It’s long been said that training for an Ironman triathlon actually involves mastering four skills: swimming, cycling, running and — my favorite! — eating.
According to the book Endurance Sports Nutrition by Suzanne Girard Eberle, “Ironman competitors expend 8,000 to 10,000 calories or more during the race.” Yowza! Can you imagine eating that many calories, much less while trying to maintain relentless forward progress for 10 to 17 hours? Your body simply can’t do it.
This is why formulating an eating plan for Ironman is a lot trickier than it sounds — it’s not as simple as shoving jelly donuts down your gullet while riding your bike (though some people do this, believe it or not). Eating calories for the sake of calories is a poor plan for an Ironman triathlon. It’s important to pick the right source of those calories, then determine a schedule for eating those calories for maximum performance.
Eating the wrong foods or taking in too many calories at once can cause a triathlete to feel sluggish — or, worse, send them running for the port-o-john with gastrointestinal distress. Eating too few calories can cause a bonk of massive proportions. In addition, Ironman triathletes need to pay attention to sugars, fats, protein, electrolytes and water. Finding your “just right” is a personal journey that requires some trial and error while training. For some triathletes, coming up with a bulletproof nutrition plan can be as time-consuming as the training itself!
After years of highs, lows, and the occasional jelly donut, I’ve finally figured out what works for me. I confirmed this on my last long training ride before racing Ironman Arizona, when I rode 100 miles, got off the bike, and ran 6 miles. Here’s What I ate for a day:
Your momma wasn’t lying: Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. It’s especially true for Ironman, since it’s the last “real” meal we’ll eat until we cross the finish line. On longer training days, I “practice” my race-morning breakfast with a combination of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. I usually put a small handful of walnuts into a bowl, then top with oatmeal, So Delicious Almond Milk Yogurt and berries. Also, coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
On the Bike
For training days and races lasting more than an hour, typical recommendations are to take in 120 to 240 calories with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. In long-course races, such as a half or full Iron distance, you may want to consider taking in more calories (if your stomach can handle it).
Eating while cycling or running is taxing on the body. Whether propelling you forward or digesting your food, muscles need resources — energy, water and blood — to work. Doing both simultaneously requires those resources to be diluted throughout your system instead of concentrated on one function (moving or eating). To avoid having your moving resources diverted to your stomach, choose easy-to-digest calories, like liquids, gels, chews, soft candies, dates or soft bars.
Because six hours on the bike is a long time, I like to mix things up with what I eat. There’s a method to my madness, though: I eat on a very regimented schedule. My Garmin is programmed to vibrate every 15 minutes, reminding me to eat or drink.
At the top of every hour, I take a few swigs of hydration mix from of the bottles I carry on my bike. This year, I fell in love with Skratch Labs, an all-natural hydration formula that delivers electrolytes without upsetting my stomach. Their pineapple flavor rocks my world.
At the :15 mark each hour, I take in a gel with a few gulps of water. I’m a fan of Honey Stingers.
At the :30 mark of each hour, I drink a few more gulps of Skratch hydration mix.
At the :45 mark, I eat half of a Picky Bar, another real-food source that has a perfect balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats in an easy-to-digest bar. Also worth noting: they’re freakin’ delicious.
Halfway through the ride, I usually stop at a gas station to refill my water bottles. While there, I usually treat my tired brain to a caffeine buzz with a bottle of Coca-Cola.
This cycle repeats itself every hour like clockwork. Keeping it simple and straightforward gives me one less thing to worry about — when the Garmin buzzes, food goes in my belly. It’s Pavlov for triathletes. Not thinking about food allows me to think about other things, like the cool places my bike takes me:
After a day like that, I’m usually tired, sweaty and ravenously hungry. Though I stumble through the house bellowing “FEED ME ALL THE THINGS,” I also know the importance of the post-workout meal. The 30 minutes after a workout are the most critical for recovery — during that time, your body is like a sponge for nutrients.
So even though my brain is yelling “PANCAKES! PIZZA! FRENCH FRIES!” my body is really in need of a big-ass smoothie. I make mine with frozen berries, spinach, chia seeds, Garden of Life Raw Protein Powder and coconut milk.
The Big-Ass smoothie usually quiets the hungry bellowing long enough to take a shower, put on some compression socks and walk to my favorite Mexican restaurant for carry-out. I’m not a violent person, but I would leg-wrestle my own grandmother for a plate of veggie tamales from Los Dos Molinos. Post-ride hunger makes you do weird things, especially when blue corn is involved.
After a short nap, I’ll usually graze for the rest of the day, responding to my hunger: some fruit here, a handful of nuts there…
I try to choose healthier options, because I know by the end of the day this will happen:
106 miles never tasted so good!
Are you an endurance athlete? What do you fuel (and reward yourself!) with? —Susan