Packing Your Calories for a Half Ironman Bike Ride, Part II

In Part I of this blog, Packing Your Calories for a Half Ironman Bike Ride, Part I, I laid out the guidelines to establish how many calories you should be consuming on your half Ironman bike ride. I also profiled two athletes, Craig and Carlos, and what they’re nutritional needs on the bike were, according to them. In summary Craig hopes to only take 2.5 hours to finish the ride, consuming 250 calories an hour, and 30 oz. of fluid per hour. Carlos will take a bit longer, 3.1 hours, consume more calories each hour, 300, and take on slightly more fluid, 30-35 oz. /hour. imhydrationsetupA

Focusing on Craig for a moment, he can start out with all the calories he expects to need on the bike and not take any of the fuel from the race, only water bottles, as needed. I would suggest he put 100 calories in the front loader and 300 calories in the two water bottles behind his seat. As he rides and consumes the water/calories from the front, he will fill from the bottles in the back. He can probably skip taking any bottles at the first aid station, but by the second aid station he should have finished one of the bottles behind him, which he’ll discard, grab a water bottle and stick it behind him, then grab another, take a big drink, douse as needed (especially on hot days), maybe quickly fill the front and then pitch it, while staying in the feed zone.

That all sounds complicated I know, and this is where people say I lose them, so re-read that and think about what you’re doing as you approach an aid station. Get rid of your empty bottle, grab a new one and store it, grab another one to drink from and fill your front loader, then pitch that one and move on. I can’t emphasize enough that you stay ahead of your drinking, so drink to thirst, don’t get behind and become dehydrated, which you won’t appreciate while you’re on the ride, but which will affect your run at some point.

Remember, for longer distance triathlons, eating sets you up for a successful run. Ironman bike rides have been described as a rolling buffet, athletes eating the whole time as then ride through the 112 miles. I consumed over 2400 calories during my Ironman ride, then 100 calories every 30 minutes on the run, as was able to keep moving the whole time without issue. A half doesn’t require as many calories, but you still have to train to consume what you plan on taking on, at race pace. Now what are you going to do?

Going back to our two athletes, Craig has it easy, able to start out with all the needed calories, while Carlos has to work a little harder. If his energy bar has around 250 calories, then he’ll need to put 350 calories in each of his water bottles, which is kind of high. People try this all the time, mix a very high calorie solution and say they’ll just take sips of it and then take gulps of plain water that they pick up on the course; I say that this just adds another element of uncertainty.

How big a hit of calories you get each time and how much water to drink to dilute it enough so your stomach is happy becomes a random event, which is not the ideal approach. And not to mention the odd chance of dropping/losing the bottle and then watching all your calories spilling out on the road, really derailing your race!

I think Carlos’ needs to re-consider his plan, and either get a front loader, like Craig, or add a third water bottle cage to his bikes frame (which I hate as they affect your aerodynamics, which you paid good money for!), to hold bottles of plain water. As he consumes his energy bar during the first part of the ride (always consume your solids first as they take longer to digest and move into your system), he should drink water until its gone to help digest the bar, and then start drinking from the rear bottles, picking up more water as he goes along.

If he doesn’t add a third bottle at the start, with water, he’ll have to delay eating his energy bar until he reaches an aid station and discards an empty bottle to grab one with water to drink with his bar. I’ll state again that this isn’t the best plan, compromising his ability take on calories mixed to a solution that he can just grab and drink, versus a more concentrated amount of calories, and/or an energy bar, without plain water on board to help digest it. A post-race analysis of his race, how he felt on the bike, and if he was able to finish in the expected time by maintaining his pace while consuming the calories as he lay out, would be interesting.

For both athletes, something I like to do is tuck 1-2 energy gels in my tri top, just in case I find myself out on the course longer than I expected, or maybe starting to lose energy near the end of the ride. Most gels contain electrolytes and caffeine, which can help to get you over the hump when you’re not feeling it. If you don’t use them during the ride then they’re available on the run. I also have a couple more sitting in T2 in case I do consume them on the bike. One gel every 30 minutes is something everyone should be able to do, without any penalty. But again, before you do this during a race, practice this during your brick workouts to make sure the gels and your drink mix play well together in your tummy as you start the run.

Like I said, this gets complicated, which is why I tell athletes to write down what their hydration and nutrition plan, noting what they should be eating and drinking for every 30 minute segment of the race, long before the race so they can practice this in their training. If you have a plan and understand why it’s important, then you can move through the race knowing your caloric needs are covered, that you’ll be hydrated enough to finish the run at race pace, and that hopefully you’ll achieve your goal time for the race.

In summary these are the keys to a successful nutritional plan for your half Ironman race:

  • Determine your body’s ability to consume calories at your race pace and practice, practice, practice eating and drinking in your training
  • The simplest plan is the best plan to start with, adjusting as your training distance and intensity increase
  • Experiment with different combinations of solid foods, gels, liquid calories, that give you the best return, that your stomach can absorb easily, again, at race pace, and that you’re comfortable executing on race day
  • Did I mention you need to practice eating and drinking to be successful on race day?

Your first half Ironman distance triathlon is an experience (as are your second, third, fourth…), and hopefully a good one, but regardless of the outcome there will be lessons learned to be applied to each subsequent race at that distance and beyond. You will train for many hours a week, for many weeks, many months, don’t waste all that training time and effort by not having a plan and by not be able to execute it on race day.

Good luck with your long training, enjoy the journey.

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