While there are many many things that can and will derail your racing outcomes, today I’m going to speak about what I see as the two biggest mistakes athletes make on race day.
These are nutrition and inappropriate pacing.
And even while nutrition might be ‘ok’ – if you screw your pacing up, then you run the higher risk of shutting your gut down and thus leading to gastrointestinal issues.
Lets start with pre race mistakes.
For years and years I’ve been recommending athletes give up the carb loading protocol. You simply just don’t need to be going into the race heavier then you should be and feeling lethargic for that matter. Simply – in the last two weeks to 10 days you have backed off both volume and intensity in your training but the likelihood is, that you haven’t ratcheted down your daily food intake. So in essence this means you’re effectively ‘loading’ anyway.
If you follow the typically ill advised carb loading protocol now … I seriously question where all those extra calories are going to end up? Your muscle glycogen (especially in race week) is pretty much topped off and once muscle and liver stores are full the excess calories you consume have to go somewhere. The body will excrete some of these calories but it will store a lot of these carbohydrate calories as body fat. Something we have an infinite ability to do.
So rule #1 is give up the carbo-loading and just eat normally or better still ratchet eating levels back down to inline with training levels. Of course the more fat adapted (metabolically efficient) you are the less you’ll be relying on the limited carbohydrate fuel tank. You still don’t want to neglect it but it’s not the be all and end all in fuelling your performance.
Race day: the reality is, come race morning you haven’t used up any stored muscle glycogen and only used a tiny amount of liver glycogen so a traditional breakfast is definitely not needed or recommended. Especially if you have been doing all your long training sessions sans breakfast – you don’t need reintroduce that on race day. If you have been following recommendations of a ‘fat black’ or ‘bullet proof’ coffee then you’re actually getting in some good calories that will help drive your massive fat fuel tank. If you smash down a whole load of carbs pre race, you’ll effectively be telling your body to use this fuel tank first. A limited tank at that.
If you’re going to eat some carbs pre race make it simple and you only need a couple of hundred calories. Something like white rice blanketed in coconut oil or grass fed butter will work here. This will top off any liver glycogen stores and get rid of the rumble in the belly and not tell your body to burn through its limited muscle glycogen stores from the get go.
Outside of those pre race fuelling errors – lets move on to the race itself.
One of the bigger mistakes I witness time and time again is athletes feeling that they need to cram down a load of calories either through T1 or immediately as they hop on the bike. Lets be brutally honest, most triathletes bike handling skills aren’t the best and being in a flustered state going from horizontal to running to hunched over a bike, getting feet in shoes (or shoes into pedals) while trying to open sports nutrition and shove it down your gullet is an exercise fraught with danger.
The accident potential aside … the other issue is that your body is still figuring out how to efficiently get blood to all the right places. Again you have gone from a horizontal position to one of running and likely ‘rushing’ to get through T1 and then eventually hunched over your TT rig. The last thing your body NEEDS to do right now is send more blood, water etc to the gut to help digest the food you’re pouring down the gullet. Doing so will greatly increase your chances of gut shut down and early onset of dehydration.
No doubt … even if you aren’t metabolically efficient and are still a purely carb dependent athlete – you probably have practiced in the post sessions 30 minute refuelling window ritual. Doing so will have increased your muscle glycogen storage capabilities to about their max storage levels of around 90 minutes worth of pretty intense racing. Think Olympic distance effort. So there is actually NO need to be shoving food down your gullet right now.
The smarter athletes may sip on some water going through T1, get on to the bike, focus on getting out on to the road and once moving will still only sip some water, take on some electrolytes like Salt Sticks and ALLOW the body to adjust, do its thing and get blood going to all the right places. After about 20mins they will then strategically start their fuelling process. The body is settled and can now handle the hopefully small drips of nutrition you give the body.
The other major mistake athletes make is trying to somehow shove enormous loads of fuel in. The reality is your body can only take on so many calories per hour. The sports nutrition companies (and their ‘science’) are the ones recommending you can take on much more … purely to sell more of their product. The more you put in – in the hopes of somehow putting a rocket up your ass – the more chances you have of your stomach shutting down. The body can only absorb so much and as the day wears on the guts ability to absorb gets less and less.
If you’re a fat adapted athlete you actually find out that you don’t need that much exogenous carbs to fuel your performance. And that your carb intake can be used very strategically to actually do what they’re intended to do in the first place and that is drive further energy to increase performance. When fat adapted and you know the course you might decide to strategically put in some fuel about 10-15 minutes before a harder effort such as a climb. This will provide you with the resources you need to fuel this section more efficiently. Same can be done if you need to bridge a gap or get away from a group. Take some fuel and give it a little time before you decide to give an extended focused effort.
I haven’t covered hydration and we could call that the 3rd major mistakes athletes make on race day …. when you try to take in loads of calories your body has to break these down. If there is not enough fluids coming in (with proper electrolyte consumption) then the body has to pull water from other tissue (muscles and organs) to help absorb the food in the gut. This can lead to show-stopping dehydration and also gut shut-down. On the flip side there are the middle of pack (MOP) and back of pack (BOP) athletes that may take on too much water only and create their own set of problems.
The key to hydration is keeping it simple and going with water + electrolyte supplementation with something like salt sticks. I’m in the corner that you NEED a solid amount of electrolyte supplementation (and those sugar laden Powerades and Gatorades are nothing but garbage and not a true electrolyte replacement), especially so if you’re fat adapted. This is because your kidneys don’t hold onto salt the way they do when you eat a diet high in refined carbs. So keep it simple with water and an electrolyte tablet sans calories.
The quickest way to shut down your body is to push the pace to levels your body is not accustomed to (for extended periods of time) from training and if you really want to make it a double whammy and shut your body down quicker… then push the pace while trying to force a whole load of calories in.
A lot of athletes believe they cramp because of nutrition or not enough salt/water intake and while this is sometimes true another overriding factor is that the muscles have been pushed to contract harder and with more force then they have been prepared to.
If your muscles aren’t conditioned for those paces that come race day are significantly faster then you have been doing in training then it won’t be too long before the muscles revolt against you by cramping or just can’t contract forcibly any longer.
The killer is that the little voice in your head is telling you this feels EASY … when deep down you know it’s not sustainable for hours upon hours of sustained effort. This where appropriate conditioning in your training is of upmost importance. It’s why you need to train your body rotating across five important systems (strength, speed, tolerance, endurance and neuromuscular).
While you need to cover all of those 5 systems to effectively prepare your body, you also need to training across the intuitive intensity levels (easy, mod, mod-hard, hard/fast) and for those ‘racing’ Ironman the reality is you need to be conditioned for a sustained mod-hard effort. This is an effort that you feel cannot be sustained for a very long time, but by being in the moment and staying focused you can keep at it. This effort is not comfortable by any means and your breathing would be somewhat laboured. With focus on your form and effort you can maximise your pace – it will be a pace that ‘if trained appropriately’ you won’t need to back it off – but- you probably won’t want to push it any harder.
So as the specifics of Ironman preparation get closer your efforts need to resemble these pacing levels more closely. By nature of the length of time – it is very likely your early ‘feel like’ moderate efforts will move much more towards a feeling of mod-hard. This is why early smart pacing is absolutely key and training to push in the back end of training is paramount.
The essence of being able to swim, ride and run at efforts you’d like to, is to take the time to get there in training. You need to be doing your component sports at efforts slower, at and faster then the goal efforts you want to race at and doing so in various conditions to prepare your body effectively.
Getting performance is pretty simple with proper planning and training and then not making silly avoidable mistakes on race day.