Don't wait until just a few weeks prior to your race! Here are a few tips to get you started:
Step 1: Identify Your Goals
What is your “A” race for the season? What is your specific goal for that race? It’s necessary to have a good idea of the duration and intensity of your race to accurately establish your specific fueling needs.
Preparation starts many weeks before the event. You need to know the basics of the race including: What nutrition will be provided on course? Where are the feed/aid stations? What are the typical weather conditions on race day? You may not be able to influence the weather, but you can certainly do your part in preparing for the conditions.
Step 2: Identify Your Fueling Needs & Preferences
While some general sports nutrition guidelines exist in regards to how many calories, grams carbohydrate or ounces of fluid we should consume during extended training and race efforts DO exist, the fact of the matter is our needs are very much individualized. Key questions to nail down YOUR specific needs include:
In this step, you should also identify your top go-to fuel sources and how you will carry your fuel. Go-to fuel sources are your key products or foods that you will want to include in your race day nutrition plan and trial during key training sessions. Do you prefer liquid or solid calories? Sweet or salty? Real foods versus sports nutrition products? Are the products you’ve used in the past still working for you? What specific types of products will you be using? Sports drinks, gels, chews, beans, waffles, wafers…my goodness the options are endless these days! The ideal choice of fuel is highly individualized and based on your past experiences and personal preferences. Of course, the more you can train with what's out on the course the less you have to carry come race day.
How you will carry your fuel refers to a number of equipment considerations, mainly applying to the multi-hour endurance athletes. It's important to identify key pieces of equipment in effectively and efficiently carrying out your nutrition plan and purchase those items now so you are well practiced in their utilization come race day (i.e. I prefer carrying a hand bottle for the ironman marathon, so I carry it for all my longer training runs building up to it)
Step 3: Formulate Your Plan
To keep this one simple: formulate a primary nutrition plan by piecing together:
Remember to keep logistics in mind: the more complicated the fueling plan, the more difficult it will be to implement. I always refer back to the acronym, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid! Minimize the fiddle factor! The easier your plan is to remember and implement on race day, the less you have to do or think about and the more physical and mental energy you can put into the race itself.
Step 4: Trial & Tweak
The key to truly mastering your race day nutrition is not just having a plan in writing, but taking plenty of time to practice it in the months leading up to race day and adjusting it according any challenges you encounter. Once you have your choice fuels identified and a simple plan in writing, start practicing that plan at least 8-10 weeks before your event. Similar to how you might use a heart rate monitor to tune into how your body reacts to running and riding on various terrains, conditions, and levels of intensity, utilize training runs and rides to tune into your body’s reaction to your nutrition plan and learn how to adjust it on the fly if difficulties with bonking, GI distress or dehydration occur. The over-arching goal here is to have a solid race day nutrition plan in place come race day, but also to better understand your body and its needs, thus increasing your confidence and likelihood of success come race day. I find it best to put my plan in writing, trial it during key workouts and then take careful notes on what went well, what didn't and how I felt and performed overall.
Step 5: Roll with the Punches
Having a “plan A” for fueling on race day is ideal, but really it's having the flexibility and knowledge to adjust your plan when challenges arise that lead to the best race day outcomes. I can write and entire blog post on itself on this topic, but really it all boils down to one simple concept: Get to know your body, learn to listen to what it’s telling you and respond accordingly in terms of the implementation of your fueling plan. The more you practice this in training, the more prepared you will be able to make adjustments successfully on race day to out swim, bike and run your competitors.
Proper preparation building up to race day is key to successfully reaching your goals. While training is of primary importance, developing a well-versed fueling strategy and adequately practicing it in the weeks and months leading up to race day will ensure your ability to get the most out of your training and your body. After two Ironman triathlons and many other half-ironman triathlons, marathons and ultra-marathons, I’m thoroughly convinced that once race day comes, fueling consistently and appropriately (and digging deep!) is the FASTEST way to get to the finish line.
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and endurance athlete residing in southwest Virginia alongside her husband and dog. Through this blog she aims to share favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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