When you head out for a 60-90 minute weekday workout, nutrition planning is usually not required. You have your go-to that you nibble while you get ready, or grab on the way out the door. But when you see a 3-6 hour training day on your weekend schedule, and you consider how to fuel for that, the options and advice out there can be daunting. But how you approach your fueling plan can make or break your long training days.
Long training days allow you to learn how your body reacts to what you put in it while you're stressing it a race effort. For this reason, I usually ask athletes to tell me what they eat before, during, and after a workout so that they become conscious of it, and so that we can refer back to it if they had a lack-luster workout. If you take some time to plan your nutrition, you will speed your learning curve for sustained energy and a strong race finish.
Here is the five-point strategy that I use for planning my long workouts.
My goal for fluid intake is 20 oz/hour on the bike and 12 oz/hour on the run. This is roughly one bottle per hour on the bike (which is 20-24 oz) and one smaller hand-held bottle (10-12 oz) per hour for runs. I'm also conscious of factors that cause dehydration - lack of sleep, stress, heat - so that I can plan for a little more if needed. In order to meet my calorie and carb/protein/fat requirements (more on this below), I usually put some sort of product in my bottles - always reserving one bottle, however, for plain water.
My calorie goal is 250-300 calories per hour on the bike, and 100-150 calories per hour on the run. (Guys, you need ~20% more than this!)
#3: Carbs, Proteins, and Fats
A calorie is not a calorie. Most sports nutrition products provide primarily carbs so I try to eat some real foods during workouts. Glycogen (sugar in your liver and muscles) is the first fuel store that is used by your body during exercise and you will typically start a workout with 60-90 minutes worth of these fuel stores. After this, your body will want to burn fat, but it needs glucose (carbs) to access fat for fuel. So you need to keep eating carbs continuously throughout training so that you can burn fat for fuel, otherwise, your body starts to use special glycogen that is reserved for brain function and when this happens, you get a little loopy, and then grumpy, and this is called the bonk. Don't go there.
Protein and fat intake during exercise should be minimal because it takes a lot of energy to digest proteins and fats. When you are working out, your body diverts energy from digestion to more important things like breathing and keeping your heart beating. The idea is to keep it light on the proteins and fats, and get most of your energy from carbs, but taking in protein and fat will stave off hunger pains. My rough ratios that I aim for - in terms of total grams of each macronutrient consumed - are 80-90% carbs, 5-10% protein, and 5-10% fat.
When I first started doing longer workouts, I would notice that my fingers would swell after a couple hours. It took me years to figure out that this was because my electrolyte balance was off. I tried salt tabs, but that didn't help - it just made my sweat really salty, so I started experimenting with other things, including drinking more water, NuuN, Base Salt, and high-sodium gels. Today, I pay attention to everything that I'm eating in order to get my electrolytes from food, not just gels and hydration products. I aim for 500-800 mg of sodium per hour.
I try to front-load my calories - especially proteins and fats - for two reasons: (1) to make sure that I’m eating enough, and (2) I want to get most of my fats and proteins down as early in a bike ride as possible because they are easier to digest on the bike than on the run. Remember (in triathlon), you are fueling for the run when you are on the bike. Also, if I front-load, I have time to troubleshoot and recover from any potential GI distress caused by too much too soon, or something not settling right.
Putting It All Together
Here's what a typical training buffet looks like for me for a 3-hour bike ride followed by a 1-hour run.
On the bike:
2 bottles with 1.5 servings of Carbo Pro & 2 servings of Skratch
1 bottle of plain water
1 Bobo's oat bar
1 Honey Stinger waffle
2 Huma gels
Base Salt throughout the ride
On the run:
1 Huma gel in the last 10 min on the bike, or right before starting the run
1 12 oz. bottle of water
If you want to get really geeky about planning your nutrition, check out this nutrition planning worksheet that I created.
Unfortunately, the most truthful advice about nutrition planning is not what you want to hear. There isn't a magic formula. There are no hacks. The truth is that you need to experiment to see what works for you because everyone is different. Use this five-point plan as a launch point for finding your ideal nutrition formula.