So congrats, Whistler, for landing Ironman Canada! Now, if you can picture the maybe 3,000 competitors who will subsequently be landing at Whistler for the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and full marathon (26.2 miles), along with the thousands of supporters and volunteers, then you get a sense of the crazy hoopla soon to unfold.
And here's a picture of a different kind: if your mouth starts watering when you think about a nice filet of salmon, goat cheese and walnuts, tomatoes, arugula salad, asparagus and fresh peaches, then you're on your way to becoming an ironman or — woman, or at least eating like one, because that kind of diet is exactly what's optimal for wannabe and real-time competitors.
Given I'm more of a rust-than iron-woman and was really curious about what people eat before and during such an event, I started Googling around. One site, triathloncompetitor.com, has the picture above along with an "iron-core" meal plan that seems appropriate for any long distance event, especially one called Ironman.
The trick is, training for an Ironman takes so much time — upwards of 20 hours a week near the end — that when you factor in other obligations, like a real job, school or family obligations, you're after good whole food, fast — meaning it doesn't take a lot of time to prep, as opposed to food that's fast but neither good nor wholesome.
On triathloncompetitor.com, Rhonwyn Curtis-Nicholson, a certified nutrition support dietitian at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, advises eating whole foods whenever possible to keep your energy levels up and your body working to its maximum potential.
Even though she doesn't advocate supplements, for breakfast after a workout she suggests a strawberry-banana/whey protein smoothie with nonfat milk. Snacks include yogurt with blueberries or cheese and almonds or walnuts. (Nuts in general are healthy and contain monounsaturated fats that can slow down inflammation and oxidation in the body.) Lunch might be something like lean turkey on whole wheat bread with spinach and a cup of black bean soup. Dinner: a tuna melt with low-fat Swiss cheese and a side of steamed broccoli. You can even scoop up a dessert like low-fat frozen yogurt with dark chocolate and peanut butter chips.
Wait a sec! Other than the whey powder, which I'd switch to a nice bowl of porridge, I pretty much eat like this! But I bet I could barely run around the block, so for more elucidation about what you eat before and during an Ironman, I dialed up my pal Karoly Krajczar, who, in an unwitting stroke of symmetry, did his first-ever Ironman this year at Penticton's 30th and last event.
First, he points out that when it comes to the right nutrition and right hydration for an Ironman, or any such competition, it's a very personal thing.
"That's why it's so important to train like you're going to race. When you're on a five-hour bike ride, you're testing everything and seeing how your body reacts because everybody is different," he says.
"You figure it out for yourself, and it's not something you figure out the first time you race. It's kind of an evolutionary thing."
Some people eat more red meat, some people are vegans. For Karoly, whose regular diet is already pretty healthy as it's full of good whole, lean foods, about the only difference leading up to the event was he ate more since he was burning so many calories training. For instance, when he was riding five hours, he needed about 2,500 to 3,000 more calories that day over his usual daily intake of 2,000. Those extra calories came from carb drinks and energy bars.
Two days before the race itself, he had a nice big steak and started drinking lots of water to hydrate. The night before: a big pasta dinner is good to build up glycogen (excess sugar is first stored as glycogen, and later as fat). As for staying fuelled up on race day itself, it all depends on your body size, the intensity you intend to race at and your glycogen stores.
"Roughly speaking, an average guy would have about 2,000 calories of glycogen stored, if you fuelled up the night before and had your big pasta dinner," he says. "Then you get up in the morning and four hours before the event you have whatever works for you. For me, that's a white bagel with sesame seeds, almond butter, jam, a cup of coffee and a banana." Other than a few bits of banana at the way stations and energy bars, that was about the only solid food he had until he crossed the finish line.
Of course, nobody eats or drinks during that 2.4-mile swim, but once he was on his bike, Karoly had a little pack with energy bars and salt tablets, and bottles of water mixed with carb supplements and electrolyte tablets. At the 75-mile station for the cycling leg, he picked up more bottles of his special hydration mixture. Water is critical, but you don't want to get "sloshy."
"Sometimes if you get behind on nutrition, you can come back from that, but hydration, if you get behind on that, then you'll crash and burn," he says.
When it came to the running section, it was more bottles of water, little cups of Coke at every mile, salt tablets and bits of banana and sports gel. At miles 20 and 22, a couple of caffeine tablets were good for a final boost to keep going strong.
As for the 23 brave souls who kicked off the first Ironman Canada in Penticton w-a-a-y back in 1983, I bet more than a few of them are still going strong, too.
In those days Whistler had its own Great Snow, Earth and Water Race, when prepping could mean an all-nighter with tons of nachos and plates of spaghetti and maybe a couple of cases of beer the day of (sometimes shared with the whole team). Now that's nutrition and hydration with its own unique appeal.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance journalist who never had to take iron supplements when she was a kid.
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