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Ironman Diet: What to Eat Before, During, and After the Race

Posted: 08/12/2013 2:41 pm

Your body is designed to rest and digest. Sometimes, though, we try to cheat the system in hopes of getting an advantage over others. As endurance athletes, we're so competitive that we often think more is better, and in the case of Ironman distance training -- when you're already hanging yourself out on the line -- we sometimes really cheat ourselves.

I am as guilty as anyone of wanting to do more. It's a bit of an inborn trait in endurance athletes. Do too much, however, and you'll quickly start to see the pitfalls. Lackluster training, unexpectedly bad races ("I'm not sure what happened..."), injuries and a lot of beating your head against the wall while your friends politely listen to you talking about why you keep disappointing yourself. Fixing this problem can be easier than you think, but hard to do. So how to go about it? Start by getting some rest.

Rest is so crucial to training that it is as important as what you actually do when you're doing your swim, bike, or run sessions. It has to happen, and there is really very little you can do to speed it up other than let your body do what it does best to heal, grow, and recharge. The body is an amazing machine with unbelievable self-curing capabilities, if we let it do its thing. Like Coldplay says, your body will "try to fix you."

Here is what rest means: You go for a 25 km tempo run, ride 120 km, swim 3,000-metre hard sets and then you're done. You should get comfortable, grab some fuel, and then head for the horizontal as soon as possible (IF possible). Hard to do? Yes, I know. But so is training for an Ironman, and you're managing to do that, so you should be able to manage to get some rest. It's time to stop shortchanging yourself of the final piece that allows you to perform your best.

Let's talk about eating. Some of us do it better than others. But what defines "better"? Is it following a trend, is it about how much cash you drop on your grocery bill, or eating magic powders and bars hand-crafted by special elves in the middle of a forest? I don't think so. But, the neat thing about nutrition is that everyone gets to choose how they go about it and then decide for themselves how well it is working for them.

I'm going to talk about nutrition for three time periods: "before," "during," and "after" training. It would be mind-numbing to tell you every single thing I ate, so I'll often point out the go-to's and the challenges for me.

Before: In racing or training, I didn't have the ability to load up on food without losing it early on in the day, so I ate what I could. It was usually limited to bread, bananas, and peanut butter. I'll confess that plain waffles are often my go-to morning training food. I ate four waffles before Ironman Canada last year. That did the trick. It may not have been the pillar of nutritional standards, but it worked for me, and that's what matters. On recovery days or non-morning training days, I filled the plate with a whole lot more -- muesli, yogurt, fruit, cheese, bread, and eggs. If you've ever been to a European breakfast spread, you'll have an idea of what I usually aimed for.

During: I know there are lots of options out there for sports nutrition, but again, what matters is that you retain what you eat and not eject it during your training. So for me, that often meant a very boring but consistent sports drink, and a whole lot of gels. One kind, one flavour, and in an Ironman, I ate one generally every half hour except for the swim. That equals around 18 gels. It sounds gross, I know, but it worked. You have to figure out this strategy for yourself and it's well worth it, because if I had a dollar for every time an athlete said, "I just couldn't get my nutrition in..." I could probably at the very least replace my stinky bike shoes with the shoes Simon Whitfield used at the Olympics.

After: When it comes to recovery, it's important to consume something that has the right ratio of protein, carbohydrate, fluid, and electrolytes to repair tired muscles. The most important thing is consuming it within 30 minutes post-workout, not after you brag to all your friends about how you smashed your last workout on the Twitter/strava/Instagram machine. I often trained alone, which was great because that meant I finished at home and headed back out onto my porch to do some strength exercises, stretching, or just general feet-up cool down. Then, if you're like me and it takes a while for your stomach to settle after hard workouts, when you're ready, get going on a bigger, heartier meal with all the things you need to recover -- fluids, protein, fruit and veggies, carbs, and good fats.

Good luck with your training, and please, take it from me: One of my greatest training weapons was my ability to lie around like a sloth with a feedbag strapped around my neck. It ain't pretty, but pretty doesn't win races.

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