all have enough glycogen (the end result of eating carbohydrates), onboard to fuel our hard training and racing for about two hours, plus or minus. Also well known is that we have enough fat onboard, even us skinny triathletes, to sustain much lower levels of exercise for days and days, weeks even. What’s not well known or understood, is that without carbs we cannot utilize the fats we have stored; carbs are the fuel for the fat burning fire. What does that mean, how does it affect my ability to race hard?
If you just go out and race really hard, trained or untrained, at some point, around two hours, you’ll burn through all your glycogen stores and have nothing left to continue racing at that pace. At worst you’ll bonk, hit the wall, whatever you want to call it, when your body will start to let you know it’s time to slow down, whether you want to or not. You’ll start feeling dizzy, light headed, weak, fatigued, and may encounter tunnel vision. Worse case is you can pass out if you ignore all these signs, which is the body’s way of getting you horizontal, regardless of where you are, to get blood and hopefully glycogen flowing back to the brain. In survival mode, the body knows to first save the brain, as a functioning body is no good without functioning brain.
So you have two choices then to avoid bonking, taking on fuel while you race, or slowing down. In our training we do lots of slower workouts, LSD (Long Steady Distance, not the other kind!), rides and runs, that help train our bodies to use our fat stores while exercising more efficiently. This is the primary fuel for longer distance racing, and yes, you can race an Olympic distance triathlon just slow enough to finish with just enough carbs left to fuel the fat burning fire. But what’s the fun in that, don’t you want to go out and race?
So then you need to take on some fuel to race hard, but how much? Of course “your numbers may vary”, based on size, training, efficiency, climate conditions, etc., but given you had a decent breakfast, 2-3 hours before race start, of 400-600 calories, or more, whatever you can process, and that you either sip some calories in your water bottle between then and the race start, 100-200 calories, or take an energy gel 15-20 minutes before the race, with adequate water, you should be ready to start.
On the bike, for an Olympic distance race, the best choices are liquid or gel calories, as solid foods take longer to digest and enter the blood system. With training and practice, you should be able to take 200-300 calories per hour. On the bike, we can only absorb 25-50% of the calories we burn, and the faster you go, the more calories you burn per hour. For some people less is better, as racing hard and eating can easily upset your stomach, where blood is being directed towards your muscles and away from your stomach. Take on too many calories and the worst case is it could wind up sitting there, which can lead to several kinds of unpleasant endings, if you can imagine.
Out on the run, off the bike, our ability to absorb calories drops even further, maybe half of what you can take on the bike, so it’s better to try and fuel up as much as you can before hitting the run. Once out on the run, your pace established, I would suggest taking a gel as early as you feel good, remembering to eat when you’re feeling good, so within the first couple of miles. Then I’d have another gel ready to go in case you feel the need for a little top off later in the race, mile 4-5. As gels take some amount of time to digest and enter the blood system, waiting until the very end will not be effective.
So that’s one take on fueling for an Olympic distance triathlon. I know people that have raced them on zero calories, just taking Gatorade (or whatever carbohydrate/electrolyte drink is on the course) and water on course without issues. I can only remind you that you need to practice your hydration and nutrition in training scenarios that emulate race day conditions, to truly know how many calories you personally need to perform at your highest level. Start off with less calories and see how far you can go hard, then try adding some more to see if that’s a benefit, or if at some point it’s too much and your stomach can’t handle it.
Practice, practice, practice, that’s the key to fast racing and having the best race you can.