We spend a lot of time counseling athletes on their nutrition choices during training and competition, especially as part of the “Race Day Nutrition Planning” service offered by CTS. After doing several hundred of these planning sessions with athletes, common threads have emerged.
Some of the most common nutrition mistakes we see athletes running into include overconsumption of calories, making their nutrition too complicated, and generally not planning as much as they should when compared to how they approach the physical side of training.
You’re eating too much
On the first point, overconsumption of calories tends to occur because athletes are unsure of just how much they are burning and what a reasonable replacement of calories would be. Generally, aiming to replenish 25-35% of expenditure on an hourly basis is a good starting point on-the-bike-nutrition.
For an athlete who is burning 800 kilocalories (kcal, otherwise written as Calories; think of it as 800 food Calories) per hour, this would amount to eating about 200-250 kcal, which is completely reasonable. You can achieve 200 kcal an hour with a combination of sports drinks, energy gels, chewables, or bars very easily. Since carbohydrate contains 4 kcal/gram, consuming 200 kcal means eating 50grams of carbohdyrate. This amount is well within the roughly 60 grams per hour limit on exogenous carbohydrate oxidation. (Some research says you may be able to utilize more than 1 gram/min of exogenous carbohydrate when consuming mixed sugar sources, but 1g/min is a good starting point).
And keep in mind, in the example above 800 kcal per hour is a typically a hard race pace or a very hard interval session for most athletes; a more endurance-paced session will be closer to 500-600 kcal per hour, which would put caloric replenishment at about 30-40 grams for the 500 kcal/hr pace and 37-50 grams for the 600 kcal/hr pace.
The danger with overconsumption of calories during a cycling, triathlon, or running event is that an overloaded gut can’t transport nutrients into the bloodstream fast enough and leftover food in the gut can lead to gastric distress. Keep in mind that your gut motility is likely to be slower during harder activity and when your core temperature is elevated and/or when you are dehydrated. If your gut is already moving slowly, putting too much food into it all at once will only make you feel bloated, sloshy, and ill.
Triathletes face some unique challenges because you need to account for the inability to eat in the water and the limited ability to eat on the run. The bike leg is a great place to focus on fueling, but you still have to recognize the body’s limitations when it comes to the amount of energy it can take in and process in a given period of time. Overloading the system slows it down and makes you nauseas; starving it brings you to a halt. Learning what you need to take in relative to your expenditure and your tolerance on the bike and run will help match your intake with your needs and can prolong your endurance as you get into the run.
For shorter workouts between 60-75 minutes, remember that you start with 1600-2000 kcal of stored carbohydrate in your body. You can complete even the hardest high-intensity hour-long interval session without needing to consume more carbohydrate during your workout. You will still need fluids, and a fluid/electrolyte drink would work well for those hour-long workouts, too. But you can avoid overconsumption by relying on your stored carbohydrates (and of course, stored fat) for shorter, 60-75 minute workouts.
You’re making it too complicated
Nutrition planning should be relatively simple. Not so much in the numbers or individual planning, but just in the sense of using what works. We like to stress the point of, “Know what works, and use what you know,” because it starts with the fact that athletes should first know what they need.
Why do I need carbohydrates and what will they do for my body? Will protein play a role? What about fat intake? Knowing what these nutrients do and why you might need them is a key component in designing an individual nutrition plan. It is not enough to blindly take the promotional content in ads or on product packaging as gospel. It’s not even enough to blindly follow your coach’s instructions. The best athletes are those who educate themselves on the basics of training and nutrition; you gain the ability to interpret, apply, and adjust the guidance of coaches and nutritionists in effective ways.
“Use what you know” means that you shouldn’t make it too complex. Test everything out in training. If you decide you’re going to need 65g of carbohydrate per hour, try it in training and see if it works, and make sure you are matching the training/racing duration and intensity as closely as possible.
You may be able to tolerate more calories at lower intensities, but have gastric distress with the same foods when you’re going harder. If it doesn’t work in training, there’s little chance it’s going to magically work in competition when the stress and intensity are even more of a factor. But if it works in training, then you’ve proven it’s a viable option for your race. Keep the nutrition plan simple. It’s when things get too complex that we lose focus of what is important.
We have seen plans that include a very simple approach of 3 gels per hour + 2 bottles of water for every hour in a 12-hour event. This may work great for some athletes; it may be too much or too monotonous for others. We have also seen approaches that include a 300 kcal bar here and there, sandwiches, specific drinks mixed with 1 scoop, others with 2 scoops, varying amounts and types of carbohydrates, and all of this according to a rigid schedule that was almost certain to go awry due to the variable conditions of race day.
In long events, variety is important because it keeps an athlete from getting complacent about eating. Changing the flavors and textures is very effective for motivating fatigued athletes to continue consuming calories. However, overly complicated plans often create more stress and cause more problems than they solve. Anyone who has completed a long endurance event can tell you a story about a plan that had to be changed; it’s the nature of endurance racing. When your nutrition strategy is simple and built on a sound foundation, it can be adapted relatively easily and remain effective. The more complicated it is, the more easily it will fall apart and become ineffective.
You’re treating nutrition like an afterthought
Finally, we often see a disconnect between the ways athlete approach nutrition planning and physical training. We encourage athletes to put the same amount of dedication and focus into their nutrition training and planning as they do with their physical training.
It makes more sense to go out and ride, run, or swim because we see the results and we feel good about it after a hard workout. But with nutrition, the immediate results are very subtle (feeling a bit better in intervals later in a workout, feeling fresher the day after a hard workout, etc.), and the substantial results come later. Without the immediate feedback or gratification, it’s difficult to keep the eyes on the prize. But suffering through a “nutrition malfunction” during a long workout or event can be a great learning experience.
If you never try your race day nutrition routines in training, you can’t expect it to just magically work on race day. We like to have athletes take a minimum of 2 “nutrition training sessions” per month where they go out for that long ride, long run, or brick session and eat and drink as they would in a race, mimicking the intensity and volume as much as is reasonable. It is during these sessions that athletes may realize their nutrition selections are too sweet, too syrupy, difficult to open/eat at higher speeds, too dry to eat at high intensities, etc.