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Ironman Fueling Q & A


Whether you’re new to the sport of triathlon or a veteran looking to dial in your nutrition plan, now is the time to establish your fueling protocol. Coach Jason answered a few questions provided by Ironman's Strava Club. Do you have a question? Comment below and we will answer!

Jana M.: I have so many! I'm training for IMTX and don't feel like I'm eating enough protein for recovery. How much protein should I be getting on both light and heavy training days?

Aim for 20g of protein containing 8-10 grams of essential amino acids within 20 minutes of finishing your session. It’s very important that this drink has quality carbohydrates to stabilize blood sugar levels and replace glycogen stores following your session as soon as possible. If you don’t have time to create a proper meal or smoothie, a recovery drink should replace about half of the calorie deficit created during exercise. Typically this will equate to about 75-125 grams of carbs and 20-30 grams of protein.

Clearly, protein is important for recovery, but don’t neglect carbohydrates and rehydration, as they are just as vital. According to Dr. Stuart Phillips, rehydrating and refueling (with carbohydrates) should take a higher priority over protein. Remember the 3 R’s of Recovery: rehydrate, refuel and repair. This doesn’t mean that you don’t need protein to repair and build muscle; you just probably don’t need as much as you think.

On heavy training days, get in a regenerative meal within 15-20 minutes of completing your training. Your body is particularly responsive to carbohydrates (replenish glycogen stores) and protein (repair muscle trauma) during this 15-20 minute window, so it’s imperative to have your post workout meal timely. It’s especially important if you have another session on the same day. I also recommend consuming at least half of your body weight in ounces of water daily in addition to what you sweat out during your session. For every pound of water weight lost (16 oz of sweat), drink 2-3 cups of water.

Tanner Gervais: What is your take on carbohydrate vs. fat-based fueling for full-distance triathlon events?

In my opinion, athletes shouldn’t take an “extreme” approach to fueling for Ironman or Ironman 70.3 event. Is carbohydrate fueling better than fat-based fueling? That answer will be dictated by the individual’s genetic makeup, the goals of the athlete and the specific targets of his or her workout. Why choose just one source of fueling over the other? If you’re training in a carbohydrate depleted state to ensure fat metabolism is optimized, you will have a difficult time holding high intensity, but you will be challenging your fat metabolism. On the contrary, during a high intensity session, your body will be craving carbohydrates as a source of fuel so you need to keep the gels and sports drink coming in. If you want to keep the intensity aerobic, stick to fat-adapted. But as a coach, I can assure you, you won’t see consistent improvement by training at the same intensity week after week. Periodize your nutrition as you periodize your training.

William Dowling: My health teacher says that fruit, even in small amounts, makes you fat. This can't be right, is it?

Focus on eating the “Nutrient Dense” foods between workouts for optimal recovery to stabilize blood sugar. “Nutrient Dense” foods include fruit and vegetables as they are nature’s multi-vitamin. The deeper the color, the more nutrients it contains, so be sure to enjoy a plethora of colors and types. The ONLY time you should avoid fruits and vegetables is if it’s late in your Ironman race week and you’re attempting to reduce fiber to lower the risk of potential GI distress. I would never suggest an athlete avoid fruits at any point in training as they are a vital source of powerful nutrients and the fiber will help keep your bowel regular.

Richard Juergens: Would eating beets right before a race help you?

For the last few years, dietary nitrate (the active compound in beetroot juice) has grown in popularity as a sports nutrition supplement. Will consuming beets right before your race help? As Brett Singer, MS, RD, CSSD, LD noted in his Ironman article, it's recommended that athletes consume beetroot juice two to three hours prior to competition to ensure plasma nitrite levels peak at the initiation of exercise. Singer notes that while some studies have utilized a one-time dose of beet juice, others have utilized daily supplementation for up to six days with the final dose being provided two to three hours prior to exercise. Several days of supplementation may improve results compared to a one-time dose, but there is no current consensus on best practice.

Studies have shown that beet juice offers a potential benefit for shorter distance endurance athletes, so if you’re racing a short distance event, then perhaps consuming beetroot juice right before your race will help. However, I wouldn’t anticipate a significant performance enhancement over an Ironman 70.3 or Ironman distance event until more studies emerge.

Badi M.: Is it recommended to eat meat or protein the day before the race? What will be the best nutrition on race-day eve?

Absolutely, you should include protein the day before your event. For Ironman 70.3 distance and beyond, I recommend starting your carbohydrate load at lunchtime, two days prior to the race. Start by incorporating grains that you wouldn’t typically consume (i.e. white bread), being careful not to finish meals feeling uncomfortably full. I don’t want you feeling bloated on race morning! Your main carbohydrate load, however, will take place at breakfast the day before the event. Finish eating by 9 a.m. at the latest, after which you’ll begin to eat fairly normal for the rest of the day.

Thereafter, choose frequent carbohydrate-rich snacks (i.e. pretzels), and finish the day with an early, regular portion-size dinner. Eat foods very low in fat and fiber (this means few fruits and vegetables, if any). Aim to consume approximately 10 times your body weight (in kilograms) as grams of carbohydrate and unless you have hypertension issues, don’t skimp on the salt.

What’s best for you on the evening prior to your race may not be best for another athlete. Dial in your race day nutrition plan on the eve of your higher volume training days/weekends and never attempt to eat something new the night before an event.

Connor P.: What type of food groups should/shouldn't I be eating for cycling road race training? What's the best for this training?

In a nutshell: eat everything, just not too much of anything! Don’t restrict any specific foods, but concentrate on eating low Glycemic Index (GI) foods. Highly glycemic foods like refined sugars, will likely cause blood sugar levels to spike, which can lead to increased hunger, fatigue, and excessive storage of body fat. Reserve the intake of higher GI foods for before and after your sessions to restore depleted glycogen.

To maintain a stable blood sugar throughout your day, focus on real, whole, nutrient dense foods in between sessions. Additionally, avoid waiting more than 2.5 hours between meals. In Ironman and cycling training your muscles need a steady supply of nutrients for muscle recovery. In heavy training periods, you may want to consume a protein shake (20g of whey protein, 100kcal) before you go to bed to aid with recovery.

As we touched on earlier, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables! They are a robust source of antioxidants and nutrients.

Jeremy N.: Is there a "refueling ratio"? Example, if I burn an estimated 1000 calories over 60 minutes of effort, I should be fueling with a minimum of 400 calories during that 60 min activity to aid in performance and recovery?

For a 90-minute session, target drinking 20-22 ounces of water per hour during exercise. If you’re deep into training cycle aim to drink 8-10 oz of a sports drink (with no more than 8% carbohydrate) every 20 minutes and a gel every 30 minutes.

Remember that you’re not just fueling today’s session, but you’re setting yourself of for the next one as well.

Keep in mind that every individual has an upper limit for the amount of carbohydrate they can ingest and absorb per hour. The key is to identify your optimal absorption rate in training so that you are maximizing your performance potential on race day.

Vishi Upadhyay: What do you suggest in those 400 calories? Liquid or solid food?

Every individual is different and can tolerate solids and liquids in different amounts. I would recommend working with a sports dietitian who can help you identify foods and fluids that work well with your physiology and gastro-intestinal absorption rate. Generally, most endurance athletes tolerate liquids in amount of 16-24 ounces per hour with a carbohydrate ratio of up to 8% per 8 ounces (most sports drinks are formulated so that the percentage of carbohydrate per 8 ounces is 8% or less). Ideally, for longer endurance events such as half ironman races and ironman races, you can train your gut to tolerate simple solid foods on the bike and maybe even the run. Examples would include bananas, sports bars, white rice or white bread and very small amounts of protein and fat. I cannot stress enough how individual each athletes needs are and one of the best investments you can make is in a sports nutrition plan formulated by an expert in nutrition.

Jason Shaw: How do you best suggest testing your nutrition during training? You don't usually practice a full-distance race in training, so how do you best simulate what it will feel like and practice taking your nutrition?

I suggest doing a few race simulation weekends to help dial in your nutrition and build mental fitness for race day. Three hours at ironman intensity on the bike followed by a 60 minute transition run off the bike would be a reasonable workout to test your fueling protocol at race intensity.

Etienne W.: What do you think about waiting 60-90min before eating after a moderate workout to continue burning some calories and thus helping lose weight!?

That is not a good idea. Even though you may not have worked excessively hard during the session, allowing your body to enter a caloric deficit will have a negative impact on the following day’s session, particularly if it’s a high quality swim, ride or run.

Marco M.: What is an ideal weekly menu for someone who wants to turn vegan while training for an IRONMAN?

The focus should remain on quality carbohydrates, complete protein sources, healthy fats and colorful produce. Vegan diets somewhat limit your options for easily obtaining complete protein sources. Thus the planning of meals takes on a new meaning.

Make sure to find foods that, when combined, make up a complete protein (a complete protein is 100% bio-available to the body). An example would be rice and beans. Working with a sports dietitian who has the experience to plan out a vegan menu for an endurance athlete is highly recommended as each athlete’s needs are different.

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