Ironman Fueling: Some Hard-Earned Advice and Tips
I have a ton of Ironman content coming in the next few weeks on here and on the Consummate Athlete Podcast, but one of the key things I wanted to talk about was food and hydration, since those were the biggest factors, in my opinion, as to why this race was miles (and hours) better than the first time I raced an Ironman. So, what did I eat and drink, why did it matter, and how did I prep?
Before the race:
Pre-race was all about practice for me, and that meant actually eating and drinking on the bike and on the run. This becomes easier as training hours increase because there’s no way you can avoid eating and drinking on the bike, and the busier life got with work, the more it worked in my favor. I couldn’t slack on in-ride snacks with the intention of having a binge meal post-ride because I had work to get done, so there was no Netflix-and-eat happening for me. That made it easier to convince myself to take in more calories on the bike, and to be honest, it only took a couple rides for me to realize how much better I felt when I was fueling the whole time. And two years of coaching camps taught me the urgent, important nature of NOT BONKING, so I was way more aware of how to avoid that than I was the first time I did an Ironman as a young 23 year old trying to lose weight. And spoiler alert: 2017 Molly is actually in way better shape and has a lower body fat percentage than overtrained and underfed 23 year old Molly.
This was the most nerve-wracking for me, as I knew my nervous stomach was going to make it hard to eat. So I choked down a Clif Bar Nut Peanut Butter Bar as soon as I woke up before nerves really kicked in, and had a bottle filled with nuun that I sipped right up til the start. In hindsight, it would have been good to have a bit more fuel heading into the swim, but I had anticipated that I’d be too nervous to eat much and had tried to eat a bit more than normal the day before. I considered trying to drink an Ensure like Peter did (he actually had two!) but since that would have been a new thing for me, I opted against doing it because I am a major believer in NOT doing new things on race day!!
Bike: Clif Bar Nut Butter Bars and Clif Bar Chocolate Cherry Gels, plus nuun Hydration
I knew Clif Bar products were going to be on the course since Clif was one of the event sponsors, and conveniently, they also happen to be personal favorites of mine. So that worked out perfectly: I knew I could carry my own fuel for the bike, but if I needed extra, and for the run, I would be used to the ingredients and the products that were at the aid stations. So, I packed my pockets and bento box with Clif Bar Nut Peanut Butter Bars and Clif Bar Chocolate Cherry Gels. Those are my two favorites (though right now as I write this, the idea of another gel is just the worst), so I knew eating them would be totally fine on the bike. I went through three bars and five gels, and to be honest, could have used one more. (I did the math later, Ironman burns in the neighborhood of 6000 calories. Holy crap.)
Hydration: This is where I messed up big time 7 years ago. I barely drank on the bike and when I started drinking on the run, it was too late to do much good. I’ve been using nuun for the last year—since they switched to more natural ingredients I’ve really liked them. When they launched, I had stomach issues with the artificial sweeteners but the new formulas are so good. So I filled three big bottles with water plus a nuun tablet, and had two on my bike and one in my jersey. I didn’t want to use the Gatorade on course, so I knew starting with three bottles with electrolytes was going to be key. I quickly drank the first bottle before the first aid station so I could get rid of it, and by the end of the race, I’d drank 4.5 bottles total, the other 1.5 being straight water.
Run: Water, Clif Bar Gels and Shot Bloks
I didn’t want to carry anything on the run, so I stuck with what the aid stations had: and again, luckily, Clif Bar was the sponsor, so I was used to the gels and Shot Bloks that they had on hand. I knew I needed to fuel and hydrate early and often, because I blew up big time in the middle of the run 7 years ago. So even though I felt like a rockstar hitting the first aid station, I slowed to a walk to sip ice water and eat a full gel. After that, I walked every aid station, drinking a small cup of water and either having 1/3-ish of a gel (about one mouthful) or two Shot Bloks, depending on how I felt. My marathon was a 3:50 total time, which isn’t super speedy but for Ironman and with 300 meters of climbing, it’s actually pretty darn good. I was nervous about walking the aid stations, but I knew if I didn’t eat and drink enough, bonking was a serious possibility, so I’m glad I sacrificed the time. It maybe cost me 5 to 10 minutes, but well worth it.
For more on cycling nutrition, check out my book, Fuel Your Ride
Unflavored collagen in ginger turmeric tea was my go-to the morning after. It got my protein stores back up without killing my gut, which was still reeling from the work I put it through the day before. I have a pretty sensitive stomach for an endurance athlete, so I just didn’t have much of an appetite for a solid day and a half post-race, so being able to sip tea while getting in protein to restore and repair my muscles was awesome. The idea of flavored protein powder was just gross to me at this point, so unflavored and totally dissolved collagen was a lifesaver.
Three days out, the biggest key now for me is not eating everything in sight just because ‘I did an Ironman.’ Because while that’s true, I also have done pretty low-key training the last few days—walks and a short run yesterday—so it’s not like I really need a million extra calories. I think a lot of people make the mistake of over-indulging for a week or two after the event while taking time off training, and that’s how you start to undo all the fitness and fat loss of the last few months. So big salads with plenty of protein have been my go-to for dinner, plus a couple of treats thrown in because I’m still human!
Before you go, are you subscribed to the newsletter?