Considering how much training Ironman and other long-distance races required, does nutrition get overlooked?
I don’t think it’s necessarily overlooked – the problem is that often it’s not practised enough. Once you get up to and beyond the half Ironman distance, say anything beyond six hours, you start functioning like a different animal because you are reliant on regular carbohydrates and fluid. But the gut may not be quite so tolerant as it was in the early stages of the event.
Your fitness is the key deciding factor over shorter distances and nutrition is less important during the event, but with Ironman-type distances it’s vital to pay close attention to your nutrition and practise as you train. You can’t just make it up as you go along on race day and that’s where many people go wrong.
How does the body react differently to race nutrition during a long-distance event?
It’s different for each individual and it depends on how many times each individual has been in that situation before. Has the athlete learned to actually listen to their body and not just assume that they can do the same thing for a ten-hour event as they would a one-hour event? Every athlete is fine up to a certain number of hours – say, four to seven – and then they start to fade rapidly if they don’t get their fuel right. It can be something as simple as sodium losses. If they cannot work out how to ingest the right mixture of fluid, sodium and carbohydrates, their finish time will always fail to reflect their fitness.
Even elite Ironman athletes reach a point where they don’t know how their body’s going to respond – usually in the second half of the marathon. You’ll hear somebody who’s been doing it for ten years start talking about having gut issues and performance decline. If you compete regularly – certainly in Ironman but even over small distances – I recommend building gut health with colostrum supplementation.
Can a coach help with nutrition or is it completely down to the individual?
I set up people with a bespoke nutritional plan and we test it in training sessions. We know what products they’ll be given at the event and that means athletes can practise taking them on board during training. Elite Ironman athletes like Scott Neyedli [winner of Ironman Wales 2013] have to be precise in their plans, but Scott still has to make race-day tweaks to respond to his body’s reaction and the race scenario. Some will carry personal supplies during the race and pick up bags at the designated places on the course to be fuelled correctly. But it’s crucial to experiment during training, not during the race.
What do you suggest athletes take on during an Ironman?
In training, we use the standard endurance athlete’s fuelling goal as a starting point: one gram per kg of bodyweight per hour of exercise. As long as you’ve got that in your mind, you can tweak fluid based on your training experiences and perceived level of hydration. Water on its own is not enough to complete the 10,000-calorie challenge that is Ironman. You have to be taking carbohydrates on board regularly – training your gut and brain to work together on this is a key goal to long training sessions on the bike and running. And I always like athletes to set out a race day feeding plan. Adjust your eating to be at your best – some can only tolerate 50 grams of carbs per hour, while others can absorb over 100 grams or 400 calories per hour.
We’ve heard that some people eat bits of Big Mac during the cycle leg of Ironman races. Is that true and is it beneficial?
I totally understand the logic. A treat made up of fat and protein in – as long as it’s tried and tested – is great to give you that psychological boost because it is real food as opposed to another gel or sugary drink. The key to racing faster is to digest carbs whilst working at a relatively high percentage of maximum, so a little bit of protein and fat is fine to help you achieve that. However, I really doubt that someone could complete an Ironman on any type of burger. Having worked with elite athletes and over 200 amateur Ironman athletes over 20 years I’ve learnt that a little bit of food is fine during racing if they need something to bolster the stomach – but not burgers. Easily absorbed carbs are king!
When are the ideal times to take on food and drink during an Ironman?
Just before the swim starts or during your warm-up, some carbohydrate drink will aid blood glucose levels for a 50 to 120 minutes of swimming. It can also help the dry throat some get because of nerves. If you plan to eat solids, most Ironman triathletes try to do this in first half of the 180km bike section. Be warned though – races can cause nerves so if you overeat you’ll have to jump off and run to the Portaloos. What your body wants during a race is easily-absorbed low-fibre carbs, not gourmet sandwiches or exotic fruits.
At the end of an Ironman, are you incredibly hungry or do you have no appetite?
The first thing most people want is to get that hamburger – or whatever food they’ve denied themselves for a few months to keep their weight down. I know after any event that lasts more than five hours I just want fast food! Most of the foods you get post-race cravings for are high in sodium, which is an electrolyte you lose a great deal of during the event . A triathlete isn’t a machine –they are human and they have to feed their brain with happy foods after an event. This motivates them to want to do this kind of challenge again. If it’s all about dietary denial, even just after all the calories an Ironman takes to complete, then the athlete will be unhappy and burn out in the long run.
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