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Ironman Triathlon Nutrition

Nutrition.  Fueling.  Hydration.  Calories.  Electrolytes.  These are just some of the myriad of terms associated with triathlon training nutrition, especially when it comes to long course racing.  Proper nutrition for triathlon is critical if one is to have a successful race, which often just means finishing!  When one gets into long course racing, namely half-Ironman, Ironman, and ultra-distance events, Ironman nutrition is not just critical it is essential.  For, without it, crossing the finish is impossible.

In this post, I will try to demystify triathlon training nutrition and Ironman nutrition.  I hope you are able to learn a little and find some things that will work for you.  If you have any follow-up questions, please feel free to reach out to me or leave a comment/question below.  I greatly appreciate and feedback or comments!

Ironman Nutrition Overview

When thinking about triathlon training nutrition, most people think calories are all that matters.  To continue racing, one simply needs to refuel and all will be good.  Sounds great right?  Well, it is completely wrong.  Yes, calories matter but the three components one must always monitor and balance are: Hydration, Calories, and Electrolytes.  All three must be working together for you to continue performing.

Ironman Nutrition HydrationTriathlon Nutrition – Hydration

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.  Well, let’s hope that’s not the case for you on race day as you will need to drink some liquids during your Ironman.  The greatest Ironman nutrition plan on the planet is worthless if you become dehydrated.

So, first and foremost, arrive at your race properly hydrated.  This doesn’t mean guzzling a big gulp the morning of the event.  Rather, drink your usual amount of water in the weeks and days leading up to your event.  You can slightly increase your fluid intake, if desired, but do not excessively hydrate.  This can lead to hyponatremia, or low blood sodium, and can be fatal in extreme cases.  So, don’t begin guzzling everything in sight the week of; rather, just hydrate like normal or at most slightly increase your liquid intake.

Ironman Triathlon NutritionDuring the race, your goal as part of your Ironman nutrition plan is to have 16-24 ounces of fluid per hour.  This can be accomplished with water, an electrolyte drink (e.g., PowerBar’s Ironman Perform), or a combination thereof.  The 16-24 ounces is a pretty large range because external factors on race day will impact your need and desire to drink.  If it is very cold to cool, you are likely to have less interest in liquid and more interest in solid foods.  In general, the greater the temperature, the more fluid needs will increase.  Stunning revelation, I know.

One final thought about Ironman nutrition relating to hydration, drinking as desired is better than being rigid.  If you are forcing down 20 ounces per hour and it is not what your mind and body are telling you to do, then listen to them!  Your brain often knows exactly what it wants and will give you pretty obvious signals about what to do.

Ironman Triathlon NutritionTriathlon Nutrition – Calories

Sugar is your friend.  During a race, if you run out of sugar, you will bonk.  Sounds terrible right?  Well, it can be unpleasant, but really isn’t that bad.  More on this in a moment.  Given most people about about two hours worth of sugar in their muscles, we all need to eat something during an Ironman, hence the need for some Ironman nutrition planning.  An Ironman is not the time to try to lose weight!

Hopefully, through your training, you have taught your body to burn some fat for fuel.  Everyone has enough fat to complete back-to-back Ironmans without eating anything, if we could just burn fat.  Unfortunately, fat is difficult to metabolize and it only does so in the presence of glucose (i.e., sugar).  So, during your Ironman, you will need to eat to keep that combination of fat and glucose burning.

Most Ironman triathlon nutrition plans call for about 120-300 calories per hour.  You will often hear about so-and-so who ate a donut, had a burger, or whatever during the race.  Just ignore that.  Read the labels of the products you are going to use and calculate how much you will need to be within that range.

Recognize as well that more is not necessarily better.  Given your level of effort, you will not have much excess blood and water to shunt to your gastrointestinal system for digestion purposes.  Your Ironman nutrition plan ideally gets you to the finish line eating as little as possible; not the opposite!

Ironman Triathlon NutritionShould you go above that 300 calorie per hour threshold, you begin to significantly increase your chance of an upset tummy.  This is very bad and very unpleasant.  (You can read about how it feels in my 2012 Ironman Arizona race report LINK).  An upset tummy during a race is really only “fixed” sometime after you stop racing, whether that’s because you quit or because you reached the finish line.  Running from port-a-john to port-a-john is probably pretty awful; so try to avoid it.

Triathlon Nutrition – Electrolytes

Lastly, but no less important, are electrolytes.  You know, salts.  They act like oil and keep everything running smoothly.  As you work, you sweat so you will need to replenish them during the race.  The only one you really need to pay attention to is sodium.

Ironman Nutrition ElectrolytesIn general, you want about 400mg of sodium per hour.  This can be done using electrolytes pills or with your caloric nutrition (e.g., gels and drinks).  Many caloric nutrition options have some sodium in them, so read the label, do the calculations, and determine how your Ironman nutrition plan is going to get you to that 400 mgs per hour.  One thing to note, going above (and even way above) that 400 mgs is not much of an issue.  There are some reports of professional triathletes taking over 1,000 mgs per hour during an Ironman.  Should you ingest more than you need, the only real “issue” you might suffer is slightly fat fingers for a day or two.  Given that death is an option should you dilute your blood sodium levels too low, I opt for fat fingers every time!

Triathlon Nutrition – Summary

There you have it.  Phew, I have totally solved all your Ironman nutrition worries right?!?!  Ok, I am sure some remain so please feel free to reach out.  I’d love to help you have a great race!

Thanks for reading!

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