Kona Nutrition: The Perfect Pre-Ironman Meal

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Triathlete Magazine senior editor Matt Fitzgerald provides advice on what to eat the morning before an Ironman race.

Triathletes have a rich tradition of over-thinking and overdoing their race nutrition, including the pre-race meal. The title of this article is somewhat ironic, because while many triathletes assume there is such a thing as a perfect pre-Ironman meal and take grain pains to discover it, neither scientific nor real-world evidence supports any kind of exact formula for pre-race meal composition. Instead of one perfect pre-Ironman meal defined by a precise number of calories per pound of body weight and so forth, there is a loosely defined collection of pre-race meals that are good enough to do the job.

The importance of the pre-race meal depends on whether and how you fuel your body during the race. Most triathletes are unaware of the fact that research has shown that endurance athletes perform no better when racing on a “perfect” pre-race meal than they race in a fasted state as long as they consume optimal amounts of carbohydrate during the race itself (about 60 grams per hour). There is plenty of real-world evidence in support of this finding, too. For example, the former world-class runner Libbie Hickman got so nervous before races that she never ate any kind of pre-race meal, not even before marathons, because if she did she would just throw it up. This limitation did not stop her from running a 2:28 marathon.

Now, an Ironman triathlon is a more extreme test than a marathon. None of the research referenced above looked at performance in Ironman racing with and without pre-race meals. I expect that such a study would find that it does make a difference—that consuming some kind of meal two to four hours before the start of an Ironman does enhance performance compared to racing in a fasted state. But while you surely need to eat some kind of pre-race meal to maximize Ironman performance, does that meal have to be perfect? I don’t think so.

There are really only two things that your pre-race meal must do. First, it should provide at least enough carbohydrate to replace what your nervous system used while you slept. That’s going to be in the neighborhood of 50 grams, or 200 calories’ worth of carbs. Second, your pre-race meal must not create a risk for gastrointestinal issues during the race. Thus the meal should not be too big, should not include a lot of slow-digesting nutrients such as fiber, and should not be consumed too close to the start of the race.

These guidelines, combined with a little common sense and trial-and-error experience, will enable you to create a pre-race meal that works well for you. Once you have found such a meal, I suggest that you use it before every race, because its very familiarity will lift your confidence on race morning. Simply believing in your pre-race meal is probably more important than including the ideal amount of carbohydrate in it.

My own ritual pre-race breakfast consists of a banana and a can of Ensure. That combination provides approximately 68 grams of carbohydrate with 355 total calories. It is small and easy to consume and digest even with pre-race nerves addling my stomach. Ten minutes before the start of the race I top off my blood glucose level by consuming one packet of Accel Gel, which provides another 20 grams of carbs plus 5 grams of protein.

As for fluid, many triathletes overdo that as well. Humans are not camels. We cannot store a whole bunch of extra water for later use. Any extra fluid you put in your body before a race will go straight to your bladder. Don’t make any effort to load up on fluid before an Ironman. Just drink enough so that you’re not thirsty but not so much that you have to urinate every 20 minutes. I myself don’t drink anything in the final hour before the start of a race because I learned through experience that drinking within the last hour left me in the uncomfortable position of having to use the bathroom either right before the start of the race or alltoo soon afterward.

Chances are you will find that the foods that work best for you before an Ironman are among the most popular choices that have proven themselves to work well for many other triathletes. They include oatmeal, bagels, toast, non-fat yogurt, breakfast cereal, and recovery drinks such as Endurox R4.

Pre-race nutrition is not rocket science, nor does it require any athlete to reinvent the wheel.

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