The Fourth Leg – A Professional Approach to Ironman Fueling & Hydration
By Matt Hanson, EdD
We asked MHRacing’s Dr. Matt Hanson, a pro triathlete and coach with an impressive palmares (5 Ironman wins and 5 Ironman 70.3 wins are just the highlights), for his insight into fueling on race day. He was candid enough to share his exact regimen with us, which is designed to shuttle calories without solids to promote gastric emptying, and we’re passing it on to you.
His plan includes 2 servings of Ultragen, 7 (+1 reserve) servings of EFS-PRO, 6 servings of EFS, and 7 Liquid Shots. It doesn’t include any caffeine until the run, and then only in the form of Coke hand-ups.
We have all heard the saying, “nutrition is the fourth leg of a triathlon.” And no doubt we have all heard horror stories and seen (and even smelled!) the evidence of when someone gets their nutrition plan for long-course triathlon racing very wrong.
Considering the stakes, the long workouts you do leading up to your race should focus first and foremost on developing your race day nutrition plan, and you should always listen to your body while training and competing, regardless of how you’ve planned. Hopefully you have a coach or informed friend in your corner who can help you really dial in that plan, but here are a few basic things you need to remember:
Remember, you are not fueling on the bike to get through the bike. You are also setting up your run.
- There is no one size fits all nutrition strategy. Your calorie, fluid, and electrolyte need is going to be different than almost everyone on the course. So your nutrition plan should not just be whatever your buddy is doing!
- Fluids absorb the fastest in the gut and gels are a very close second. Solids delay gastric emptying quite a bit, especially as intensity ramps up. I am not saying you should stay away from solid foods when racing as a rule. If you feel hungry when you race, then maybe something solid might be a benefit. Personally, I don’t touch solid food until after the race.
- Remember, you are not fueling on the bike to get through the bike. You are also setting up your run. You need to get off the bike using as little of your reserves as possible since it is harder to fuel during the run.
- The biggest thing that I see people miss is having a nutrition plan for the demands of the course and conditions, not just for the distance. Having the same plan for a 95-degree day with high humidity as you do for a 60-degree day is not a great idea. Just like you need to train your body for the demands for the course, you need to adjust your nutrition plan to it as well.
As I mentioned above, nutrition on race day is not one size fits all, but I think there can definitely be some value in showing what I do and my thought process in setting up the plan.
Typically I am all fluid on race morning. My go-to has been 2 servings of Ultragen (cappuccino flavor of course!) about 3 hours before the race.
If it’s an afternoon start or there’s any chance the race will get delayed due to weather, I’ve been adding some semi-solid foods as well: applesauce and grits have been what I’ve experimented with at some of the lower priority races.
I’ll sip on a bottle of EFS-PRO with just 2 scoops in it while setting up my bike, otherwise nothing else. (Yes that means NO GELS right before the swim start!) During the swim, I try to drink as little of the lake/river/ocean water as possible… that is key.
My bike strategy depends a bit on the weather. For a typical race where the weather is benign, I will target about 450-500 cal/hr, 1.5-2 bottles per hour of fluid, and use a blend of EFS, EFS-PRO, and Liquid Shot for calories. This is my Ironman bike set up:
- BTA bottle (roughly 30oz) with 3 scoops EFS and 4 scoops EFS-PRO. That’s about 510 calories mixed at 1.5% strength. I drink at least ½ of this through the first aid station and then dilute the rest with water.
- 2 frame bottles with 3 scoops EFS and 6 scoops EFS-PRO. That’s roughly 570 calories. I mix these in the BTA bottle with water from the course.
- 4 Liquid Shots. That’s 110 calories each, and I take roughly 1 per hour.
- No caffeine on the bike
If the course is hotter, I’ll go heavier on the EFS-PRO since it has more electrolytes
If the course is hotter, I’ll go heavier on the EFS-PRO since it has more electrolytes, and I’ll add additional Liquid Shots for additional calories. If the course is cooler, I’ll go with more EFS over EFS-PRO.
On the run, it’s pretty difficult to measure things exactly. How much are you getting in a cup? Typically I spill half of it on myself and another bit goes up the nose as I try to manage drinking and running at the same time. This is part of the reason I try to overdo things on the bike a bit. But here is my typical target for an Ironman:
- 2 cups of cola and 1 cup of water per aid station, with more water if conditions are hot. Again, much of this spills, so it’s tough to say exactly what I get down.
- 1 Liquid Shot every 6-7 miles. I have two on me out of T2, then I grab another 2 in Special Needs.
- Optional bottle of EFS-PRO in Special Needs that I will run with and drink over the next several miles. I rarely use it, but sometimes it turns out to be a race saver (IMFL 2020).
This plan is much lower than most in terms of caffeine, and I believe for good reason. Caffeine has many benefits, but you don’t need 100mg/hr to get those benefits, and too much caffeine can have detrimental effects. But that’s an entirely separate blog! [Is that an offer, Matt? -Editor]
This plan does have multiple different carbohydrate sources which prevents carbohydrate fatigue, promotes optimal absorption, and prevents blood sugar spikes and crashes. It also takes advantage of the benefits of the new and improved EFS and EFS-PRO. (See these links: Suntheanine® and PharmaGaba®.)
Regardless of how you prepare, I must stress again this crucial point: You need to go in with a plan, but listen to your body and adjust as needed.