There are so many options for athletes regarding fueling for training it can be overwhelming. It is often a top 10 question for the athletes I work with. One can have a VO2 max test which tells you how many calories you are utilizing at a certain heart rate and that can be very helpful when planning how to fuel for training. I find that is the best way, but what if you don’t want to have a VO2 max test done? How much you eat and how often can be figured out easily using the guidelines I give in this article along with a bit of your own experimentation.
Let’s keep this really simple. An athlete should plan on consuming approximately 30gram an hour of carbohydrates while training and 60grams an hour while racing. Of course this is just a launching point and very basic. But I find that, rather than eating too much, most athletes are not eating enough. Start with this 30g guideline in your next few training sessions to begin experimenting with how you feel. Once you have practiced this in training on easy days, try going to 60g an hour on an intense training day. Then try it in a race.
For example, an athlete preparing the night before a training session can plan this out with relative ease. Most gels are in the 20-25grams of carbohydrates, so a 2-hour bike ride at an easy pace may mean 1-2 gels each hour. If you are racing, then it goes to a minimum of 3 gels an hour. If you are a heavily muscled person, you may want to go to 80-90 grams an hour in a race situation or during intense training.
This guideline applies not just for gels, but also for drinks, bars, or any other food you are consuming. Look at the carbohydrate content of all your foods/drinks of choice then add the grams of carbohydrates together. For example, you may have a gel and a drink. The gel is 24g of carbohydrates and the drink is 50g of carbohydrates for a total of 74grams for your 1-hour cruise bike and transition run of 15 minutes. That would be more than enough given you are working at a low intensity, so you may want to reduce the drink potency and have more water.
For some athletes in this example, 74g may seem like too many carbs; for others, not enough. Here’s where your own experimentation and experience come in. Try consuming 30g in your next 1-hour training session if you are not already eating that much now. Then pay attention to how you feel not only during the training but in your recovery as well. Feeling better at the end? Do you feel like you can do more? Is your mind still focused? Are you ravenous or calm as a cucumber? If this was a good amount for you, you will most likely feel like you could do more.
If you have eaten too much you may feel a little sluggish, possibly bloated or maybe a little uncomfortable. If so, consider how much you consumed given your duration and intensity and cut back your carbohydrate consumption by 5g for the next training session that is similar. Overeating does not happen that often, but you can be aware of what it may feel like and what to do for the next session.
If you are filling the gas tank along the way you will find that you will not sputter across the finish line, but will finish with more zip and spunk than ever. Not only that, but you will be able to do more with the rest of your day besides nap!
Celeste St.Pierre is a triathlete (sprint, Olympic, off-road, half and Ironman), Total Immersion Teaching Professional, USA Triathlon coach, USA Swimming Level 1 Coach, certified Pilates instructor and owner of TriathlonSkills.com.