The Ironman 70.3 is an endurance event with an approximate duration of 4 to 7 hours during which our body is subjected to a constant effort, so physical and mental preparation are vital to achieve a successful result. In addition to proper training, nutrition plays a fundamental role in this physical preparation. Whether this is the first time you will compete at this distance or you already have accumulated experience, mastering your nutrition strategy will help you achieve the best outcome.
Days before the race… Let the feast begin!
Aah… the famous carb-load, that longed-for time when many athletes treat themselves with less-than-perfect foods under the pretence of “carb-loading”. I once saw a crossfit coach eating Nutella from the jar as part of “carb-loading” for her weekend’s competition. It was Wednesday (oh dear).
Don’t get me wrong, properly executed carbohydrate loading is very important and its positive impact on performance is well-proven. However, there are certain rules we need to follow to make sure we are having the proper carbohydrate loading instead of just loading kilojoules, or worse, extra kilos before the race.
For an event such as the half ironman, the carb-loading needs to start 36 to 48 hours before the competition. This means that if your race is on Sunday, your carb-loading should start Friday and continue through Saturday.
Carbohydrates should be the priority for your meals, but this doesn’t mean that now you have an excuse for only having high-sugar foods. This is a trap since foods high in sugar are usually high in fat too (yup, Nutella falls into this category </3 )
An intake of 8 to 10 g of carbohydrate/kg of body weight is recommended. This means that if you’re a 70 kg athlete, you should be having 560-700 g of carbohydrate per day.
Protein and fat intake should remain the same and, if possible, decrease a little bit.
“Thanks for the numbers, Gaby but I don’t want to count grams for everything I eat”… alright, alright… here are some practical tips:
Split your meals into 3 main meals and 3 snacks. In each of these make sure you’re having high carbohydrate foods (fruits, rice, pasta, bread, wraps, oats, etc.).
I said you shouldn’t have ALL your carbs from sugar but adding some to your meals certainly helps to increase carbs intake (i.e. you can have a slice of bread with jam or honey as a snack).
Drinks are quite helpful as well. During these days you can have a glass of juice or sugar sweetened tea and have some Gatorade/Powerade with your snacks.
Try having 1 to 2 extra serves of carbohydrate per meal (i.e. if you usually eat half a cup of rice, try having a full cup).
This is an example of what your day would look like
Well done! You completed your carb-load with success but this is just the beginning… Today is the day! Breakfast is very important for making sure you start your race with your fuel tank full (you’ll need it, trust me).
Eat your breakfast 2 to 4 hours before the race. The advantage of triathlons (I see it as an advantage) is that usually 2 hours before the race starts you need to be in transition getting all your gear ready so the chances of being awake 3 hours before your start are quite high… take advantage of it! I usually suggest that my clients have breakfast as soon as they wake up, that way you have enough time for processing your breakfast.
Don’t, I repeat, DON’T eat something you’re not used to. Make sure you try your breakfast before with training.
The guidelines suggest having 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrate/kg of body weight. So if you’re 70 kg, you’ll be having 70-280 g 2 to 4 hours before the event.
Avoid fat intake as much as possible and keep your fibre intake low.
During the event… Avoid hitting the wall!
Have you heard this expression before? In Mexico we sometimes say “se me acabó el Gansito” which translates to something like “I ran out of Twinkies”! And yes, it’s exactly that, you run out of fuel. You have your fat stores but the body can’t burn these stores as easily as it burns carbs so performance starts decreasing significantly. In order to avoid this, it is necessary to include carbohydrate consumption during the race and the recommendation is to have 30-60 g of carbohydrate per hour.
There is a great range of products you can have such as gels, jelly beans and bars that are high in carbohydrates. If you have the talent and inclination you can also make your own snacks with bread, honey, jam or dried fruit. I usually recommend getting pre-packaged products as I find them easier to carry but that’s your own choice. As long as you get your carbs in, there’s no big deal. Sports drinks are also very useful since they help you to stay hydrated and carb-ed at the same time.
Here’s a table with high-carbohydrate foods that can help you choose what you’re having during the race:
After the event… you crossed the finish line but this is not over yet
Congratulations! You crossed that finish line, what a wonderful accomplishment after all those hours of effort, not only during the race but during training as well… Well done! But guess what? Your race is not over yet, at least not nutritionally speaking. Recovery is extremely important! (No, I don’t mean beer.) Even though you executed your carb-load, you had a great breakfast, and you topped-up your carbs during the race, your body is running on empty and it is crucial that you recover those nutrients ASAP.
Quite often, after such a big effort, you don’t feel that hungry, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat – it’s totally the opposite! This is the moment where your body is ready to get those nutrients and send them straight to your muscles so they can recover properly. So take advantage of what is offered to you at the recovery zone, eat that fruit, drink the choc-milk and gobble down a sandwich or an energy bar.
Just as you need the right food, hydration is very important. Losing as little as 2% of your body weight in water can have a significant negative impact on your performance so make sure you drink water before, during and after your race.
Other general tips
Caffeine intake has been shown to have a positive impact on athletes’ performances. Having your breakfast with a strong cup of coffee with sugar/honey (carbs!) could be beneficial. This is without even mentioning the other great benefit of having coffee in the morning.
Don’t try anything new during the race. This is very important, make sure you try all that I’ve mentioned before during training so you know how your body reacts to it.
More is not always better. Yes, 60 grams of carbohydrate can help you perform better, but this doesn’t mean that 120 grams will give you super powers… don’t do it! Your gut has an absorption tolerance of ~60 grams of glucose per hour so having more than this increases your chances of having gastrointestinal discomfort.
Do you have any questions? Would you like to share your experience with me? I would love to hear it! firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck at your race!
Cermak, Naomi M., and Luc JC van Loon. “The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid.” Sports Medicine 43.11 (2013): 1139-1155.
Higgins, Simon, Chad R. Straight, and Richard D. Lewis. “The Effects of Preexercise Caffeinated Coffee Ingestion on Endurance Performance: An Evidence-Based Review.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 26.3 (2016): 221-239.
Jeukendrup, Asker E. “Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling.” Journal of sports sciences 29.sup1 (2011): S91-S99.
Rankin, Janet Walberg. “Dietary Carbohydrate as an Ergogenic Aid for Prolonged and Brief Competitions in Sport.” IJSNEM 5 (1995).