Nutrition Rules of Thumb for Racing and Training

Dialing in your nutrition in racing and training is daunting and complex, when you nail your nutrition you feel so much strength but when it goes bad it can go really really bad…. We’ve all been there searching for the nearest porta potty and just praying that you make it to it fast enough.  GI distress is very debilitating and can totally derail not only a race day but a training day as well.  The obnoxious thing with GI distress is it can come from not fueling enough, not fueling properly, or fueling too much.   

Our bodies run on one form of “energy”, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), ATP is the body’s biochemical way to transport energy and this energy is what allows our muscles to contract, protects our organs, allows our organs to function during daily life and sport, and keeps our nervous system moving.  Our bodies have three different chemical systems that convert calories and the macro nutrients we consume (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) to energy. The process in which that our bodies utilize calories to form ATP is a complex process in which glucose and/or glycogen is broken down through glycolysis, as this is a complex system that I really won’t get into because it is its own separate blog post but what I am getting at is that you need to be able to replenish your glucose and glycogen supplies so that your body can continue to make ATP and function to its highest ability.

Part of my goal as a coach and through this blog post is to help change the mindset that calories and fueling our bodies during training is detrimental to us.  I want you to start thinking of fueling during training and racing as consuming calories during training and racing as providing your body with the support needed in order for your body to perform at its absolute highest ability; calories are fuel and fuel is strength and fuel is performance.  The calories consumed during training and racing are the fuel our bodies need in order to optimize our performance and recovery.


When Should You Fuel:
Sessions less than 60 minutes
With session less than 60 minutes you do no need to consume calories as you have enough stores of glycogen within your body in order to perform however you do need to hydrate with water at a minimum of where you drink to quench your thirst.

High-intensity Training over 60 minutes
When you train at a high intensity your body utilizes glucose very quickly as its predominant fuel source.  At a high intensity you are going to burn through the glucose that is stored in your muscles very quickly because it needs a quick fast acting store of glucose and that is the fastest way it can grab it.

Lower intensity (ie: endurance) training over 60 minutes
With the lower intensity, or endurance effort training, you burn through your glycogen stores at a slower rate and your body utilizes your other stores such as fat as well.  Despite that when you spend time over 60 minutes performing at this intensity you need to supplement with calories and hydration. 

As you consume calories it is best to consume fluids with little hits of water as this helps to allow the calories to flow through the gut better. 

Quantity of fuel to consume:
This is different for everyone as it is dependent on your sweat rate, your metabolism, your fitness, how you train, and so many other factors.  However, there are some guidelines you can follow in order to give yourself a baseline and then tweak from there.

Simply put calories equal energy.  You are going to burn calories as you exert yourself through your training and racing and you need to replenish them.  The key to your calories is that they carry the macro and micro nutrients that your body needs to function, many of which will be detailed out below.
Rule of thumb for calories:
3-3.5 cal per kg of body weight per hour on the bike
2-2.5 cal per kg of body weight per hour on the run

In training and racing the amount of carbohydrates is the next most important to the number of calories that we consume.  As previously described glucose is our primary source of energy production in that it helps create ATP and glucose = carbohydrates at the most basic level as all carbohydrate sources are eventually broken down into glucose.
Rule of thumb for Number of Carbohydrates: Body weight in lbs multiplied by 0.25 or 0.5 to determine the number of carbs per hour

Our bodies do not store protein and the idea of consuming protein intra workout is debated and honestly very different for everyone. Protein takes longer to absorb and digest so some people’s bodies do not handle it well when they are stressing their body.  Because of this it is not recommended when you are running because for some reason when we run the jostling really makes it hard to digest things and we have more GI distress.   Consuming protein intra training can be beneficial in that it speeds up the recovery process because you are replenishing the nutrients needed to repair muscles quicker, it can help to make us feel more satiated as well.

Caffeine can be very beneficial as it is known to enhance the body’s use of fat as a fuel source, reduces your perceived exertion, and improve your mental alertness and state of mind.  I personally like caffeine for the last reason, because at mile 80 of the bike in an Ironman the caffeine boost helps to keep my brain alert and focused.  So caffeine can be very useful however you want to utilize it carefully and not over do it on caffeine because too much caffeine can cause you to become jittery, nauseous, give you GI distress and other things basically MORE IS NO BETTER when it comes to caffeine but it can still be beneficial.
Rule of thumb for caffeine: 0.45mg – 1.5 mg per lb with a limit of around 150-200 mg

The key electrolytes that our bodies need during exercise is sodium and potassium. Electrolytes help to keep your osmolarity within your gut and your muscles at a homeostatic level which allows for “easy” flow of the signals that contract your muscles through the membrane.   Exactly how many electrolytes you need to consume is very dependent on your sweat rate, the humidity, and the heat you are exercising in.

You can determine your sweat rate through a sweat test either one that you purchase, which is the most accurate, but also via an in home sweat test.  To perform an in home sweat test you weigh yourself before you workout then you do your training and weight yourself again before consuming any food and/or fluid for recovery.  You then take the lbs of weight that you lost and multiply that by 16 oz.

Rule of thumb for Electrolytes: Sodium 180-225 mg, Potassium 60-75 mg per 8 oz of fluid.

Learning how to fuel your body for optimized performance takes time and it takes a commitment of learning from your mistakes.  It takes some trial and error, you may try something thinking it will work because you have seen other people try it and find out it does not work for you.  Or maybe something that has been working for you for a long time all of the sudden no longer does because your body has changed and adapted differently. My absolute number one piece of advice to someone when they ask about nutrition is to practice it. 

You can train your body to take in the calories and nutrients it needs but it needs time to adapt just as you need time to adapt to your physical training. When I first got into triathlon I was someone who struggled to eat, I couldn’t do a workout within two hours of eating and I struggled to consume any form of calorie in the middle of a workout without having serious GI issues. It took a lot of patience with myself and totally changing my mindset on the idea of calories as fuel that my body needs in order to be the best it can be to train my body to accept the calories needed. Now, I can eat within a half hour of hoping into the pool or on the bike (running still a bit of a struggle) and I can consume anywhere from 500 - 1500 calories during a training and/or race day. How? Patience and practice. I made it a goal to choose strength and to train my body to consume what it needed to be strong.

 Remember: calories are fuel and fuel is strength and fuel is performance we have to fuel ourselves in order to perform to our absolute best. It takes a serious mindset shift to think of calories as fuel and the best way to do that is to make a conscious decision to remind yourself of that.

I hope this helps you to get started with fueling your body for performance in your training and racing!!!