By Matt Koorey and Jeff “The Hammer” Devlin.
Okay, so you’ve done the training, tapered, and you are ready to race. Or are you? Race day nutrition is so important yet only given a fleeting thought by so many athletes. What you ingest pre, during and post race not only has a profound impact on your race performance, but also your ability to recover from the effort. But it’s so common to see athletes arise on the morning of a race and either eat nothing, eat too few calories, eat too close to race start, eat too much fiber, or other similar mistakes that can effect your race outcome. Then during the race, many people lack a fluid/calorie intake plan and either fall short of or overdo their hydration/energy requirements. Similarly, once the race is over most of us just hang around or hop into the car and drive home without reloading. This article will offer advice on fueling your body for a peak performance, and accelerating your recovery from the effort.
The PRE RACE meal is a necessity for racing at any distances. Your liver glycogen levels are slightly depleted during sleep and you’ll need to top up this tank, as you will your blood sugar levels. Consume this meal at 2-4 hours before race start. Spread this out over 2 hours if possible, and consume the bulk of the calories and/or more solid food closer to 4 hours and more liquid calories closer to 2 hours. It’s a wide range and you should see just how hungry you are – you don’t want to stuff yourself. Any solid food should be easily digestible. The number of calories you need to consume will depend largely on your body weight and your ability to “stomach” them. As a guide, for a range in body weight of 50-80 kgs, an athlete should be looking at taking in 400-1200 calories. The calories should be broken down as 65-70% carbohydrate, 15-20% protein and 10-15% fat. For an intake of 600 calories, this would mean approximately 97-105 grams of Carbs, 22-30 grams of Protein and 15-22 grams of Fat. The carbohydrates should be complex. You don’t want too much fibre, either, unless you are planning a pit stop or 5 on the run course. Some people do best on solid food, whilst others can only stomach liquid calories such as a liquid meal replacement . Personally, we mix up a combination of glucose polymers, protein powder and flaxseed oil and advise our athletes to test this out for themselves. However, one thing IS certain – you have to find out BEFORE race day what works for YOU – liquids, solids, or a combination of the two. Practice different combinations of calories before some of your longer workouts and see how they sit with you.
Nutrition DURING a race should not vary drastically from nutrition during training. In general, you will be racing at higher intensities than during training and burning up more carbohydrate and will therefore need to take in more calories and fluids. There will have more fuel and fluid available (aid stations) than during training sessions, so take advantage of it. You’ll need around 750-1750ml of fluid per hour depending on weight, sweat rates and temperature/humidity. In most triathlon events (even the longest ones) the primary energy source is carbohydrate. In longer events take in about 250-500 calories per hour. We prefer using all liquid calories and possibly some squeezies during the run as opposed to energy bars or solid foods. But everyone is different, and you should experiment during training to find out what works the best for you.
In general, smaller athletes 55 kg or less need about 250-350 calories per hour while larger athletes 80 kg or more may need up to 500 calories per hour. The longer the event the more you will use both fat and protein for fuel along with the carbs so you will benefit from including them in your race nutrition. Faster athletes can often get by on carbs only, but if you are on the course for 5 hours or more then you should consider taking in more than just carbohydrate on the bike. Liquid meals or sports bars with protein and a little fat (probably in the form of medium chain triglycerides) could work well in this case. I would aim for around 10-15% of your calories from protein, or 6-18 grams per hour.
DURING THE RACE:
Swim – no calories (no kidding!). Not even the lake or ocean water! During the first hour of exercise, irrespective of the quantity of carbohydrate consumed, only about 20 grams of carbohydrates are oxidised by the working muscles.
Bike – drink only water or diluted energy drink for the first 15-20 minutes. After that try to take in consistently up to 250-500 calories per hour (again, depending on body size and personal requirements) from a combination of energy drink, gels or energy bars.
Run – if you can carry a bottle from the transition area with sports drink that would be good. You are shooting for up to but probably slightly less calories per hour than on the bike. If you are not sure about the drink and it’s strength/mix on the course then you will probably want to carry your calories in squeezies or a gel flask, and dilute it with water. The other option is 2-3 cups of energy drink every 10-15 minutes (a cup could be anywhere from 30-60 calories).
One of the areas that appears to cause the most problems during a race is HOW MANY CALORIES SHOULD YOU PUT IN YOUR BOTTLES? The optimal range for calorie concentration is between 5-10% with 7% being ideal for most athletes and under most conditions. A 7% concentration is about 200 calories per 700ml. In very warm or hot weather it is best to lean towards the lower side of the range and during cooler temperatures lean toward the higher side of the range. You need to consider everything you will be consuming during the race – energy drinks, bars, gels, Big Mac’s, whatever……. The overall calorie to fluid ratio should bring you to within this concentration range. In other words, the more calories you consume, the more fluid you will need to go with it – otherwise water will need to be taken from your working muscles to attempt to digest and absorb it all – a sure fire recipe for cramps. If you plan on consuming gels and bars then you may want to consider going light on the amount of calories in your bottles. Also keep in mind the recommended total amount of fluid that can be reasonably consumed per hour(750-1750m)l.
Now the race is done, and you kicked some serious freckle. First thing to do is kick back and hook into a brewskie or three, right? WRONG! Put the beer on hold (for now). The first hour after a long race (and training session for that matter) is THE most important time to replace fluid, carbohydrate and protein. The body is in serious need of rehydration and repair at this time so give it what it needs to speed recovery. First, drink around 500-750ml of water. Then you want to consume a RECOVERY BOTTLE that you will have prepared pre race. You want a mix of carbohydrate (60-75g), protein powder (25-35g) and essential fatty acids/flax oil (14g – 1 tablespoon). Depending on the event it could be appropriate to follow up an hour later with another 70-100 grams of carbohydrate. Then, go eat some REAL food. Continue to drink plenty of water over the next 12 hours. We can’t emphasise this enough when it comes to day to day recovery from hard training.
Are we sick of eating/drinking yet? Yes, it can be a chore but if you really want optimum performance then it’s worth the effort.