When you’re training hard, good nutrition is key. Sure, you need to train for your swim, bike and run legs, but what’s the point in going through all the effort of training if you don’t fuel your body in a way that’s going to benefit you most?
When I started out in triathlon, I was pretty clued up on nutrition. I have always been interested in the topic, so I learned more by reading a lot of scientific articles and research findings on nutrition strategies. I also knew a fair bit from my elite level dancing days, albeit it being training for classical ballet, for which the nutritional needs were really quite different to triathlon!
Never the less, I was inspired by these general know-hows and when I started doing longer rides – which for me at the very beginning was anything longer than a 90-minute run – I certainly learned a few lessons the hard way, through trial and error, about the importance of proper fuelling.
I would have a good breakfast (the ever classic porridge and banana combo) and then head out on the road with nothing but a bottle of water, only to then find that at around 100minutes into the session, I could barely push the pedals and was resorted to tears when thinking about cycling uphill. This, I know now, is referred to as the infamous ‘bonking’ that many athletes feel when they haven’t fed themselves properly. It’s not fun at all. And we’ve all been there.
As I started to progress further in triathlon, I began training with a coach and soon linked up with a sports dietician. I soon began to see the error in my ways.
Nowadays, my approach to fuelling during my sessions is quite different. I take my nutrition very seriously, ensuring I’m taking the right kinds of fuel in and at the right times, to keep all cylinders firing. Shorter, intense workouts on the turbo will be topped up with bananas, gels and energy drinks. I manage my nutrition during training on the scale of ‘this isn’t so bad’ to ‘I think I’m actually going to die’ and go from there.
Energy drinks wise, I’m a big fan of Maurten. For gels, I like TORQ because they sit well on my stomach. Which cyclist isn’t part sponsored by bananas?
Out on the track or trails for the run, I also opt for gels or gummy sweets (like Clif shots or High 5 gummies) which I like to take little and often. The general rule of thumb in sessions where the intensities are high and durations are over an hour is to try and ensure I get around 40-60g of carbs per hour, although some people can manage a little more, of up to 90g carbs an hour. When it comes to longer rides, I take two approaches, dependant on the situation:
When it’s more of a race-focused session such as 3-4 hours with a couple of 20-30 minute race pace efforts, I will try to dial into my race nutrition. This means fuelling with the products I would use on race day so that I ensure I have practised this numerous times before the race and know what I can tolerate.
For a 3 hour ride, I might make up my torpedo water bottle with Maurten 320 mix into 700ml water (80g carbs). I will have another 500-750ml bottle of plain water on the bike too. Solids wise, I will take with me 2 bars (either GU Waffles or uber amazing homemade Rice Krispy bars, courtesy of my dietician Claire Fudge, which work out as 40g carbs) and 2-3 gels (always with an emergency one!). I aim to sip the Maurten from the very start to ensure never let my energy levels dip. I take half a waffle bar about every 30 minutes and a gel if I need it towards the end. I find that if I don’t start fuelling early, I struggle beyond two hours, so keeping my intake stead is key for me.
This is just my approach, and everyone is different. I have tried a range of different fuelling strategies in the past, and this is the one, with a mix of drinks and solids, that works best for me right now.
Race pace and race-focused rides aside, when it’s just a long aerobic, chatty ride at a Zone 2 level effort, I sometimes mix things up and have more natural or ‘real’ food choices. I tend to keep an energy drink to sip on regularly, but for solids, I’m more likely to choose bananas and bars, or even something ‘treaty’ like a packet of Starbursts or a flapjack. I have to say I am quite the banana eating queen and I’m regularly seen taking out 3-4 of them on my rides and eating them whilst high speed descending (I claim that this is good for my handling skills…). Sadly, I’m not really a fan of stopping during rides because I simply can’t cope with café-lag drama afterwards. But, sign me up for post-ride cake and ice cream any day.
What happens before breakfast is always pretty standard for a long ride day. 2-3 slices of toast with my favourite peanut butter, a milky coffee and fruit (melons, pomegranate and berries are my favourite) and lunch on return will be something wholesome and yummy, like a big bowl of rice and prawn/chicken stir fry with veggies and tahini, or a simple scrambled egg, avocado and ciabatta type number.
This is just a little insight as to the way I fuel during my rides and it’s safe to say that everyone’s nutritional needs are individual. Some people can tolerate certain brands of gels, for example, that other people can’t. Some people love chocolate on the bike leg, whereas it just makes me feel sick. For others, something as simple as a jam sandwich might do the trick. What’s most important is that you practice, practice, practice your race nutrition so as you don’t get any nasty surprises on race day. It’s crucial to choose options that provide you with sufficient energy and ones that you actually enjoy (or tolerate!) eating.
Written by Zone3 Ambassador Jem Cooper