Twelve months ago I bought a bike. I cycled 50 metres to the end of my road and fell over. But I got back on and kept going. Two months later I entered Ironman Taupo. At that point I had eight months to train for a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle followed by a full marathon which is 42.2km. I thought I would take this opportunity to share some of the things Caroline taught me about sports nutrition along the way.
Firstly, a bit about me. I am 32 years old, female and work fulltime as a dietitian. When I entered Ironman I wasn’t a complete novice to endurance events. I had regularly competed in ocean swimming events and had run five marathons. But I had never cycled, completed a triathlon or exercised for longer than about four hours without taking a break.
At the time of entering I regarded myself as pretty fit. As far as nutrition went, I thought I had it sorted but despite being active I had always watched what I ate as I was very conscious that I put on weight easily and struggle to lose it. I want to be clear though – I didn’t enter Ironman as a way to lose weight!
They say there are four disciplines in Ironman. The 4th being nutrition. Despite the fact that I am an experienced dietitian and know a bit about sports nutrition, I quickly sought the help and advice of my friend and colleague Caroline. I underestimated just how valuable it was to have someone else to suggest ideas, keep me on track and push me.
Right from the start I was determined to do one thing as far as my diet was concerned – I was going to use real food! No protein shakes, no bars, nothing overly processed and I limited the number of gels I had even when training for long hours and competing but Caroline was up to the challenge.
Caroline’s initial assessment of my diet showed one major problem. I needed to eat more protein. Lots more. I am not a vegetarian but previously didn’t eat that much meat (maybe once a week). Lunches were often just salad with a little cheese, no eggs, chicken or even canned tuna. I was eating about 0.8g protein/kg and for my training load I should have been eating more like 1.3g/kg. This would require some major changes to my diet and my habits. Caroline also suggested I eat more calories. I was restricting my intake to around 1600kcal/day yet training ten hours a week at least and my weight was stable.
With a little persuasion and organization I made some changes. I ate more meat (maybe 4-5 nights per week) and failing that I ate eggs. I tried cottage cheese and crackers as an afternoon snack, swapped salads for wholegrain bread sandwiches and I made a real effort to eat more eggs and tinned fish or chicken at lunch, but to be honest I still found this difficult. There were many times when Caroline would enquire as to what I had eaten/ was going to eat for lunch. My reply would often leave her with a raised eyebrow.
I did enjoy drinking flavoured milk, particularly after a hard training session. As my protein intake increased so did my calorie intake, resulting in an increased volume and quality of exercise. The most important difference I noticed was that I recovered quickly from a training session. I rarely felt heavy and fatigued at the start of the next session.
As the months went by my weekend training sessions increased. My cycling improved! I worked up the courage and co-ordination to reach the drink bottle from the holder on my bike and finally to eat when cycling (there were many dropped half eaten muesli bars or bananas along the way). I knew I had to practice this and fuel while cycling. After all in an Ironman you have to run a full marathon after you’ve finished cycling for six hours or so. It’s not called the ‘rolling buffet’ for no reason!! But I found it difficult to get my head around just how much I needed to fuel whilst cycling. When training for a marathon I would go for three hour runs only on a couple of lollies or gels and literally run myself empty.
Caroline wanted me to take in 80-90g of carbs per hour on the bike. She set the targets high right from the start! That was going to be a lot to get through. Luckily I have a very tolerant stomach. Turns out I didn’t drink very much whilst cycling, or exercising in general for that matter. I needed to work on that and start drinking electrolyte drinks also. There is around fifty grams of carb in one bottle, and electrolytes too, particularly important for the hot summer days. I have never had so many sugary drinks in my life! This was going against everything I had always taught my patients and was really hard to try and switch on a different mindset when thinking about ‘sports nutrition’ compared to every day healthy eating nutrition. But what else could I eat to make it up to 90g? As I said, I wanted to use real food, so Caroline suggested marmite and honey sandwiches, bananas , muesli bars (being careful about the fibre content but Caroline and I managed to find a couple of options that suited me). Then came lollies – sadly I had to accept these as being ‘real food’.
I still don’t think I managed more than about 70g/hour in training and that was pushing it and including a stop at a dairy to refill my bottles. Did I notice the difference? Absolutely. The difference in my energy levels when I finished the bike leg and tried to run was amazing. I then did my first triathlon – a half Ironman, it went ok. I started to think there might be something in this plan.
My weight stayed pretty stable for the first few months – until December. Yes don’t hate me but I lost two kilograms in December despite all of the Christmas treats everywhere! Then another two kilograms in January. I was literally hungry every two hours. I started having ice cream for dessert, and there were even a few midnight snacks such as a small bowl of muesli or just spoonful’s of peanut butter.
I made it to March and to race day. Caroline and I decided the evidence on carb loading was mixed. The days leading into the race I just made an effort to include carbohydrate at every meal and not to get hungry rather than to count carbohydrates and aim for a target. To be honest, I remained pretty calm and didn’t get overly nervous. I guess ignorance is bliss…
How did it go? I had a good day. The swim went well, I managed 80g of carbohydrate per hour on the bike, and I fueled the marathon on potato chips and coke. When I finished I still had the energy to jump up and down and hug my supporters. I smiled from start to finish. Of course it was tough at times and it’s a long time to exercise for but I guess the important thing is that I did it and at no time on the course did I think I wasn’t going to make.
On reflection my lasting memory of the race was how much I enjoyed it. I think I actually enjoyed the training too. I enjoyed learning about what I am physically capable of, challenging my body, habits and diet.
The support I got from my friends and family was amazing and very humbling. It makes a huge difference in itself. I owe Caroline a huge thank you for all her help, support and ideas. Despite being a dietitian myself and having some knowledge of sports nutrition I cannot stress enough how much it helps to talk it through with someone who has specific training in the area.
Four months later there have been lasting effects too. I now regularly eat over 1g of protein per kilogram. I have only regained one kilo of weight, but then again I am back to training for 12-14 hours a week. Well, I thought I had better get back into it since the next Ironman is coming up…
Note from Caroline: Tracy is extremely dedicated, and was a pleasure to discuss nutrition with. Her enthusiasm, tenacity, willpower and ability to take suggestions on board resulted in an amazing first Ironman race. She completed the full distance in 11 hours 45 minutes, placing her 54th out of 264 women!
I look forward to debating nutrition and strategies for her next event and I have no doubt she will finish in an even better time.