Triathlon Magazine Canada - - Feature The Perfect Fuelling Plan -



What makes Olympic dis­tance triathlons dif­fer­ent from longer events? In a word: in­ten­sity. Be­cause they are shorter than the half and full dis­tance races, Olympic dis­tance triathlons are con­tested at greater speeds. At higher in­ten­si­ties of ex­er­cise, the stom­ach emp­ties more slowly. For this rea­son many triath­letes find that they are un­able to take in a lot of nu­tri­tion dur­ing short- course events.

In a 2010 study, re­searchers at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport found that elite triath­letes con­sumed a to­tal of only 48 to 49 g of car­bo­hy­drate dur­ing Olympic dis­tance triathlons. Elite ath­letes are not ig­no­rant of the prin­ci­ples of ef­fec­tive rac­ing fu­elling. The rea­son they don’t take in more is that they can’t.

Lukas Verzbi­cas, the 2011 ju­nior world cham­pion is like most ath­letes. He can­not tol­er­ate any­thing heav­ier than a sports drink dur­ing Olympic dis­tance races and he drinks lit­tle or not at all on the run. If you think that’s odd, try drink­ing while run­ning a 3:00 km and then think again.

At any given body weight, it takes the same amount of en­ergy to com­plete an Olympic dis­tance triathlon, re­gard­less of speed. So if 48 to 49 g of carbs is enough to fuel win­ning per­for­mances in world and Olympic cham­pi­onships at this



The most com­mon cause of bonk­ing in triathlons is de­ple­tion of mus­cle glyco­gen, the body’s lim­ited car­bo­hy­drate-based en­ergy source. Glyco­gen bonks are rel­a­tively un­com­mon in shorter triathlons but oc­cur much more fre­quently at the half dis­tance and above.

The eas­i­est way to avoid glyco­gen de­ple­tion at the half dis­tance is to go slow. The slower you swim, bike, and run, the more your body re­lies on its vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited sup­ply of fat for en­ergy and the more glyco­gen is spared. But go­ing slow is ob­vi­ously a du­bi­ous so­lu­tion in a race.

For­tu­nately, there are nutritional mea­sures you can take to in­crease the mus­cles’ re­liance on fat at higher speeds. One is fat load­ing. Re­search has shown that fat load­ing (five days of high-fat eat­ing) sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases fat-burn­ing and glyco­gen spar­ing dur­ing ex­er­cise and in­creases en­durance. The ideal time to fat load is be­tween three and seven days be­fore a long race. Aim to get about two-thirds of your calo­ries from fat dur­ing this pe­riod. Af­ter you com­plete your fat load, carbo load for the last three days be­fore the race. This will re­store your mus­cle glyco­gen sup­plies, which de­crease dur­ing fat load­ing, with­out re­vers­ing the ben­e­fit of the prior fat load.

It is ad­vis­able not to prac­tice fat load­ing be­fore short­course triathlons. The rea­son is that while fat load­ing in­creases the fat-burn­ing ca­pac­ity of the mus­cles, it re­duces their carb-burn­ing ca­pac­ity, and the shorter the race is, the more per­for­mance is lim­ited by carb­burn­ing ca­pac­ity.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the last meal eaten be­fore a triathlon – an early break­fast on race morn­ing – con­tains a lot of carbs and not much else. But it may be more ben­e­fi­cial to eat a meal that con­tains more fat than carbs, Al­though triathlons of all dis­tances present a sim­i­lar phys­i­o­log­i­cal chal­lenge, there are some cru­cial dif­fer­ences, and th­ese dif­fer­ences af­fect the op­ti­mal ap­proach to fu­elling for each dis­tance. The rules of race nu­tri­tion ap­ply to all triathlons, but the de­tails of your fu­elling plan must be dis­tance spe­cific. dis­tance, it is enough to get you to the fin­ish line as well. If you can com­fort­ably take in more, then do so.

As ath­letes like Lukas Verzbi­cas have dis­cov­ered, the dif­fer­ence in tol­er­a­ble fu­elling rates be­tween the bike leg and the run leg is great­est at higher in­ten­si­ties. Be pre­pared for this dis­crep­ancy head­ing into Olympic dis­tance triathlons and plan to fuel more ag­gres­sively on the bike and more con­ser­va­tively on the run.

es­pe­cially be­fore half events or longer. Mus­cles rely more on fat for fuel when ex­er­cise fol­lows a high-fat meal. A re­cent study by Ja­panese re­searchers found that a pre- ex­er­cise meal that was 55 per cent fat and 30 per cent car­bo­hy­drate boosted en­durance by 10 per cent com­pared to a tra­di­tional high- carb meal. But the high-fat meal only worked when sub­jects also con­sumed a high- carb en­ergy gel right be­fore the start of the work­out. Give this a try in train­ing first.



Hunger is one of two nu­tri­tion-re­lated chal­lenges that are much more com­mon in full dis­tance triathlons than in shorter ones. It’s dif­fi­cult to sit still, let alone ex­er­cise for 10 or 14 hours with­out get­ting hun­gry. While ex­er­cise sup­presses ap­petite, it does not kill it, and many triath­letes ex­pe­ri­ence hunger pangs dur­ing longer races.

Mid-race hunger isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a prob­lem that de­mands ac­tion. Pre­sum­ably, you are al­ready con­sum­ing as many carbs as your body can com­fort­ably ab­sorb be­fore you get hun­gry. Switch­ing to solid food to ad­dress your hunger will not fur­ther in­crease the rate of fuel sup­ply to your work­ing mus­cles, but it will com­pli­cate your fu­elling strat­egy and may in­crease the risk of gas­troin­testi­nal dis­tress. So I rec­om­mend that you sim­ply ig­nore your hunger and stick with liq­uid and semisolid nu­tri­tion un­less it be­comes a se­ri­ous dis­trac­tion. In that case, quell your rum­bling stom­ach with an en­ergy bar, chews, or a sim­i­larly con­ve­nient high- carb food you’ve used in work­outs.

The sec­ond nutritional chal­lenge of full dis­tance rac­ing is GI dis­tress it­self. While not unique to the dis­tance, nau­sea, di­ar­rhea and other GI symp­toms oc­cur more than twice as of­ten in full dis­tance events ( 31 per cent of the time) as they do in half dis­tance races (14 per cent). Like hunger, mild to mod­er­ate dis­com­fort in the tummy and bow­els dur­ing an full dis­tance race isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a prob­lem to be avoided at all costs. Rather, it may just be a price your body has to pay for the tax­ing event. One study found that while Iron­man par­tic­i­pants who con­sumed the most car­bo­hy­drate were in­deed more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence GI dis­com­fort, they also fin­ished the race faster. The same study found that the top pre­dic­tor of mid-race GI trou­bles was not carb in­take but a his­tory of mid-race GI trou­bles, in­di­cat­ing an in­nate sus­cep­ti­bil­ity that noth­ing can be done about. Nev­er­the­less, many cat­a­strophic cases of GI dis­tress in full dis­tance triathlons are un­nec­es­sar­ily self-in­flicted by ath­letes who vastly over­es­ti­mate the body’s tol­er­ance for nu­tri­tion in­take dur­ing such an event – and es­pe­cially dur­ing the marathon. The most com­mon site of race-wreck­ing GI episodes in th­ese races is the start of the marathon, where the large amounts of f luid and en­ergy that have been con­sumed late in the bike leg are sud­denly churned around in the stom­ach by run­ning.

When plan­ning and ex­e­cut­ing a fu­elling strat­egy for full dis­tance events, note that it’s eas­ier to fix hav­ing con­sumed slightly too lit­tle nu­tri­tion than it is to re­verse the mis­take of tak­ing in too much. You may need to do more than one full dis­tance race to dis­cover the op­ti­mal bal­ance. In your first at­tempt, be con­tent to take in 60 g of carbs per hour on the bike and as close to that same amount as you can on the run. That’s enough to give your per­for­mance a big boost but not enough to cre­ate a ma­jor risk for a race-ru­in­ing case of ab­dom­i­nal cramps. If all goes well you can be a bit more ag­gres­sive the next time. There’s al­ways a next time.

above, left and op­po­site The 2013 Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship in Kona, Hawaii

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