ironguides coach Alun ‘Woody’ Woodward looks into the importance, and ways, of getting your race day nutrition right.
Race performance is not only about the fitness you have gained through training but it is also about nutrition on the day. Nutrition plays a significant role—get it wrong and all the fitness in the world won’t result in a good race.
Nutrition seems to be a major stumbling block for many athletes come race day, yet is rarely a problem in training. Considering how much we train and how many of our sessions are race specific, it is crazy that nutritional problems are so common in races.
One of the major reasons is that athletes don’t have a plan or, the worst-case scenario, athletes read about some new super product in race week and decide to try it out on race day. There are so many claims and studies out there showing why certain products are better and how they will significantly enhance your performance that we all fall for it and make major changes leading into races.
We need to always take statements about the effectiveness of certain products with a pinch of salt. Looking back over the years, we can see some of the world’s leading nutritional experts claiming one product is the greatest and the result of 20 years of research, before they are working for a new company the following year and are promoting something completely different.
The same goes with following the examples of pro athletes; remember the athletes are sponsored and so are going to promote their sponsors as the greatest and most effective products available to enhance performance. It would be interesting to actually see what they are drinking and eating on race day compared to what they promote!
First steps to making nutrition a non-issue
If all is working well in training, then stick with it and DO NOT CHANGE. Stop reading about nutrition products and articles claiming to know how to get more sugar into your body—the end result of this experimenting is going to be you blowing your race and you’ll be throwing up by the side of the road.
If you always seem to get stomach problems on race day, it’s time to look for a new strategy. One of the big factors in stomach problems seems to be fructose content of sports nutrition products. While studies have shown that a combination of fructose and sucrose in drinks leads to greater quantities of carb absorption and improved results, remember that lab results do not always transfer to race day.
The sole fact that so many athletes are seen throwing up and in stomach distress during races shows quite clearly that manufacturers are not getting this right and there is a lot of bad information out there. We are all different and we all react differently to different products and foods—I believe this comes from genetics, general nutrition through life, and also race intensity.
If you always seem to suffer on race day then firstly consider looking for sports products that contain no fructose and see how you get on. It could be that all your problems are simply coming from the way your body reacts to fructose. Signs to look for include:
There are now numerous products without fructose coming to market and athletes are getting on much better with them in races, so try them out and see how they work for you.
SOLID OR LIQUID
This is a big topic and one that I see as totally individual; some athletes can race well on liquid calories alone and others will blow up no matter how many liquid calories they consume. This is something you need to be practicing in training so that you will know how you are going to respond on race day. Personally I prefer to move from solid food to liquid food as the race progresses.
Protein content in drinks can make a big difference for some athletes. If you are an athlete who always seems to blow up in longer rides or has a large muscle mass, then having protein in your drinks might make a big difference. Experiment with levels up to a 50/50 split and see how you feel—you may not be getting the recommended sugar content but you may feel way better and performance will increase!
Meal replacement drinks
This is one product that I feel is underused in triathlon. Meal replacement drinks have been developed for people suffering nutritional deficiencies, dieters, and also for use in medical circumstances when solid food cannot be taken. A lot of research has gone into these products and the end result can be very useful for triathletes!
Ensure plus is one such drink; it is widely available in the USA and around the world, and I have used it extensively with my athletes. This is a calorie-dense drink but the amount of liquid is small so it’s easy to take on board—works great as a breakfast drink on race day when athletes tend to be too nervous to eat.
Also I have found that having this as the primary drink for the first hour in races makes a big difference to athletes’ performances. Looking at the nutritional information, the calories from sugar are way below that in normal sports drinks and what we would expect to see, but the simple fact is it works and works well!
We tend to forget that races can start out cold and while liquid is not important, calories are. A drink like Ensure will have you topped up with calories while not bloating your system with excess liquid. Later in the race as things heat up and your body has lost more liquid then a traditional sports drink may be more useful.
All the sports-specific food on the market is overwhelming and we tend to think it must be the best for us on race day but in reality real natural food can be the best! There seems to be a movement towards creating your own bars and race-day nutrition that is running down from nutrition used by pro teams in major bike races such as the Tour de France.
Examples of this are your own oat cakes or rice cakes, homemade brownies etc. This is especially going to be appealing for athletes who have certain food allergies or are sensitive to preservatives in pre-packaged products.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
It’s an old saying but one that rings true in triathlon! Make sure you make a plan, spend some time to write down your plan and then practice it over some sessions to see how your body reacts—fine tune as you go and by the time you come to race day you will be set and have no nagging doubts in the back of your mind!
Alun ‘Woody’ Woodward, Certified ironguides Coach
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