If you are an endurance athlete who is training for an Ironman triathlon, century bike ride, or a swim across the English Channel, you need a food plan. Don’t be the fool who comments, “My training programme is good, but my eating is bad.” Performance starts with fuelling, not training! This article provides nutrition tips for ultra-endurance athletes as well as ordinary exercisers who want ultra-energy.

1 Acknowledge the power of being well fuelled.

I counsel many already-lean athletes/fitness trainers who are convinced they will perform better if they lose just a few more pounds. They fail to realise they will perform better by eating, not dieting and by being properly fuelled. Despite popular belief, the lightest athlete may not be the best athlete.The best athlete tends to be well fueled, well trained and genetically gifted.

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If your hours of exercise have not resulted in loss of those last few pounds, listen to what your training buddies and loved ones are saying about your body. If they agree you have fat to lose, perhaps you do. But if your mother or spouse complains you are too thin, listen up! It’s time to stop dieting and focus more on fuelling better to perform better.

2 Optimise your daily training diet.

Your goals are to constantly be fuelling-up before workouts and then re-fuelling afterwards by eating on a regular schedule carbohydratebased meals and snacks (that also include some protein). By feeding your body evenly throughout the day (as opposed to skimping on wholesome breakfasts and lunches, then overindulging in ‘junk’ at night), you’ll have steady energy all day with no lags.

The trick is to make your breakfast and morning snacks bigger and your evening food intake smaller. When I counsel athletes/fitness trainers, I sketch out sample meals that fulfill their energy needs. One ultra-runner needed at least 4,000 calories a day to fuel his 15 mile daily runs. I divided his calories into four 1,000-calorie meals/food amounts.

The first (6:00-10:00 a.m.) was to fuel-up and refuel from his morning run; the second (10:002:00 pm) was for an early hearty lunch; the third (2:00-6:00 pm) was for a second smaller lunch plus energy bar and sports drinks to energise his 5:00 pm workout and the fourth (6:00-10:00 pm) refuelled his muscles after the second workout of the day.

Knowing his calorie goals for each 4 hour block helped him maintain high energy so he could train hard yet still enjoy the training sessions. As a hungry athlete/fitness trainer, you need to develop a similar eating strategy to fit your training schedule.

One triathlete devised this routine: he drank 470ml/16oz of juice (i.e. carbs) before his morning swim, refuelled afterwards while commuting to work with breakfast in his car (big bagel with peanut butter, a banana, milk in a travel mug). He ate a hot meal at lunchtime (from the worksite cafeteria).

He also bought a yogurt to add to his second lunch (he had granola and raisins, stocked in his desk drawer) and his evening meal comprised of, turkey sub, chocolate milk. This programme ensured healthful food would be conveniently waiting for him and prevented him from overeating fatty take-out food at night.

“A sports nutritionist can help you estimate your energy needs per hour. You should try to replace at least one-third or more of the calories burned during the ultra-distance event/workout.”

3 Create an in-exercise feeding plan.

Knowing your hourly calorie targets can help you maintain high energy during exercise. A sports nutritionist can help you estimate your energy needs per hour. You should try to replace at least one-third or more of the calories burned during the ultra-distance event/workout. A good target is about 240 to 360 calories of carbohydrate per hour (60-90 g carb/h).

For example, during an extended ride a cyclist could stay well fuelled by consuming 950ml/1quart sports drink (200 cals/50g carbs) + 3 fig newtons (165 cals/33g carbs) per hour, or a Clif Bar (240 cals; 45g carb) + a gel (100 cals, 25g carb). The goals are to maintain a normal blood glucose level – if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, you are failing to consume enough calories!

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4 Practice your event-day fuelling.

An essential part of your training is to train your intestinal tract so you can minimise undesired pit stops. During long training sessions, you want to determine which food and fluids you prefer for fuel during exercise. That is, you need to know which settles better: Gatorade or PowerAde? Energy bars or gels? Liquids or solids?

By developing a list of several tried-and-true foods, you need not worry about making the wrong food choice on race day.Also think about ‘taste-bud burn-out’. That is, how many gels per hour can you endure in a triathlon? When hiking, how many days in a row will you enjoy oatmeal for breakfast?Will you get ‘sugared-out’ on sports drinks during the century bike ride? Plan to have a variety of options available.

5 Good nutrition starts in the grocery store.

All too often, in the midst of juggling work, family, friends, sleep plus training, endurance athletes have little time left to plan, shop for and prepare balanced sports meals. By having the right foods ready and waiting for you, you’ll eat better.

6 Plan rest days.

Because ultradistance athletes commonly feel overwhelmed by their impending task, they tend to fill every possible minute with training. Bad idea. Rest days are essential to reduce the risk of injury and provide muscles with time to refuel.(Remember: The bad things happen when you train; the good things happen when you rest and recover.) Rest days also allow time for you to—tah dah—food shop!!!

7 Drink enough fluids.

Ideally, you should learn your sweat rate by weighing yourself naked before and after an hourof race-pace exercise with no fluid intake – every 0.5kg/1lbs lost equates to 470ml/16oz of sweat. You can then target the right amount to drink/hour so you don’t get into a hole. On a daily basis, monitor your urine. Your pee should be light-coloured and you should be going to the toilet urine every 2 to 4 hours. Morning urine that is dark and smelly signals dehydration. Drink more!

8 Be flexible.

Although you will have a well planned fuelling programme that ensures adequate calorie and fluid intake, you also need to be flexible. Taste change during extended exercise! Your initial approach to consume ‘healthy foods’ may deteriorate into sweets and cola. However, worry more about survival than good nutrition during events. Any fuel is better than none and sugar can help delay fatigue.

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