This isn’t science. It is not an empirical study.
It is an effort to get you thinking about the nutrition products you’re going to use on race day long before your taper starts. Experiment and hone your nutrition plan in training long before race day. If you are going to use the products served in aid stations on the course- use those in training. If you are going to develop an individual nutrition plan, rehearse it repeatedly in your long workouts so on race day nothing goes wrong. What you learn in training you’ll know on race day.
Triathlons, especially long ones, rely so heavily on what you put in your body that race nutrition is frequently the make-or-break on race day. Once you graduate to the 70.3 half-iron distance and beyond what you take in on the bike course will have a lot to say about what you put out.
Nutrition is science and, as stated, this article is not. There is an elusive element to race nutrition, however, that contains some variable I’ve never understood: Why does one drink work perfectly for one athlete yet another athlete reports it “makes them sick” or they say, “I can’t drink that- it makes me gag…”? Is there an analog? An emotional or psychological component that changes how our digestive capabilities respond to stress?
“Why does one drink work perfectly for one athlete yet another reports it ‘makes them sick’?”
At TriSports.com we have the benefit of interacting with thousands of athletes across the spectrum of abilities; from the newbie doing their first sprint triathlon this Sunday morning to 7 time Ironman winner Reynard Tissink, 70.3 World Champion Andy Potts, ITU Long Distance World Champion Leanda Cave and Ironman athlete Chris Legh, a man uniquely suited for nutrition commentary due to a disastrous finish line bonk at Ironman that may have been related partially to nutrition strategy (lack thereof…).
In conversations with the spectrum of athletes two things emerge:
1. New athletes tend to think about race drinks “reactively” or after-the-fact. They may not know what will be served in aid stations for their event and weren’t able to train with it. Additionally, what they use in training is often different from what they will take from the aid stations on race day.
2. Experienced athletes consider their nutrition strategy more carefully. They may research what is served on the course at their key events. If they are not using that product in training they may switch to that product for acclimation or they may make a separate nutrition plan for race day to use their own nutritional drink and products that they have tested and verified in training.
The key difference is one of the same things that separate the elites from you and me: Preparation and planning.
Five-time Tour de France winners Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx were both renowned for attention to detail. Hinault said in his book “Road Racing, Technique and Training” by Bernard Hinault and Claude Genzling, that success in racing was a matter of managing every detail, every variable within your control. If you did that, you “stacked the odds in your favor”. Hinault failed his own advice during a stage of the Giro d’ Italia when he subverted his normally meticulous dietary regimen during a publicity stop at a gelato factory. The riders were photographed eating the company’s gelato while riding in the stage. It made Hinault sick and he nearly lost the race during that stage. Hinault’s lesson points to another variable in the nutrition puzzle: Stick to what works for you.
Acknowledging these ideas surrounding race day nutrition, the best nutrition plan is one that is tested but adaptive. For athletes who aren’t using the nutritional products being served on the course, there is almost a necessity to at least acclimate to the official product as a “plan B”. If I decide to not use what is in the aid station at a given event I am committed to carrying more fluids on the bike and run. That must be planned and rehearsed, and every plan must have a back-up. Racing is sometimes surrogate war, and the first casualty of war is the plan. If you fail to get your special needs bag at a 140.6 distance event you’ll have to start using the aid stations. If you aren’t used to what is in the aid stations you may be in for a surprise.
To get people thinking about using nutritional products early in their training for the purpose of experimentation and acclimation we decided to hold a sports drink tasting at our Kona Athletes Reception, the send off party for our sponsored and local athletes headed to the Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
The idea was to expose people to the differences (or what we thought were differences…) in the taste of sports drinks. And although this wasn’t science or conducted with adherence to the scientific method we decided to throw a curve in the tasting to further inspire thought: We stored the drinks in plastic bike bottles outside in the Arizona sun for three hours in a plastic bag before tasting to simulate them being along the roadside at a special needs bag pick up at Ironman. Remember- you have to plan for that in your own evaluation, another reason to start early.
When we conceived the tasting we thought there may be a clear cut “good, better, best” stratification. We picked drinks based on the ones customers ask for most frequently along with a common, store-bought benchmark drink thrown in (regular Gatorade Lemon-Lime).
Good-old Gatorade Lemon-Lime was the favorite perhaps because it was the sweetest, perhaps because people were familiar with it. No matter where we put it in the rotation people seemed to give it a decent rating. If the tasting were repeated in the middle of a five hour bike ride or 18 miles into a hot marathon, sweet may not taste as good. Again- it is important to test your choices in the environment you will be using them, or as close to it as possible. As you become dehydrated and fatigued, and you are exposed to various environmental factors (heat, cold, ran, wind, sun) your “cravings,” or tastes may change. What voted well here may vote opposite in a different setting. The point: You have to do your own test, real world.
INFINIT Ride, one of the pre-mix formulas from the custom performance drink maker, INFINIT nutrition, tasted next best. Two things are interesting about this: The INFINIT Ride narrowly lead the “secondary group” of drinks that all lagged behind the sweet tasting Gatorade pre-mix and it has some protein in it.
INFINIT claims the use of protein helps to reduce hunger and may enable an athlete to adopt either a “more liquid” or even “all liquid” nutritional regimen at long events. The top pros we have asked about race nutrition have largely done this.
INFINIT’s primary business is their custom blend fluids that customers can configure on INFINIT’s website with variables like sodium level, “salty” taste vs. “sweet”, carbohydrate and protein concentration, and other variables. It is an interesting model. We sell some pre-mix versions designed for “Ride” with a small amount of protein and “Run” with a more simple formulation.
Ironman Perform Lemon-Lime by PowerBar tasted next best by a small margin. This is the drink you’ll find on the course in the aid stations at the following events in 2010:
Amica Ironman 70.3 Rhode Island Ironman 70.3 Racine Rohto Ironman 70.3 Miami Ford Ironman Lake Placid Ford Ironman Louisville Ford Ironman Wisconsin Ford Ironman Florida Ford Ironman Arizona Ford Ironman World Championship Foster Grant Ironman World Championship 70.3
A feather in the cap of Ironman Perform is that it is what will be on the course and you can use it before race day in your training to determine if this is suitable for you. Nutrition and taste aside, Perform offers a logistical advantage at events that serve it in the aid station: You don’t have to carry as much fluid on your bike. Ironman Perform labeling and marketing information includes the mention of their proprietary C2MAX blend, a “2:1 glucose to fructose blend found to deliver 20–50% more energy to muscles than glucose alone and improve endurance performance by 8%”. Ironman Perform is available in three flavors: Lemon-Lime (as tasted), Mixed Berry and Orange Mango.
Hammer Nutrition Heed Lemon-Lime tested very close to INFINIT Ride and Ironman Perform in fourth position. Heed is part of the Hammer Nutrition System, a comprehensive collection of sports nutrition products. I have used Hammer Nutrition Heed at the 70.3 and 140.6 distances with satisfactory results.
We tested the Lemon-Lime flavor but there is a full range of flavors including Strawberry, Melon, Mandarin Orange, Lemon Lime and a unique “unflavored” which tastes like… not really anything. Heed claims an “all complex carbohydrate formula” said to, by Hammer Nutrition, moderate spikes in blood sugar levels.
An interesting feature of the Hammer Nutrition product was that the mixing instructions were somewhat vague. The label indicated “Mix 1-2 level scoops of HEED in a 16-24 ounce water bottle.” TriSports.com employee and former USAT employee Heidi Herboldsheimer did the mixing on our taste sample batch and went right down the middle on the mix. Another feature worthy of note with Heed according to their label is “No artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners.” Heed does use a sweetener called “Xylitol” which, according to Wikipedia, is: “A sugar alcohol sweetener used as a naturally occurring sugar substitute. It is found in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables, including various berries, corn husks, oats, and mushrooms.”
Accelerade Lemonade Flavor tested next best. Accelerade’s calling card is their patented 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Accelerade cites several studies that suggest the inclusion of protein in a sports drink “delays exhaustion”. They provide a rather extensive bibliography of studies to support their assertion. Additionally, Accelerade packaging discusses claimed benefits of faster recovery and reduced “muscle damage”. These are attractive claims that may warrant further trial in your own training. Again, what works for one person or even sizeable sample group may produce a different result for you.
My take-away from the testing was that few of the athletes who sampled the products had actually done such a sampling before- in any setting. It made me wonder if the process athletes use to buy sports drinks is somehow even more random than our tasting. Effectively, the only level of survey below what we attempted, was to read the sales literature and trust it, and then hope for the best on flavor and- most importantly- on how the drink works for you in the real world.
Another minor surprise was that, for all the banter, the products didn’t taste too differently in the middle three products. Everyone in the small group rated them close together and had similar comments about the tastes. There didn’t appear to me much difference in opinions. The tasting was conducted over a long enough period that the tasters didn’t interact with each other to discuss their opinions on taste.
There is a time honored axiom that you race with what you train with, and not to change anything on race day. While even that axiom isn’t supported by any science, it does suggest there is value to better planning and investigation of what you drink on race day. There is also the idea of not trying anything new on race day- one I support. With these ideas as a part of the popular lore of sports drinks, there is some wisdom to conducting your own, real-world “taste test” in the environment you train and race in. Then, you can develop your own ideas well in advance of race day to eliminate any surprises.