It's amazing how much race nutrition strategies for triathlons and running races have changed over the years. In my 24 years of racing, nutrition and drink products have continuously evolved over the years. Do you remember Exceed electrolyte drink which was at every triathlon in the late 1980's and early 1990's? How about the introduction of the Power Bar and we stuck them to the top tubes of our bike and did not mind chewing on them with various bugs stuck in the bar. As we are aware, the new products can provide all the necessary calories, electrolytes and become such a crucial part of successful race performance.
History - I remember my first triathlon in the mid 80's (sprint triathlon) and the food items I had packed in my cooler at the transition area. I had no idea about specific nutrition requirements for a triathlon (actually, we all had no clue as to race nutrition other than to eat some banana's and drink water during the run) Yes, I had a large cooler believe it or not which contained oranges, banana's, figs (only included them because Ironman king Dave Scott used them), apples, and bread. Keep in mind this was a race that would last approximately an hour! There was one aid station on the run that included ice water. I was prepared with all my "food" but did not eat anything as I did not want to waste time those precious few seconds in the transition area eating food.
When I look at my race nutrition strategies vs. other athletes, individual specialization is still prevalent with some very interesting fueling options. I am a Hammer Nutrition long term customer (I am not here to promote their products) and I use the same race nutrition formula for all my ultra races. My current strategy for those of you who are familiar with Hammer products (or customers) consists of the following with the goal of approximately 400-500 calories per hour:
Food Fuel - Perpeteum mixed in a gel flask for concentrated calories - "pancake batter consistency", Hammer Gel, and normally 1 or 2 Hammer Bars for a race lasting 30 hours or so.
3 Endurolytes per hour (occasionally 4 if it gets very warm)
1 Race cap per hour
1-2 Amino caps per hour
1 Anti-Fatigue cap per hour
Water, Hammer Heed drink mix, cliff shots, Red Bull for the run section of an ultra triathlon
When a race is longer than 30 hours and in 100 mile running races, I normally have a craving for solid food. In the DECA this year, I ate everything imaginable on the bike - beef, potatoes, soup, fruit and the goal was to just get in as many calories as possible so I could just use liquids for the run. The strategy worked well for me without any stomach distress during the 10 days.
There are so many products on the marketplace similar to Hammer and can be used as the main fuel for those individuals who experience stomach distress with eating solid foods. Experiment in training and see which products provide the necessary energy and lack of stomach distress to enhance race performance. One of the key questions we all face for race nutrition is the use of only liquid drinks or a combination including solid foods (such as energy bars and regular food). Also, should you eat before the race or just start consuming calories once it begins so you don't spike the insulin and have a potential "fall" in energy? There are thoughts on both sides, but normally I see most athletes consuming some calories prior to the start of an ultra distance race. How about coffee, before the race start for the immediate "pick up"? Studies have shown potential benefits and dehydration possibilities of adding coffee - each of us has our own experiences.
It's interesting to look at the strategies of the European ultra triathlon community. Last year while competing at a race in Mexico I was paired with a nice fellow from Germany in my swim lane for the 12 mile swim (Quintuple Ironman). We were able to place our food and drinks on the pool deck for calorie consumption during the swim. My fellow competitor had two enormous jugs of brown colored liquid which I assumed was ice tea. After the competition, I was speaking with him (he smoked me during the 131 mile run and was a heck of an athlete!) and discussed his ice tea used during the swim. He mentioned that it was not ice tea but non-alcoholic beer!! I was shocked to hear this of course and he supplemented his nutrition strategy in every discipline of the race with beer. He mentioned, lots of calories and carbohydrates and it worked for him. Many of the Europeans will drink beer during the long distance races. Some of the other interesting items I have noticed over the years include: cans of mackerel, tuna fish, roasted chicken, hamburgers, pizza, turkey sandwiches, nutella sandwiches (very popular) and mashed potatoes mixed with various meats. The Europeans will eat these items in every discipline. It's hard for me to imagine eating tuna fish during a swim!
I have noticed over the years that most ultra-triathletes pack in the "heavy" calories and food during the bike and then will just drink calories during the run section. An interesting trend is with the Red Bull type energy drinks. They are becoming very popular. During the DECA Ironman as I ran through the transition area and scanned each athletes table of food, they all included energy drink cans.
Each person's strategy for nutrition is unique and we all continue to "fine-tune" what works best for each of us. Personally, I continue to experiment and test new products and have learned over the years how crucial race nutrition is with respect to a good or bad race. I know we have all heard it so many times - never experiment on race day with equipment, nutrition, etc. It amazes me that so many athletes continue to test new food/drinks on race day and then I see many of them headed into the bathroom/porta johns during the race!