You have been preparing for your long-distance triathlon for years, and the big day is fast approaching. You are sharpening that knife in the final weeks leading up to race day with a dutiful recovery period, and you know that your nutrition during an IRONMAN taper is of utmost importance.
They key to successful IRONMAN taper is making sure these final few weeks are as productive as possible, while still giving yourself maximum rest. It is during this time that a very common question will arise, “Rick, what, if anything, should I do different with my nutrition in these final weeks?” And my answer is always the same for those individuals that I’m working with, “There is nothing that we are going to do different. You have been fueling your body properly for months on end and now we simply continue to fuel the body right in these final few weeks.”
What are some of the key nutritional components to focus on as race day approaches? Well, the key elements that we will discuss apply not only to the final few weeks leading into the race, but, this is how we want to be fueling our body every single day in order to achieve meaningful and sustainable performance results for a lifetime. Whether an individual’s goals revolve around body transformation, improved overall health and fitness and/or improved athletic performance, eating right and fueling the body right are going to be the keys to success.
Fueling Frequency and Timing
When it comes to fueling the body right, frequency and timing of our meals and snacks becomes a key component. Let’s keep it simple; no matter what time you wake up, no matter what time you work out, no matter what time you go to bed, let’s be sure to implement the following: Fuel your body right away upon awakening and then fuel your body every two and a half to three and a half hours thereafter—throughout the day.
Yes, I mean right away upon awakening; not 30 minutes after you wake up, not 60 minutes after. All too often, as race day approaches, individuals find themselves still carrying too much body fat and too much body weight, despite the super-high level of workout activity . And as a result, individuals may gravitate toward “cutting calories,” thinking that this will help them lose a few pounds pre-race. Needless to say, this is nothing shy of self-sabotage. We never want to follow any food fad or diet, especially with a big race fast approaching.
Don’t Eat Healthy, Eat Right
There is a huge difference between eating healthy versus eating right, as these are two completely different worlds. When individuals focus on eating healthy, they tend to miss the mark, big time.
For example, individuals may choose a handful of almonds for a snack. Or they may choose an apple or hummus and carrots as a snack. Are these examples healthy? Absolutely, but at the same time they are complete train wrecks when it comes to fueling the body properly. Notice the operative word in that sentence, fueling.
Always remember, feeding the body and fueling the body are completely different. We do not want to feed the body, rather, we always want to focus on fueling the body. Let’s use a car as an example. Gasoline and water are both liquids. So why can’t we just put water in the gas tank of our car? Well, we all know that water, albeit a liquid like gasoline, is not going to fuel our car. The human body works the same way.
Those snack examples above are simply water in the gas tank. They are feeding the body, but they are not fueling the body. Let’s look at the details. A handful of almonds has 340 calories and a whopping 71 percent fat …71 percent!
Often times the knee-jerk reaction is, “But Rick, it’s good fat!” I don’t care if it’s good fat or bad fat, this snack is 71 percent fat. With only 13 percent carbohydrate, this snack is nothing shy of water in the gas tank. Sure, it’s feeding the body, but it’s not fueling the body.
Fueling the Body Versus Just Feeding It
So how do we properly fuel the body? We do so by having the proper balance of carbohydrate-protein-fat at every meal/snack. Our goal, at every meal/snack is to have 50 to 65 percent of your calories from carbohydrate, 15 to 25 percent protein and between 15 and 25 percent fat. When we achieve this, we are fueling the body and brain for success. “The brain is dependent on sugar as its main fuel,” says Vera Novak, MD, PhD, and an HMS associate professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “It cannot be without it.”
And no, vegetables are not carbohydrates. Sure, while vegetables contain a few grams of carbohydrates, this does not make them a fuel/carbohydrate source. Vegetables are just that, vegetables. They are good for us and they provide the body with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are not a fuel source. A slice of dense, whole grain bread has a few grams of protein, but that does not make this slice of bread a protein source; rather, this is a great example of a fuel/carbohydrate source.
Let’s examine a popular meal individuals gravitate toward because they want to eat healthy: 6oz grilled salmon plus one cup steamed vegetables. A healthy meal? Absolutely, but again, a complete train wreck in terms of properly fueling the body. This meal provides the body with 430 calories, 16-percent carbohydrate, 41-percent Protein and 44-percent Fat. Aside from this meal providing virtually no fuel for the body and brain, it’s far too high in protein and fat.
Let’s change the game. Let’s stop focusing on eating healthy and let’s focus on fueling the body right. Here’s how easy it is to change the game and take your nutrition to a completely new level. Watch how to easily reconstruct this meal so that we can properly fuel the body and avoid putting water in the gas tank: one cup cooked whole grain pasta, 3 oz grilled salmon, one half cup steamed vegetables. This meal now provides the body with the following high-octane fuel: 498 calories, 54-percent carbohydrate, 26-percent protein and 20-percent fat. Boom! Now we have a meal worth writing home about. This is how we fuel the body and brain (and not just feed the body).
A Note on the Low Carb Craze
In order to maximize and optimize performance and recovery, athletes need to continually load and reload muscle glycogen stores. This process cannot happen with a low-carbohydrate/high-protein diet. According to Ashley Chambers, M.S. and Len Kravitz, PhD, muscle glycogen is the primary fuel (followed by fat) used by the body during exercise.
Low muscle glycogen stores result in muscle fatigue and the body’s inability to complete high intensity exercise. The depletion of muscle glycogen is also a major contributing factor in acute muscle weakness and reduced force production.
Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise decreased glycogen stores, so the need for carbohydrates is high for all types of exercise during this energy phase. Renowned endurance nutrition expert Asker Jeukendrup, PhD, and Michael Gleeson, PhD mention that there is convincing evidence from numerous studies indicating that carbohydrate feeding during exercise of about 45 minutes or longer can improve endurance capacity and performance.
If nerves start to set in as the race approaches, it’s not a problem. We just want to be sure to keep them in check. Often times this nervousness translates into, “I have not done enough volume and/or intensity.” And this is when the individual goes off-script and pops a number of workouts that are far too long and intense.
This is the time of the journey when more is not better; rather, smarter is better. It’s time to trust yourself, trust your training and trust your nutrition. You’ve done the work; the money is in the bank. Instead of trying to squeeze in one more workout, let’s focus on keeping the body fueled for success. Your best weapon at this point is to get to the race start well fueled and well rested, as this will set you up for the best success possible.
In summary, if you are ready to take your performance and recovery to new levels as your big race approaches, let’s focus on the three key components: fueling frequency, fueling timing and the balance of carbohydrate-protein-fat at every meal/snack. When we put these three components into motion, we then set the body up for the best success possible.