How many times have we been through this? We’ve finished the swim, we’re on the bike and suddenly, the tummy starts feeling bloated. Then we start throwing up. Again and again and again. Or we’re coming towards the end of the run and suddenly, there’s just nothing left. The world starts spinning and all we want to do is lie down. These are just some of the things that happen when we neglect our nutrition during the race, especially the longer distance ones. 7-time Ironman finisher Kevin Siah is back with his tri tips and this time he talks about the discipline not many pay attention to.
by Kevin Siah
It is often said that nutrition is the 4th discipline in triathlon. A well executed nutrition strategy can determine the difference between winning or losing the race for the professionals. For amateur triathletes, it can prevent a memorable race experience from turning into one you’d want to forget! As you progress yourself from short distance triathlons to longer ones, nutrition plays a more significant role.
This article isn’t about what you should eat or how much you should eat. As I believe that each individual is different, with different nutrition requirements. What works well for one, may not work well and may in fact, be detrimental to another. The human body is a complex thing, and sometimes, what worked well in a previous race may not work well in the next. Even the world’s best professional triathletes are continuously fine tuning their nutrition to optimize their race performance.
But we can definitely reduce the risks of having a poor nutrition strategy, which can lead to gastrointestinal issues or in the other extreme, racing on empty i.e. bonk. Here are some helpful tips to prevent these from happening:
1. Practice makes perfect
“Don’t try anything new on race day!” is often said by veteran triathletes to those attempting their first triathlon. This is the most important tip and you would see how this ties in with the other tips listed below. If you are intending to use certain food and drink on race day, it is important to test them out in your training. Experiment with different types, if you have to. This way, you would be able to gauge how your body reacts to the different types of food and drink, and work out by trial and error, which works best. If you have signed up for a few lead-up races prior to your big race, try them out in these races. Quite often, your body nutritional needs may be higher as you race in higher intensity and your body burns calories at a quicker rate.
2. What’s on the menu
Race organizers these days are pretty good at informing participants in advance, the drinks/food they would be providing at their aid stations, either on the race website or in a downloadable guide. By knowing what would be provided on race day, you would be able to put to practice (see tip #1) the nutrition provided on the race course, to see if they work for you. The distance between each aid station is also useful to know. You would be able to set up your bike accordingly. There is no need pack everything but your kitchen sink on your bike, as this would add unnecessary weight and slow you down.
3. Rolling buffet
The bike leg of the triathlon is often called the rolling buffet. This is because it is easier to take in nutrition when your upper body is stable. So naturally, taking in nutrition is easier while cycling compared to running, where the bouncing movement of your upper can cause digestion issues. Especially for longer distance races, the bulk of your nutrition would be taken during the bike leg. Generally, more solid foods are taken during the early to middle sections of the bike leg, as this allows your body to digest before starting the run leg. As for swimming… well, if you have figured out a way to conveniently eat or drink (sea water doesn’t count) while stroking in the water, do give me a shout as I’m interested to know too!
4. Whither the weather
If you mostly race in warm tropical climate, chances are your cool drink would be warm once you get on the bike. What I normally do is freeze my drink overnight so that it stays cold for a little longer. In some races, you are required to rack your bike the day prior to the race. If you want to tape your gels to your bike frame on bike check-in day (eliminates one more thing to do on race morning), be sure to wrap them up with a piece of clothe or plastic bag so that they are not directly exposed to the sun. Full Ironman races have special needs stations, where you can pack your own nutrition and access them at a designated station. In warm climate, avoid packing food that would melt like chocolate or food that would go stale under the sun. If you happen to race in the northern hemisphere where temperatures can drop to single digits in Celcius on race morning, be aware that some energy bars get frozen and hard, and you may want to have an alternative if you don’t want to risk loosing your teeth while chewing!
Kevin Siah has raced triathlons for over 10 years and has competed in 7 Ironmans across Malaysia, Australia and Canada. He has tried different things for his special needs ranging from kaya buns, Vegemite sandwiches and bacon flavoured chips. All of which, have worked well as they have been tried and tested many times in his training. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Picture courtesy of bikewar.com