How To Prepare Triathlon Race Nutrition (Part One)

by Gordon Polovin

I am writing this article based mostly on my endurance race experience. I have completed the Comrades Marathon in South Africa seven times in under 7 hours - safely inside the silver medal category. It is not a triathlon but is arguably the most competitive pure ultra running race on Earth. Going into its one-hundredth anniversary, the race attracts more than twenty thousand athletes annually from every continent (many of them in the elite class). Between two cities, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, the route covers 56 miles - the equivalent of two standard marathons plus four miles. The competitors traverse a severely hilly (even mountainous) route in hot and humid weather.

 

I always found it amazing how many athletes dedicated themselves, their bodies, and souls to training for this iconic event but paid little attention to their nutrition. Ironically, when the body unexpectedly breaks down mid-race, it's not because the athlete lacks stamina. No, the chances are one's sustenance before and during the event is the culprit. I can’t count the times I passed athletes expected to finish in the top hundred vomiting on the roadside - at a standstill with diarrhea and nausea symptoms. So, as a long-distance triathlete aiming at the Ironman or similar, perhaps some of my pointers on how to prepare your body nutritionally will prove helpful.

 

Finding the optimal race diet for you

Discovering the right balance of food and drink intake is not something that you can Google and, in an instant, say, “Aha! That’s me!” Every athlete is different, and getting to the crux takes patience and a little perseverance. The best way to go through the trial and error process is on those long-running or cycling stints. The more you test the diet under arduous physical conditions, the better. I’m going to come at the subject from different angles. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to fuel yourself without missing a beat.

 

A.   Carbohydrates lie at the core of endurance nutrition.

That said, a fundamental question is this: How much carbohydrate can you consume in an hour? The research suggests a range between sixty and ninety grams, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. For the bike, there's a number, and then run something else (i.e., generally a third less). My suggestion is to try it out at 45g and move up from there. Once you breach the 60g barrier, it's vital to get scientific about the mixtures you rely on. Why? Because the indications are that the maximum hourly capacity for glucose is at 60g.

 

I recommend, and Sumarpo agrees, products with both glucose/maltodextrin and fructose. The latter is absorbed differently, so you can take 30g of the latter simultaneously with no ill effects. Of course, there are many brands where the 2:1 ratio is precisely measured. Talk to Sumarpo for advice on this critical aspect of your nutrition.

 

B.   Calories are also in the mix.

In my day, “carbohydrate loading” was bandied around loosely. I quickly understood that it stretched a lot further than I could get from gels and sports drinks alone. Solid foods fit nicely into the equation as energy bars, pretzels, rice cakes - even sandwiches. However, it’s vital to get the balance right to avoid gastronomical distress syndrome when you least expect it. A good yardstick for absorbing calories from solids versus gels and liquids is fifty-fifty. Aside from this, here’s a helpful guideline:

  • Plan on absorbing 2.0 - 2.3 calories per pound per hour.
  • As an example, I weigh a hundred and forty pounds. In the Comrades event stretching for six-and-a-half hours, I planned for my food and drank supplement, calculating as follows: 140 x 2.3 x 6.5 = 2093 calories.

Where does the “carbo-loading” come in? On the regimen described, you’ll find that carbs make up around 85% of the nutritional content, the rest going to protein and fats. To reiterate, these are somewhat loosely constructed yardsticks, not cast in stone. Try out different combinations and specific brands to make sure they agree with you.

(To be continued)

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