Smart fueling can make the difference between gutting it out through tough workouts and actually enjoying your training and seeing a solid fitness progression instead of digging yourself into an overtraining hole. And you can swim, cycle and run to achieve race-ready form, but if you don’t have your nutrition dialed on the day, all that work and sacrifice could be wasted on an epic bonk.
With so many nutritional products out there — pills, powders, chews, gels, beans, bars, drinks and more — choosing the right nutritional protocol for your training and racing can be tricky business. We spoke with nutritional experts and professional athletes to present some simple guidelines and rules for triathletes looking to stay healthy, get stronger and gain a competitive edge. Plus, we look at First Endurance, a “health company” fueling some of the sport’s biggest success stories.
The nutritional needs of triathletes are unique. Fuel accordingly.
In many cases, triathletes require more than the basic convenience-store-bought sports bar or drink. In multisport training, especially for long-course distances, we need to think about sustaining energy levels for longer periods of time, and our calorie and electrolyte needs are different. “My issue with hydration has always been the electrolytes and salt content in the drink,” says pro triathlete Cameron Dye. “I’m a super heavy and salty sweater, so I always had to double or triple the amount of drink powder to get the amount of electrolytes that I was going to need, and when you do that the drink tastes so bad it’s hard to drink.”
Then Dye was introduced to First Endurance and its EFS (Electrolyte Fuel System) sports drink, which provides the most potent electrolyte profile available. “That was the best part of EFS — not only are the flavors actually tasty, but the normal serving size has like 10 times the amount of electrolytes of some of the other drinks. I had been taking salt tabs on top of my normal drink mix, so using EFS simplified everything.”
According to Robert Kunz, First Endurance’s co-founder and VP of science and technology, the composition of standard sport drinks may not provide an adequate amount of electrolytes during activity lasting longer than two hours. Most standard sports drinks contain 50–110 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounces, while EFS contains 300 milligrams of sodium per 12-ounce serving to aid in maximum fluid absorption. But sodium is only part of the story — one serving contains 1,160 milligrams of all five electrolytes essential for the rigors of tri training. “Your cells require five electrolytes to function properly,” says Kunz. “All five work together to allow nutrients to go out of the cells, allowing them to perform at their best. It’s the balance of all five electrolytes that helps prevent cramping and helps muscles contract more forcefully and efficiently for longer periods of time. Our electrolyte profile is very unique not just because there’s more, but because it’s complete.”
Another caveat to consider: Was the research supporting the product claims done using endurance athletes, and has it been validated by any actual triathletes? At the root of all product development at First Endurance, which sponsors top triathletes like Dye, Heather and Trevor Wurtele, Jordan Rapp, Eric Limkemann, Angela Naeth, and a number of pro cycling teams (they’re the official training and racing supplement provider of RadioShack-Leopard), is the First Endurance Research Board. “These guys are all Ph.D.’s and endurance athletes as well — they do Ironman, they do Leadville — and we ask if they can they shoot any holes in any of the science,” Kunz says. “Oftentimes the sports product research that’s out there isn’t on endurance athletes, but it’s a level of evidence that we demand from our suppliers. If you have a clinical study on an ingredient that’s been done on trained triathletes, cyclists or runners, then we can use the ingredient in our product.”
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Translation: Consider your nutrition as a total system.
New York City-based dietitian and triathlete Lauren Antonucci says many of her clients demonstrate the same counterproductive pattern: “A lot of times I see athletes take so many bars, drinks and supplements that they don’t realize they’re going way over the top with things like vitamin A, which could be toxic in high amounts, or vitamin E, which we don’t want to be excessively high in endurance athletes (it appears to lose its main antioxidant benefits when taken in excess). A lot of times they’re dosing in on supplements throughout the day from their cereal, breakfast bar, their drink and their performance supplement — they have no idea what they’re actually taking in in total.”
Similarly, Dye says the beauty of using a complete system with First Endurance is that he knows exactly what he’s putting into his body and can modify his total intake of, say, vitamin C, based on his activity and how he feels. For example, if you have a light training day, like one hour of running, you might have a Multi-V (First Endurance’s multi-vitamin) in the morning and one serving of EFS during your run to give you an appropriate amount of vitamin C, which helps with recovery and inflammation, for that day (500 milligrams). But if you have a long ride planned that weekend, you might have your Multi-V in the morning and 7–8 servings of EFS during the ride and finish with a serving of Ultragen, the company’s recovery drink. On that day you may have upward of 1,200 milligrams of vitamin C, which is appropriate for a day where you trained really hard for 5 or 6 hours. “That’s where the system works — it takes the guesswork out of what you need to take on those training days because it’s built in to the specific products for the appropriate time,” says Kunz. “From the very beginning we wanted to keep it very simple for the athletes. EFS is for fueling, Ultragen is for recovery, the Multi-V is designed specifically for endurance athletes with key nutrients, and our OptygenHP helps modulate cortisol, a stress hormone. If you realize your training that week is going to be stressful for you because you work 50 hours a week and have two kids, that supplement helps keep your stress in check. Finally, our PreRace product is a stimulant that lets you go really hard for key training sessions, and of course on race day. When you use all the products you get an additional benefit because it all works together in synergy.”
Dye, a specialist in Olympic-distance non-drafting races, has made PreRace an integral part of his race fueling protocol. He points to one more perk of using the entire suite of FE products: “The fact that it works well as a system is a huge benefit because it makes it easy to go into a store and go with one brand of everything. Just knowing that all the products made by the same company are all tasty and high quality simplifies things.”
Not all sports supplements are created equal, and you are ultimately responsible for assuring that what you put in your body is safe, untainted and effective.
A lot of people assume that sports nutrition products have been thoroughly screened by the FDA or some other watchdog agency for safety and efficacy before they reach store shelves. Not the case. According to Kunz, many manufacturers rely on NSF (a global public health and safety organization) to conduct product testing, but all they do is look at the very end product for banned substances. “Ultimately it doesn’t give a complete guarantee; it only guarantees that the ingredients that they’re looking for aren’t there,” says Kunz. “There’s the possibility that there’s a banned substance in there that they didn’t test for. Most people don’t understand that. Those tests don’t look at purity or cleanliness, so we’ve taken a different approach.”
First Endurance has complete control over every single thing that goes into every one of their products. “We own all the intellectual property and formulas, we verify that each of our suppliers does not broker or supply any banned substances. Even before anything comes into our facility, there’s no chance of cross-contamination. Most dietary supplement formulas are owned by the manufacturer and they typically source the least expensive ingredients they can find, and that might be cross-contaminated because the broker is also delivering other banned substances. So that’s a significant difference.”
First Endurance includes a certificate of analysis with its products, a third party confirmation of its purity. “We want to work with the best endurance athletes in the world,” says Kunz. “They put a lot of confidence in us, and we want to make absolutely certain that they don’t ever test positive for anything we’ve done, so we take these steps so that they can be sure of an absolutely pure product.”
To a guy like Cameron Dye, that commitment carries a lot of weight. “I’d never really gotten into supplements before because I didn’t have any background in it, and it seemed like one of those sketchy things that was going to get you busted in a drug test,” he says. “I think that’s what I value most about First Endurance — their No. 1 concern is the cleanliness and standardization of their products. This is my livelihood — you don’t want to accidentally take a supplement that gets you banned for years.”
“The onus is on you to judge whether a supplement is safe,” adds Antonucci. “Anything on a shelf has not necessarily been proven safe or effective. It is your job to decide — or get help deciding — if it’s safe and worth taking.”
Happy stomach + fast delivery of sustained energy = glucose.
“Your body burns glucose — this is physiology 101 — and that is its preferred food,” says Kunz. “If your body is burning glucose, it’s going fast. We don’t buy into anything that says you should have slow-absorbing calories for long periods of time, and EFS is designed so everything in it is absorbed really fast.” The key: the three carbohydrates — glucose, sucrose and maltodextrin — are high-glycemic, fast absorbing and keep you from dipping into your precious glycogen stores. The whole goal in your fueling plan, whether sprint or Ironman, is to spare glycogen. Once you’ve run out of glycogen, you bonk. “With EFS you’re able to keep glucose up and race at a very high level from beginning to end,” says Kunz. “We’ve seen dramatic changes in all our athletes.”
But be weary of taking in too much sugar into your gut too quickly, says Antonucci, as that forces water to rush into your gut and “it doesn’t take long to figure out what happens then — the athlete is looking for a quiet, secluded spot to use as a Porta-Potty.”
Recovery is still king.
It’s pretty simple: If you bounce back quickly from a tough workout you’ll carry that fitness momentum into successive workouts. “If you go out and train really hard without properly hydrating and having the right electrolytes and nutrients in your body, you’re putting a lot of stress on your body, and that’s not healthy,” explains Kunz. “Your body will let you know that by going into an overtraining state.”
Antonucci says the bulk of research recommends about 20 grams of protein within 30–60 minutes of workout or race completion, and whey protein is generally recognized as the best source. A central ingredient in First Endurance’s Ultragen product, whey protein is a complete protein that contains all of the essential amino acids required by the body and helps prevent the breakdown of muscle tissues and boosts immunity. So the next day the athlete goes to train, instead of starting that day with low glycogen levels or torn muscle tissues, his or her body has become a little bit stronger.
Antonucci also recommends replacing fluid and sodium loss within two hours (drink 24 ounces of fluid per pound you lost) and replenishing carbohydrates (at least half your weight in grams). Her suggestions for antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory recovery foods include brightly colored veggies, berries, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, avocados and salmon.
How The Pros Fuel
Heather Wurtele’s Ironman Fueling Plan
Bowl of gluten-free cereal with banana, coffee, Multi-V, OptygenHP
2 hours before start: Ultragen (300 calories)
20 minutes before start: Liquid Shot (100 calories), water
4 EFS bottles (200 calories each), water from aid stations, 2 EFS Liquid Shot flasks, 1 EFS bar, 4 Thermolyte (sodium electrolyte caps)
Liquid Shot (800 calories), EFS drink (150 calories), water, 12 Thermolytes
Cameron Dye’s Olympic Fueling Plan
Bottle of EFS with half-scoop of PreRace and oatmeal
Part of another bottle of EFS, 2 PreRace capsules along with half a gel flask of EFS Liquid Shot as he’s walking to the race start
On the bike:
Two bottles — one with just water, and one that’s full of what he calls “health juice” — a scoop of lemon-lime EFS, half a gel flask of Liquid Shot and another half scoop of PreRace mixed with water. Drink half to three-quarters of the bottle of electrolyte mix and half the bottle of water.
On the run:
A little water but otherwise he doesn’t carry any nutrition with him
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