5 Things I Learnt Doing My First IRONMAN
Updated: Mar 20
“YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. The words that you long to hear by kilometre 40 on the run (or maybe a little earlier!). But as many IM finishes say, those final moments make all the hard training, time and money worth it.
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IRONMAN Cairns 2021. 10:59:59 hrs (4th AG)
In preparing and racing my first full IRONMAN in 2021, I learnt a lot more than I thought I would. About recovery, time management, nutrition, troubleshooting, and the recovery process.
Despite working with many incredible ironman athletes and doing half ironmans myself before, there was still lots of nutrition things I learnt along the way. So, I wanted to share with you… Maybe it will help you as you prepare for your first, fifth or even tenth long-distance triathlon.
THE TOP 5 THINGS I LEARNT:
1. Prepare for every situation
If you’ve heard me talk about triathlon nutrition before, or are one of my athletes, you will know my swim experience at IRONMAN Cairns. Race day can bring a whole new experience and with adrenaline and unpredicted conditions, you don’t always know how your body will respond. You could get muscle cramps, stomach upsets, nausea, vomiting, or reflux…as I experienced on the bike after swallowing too much water in the swim.
I had never had reflux or heartburn EVER in my life until 30km into the 180km bike!! It was horrible. I couldn’t even swallow water without it burning. I had to pause on my nutrition for an hour or two, and then slowly get through most of it, as I knew I wouldn’t make it to the finish line if I didn’t fuel properly. Plus, with the headwind back to town, I was chewing through the energy, so I desperately needed to refuel!
This is why your bento box and personal needs bag are key for filling up on back-up nutrition and supplements - so you’re prepared for whatever may hit you. This is the list I give my athletes:
Pain relief: paracetamol and ibuprofen - take every 4 or so hours
Cramp mix: in case you start to get cramps or if it’s much warmer than expected - keep on your bike and personal needs bags
Caffeine: even if you don’t think you’ll need it - practice in training with some, as this can be helpful in the back end of your race. Especially if you’re struggling to get nutrition in or feeling sick
Anti-nausea medication: take before the swim and have some on the bike in case or transition
Reflux relief: You can get chews or little shots like mini gels (such as Gaviscon) to keep on the bike and run transition bag in case you have an experience like me
Carry a toolkit if you can! I needed mine in transition before the race even started! More on that later…
2. Always take back up (and other options)
I don’t have many rules, but when it comes to race day, one of my two rules is ‘always take back up!’
That’s because you just don’t know what could happen. You could hit a pothole or speed bump while eating a gel or bar and drop it; drop a bottle as you miss your cage when putting it back; or you could go faster or push harder in windy conditions that you need an extra gel or few (or more hydration). Flavour fatigue is also a big one with longer events, so having different flavours of drinks, gels/bars or additional sweet and salty food is helpful. Always plan ahead (and ideally with your sports dietitian) so you have an estimated time and fuel requirements, and then add an extra 1-2 bits of fuel. This might be 2 extra gels or a handful of lollies for the run in case; it could be extra salt chews; or extra potato chips, mini chocolate bar or sandwich in your personal needs bag.
3. Maximise that personal needs stop
Some athletes will want to skip the personal needs stop/s if they can carry all their fuel with them from the start. However, my suggestion is to at least stop once as the few minutes you spend here could save you 5, 10, 30 minutes in the back end of the race.
Personal needs bags (both in the ride and run) allow you to put things in there that you might not necessarily need, but could need (or crave) when it comes to the big day.
It can be helpful to add some extra foods in here that you might want mentally. Some athletes love a mini chocolate bar (if it doesn’t melt!), a mini pack of potato chips, or an icy cold drink if you pack an ice brick or freeze the drink. For me, I love my coffee. Especially strong iced lattes. So, I did what I haven’t heard anyone do before, and I put a single espresso shot and milk in a 100ml bottle, kept it cold, and downed it when I got to the 70km personal needs bag. I skulled it while I went to the porta loo, grabbed my extra sandwich, and off I was again. I only recommend adding the coffee in if your guts are good with it, and you practice in training!
4. Get to transition 45 minutes before it closes
We all know that we should get to transition at a reasonable time to prepare and not rush, but sometimes time gets away… or there’s more roads closed than we thought. For shorter races, you can get away with getting there 15 mins before it closes, but for IRONMAN or any half or full iron triathlon, I highly recommend getting there 45-60 minutes before it closes. Why? Well again, anything can happen on race day. On the morning of my first ironman, I got there about 30-40 minutes before. Luckily I did, because I had tube issues. When I went to pump my tyres up, I found my tube valve was broken. After a few minutes of panicking, I sorted my nutrition and gear setup, and went to find the mechanics (luckily they were set up in transition!). After what felt like an hour with my heart rate at 180, the mechanic couldn’t fix it and we had to put my only spare on. So I not only rode almost 180km with reflux, but also praying that I wouldn’t get another flat! Perhaps, pack two spares if you can.
5. Recovery will take way longer than you think
Eating to recover well after an IRONMAN, isn’t something that’s often really thought about until after the race. But, planning ahead and being prepared, again, for any situation, is helpful. Especially if you’ve been injured, are going to be racing again soon, or want to recover the best you can.
It’s quite normal and expected that after the race your guts will be cooked. Research tells us that for every hour of endurance sport over 3 hours, our gastric emptying/ digestion is delayed half an hour. So if you do a 14 hour race, your digestion can be delayed or slowed down for 5 to 6 hours.
And after a whole day out of taking in lots of fluids, sugars (which are essential!) and no proper meals, it's no wonder our guts can be churning by the end. Add in less blood flow to the gut because our legs need it, and it can be very unpleasant.
I still remember when I finished IRONMAN Cairns. There’s pasta, bread, ice cream and drinks on offer as you walk through the finish area. I took one mouthful of spaghetti and headed straight to the toilet! I told my friends I would be craving nachos and chocolate milk after I finished. They went to all of the effort to cook it for me after spectating all day, and I couldn’t eat a single bite. I was devastated. Bad guts mixed with reflux wasn’t very nice. I drank about 200ml of plain milk and went straight to bed.
While it’s ideal to get some protein, carbohydrates and fluids in after, it doesn’t always happen. Instead, it’s best to just get to sleep and have a shower, and wake up later to have some quality food - whether that’s 12am, 3am or 10am the next day.
Once you feel ready to eat again, for the next week, it’s really important to focus on eating small amounts regularly (while you may be sick of it!). Go for simple or plainer lean lean proteins, whole grain carbohydrates, fruits, veggies and hydrate with electrolytes, water and milk drinks. It’s also best to have a week of rest (especially if it’s your first IM) and ease into the next week if you’re exercising. No intensity for a while.
But, what I learnt through my journey is that it’s not just the first few weeks or first month that you need to focus on. For some athletes, it can take months. Think about all those mornings you got up at 4 or 5am, the long weekends spinning the legs and hitting the pavement. It takes a toll on your body. Not to mention work, life and family stressors that may add up. So, take your time. You may never do another triathlon again, or you may want to get back to it ASAP. Either way, ease back into the intensity and shorter stuff when you do. Be kind to yourself and your body, and don’t have any expectations for training or your first race back.
I hope this has given you some things to think about and plan into your race and recovery. Enjoy the journey, use every training as an opportunity to trial and practice, and don’t try anything new on race day!