For the past 8 months, my husband has been embarking on a crazy journey towards training for the Ironman in Texas. It has consumed our lives as a family. He trains for hours a week, and my 5-year-old daughter sometimes will run over to his bike trainer, to hang out with her daddy or feed him an energy bite made out of dates. I have taken over his nutrition plan, making sure he gets adequate macronutrients to perform and recover. I really don’t know how Ironman-hopefuls do it themselves, because left to his own devices, as ravenous as he gets after his training sessions, he would raid the pantry for chips and crackers if I didn’t have a substantial meal waiting for him. The craziest thing is that, even though he’s had a few marathons under his belt, he hasn’t done a single triathlon…ever. Not even a sprint triathlon! His motto is always “go big or go home” though, and I love that about him. Even though I do think he’s a little cookoo sometimes.
When we (and I say “we,” because this seriously is a joint effort. He could not do this without me!) started this whole training regimen eight months ago, I was overwhelmed with the amount of nutrition information I needed to know. Yes, I am a Registered Dietitian, but the type of work I’ve done was more in the clinical side of nutrition – like educating patients on dietary management of diseases, writing out tube feedings, all that stuff that Clinical Dietitians do. I was definitely not a sports dietitian, even though I had a basic grasp on it from my college studies. I ordered Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook by Nancy Clark, MS, RD, and got right to it (fellow RDs, you can get a whopping 25 CEUS going through this book, too! SCORE).
This book, along with Brendan Brazier’s “Thrive,” websites like www.active.com, and www.ironman.com, helped me put together a nutrition plan for P. I started making his electrolyte drinks, recovery smoothies, energy gels and energy bars for his bike rides, and optimized everything he ate so that I knew I did everything I could to ensure his success. My basic goal was to have him (and our family) consume good, wholesome food, as plant-based as possible, and that has totally worked for him.
On Saturdays, P has up to 5 ½ hours of intense training sessions. I make him weigh in before and after his workout so I could measure his sweat rate (some references recommend weighing in after an hour, but that’s really hard when P is outdoors running). The thing that gives me the jitters is that he’s training in the cold here in Maryland, and the Ironman is in Texas. It’s going to be hot and humid (we’ve lived there before), and so I need to know that the amount of salt I’m giving him in his electrolyte drinks right now is enough.
This is what I mean when I talk about sweat rate.
The thing you want to avoid is hyponatremia – water intoxication – and this happens when, for example, athletes run an entire marathon in hot hot heat, sweat a lot, and only drink water instead of an electrolyte drink. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes, and the big one is sodium. Taste your sweat (gross, I know), but the point I want to make is that it tastes salty. With lots of sodium loss and no replenishment of that sodium, athletes can develop nausea, have disorientation, headaches, and even in extreme cases, land in a coma. I need to know P’s sweat rate, because if he loses more than 2% of his body weight in sweat, I need to be more aggressive in his nutrition management, like adding in a little more salt to his carbohydrate gels, electrolyte drinks, and so on. Even shove a pickle spear at him once in awhile (I’ve done that). Yes, he could drink things like Gatorade, but there is not enough sodium in those drinks for the level of intensity he’s working at. Plus, I like to do things the hard way. Oh, gosh, I sound like my husband now.
For long training days, like his Saturday 5 ½ hour sessions, the nutrition plan goes something like this**:
→3-4 hours before the training session/event:
Consume a large meal, of complex carbohydrate and moderate protein. This is usually breakfast on these days, so I’ve developed this high-powered sweet potato and quinoa pancake recipe (recipe follows) for the hubby. The sweet potato provides complex carbs, and the quinoa is one of the few plant-based sources of a complete protein. He usually eats two of these, with almond butter spread on top (I do allow moderate fat intake at this meal, because it’s well-tolerated for him), and a light drizzle of maple syrup. It is calorie and nutrient-dense, because he will be burning so much energy the next few hours.
→1-2 hours before:
A light snack (this could be anything like a bagel with banana, a small hummus sandwich, or granola) with about 2 cups of water. Ease up on the protein and fat here, and make it mostly carbohydrate to fuel you. You don’t want to overload on the water; just make sure you are adequately hydrated.
→During the event:
If it’s going to be less than an hour, just drink water. You don’t need an electrolyte drink. If it’s going to be greater than an hour, however, be sure to drink an electrolyte drink that contains sodium. You lose sodium through sweat, and so you need to replenish if you’ll be sweating a lot. You also lose some potassium through sweat, but your body has a lot of potassium stores, so as long as you eat lots of fruits and veggies, you’re most likely good in the potassium department. The dates that I give to P during his workout have potassium, too.
In addition, for these long endurance events, I have to make sure P has a steady supply of carbohydrate to fuel his muscles. For him, dates (again) have proved to be a good source of easily digestible carbohydrate. For you, it might be something different. I’ve even read that one biker liked to boil small potatoes (they also have potassium too!), roll them in salt, and ate that on his long bike rides.
You need to experiment with what works for you in terms of fuel. Some people buy all packaged gels and products; I, on the other hand, prefer to feed the hubs homemade stuff, because I can control his performance based on what his input is. We’ve totally seen a difference. The one time I got lazy and let him rely on pre-packaged drink formulations and energy gels was the last time, because he felt weak and sluggish, and performed poorly in terms of time.
→After your workout: Rehydrate over the next few hours. Everyone is different in how much they have to rehydrate dependent in sweat rate and pounds lost, so I strongly urge you to do your research!
→45 minutes after the event/training session: This is the window you have to nourish, repair, build, and recover your muscles and body, because you put them through so much stress the past few hours!
You need to feed yourself a combination of carbohydrate and protein – if you’re weight-lifting, you need to eat carbohydrates too! Don’t be protein-centric. Carbohydrates make up muscle glycogen and need to be replenished. In addition, amino acids from protein need to restore your muscles.
I usually give P a smoothie, full of almond milk, fruit, green veggies, and plant-based protein after a workout (this can be hemp seeds, protein from soy milk, almond butter, chia seeds, pea protein powder, etc). He’s usually starving when he’s done, so will have this, take a shower, and sit for a bit.
Within the 45 minutes, I also give him a meal. This can be some vegan chili with rice, a big Buddha bowl (a huge bowl of brown rice) packed with veggies and moderate protein (sautéed tofu cubes, seitan, or beans), basically something very substantial and filling. Your body can only process 20-25 grams of protein at a time, so don’t go all crazy by putting 40 grams of protein in your shakes. You’re just wasting your money, and will have to go to the bathroom more because your body will try to excrete the excess as urea, a product of protein breakdown.
So there you have it. That is JUST ONE DAY, and not even what I feed the guy the whole week! It is very involved, but through this whole thing, I’ve discovered that I actually LOVE sports nutrition, and maybe I’ll get to do more of it in the future. Who knows? I’ve got this under my belt, at least!
Here’s the recipe for P’s Saturday morning sweet potato and quinoa power pancakes. For all you endurance athletes that try this a few hours before your training sessions or events, let me know how it works for you!
**This nutrition plan, although I follow the general format given by Nancy Clark, MS, RD, should be tailored and individualized to meet your needs. It is not intended as medical advice to you, the reader, and all questions on sports nutrition and your specific diet should be directed to a nutrition professional familiar with your situation.