“If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”

by Mark Wolff


Recently I have been receiving a lot of questions on training and racing nutrition. My last blog was focused on becoming more fat efficient, keeping your fuel intake to a minimum and adapting the body to using its natural fat stores as a predominant source of fuel in an endurance session. It’s an awesome position to be in when you can just get up and go long and not worry so much about fuelling yourself.

As mentioned previously in sessions under 2 hrs you can perform extremely well at a high intensity on no fuel at all, if you do consume anything it’s purely to make your brain happy and give you that extra mental boost to up your performance. This has been shown in the famous “Carb taste not swallow test” where athletes purely rinsed the drink in their mouths without and a percentage increase in performance was demonstrated (The Effect of Carbohydrate Mouth Rinse Cycle Time Trial Performance-Jeukendrup) It shows that the mind has a lot to do with an athlete’s ability to perform and Prof. Tim Noakes has often presented the central governor theory where the brain is completely in control by the body and understands all physiological feedback mechanisms. It determines based on conditioning and ongoing readings it gets from the body during exercise as to what point it will control your ability to perform or under perform in a means of ensuring you are protected. If you are not trained to go out and race at a particular effort, the central governor will surely tire you with feelings of fatigue under those conditions in order to slow you down and ensure the body is safe. There is of course opposition to this theory, but there is one thing that both sides still agree on and that is the body needs to be trained to perform.

Last week on a whim I decided to run 42km’s to celebrate my 42nd birthday. Maybe not a normal thing to do, but my running coach said go easy and get it out the system. Even if he said no I think I would have been stubborn enough to do it. With no race pressure, and not the best night’s sleep, I got up early had a cup of strong black coffee, took a waste belt with two 250ml water bottles and headed out with a friend. I ran at a very comfortable and evenly controlled pace, I got back home in 3h19 minutes with a little water to spare and felt great.

The big question I get asked is how you can go and run for that long and not eat anything, and the answer is simple I had all the fuel I needed for that long run inside me BUT more importantly my body was conditioned and gut trained extensively to do that quite comfortably.
That run probably didn’t touch much glycogen at all, it was primarily fuelled on fat. Also the time of running was way less than say some of the rides I do on water only which can go anywhere between 5-6 hours so it wasn’t a worry.  The point is the body is trained over a long period of time with proper nutrition consumption to allow for this. The brain and body work together to understand the body’s ability and limitations and with time you will understand as your body gives you constant feedback. (Check out a previous blog “Listen to your messages”)

The big questions I got after that is if this is how I will race? My answer to that is absolutely not. This is where the title of this blog comes into play, “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail”.  It’s very critical to properly prepare for racing conditions as well, and even though I do a lot of water training, I definitely set aside time for what I call racing “nutrition training”. It’s an important area of being able to race at your best. There is no ways any athlete can go into a race not properly prepared for what he has to consume and under which conditions to ensure that he performs at his or her best. Racing is done at a much high pace for a longer period of time than a training session and it requires a different type of fuelling.

It’s not a difficult aspect of training but I need to stress that it’s a critical aspect and something that cannot be left to the last week or two before a race, because you will want to have your race nutrition down packed way before that in order to make sure that you have a plan and you can habitually stick to it.

My recommendation is to choose a day where you test out your race nutrition. This means waking up in the morning eating a pre-training meal as if it was your pre-race meal going out for a few hours at a fairly intensive pace (slightly slower than race pace) and checking the following:

  • Digestive Comfort  
  • Palatability
  • Energy Levels
  • Ability to Perform

I generally do a session like this once every 10 days and know a few elite athletes that will do this once a week. Sessions like this must be planned, well thought out and think about mimicking it close to your race day as possible.

Nutrition of course will vary for each sport discipline and it’s important to understand that what you do on the morning of a 10km race, marathon, triathlon and cycle race can all differ and should be planned, checked and re-tested to ensure you are on track.

If you can finish that session strong and feeling good with all the check marks in the boxes you are definitely on the right track. This does not need to be done too often as you would not want to try and mimic race day efforts too much, but you need to find a winning formula.

If you are doing a stage race it requires even more effort to test your nutrition as you will need to test your day nutrition first, and once happy with it move on to testing your stage racing nutrition. The critical area of stage racing is recovery in order to be able to keep consistent performance’s each day and keeping those energy levels constant. It would be highly recommended to do at least 3 repeat performances each day including pre, during and post racing nutrition which will give you an idea of exactly how you feel day to day and whether your nutrition strategy is working for you.

Each person is unique and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another so you need to experiment and see what is the best for you.

As a general guideline in deciding what you are going to eat on race day I can suggest the following:

Avoid any Food Consumption that can cause Digestive Issues
There a few foods than entirely ruin a race. You might think they don’t affect you generally so when you are racing they should be fine. However you need to understand that blood i.e.: oxygen is needed to perform digestion. If you are running very fast, oxygen will be diverted away from your stomach to your heart, brain and leg muscles to cater for the exertion. The stomach needs an adequate amount of electrolytes, roughly equal to that of the body tissues outside of the stomach, to perform digestion. If digestion doesn’t occur and the contents of the gastrointestinal tract don’t move, the muscles in the walls of the tract may begin to spasm, bringing on uncomfortable stomach cramps. Triathletes tend to experience more digestive issues than most sport as the positions of 3 disciplines vary. The swim is a lying down position not very conducive to easy digestion and there is buoyancy on top of that, this is usually the setup for cramping that occurs later on during the bike or run. Secondly a triathlete cannot consume during the swim or hydrate so if he or she has consumed something not suitable to that discipline a fair amount of time will pass before the first bit of water can be consumed to try to create some form of balance. In long distance events like Ironman very often consuming a glucose spiking product at the onset will cause GI distress pretty early on. A common mistake that many endurance athletes make.

Running moves the bowels around quite a bit more as the body’s movements gets the organs bouncing and shaking nicely. I am emphasizing that what you eat that’s generally comfortable will still need to be tested during exercise which is what I call digestion under stress.

The main foods to avoid before a race are definitely anything that is high in fiber as this is a certain way of getting your bowels to work nicely and that’s the last thing you need before a race or during it, especially while pre-race nerves are finding their way into every part of your body. Another recommendation I make it to avoid high lactose products. Dairy is a very common cause of digestive problems. Even if you are not lactose intolerant you don’t know what it can do to your body while under stressful conditions. Heavy meats or cheeses are a big no. You want to consume foods that are easy on the digestive system and leave you feeling comfortable.

Size of Meals
Another issue is that many athletes over eat and over hydrate pre-race leaving them feeling bloated heavy and uncomfortable. That is a guaranteed curse under racing or exercise conditions. You need to play with your portion sizes to see what your comfort zone is. I generally recommend a +-300 Calorie food portion pre-race.

Timing and Type of Meals
The timing of your pre-race meal is also critical. I can use a personal example for this one. A few weeks ago, I had a 25km trail race. I made a BIG rookie mistake. I though the start time of the actual race was 7am. There were two races that day and I for some reason just never read the details properly which is not like me, but I was chilled about it nevertheless. I woke up at 4:30am had a nice rolled oats and nut butter meal. I got a lift to the race and on route I get told the race is actually starting at 6am. I was thinking in my mind this is going to be even harder and it was. The timing of my meal to my 7am race was perfect, but to the 6am race it was not. I had to suffer some serious heart burn through the event and I expected to. At least the pain could mentally be bypassed and allow me to come out on top. I am just using this example to stress the importance of meal timing. Preferably minimum 2hrs before the race you want to be done and dusted with your pre-race meal, only requiring some top ups in between. To be honest in this case I shouldn’t have had a pre-racing meal maybe just a small shake or drink before, it wasn’t required at all especially at that time of the morning and I hadn’t run a trail race in years so my nutrition prep was not exactly where it should have been.

I guess this leads into another question. When should I eat a proper pre racing meal and when is it not absolutely necessary. In this case I always look at the type of the event, my pace and expected time. Generally any race for me taking less than 2hrs I won’t eat. I might take a small shake but I certainly don’t require any food. These shorter events as I define them will generally be raced on water. If the pace is extremely high and is closer to the 2hr mark then chances are I will consume some sugary stuff on route to keep my brain a little happier and ensuring a little bit of glycogen sparing on route.

Race Fuel
When events get longer 3hrs or more, you need to understand that at a very high pace you will deplete your glycogen levels and will need to eventually rely on fat as the predominant fuel source. Your body will naturally slow down to cater for the fuel change as fat burning requires oxygen and at too high a pace that’s not going to happen. However this is where fat efficient training plays a massive benefit, because if you have trained your body to adapt to this sort of fuelling it can be trained to do it a slightly higher intensities and this is a great benefit. Also the switch from glycogen to fat caused by glycogen depletion is a shock for some a feeling of fatigue and not being able to move any more. The trained athlete will move through this quite a lot more easily. There is another way around this and that’s to try to pace yourself properly in an endurance event where you won’t burn your glycogen completely and have saved it towards the end where you really need it. In a cycling race it’s sometimes very difficult as the effort or intensity is determined by the bunch and this is where most people get burned, as they are forced to perform at a high intensity to stick with it even if they don’t want to. The wise thing is to try to stick it out in the middle and draft as much as possible to conserve your energy stores. However in an ultra-distance triathlon or long running race you have the ability to determine your own pace and control your intake and predominant energy fuel based on that.

It’s important to remember that if you are going at a controlled pace or intensity consuming a blood glucose spiking product will mitigate you from being able to use your fat stores as energy, so keep fuel intake to lower insulin spiking products which allow for this. When performing under very high intensity conditions you are best suited to taking a blood glucose spiking product as fat is not easily accessible. There of course is a combination of both glycogen and fat being used when doing long events, as pace varies through the event, but fuel intake will ultimately determine this as well, and can upset the balance.

Another point I want to enforce is that endurance fuelling should never be complicated. The simpler you keep it the better. I advocate drip feeding in endurance events. This means smaller more frequently timed feeds as opposed to feeding every hour. It’s easier on the digestive system and it keeps the body and energy levels in a nice equilibrium. I generally will feed every 20-25 minutes in a long endurance event.

Plan and Train the Gut
I was invited to chat to the participants of Ironman 70.3 Western Australia this year as we were event sponsors. The first question I received was shouldn’t we be consuming between 60-90 grams of carbohydrate per an hour of exercise during the event. My immediate response to that was has your gut been trained to consume 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per an hour. The amount of carbohydrate consumption per an hour during exercise is not based on the number of carbs you are consuming, but more importantly how much of those carbohydrates your body is capable of absorbing and using. If your body is only capable of absorbing 50 grams of carbohydrate per an hour because that’s the food you use and that’s what you are used to, then how would your system cope under excessive intake meaning, your gut completely under-trained to deal with the increased consumption. The answer is it won’t. In long endurance events I can easily get away with between 20-50 grams of carbs per an hour in an event. I have never needed to venture into the 60-90 range ever and I don’t feel I would cope in that range either. Another thing that is important to note is the 60-90 gram carb intake is based solely on the fact that you are fuelling with carbs only which means racing at a very high intensity, its doesn’t take into account controlled pace and fat usage. Scientific studies have shown that a combination of specific carbohydrates in unique ratios can maximize the absorption rates however I have witness many an athlete opt for those test results only to be left with severe stomach issues on route. Another thing I don’t agree with is relying on drinking ones calories. I definitely feel that food solids are a far better form of fuelling. Dr Allen Lim well known scientist especially with his involvement in premier Tour de France cycling teams has shown a lot of science behind this and you can view it here.

There are many ways to approach nutrition when it comes to training and racing. It’s something that always needs to be taken into consideration and never left on the side. So the next time you sit down look at your training and racing schedule. Plan your workouts, your swims, cycle and runs, but add another training session into that called nutrition. Train your gut, get on track and make sure you give yourself the best opportunity to perform well and hassle free at your next event.


Keep at it 

all the best


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