Written by Coach Michael Harvey
Eating a balance of what your body requires is what sets you up to be able to train effectively, back up and recover properly and in the case of this blog, race to your potential.
My experience coaching has shown me that people either massively under eat during races or massively overeat. If you are relatively new or inexperienced in racing long distances, it is a bit of a shift in thinking as to what the body needs. I will also clarify that there is very much a difference between completing and racing long distance and the fueling requirement is different for these also.
If you are after the summary of this blog then here it is: Practice in training what you plan to eat, when you plan to eat and at the intensity you plan to race. Trial and error will then show you what you need and how much you can tolerate.
For those ready we will start on the ‘over fueling’ side of things first as when you first start out in our sport and you hear all the horror stories from the random people you meet on your Saturday morning ride, they will tell you of the time that they ‘hit the wall’ in their marathon or ironman and put it directly down to nutrition. “I didn’t eat enough” they will likely tell you. This may be the case and specifically they didn’t eat enough of what THEY needed. So before we go on let’s remember more does not automatically equal better. Otherwise those who trained 80hrs per week would be fastest and the more your work colleague eats on their diet would help them lose weight. So practice with what you plan to use and allow your body to be familiar with it.
On the other side of the coin, we have the athlete who has a strict plan in mind to have ‘X’ gels/calories per hour and not deviate from this. Their long training rides have consisted of social chat pace rides where they stop for 30-40min for coffee mid ride. This athlete believes if they learn to ride without gels in training then load up on race day the energy stores will be full and he will be good to go. Now I will be the first to advocate for training sessions to be done in a depleted state, however like everything with the body it requires familiarity. So increasing the intensity and trying to put in food will bring its issues.
So the intensity that you practice is very important to gauge what you need and can handle. We need to practice in training what we plan to do in the race and if you are unsure what your body needs, you best be trialing exactly what you think and if needed make adjustments. Learn from these mistakes in training, not on race day.
The stomach can be trained. Eg. If you don’t eat in training and try race day it won’t be pretty. If you trial things to eat in training, find the right amount and you will improve. The stomach gets used to having food in there while training and racing. Just like you wouldn’t not train and expect to do a pb, you can’t not eat and expect your stomach to suddenly like it.
You can in fact complete very long distances at slower paces with very little food. I can tell you all the experiments I have done of 6+ hour rides with only water and no food and I can also show you the data from scientists who study this. We can use various fuel sources to train, race and exercise. It is the intensity that dictates what fuel is required. As the intensity goes up, so does the need for Carbohydrate. So is it possible to run a marathon at the end of an ironman and not eat. Yes I can now say it is having recently had an athlete with bad nausea who only drank water the whole marathon. Did they run well. Yes. Did they run their best? No.
Having too much fuel or not enough fuel doesn’t ruin a car. You can always run out and put more in. However if you run out of oil, that is a whole different story. But hydration is like oil for cars and for another blog.
So practice over and over in training until you are satisfied that you have got it right. Doing all the months of training to have a sub par performance simply because you overlooked the importance of food in a race is easily avoidable. Practice and refine in training and get the rewards of your attention to detail on race day.