Last week I was riding with a friend who raced Ironman Boulder and had his race nutrition plan set up perfectly. He mentioned that about 3/4 of the race was fueled with food from The Feed. The other 1/4 was fueled with "RedBull and caffeine". My comment was something like "nice work, that's exactly how to handle race nutrition for key events!"
Here's how you can summarize the conversation: If you ate like it was your biggest race of the year everyday, you'd be in trouble. If you ate like it was a regular training day during your biggest race of the year, you probably wouldn't perform as well as you otherwise would. Sometimes, races require a fueling plan that isn't considered "healthy"...and that's OK if you understand how to test what works for you.
Race nutrition is not everyday nutrition
. During a normal training week, your primary focus is likely on maintaining a balanced diet of whole food that (ideally) you prepare for yourself. Two primary challenges are making sure you eat to recover day to day, and making sure that you have portable food to eat when life is busy.
Everyday nutrition is not race nutrition
. During a race, especially "A" priority events, your main focus is going as fast as you can or performing well enough to "enjoy" the race and finish within a target time. Two primary challenges are making sure that you have the right food or hydration at the right time, and that it does not cause GI distress. Nothing ruins a race more than a stomach tied up in knots.
Sound good? Great. What now?
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- Test your race nutrition during isolated training days similar to the event you're targeting, or during B events. Do NOT replicate your race nutrition strategy everyday that you train.
- Don't be afraid to use stuff that you wouldn't want to consume everyday for race nutrition. Caffeine, as an example, probably shouldn't be consumed everyday, especially not in high quantities (ie, more than 75-100mg). That said, caffeine might be super effective race nutrition for you to use during a key event.
- Don't be afraid to eat too much during a key race. Race nutrition should focus on consuming as many calories (up to around 400 cals / hour) that your stomach can handle. If done properly, you might even GAIN weight during a well fueled race. Your key race is not the time to be running a caloric deficit.
- If something works for you, trust your intuition and don't second guess it. Often times what an athlete perceives to work for them, is the best guide for finding a race nutrition strategy for your big event.