Let’s talk fueling. We’re used to fueling for a run. If we go for a 90 minute run, we know we’re going to show up with fuel. By the way, “fuel” is the athletes word for food 😉 Why? Because it’s what you need to keep going, just like a car. If you head out on a road trip and have enough fuel for 100 miles but are expecting to go 200 miles, you must re-fuel. Same for your body.
Muscles burn glucose for fuel and the body stores glucose in the form of glycogen which can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need an increased fuel supply. The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 60 – 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. If you are going to exercise more than 60 – 90 minutes, or if you are going to experience periods of high intensity training, such as strenuous hill climbing on a ride of less than 60 – 90 minutes, you are going to need to get glucose to fuel your muscles from food you ingest during the activity.
What kind of food should you eat? Carbohydrates. Why carbohydrates? Because their chemical structure is such that they can be broken down quickly and efficiently into useable glucose. Glucose can be derived from fats and proteins as well as carbs but the problem with both fats and proteins is that the process of breaking them down to extract useable glucose takes a long time and is inefficient. You have to burn more energy to extract glucose from fats than you do to extract it from carbs. Carbs, on the other hand, can be broken down quickly and efficiently to provide the glucose needed to power the muscles.
When training for a short course triathlon, we don’t spend as much time fueling like we do when we’re training for a Half or Full Marathon. This isn’t because it’s not necessary but because most of our workouts are short enough to go on the glycogen that is stored in our body. It is important, however, to get familiar with what works for your body so we’ll need to practice when we can. Is it Hammer Gel or Gu that you like? Do Gu Chomps taste better than Honey Stingers? Does Gatorade upset your stomach? Now is the time to find out.
For a quick refresher course on why and how we should fuel, you can refer back to these blog entries:
Now let’s talk about the specifics of triathlon training and when you should practice your fueling:
Swim: obviously you won’t be eating or drinking during the race BUT this brings up a good point about swim training. Always go to the pool with your water bottle. You’re in the pool for 45+ minutes so, even though you don’t feel like you’re sweating, you are dehydrating your body. Anytime you’re at the wall on a rest break, take a sip of your water. You will feel much better throughout your workout and you will have a quicker recovery.
Bike: the bike is the perfect time to fuel since you’re on it the longest amount of time. Remember what I said previously- your body only has enough stored glycogen to power you for an hour or so before it will bonk..and maybe even less time if it’s a really strenuous workout or if you’re going in a little depleted. When headed out on a bike ride, think about the course intensity and how long it should take you and plan accordingly. While we all need to get comfortable fueling while riding, until you are at this point, you can always pull over on a training ride long enough to take a gel (or whatever it is that you pick). So, if i’m going on a ride that will last me more than an hour, i will tend to re-fuel around the 45 minute mark for the first time. *Remember, you have to start fueling before it’s too late! If you wait until your engine has run completely out of gas, it is too late.
Run: treat these training runs a little more delicately than those during Half/Full training. Normally, we wouldn’t really fuel unless running 7+ miles but i still believe that practice makes perfect so i think i would practice fueling during a run for any run over 5 miles. If for no other reason than to see how your body handles it. So, if i’m doing a 6 – 8 mile run, i would re-fuel around the 40-45 minute mark. if we get into runs that are taking you 90+ minutes, i would plan to re-fuel twice- maybe around the 35 minute and 70 minute mark. This is a little excessive but, again, you’ll figure out how your body tolerates different things. *Don’t forget that you should always have water! With the Memphis heat and humidity, i would suggest taking a water bottle for anything over 5+ miles (less if you sweat a ton).
So, you’ll practice all of this in these bits and pieces and then you show up on race day and what do you do? How do you put it all together? Well, by then you will know what your body can tolerate so you’ll just have to come up with a plan.
Here’s how i tackled my nutrition for the RebelMan tri:
I looked at the distances and calculated some different scenarios to figure out how long I thought I might be racing. I knew I would be out there around 1 hour and 45 minutes. If i were running for 105 minutes (1:45), I would fuel twice. First around 40 minutes and the second time around 75-80 minutes. I decided to fuel during this race as best I could to mimic a long run….with just a few hiccups along the way.
4:50 AM – woke up, got dressed, drank about 8 oz of water
5:30 AM – left the house, ate my whole grain mini bagel with peanut butter and drank a Gatorade (Why? This is what i’m currently eating before all of my workouts Went with Gatorade instead of water because we were expecting a warm day and I was a tad dehydrated – if you don’t know whether or not you’re dehydrated, look at your urine. anything darker than a tinge of yellow means you’re dehydrated)
6:45 AM – arrived at Ole Miss campus ; switched to sipping water
7:40 AM – ate a bag (one serving) of Honey Stingers – 160 calories, 39g carbs (Why? I had only taken in about 200 calories since I woke up and I knew it would still be close to an hour before i started racing so I needed to have some more calories/carbs. Wanted to make sure I was topped off. Plus, I know that my body will tolerate Stingers pretty close to an activity)
8:20 AM (or so) – entered the pool, swam
8:33 AM – exited the swim, took the gel – Cliff Gel 100 calories, 24g carbs- out of my tri shorts (yes, swam with this in my pocket) and ate this as i was running to transition, drank water while walking my bike out of the transition area (Why? I didn’t need this just yet but I knew that I wouldn’t be comfortable fueling on the ride- haven’t mastered that yet and not about to stop during a race!- so I figured it couldn’t hurt. Plus, I planned to ride at a pretty high intensity so this would help. The ride took about 49 minutes so had i not fueled between the swim and bike, it would have been over an hour before my next opportunity to fuel, which would have negatively affected my run.)
9:25 AM – back to transition, grabbed a handheld water bottle (i do not like depending on water stops in races) which had another Gel in the pocket. I debated whether or not to take it…..only a 5k left BUT it had been about 55 minutes since the last Gel i took so I figured it couldn’t hurt- again, I eat Gels a lot when i run so I’m aware of how it will feel. I drank all of the water in my 10 oz handheld and I stopped at one water station long enough to refill my bottle.
Post Race – grabbed a banana and electrolyte drink as soon as I crossed the finish line. Not the best post-race fuel- would have preferred something like chocolate milk but that’s just a personal preference 🙂
Ok, so what would I do differently? I think the 2 Gels during the race worked perfectly for me. It’s only 200 calories but 48grams of carbs. I even think the weird timing ended up working ok. The only thing I would change is my fueling…or lack thereof…while on the bike. If i weren’t such a klutz on the bike, I would have taken my second Gel about 40 minutes into the bike rather than waiting until i got off. Also, I felt really thirsty by the time I got to the run which is a clear sign that your body is begging you for water…telling you that you’ve waited too long.
I’m sure plenty of people don’t fuel at all for a short course triathlon but, if you know that your body can handle it and you’re pretty sure it will take you 90 minutes or more, I would absolutely figure out a fueling plan. You’re expecting a lot out of your body on race day so you need to make sure you’re giving it all the tools it needs to perform well.