Completing an Ironman is no small thing. For many, it is a life-defining moment; a bucket list mandatory; one of the life’s biggest physical and mental achievements.
Completing an Ironman in a smashing pace and qualifying for the highly-coveted Championships in Kona, Hawaii is something else.
Most athletes will take upwards of a year to prepare for an Ironman race – it requires serious dedication and commitment and for some, months of hard work can go very pear shaped in a matter of hours, something age-grouper Andrea Hopkin was more than keen to avoid.
She was working hard, she was giving it everything; she was focused on qualifying. Andrea wanted to do everything she could to attain her Kona goal.
In the end, Andrea’s Hawaiian dream became reality at this year’s Ironman Melbourne when she not only qualified, but came second in her age-group, and was first off the bike.
She attributes a big part of her success to her nutrition wingman, Sports Dietitians Australia-accredited sports nutritionist, Rob Haala.
Here we see how Andrea and Rob worked together to get the very best from her nutrition and hydration, get a cracking bike split, and get her on the right Kona-bound path.
Andrea’s Take on Things:
For the last few years I’ve run marathons, but it’s only been in the last three where I’ve finally got my nutrition right! Moving from solely running a marathon to competing in an Ironman was a whole new ball game. Not only did I have to run a marathon, before that I had to swim 3.8km and cycle 180km.
My plan was to register in both Ironman Busselton and Ironman Melbourne. Ideally I would qualify at ‘Busso’ or, failing that I’d put into practice my learnings and use them to qualify at Melbourne. I was also planning to race Challenge Melbourne as part of my lead-in to Ironman Melbourne.
As far as split goals went, I wanted to nail the bike and be properly fuelled for the run.
What Wasn’t Working
I found with the increased training load that I wasn't sleeping well; I’d wake up around 2am feeling hungry. I'd also go on extended bike rides and be tired and lacking in energy both during and post. I was referred by a friend to Rob Haala from Nutrition for Life.
I kept a food diary.
From that Rob established that I wasn't eating or drinking enough and not fuelling properly post training sessions. Under Rob’s guidance we increased my carbohydrate intake and fluids consumed during the day. I was initially worried about putting weight on and wanted to maintain my current weight at the time of seeing Rob.
For both Busso and Melbourne I followed a three-day carb-loading program to which I stuck strictly (other than additional coffees).
Ironman Busselton December 2013
Breakfast was a real struggle due to pre-race nerves, and I skipped the prescribed banana and Gatorade.
I came out of the swim feeling pretty good and once on the bike, consumed a gel within the first 15-minutes, as was the plan. I was then supposed to eat solid food to lessen the number of gels (and I find it easier to consume solids on the bike versus on the run). I alternated between gels and white bread & Nutella sandwiches. Although I followed my nutrition/gel plan, I did skip one bidon from the overall hydration plan. By the third lap of the bike I started to tire and slowed a lot.
Once off the bike I felt good and started at a good pace on the run. Here again however, I didn’t take in all my prescribed hydration and I over-extended my time in-between gel consumption.
Overall time: 10:17:43
Swim split: 1:05:32
Bike split: 5:26:04
Run split: 3:40:37
Age-group placing: 4th
Challenge Melbourne February 2014
In February I raced at Challenge Melbourne (half Ironman distance) as part of my lead-in to Ironman Melbourne.
I didn’t fuel properly. It was a hot day and I didn’t hydrate nearly as much as I was required to do so; I drank only one bidon for 90km! I had stomach problems, possibly from the heat and lack of hydration, or possibly a result of antibiotics treating a tooth infection. I continued to pay for this in the run, and basically lacked energy right through the race.
Challenge Melbourne Results:
Overall time: 4:55
Swim split: 35:25
Bike split: 2:28:04
Run split: 1:42:42
Age-group placing: 6th
Asia-Pacific Championships: Ironman Melbourne March 2014
Based on the problems taking in hydration as well as stomach cramps, Rob and I decided to remove some of the sandwiches from the bike split and replace them with gels.
As planned in the morning I had two pieces of white bread. Nerves were definitely there and I find toast quite hard to eat as it’s much drier, so I ate it as a sandwich. My normal routine before training is to have a coffee. I didn't have one before Busselton but I did on this morning. I also made sure I consumed that banana I missed pre Busso.
I came out of the water feeling great and on to the bike immediately got started with hydration. As planned within the first 15-minutes I consumed a gel. Next I was to eat a sandwich with Nutella at the one-hour mark. I found eating the sandwich quite difficult at pace and made a decision that I wouldn't eat the other one; I’d stick to gels (I had included extra gels on my bike just in case!).
The gels were to be taken every 45-minutes (with one taken just prior to finishing the bike) compared to a sandwich, which would have been fine on the hour. I stuck strictly to this plan for the entire bike, ensuring I also stayed correctly hydrated. I fuelled my body exactly as discussed with Rob; I had a great bike leg and came into transition feeling good and ready to run.
I had a small bottle of flat Coke waiting in my transition bag to take out on the run. The plan then was to consume gels every 6-7km and to take in some fluid at each aid station (water, Coke or Gatorade depending how I felt). My teeth felt sensitive from the gels, and because I was consuming so much Coke through the aid stations I pushed back the timing for a couple of gels (I ended up consuming two less than planned).
Ironman Melbourne Results:
Overall time: 9:55:22
Swim split: 1:02:28
Bike split: 5:05:53
Run split: 3:41:56
Age-group placing: 2nd
I was slightly dehydrated post-race, weighing between 2-3kg lighter when I got home. My appetite was lost but a message from Rob reminded me to refuel properly, so ate and drank! The following day my body was sore, as to be expected, but come Tuesday I was on the mend. By the end of the week my body was feeling pretty good.
In comparison to Busso and Challenge Melbourne, I definitely felt better fuelled and stronger in Ironman Melbourne. Having those two races helped Rob and I to tailor exactly the right nutrition and hydration plan for me. Mentally knowing I was sticking to my nutrition plan also possibly played a part. I wasn't worried at any time that energy levels were going to drop. Seeing Rob has played a pivotal role ensuring I was getting the best out of my training sessions and refuelling properly to not only recover from training sessions, but deliver results on race day. Having Rob’s scientific knowledge and expertise meant I could defer all the nutritional thinking and planning to him.
Importantly – having Rob on board meant I was doing everything I could to achieve my goal of qualifying for Kona.
Rob’s Take on Things:
The Nutritional Challenge
Andrea came to me in October 2013. At the time she was unsure about how much to eat and the best types of foods to eat. Following her assessment, I pointed out that she wasn’t eating enough day-to-day to fuel her training load nor did she have a post training nutrition plan. Both of these facts were leading to her feeling exhausted at times, overly hungry, and leading to poor recovery. Her fluid intake was also very low and needed to be addressed, especially with summer training on the horizon.
Having highlighted these areas to be addressed, we set about formalising a personalised plan based on Andrea’s training load, body size, and a previous history of iron deficiency. In our first session I set the following homework for Andrea and provided her with her initial plan:
WEIGH PRE AND POST EXERCISE SESSIONS This would calculate how much fluid Andrea lost through sweat during her various training sessions. We could then tailor her training and race day plan using this information. I also gave her guidelines on how much fluid to drink following training sessions to rehydrate and prepare for her next session.
DAILY FLUID INTAKE Andrea needed to boost her general fluid intake. I advised her to sip regularly across the day, taking in approximately 2L of water / juice / sports drink each day independent of any exercise she undertook (fluid intake for exercise was in addition to the 2L).
RECOVER WELL A key focus was maximising Andrea’s recovery. When you are training so often and with such high training loads, it is vital that you commence your recovery as soon as you jump off the bike. I provided her with options based on her body weight that ensured she was receiving the optimal amount of both carbohydrate and also protein. Her snack options included (at volumes prescribed for her):
- Sustagen Sport mixed with water and a banana
- Skim milk mixed with Milo
- Toast with peanut butter and a piece of fruit / glass of juice
- Yoghurt, piece of fruit / glass of fruit juice, and a handful of nuts
- DURING TRAINING SESSIONS Training to take in fuel whilst you are exercising is crucial to success in any endurance event. Andrea was consuming some fuel, but less than the required level of carbohydrates per hour. Andrea also needed to train her body to be able to cope with taking on board nutrition whilst training.
I provided Andrea with a list of snacks that provided adequate carbohydrates and that were appealing to Andrea. Options included sandwiches, fruit, gels, Gatorade, and energy bars.
- DAY-TO-DAY EATING When training for an endurance event, eating enough fuel in a day can be a challenge. Therefore, you need to be eating regularly across the day, ideally at set intervals. Using energy containing fluids, which empty from your stomach quicker than food, can also be helpful. For Andrea, we added fruit juice to each meal, as well as some high carbohydrate mid meal snacks.
Based on the above our initial focus was therefore to have Andrea: - Monitor more precisely her fluid status - Be prepared with post-training fuel - Increase her food intake during sessions on the bike - Take in fuel during her longer runs - Boost her carbohydrate intake day-to-day, focusing on adding carbohydrate containing fluids into her meals and snacks
Andrea’s race day plan was formulated based on foods and fluids that Andrea had traditionally tolerated well and enjoyed consuming. There were to be no new foods and no surprises. We were careful to ensure Andrea was receiving enough fuel and hydration across the whole event and spoke about the importance of sticking to the plan and carrying extra fuel for use as required.
The plan for the morning of the event prior to toeing the line:
Breakfast and Pre-start:
Andrea was given a menu of items she ideally needed to consume prior to the race starting. These comprised fluids and carbohydrates.
The bike leg will make or break your performance. Not getting in adequate fuel and fluid will lead to a suboptimal final run leg. Therefore, to ensure Andrea did everything she could to qualify, we focussed on getting this right.
Commonly, athletes don’t plan out the timing of their food and fluid, choosing to go on “feel”. With this approach, athletes lose track of time, resulting in them becoming dehydrated and burning up too much stored fuel.
At Busselton, Andrea found that she was slightly over hydrated and found the bread hard to eat in the second half of the leg. Therefore we modified her plan for Melbourne. Still ensuring she was getting in adequate fluid as well as enough carbohydrate. This meant that we focussed on gels in the second half, eating a little more often due to the lower carbohydrate content.
The plan we settled on comprised sipping on flat Coke or Gatorade in transition, then moving to Gatorade, sandwiches and gels at set times whilst on the bike.
As Andrea outlined, she nailed this leg. Her discipline to keep hydrating and taking in the required fuel at regular intervals underpinned this result and set her up for a great run leg and overall result.
Nutrition for the run included water, Gatorade, some Coke, and gels. We wanted to keep replacing the fluid lost through sweat whilst sticking to consuming carbohydrates at set intervals to keep fuelling those fatiguing muscles. The caffeine in the Coke also helps with the perception of fatigue, allowing Andrea to keep pushing all the way to the finish line.
Post race recovery is vital. We needed to get carbohydrate and protein to Andrea’s fatigued muscles, as well as replacing her lost fluid. The goal was to return to usual eating patterns straight away, with balanced meals and sipping on fluid over the proceeding days.
Each race helps you to fine tune your plan. For Kona, we will focus more heavily on hydration, plan for a higher reliance of gels on the bike, and fine tune her nutrition on the run leg. As in Melbourne, having a flexible fuelling plan will be vital, as well as nailing that bike leg once again!
As a final note, whether you are competing in local bike races, training with friends, or planning to complete the Melbourne Ironman in 2015, nutrition plays a vital role. To achieve personal success, you should consult an Accredited Sports Dietitian for personalised support and guidance. You too can achieve a personal best!
To look into how an accredited sports dietitian to help you achieve your goal, visit Sports Dietitians Australia