Ironman Nutrition 101

by Tom Freure, HoneyMaxx Co-founder

Nutrition – the 4th Stage in Triathlon

When I approached Ironman Mt. Tremblant in 2013 I knew I had my hands full with the training for swimming, cycling and running. Even with an elite mountain bike racing background, several marathons (including Boston) and many half-iron triathlons; I knew I was in for a whole new experience.

As any new Ironman athlete would do, I began studying up on training methods, training plans and of-course finding the best ‘aero’ gear.

I quickly learned that nutrition would be the thing that would “make or break” my success on Ironman race-day as many call it the 4th stage or discipline of Ironman.

Unfortunately too many athletes leave their nutrition prep to the last few weeks of training.I spent 5 months figuring out my nutrition plan with 3 goals,

1. Train my body to ingest and digest as many calories/hour as possible

2. Find solid and liquid nutrition that my body ‘liked’

3. Create a system where I did not have to rely on the on-course offerings

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1. Train my body to ingest and digest as many calories/hour as possible

Over the course of 5 months I made sure I consumed food during every single run or bike ride to simulate what my digestive system would experience. I started with a small consumption rate of 75 calories an hour and added 20-30 calories each week until I was able to consistently consume 350-450 calories per hour easily. It took some time, and a few stomach aches, but 1 month prior to race day, I was able to complete a 7 hour workout with no gastrointestinal problems whatsoever and knew that I was ready for IM. I’d suggest to anyone training for IM to start this many months in advance. Your digestive system needs as much training as your legs, lungs and heart to be successful on race-day. Many of my fellow racers spent months avoiding calories during workouts to shed weight as much as possible. Though this left them svelt and light on the scales, their bodies were simply not ready to consume the calories needed on race-day leaving them with massive gastrointestinal distress and unfortunately for some, a DNF. I would much rather finish strong with a few extra pounds than be as light as possible and not finish.

2. Find solid and liquid nutrition that my body ‘liked’

Coming into Ironman I had always relied on Clif Bars and Gu Gels. Both served the purpose in my early training, but I eventually realized that my beloved Clif bars were just too hard to chew on the run or bike. I swapped out the bars in exchange for Clif Bloks and added in Dutch waffles. The combination of these three products made for a nice variety of foods in various flavours and levels of sweetness. I struggled most in finding a sports drink that worked. Virtually every sports drink I tried was sickeningly sweet and caused a lot of gastrointestinal distress – when used with or without my solid foods. This is where I turned to Mark and Angela Ysseldyk - RHNs and health food gurus. They built me a drink using a variety of natural and organic electrolytes and used honey as the carbohydrate source. This allowed a very stable energy source and was very easily digestible (it was also the reason for creating HoneyMaxx!). The original homemade HoneyMaxx was the final piece and keystone to my whole success with my nutrition.

3. Create a system where I did not have to rely on the on-course offerings

Having seen many dropped bottles and crashes in feed-zones in my other triathlons, I was determined to avoid feed zones as much as possible. I wanted to ensure that I had all the calories on my bike that I needed to so If missed a feed zone I wouldn't end up in massive caloric debt. I carried 4 bottles of ultra concentrated homemade honey sports drink along with an oversized custom made bento box filled with my favourite gels, bloks and waffles. All solid food items were pre-opened and cut down into 25-50 calorie pieces for easy regulation. Throughout the race I only relied on getting water from the aid stations. While I knew getting water at each aid station was important, it wasn’t an absolute necessity as I was comfortable missing the odd feed-zone knowing I had all my nutrition on board. As I finished each concentrated bottle of my homemade honey sports drink, I threw it away and would replace it with a full bottle of water from the next feed zone. This plan worked perfectly as I finished my last piece of waffle with 30 minutes left to go on the bike and enough time to relax my stomach prior to the run. On the run, I was able to succeed by carrying a small fuel belt with bloks and gels and one very concentrated bottle of drink which was consumed prior to each feed station and washed down with a cup of cold water.

Though I knew my swim, bike and run training went well, I am 100% confident that my nutrition plan was the key to success on race day. It led to a strong first Ironman time of 10:20. I’m looking forward to the next one...