10 Common Mistakes in Hydration and Nutrition

author : IronTom
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Mistakes in fueling that you can correct during training.

by Tom Schopf

Experienced triathletes say that nutrition is the fourth event in a triathlon, especially for long distance races.  How is nutrition an event?  You need to work, test and improve methods of hydration and nutritional intake to maximize your performance on race day.  Just like training swim, bike and run training, you need to start early in the season and have proper nutrition integrated into your daily workouts.

Here are ten common mistakes you’ll hear people saying about hydration and nutritional intake when training and participating in a race. 

1) “I don’t need to bring any sports gels or drinks as they’ll be passing them out at the race… so I’ll just drink what they are handing out!”

In every endurance race, at approximately the ¾ mark, you start to pass competitors that have been reduced to walking because of GI (gastro-intestinal) problems.  More often than not, when you ask them what went wrong, they’ll reply “tried the ~insert manufactures name here~, and it’s not agreeing with me”.  They are partially right...the product may agree with them, but not mixed with all the other stuff they’ve been taking, or the concentration was too strong, or they may have consumed too much.

Each sports nutrition manufacturer uses different formulas and ingredients in their products.  Some have electrolytes and caffeine added, some are made from simple sugars and all have different tastes.  Do you know how many carbohydrates are in the sports gel they are passing out?  Do you know how many carbs in the sports drink?  Bonus question: do you know the total amount of carbs from both the sports gel and drink combined?  Do you know if the volunteer mixed the sports drink right?

People react to different formulations. During your training, you need to experiment with different makes, concentrations and combinations to see what works for you.  Be sure to experiment when it’s hot; you’ll consume more water and electrolytes but your body absorbs them at different rates.  Race with what you train with!  It’s not worth the gamble of trying something new, just because it free.

2) “I think I burn approximately 1,000 calories an hour…so it’s a simple matter of consuming 1,000 calories per hour! Right?”

Your body can never process calories at the same rate at which you burn them. The average athlete’s digestive system can absorb ~250 calories per hour (and a small percentage of athletes can absorb up to 350 calories).  If you consume more calories than what your body can process, that extra food just sits in your stomach causing stomach distress, bloating and nausea (especially during the run when your body is bouncing around).  Again, this is where experimenting while training comes into play.  Start off by fueling 200 calories per hour during your long workouts, then after a few weeks try 250 calories. Keep adding calories until you start to feel bloated, then reduce by 50 calories.  As a rule, calorie/water/electrolytes intake should be approximately 1/3 of your expenditure during endurance events.

3) “When I race, I drink as much water as I can to keep well hydrated!”

You do need to keep yourself hydrated while racing, and there are plenty of articles telling you to drink water… but you should never drink as much water as you can.  This could lead to water intoxication: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_intoxication.  Over hydration causes the normal balance of electrolytes in the body to be pushed outside of safe limits. You should experiment with how much water you consume on both hot and cold days.  A good rule of thumb is 650 ml / 22 oz. of water per hour (standard bicycle water bottle) on a warm day, 770 ml / 26 oz. (large bicycle water bottle) on a really hot day.  Again, experiment while you train.

4) “Yuk… I don’t like gels, so I eat solid foods during exercise or racing!”

Solid foods cause your stomach to engage the digestive process required to break down the food before the nutrients can be absorbed.  This takes time and the stomach has to divert blood from working muscles.  Simply said, eating solids takes energy and time before the food can nourish the body (not to mention the risk of bloating, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting).

Liquid nutrition is the easiest, most convenient and most easily digested way to get calories and nutrient dense fuel to the body.  If you don’t like the taste, try different flavors.  If you find gels hard to swallow, start off the season by mixing them with the same quantity of water (thinning it out).  As the season progresses, mix with less water and after consuming, have a swig of water to wash it down.  Soon, you can take a straight gel, followed by a water chaser.

5) “I’m looking forward to pigging-out at the pre-race pasta dinner mmm… gotta do my carbo loading!”

First, let’s understand what proper “carbo loading” is.  Carbo loading is the process of maximizing your muscle's stored glycogen.  Over the course of weeks and months, you can train your muscles to increase the amount of glycogen they can store by proper post-exercise nutrition.  This is something you build into your training regimen.  Please do not go overboard during those pre–race pasta feeds, it will only leave you with a full belly and make you slower.

6) “Who needs protein? It’s all about the carbs!”

For workouts longer than two hours, the body begins to utilize some protein to fulfill its energy requirements as you begin to derive glucose from amino acids.  If there is no protein in your fuel, then your body cannibalizes your muscles in an effort to satisfy its protein needs.  This process will fatigue your hard working muscles further.  So while carbohydrates still form the foundation of your endurance nutrition, for longer (2+ hours) please include anywhere from 5-15% of protein to your mix.

7) “I’m going to drink a cola and ride that sugar high for my race!”

Consuming refined sugar is a bad mistake! You will start off with a minute high and then a two hour crash!  Nothing further to say…

8) “I’m getting all my electrolytes from my sports drink!”

Electrolytes are comprised of minerals that are critical to keep your body healthy.  These minerals have a substantial impact. We’ve all felt the effect of thirst and bloating from eating highly salted popcorn!  The key with electrolytes is balance to assure smooth performance.  This balance is unique to your body type, weight, fitness level, performance effort and temperature.  Sports drinks that have electrolytes have different mixes of minerals and concentrations.  Even if you find a sports drink that works for you, you will have the problem of inconsistent electrolyte supplementation.  That’s a fancy way of saying that you have tied your electrolyte consumption to thirst. 

This creates two issues:

  1. On hot days, you drink more and on cool days, you drink less.  Your electrolyte supplementation needs to be consistent to maintain balance.  You run the risk of over consuming electrolytes on hot days (remember the bloating from eating highly salted popcorn) and under consuming in cooler days (muscle cramps).
  2. Your body requires electrolytes before you get thirsty.

There are excellent and cost effective electrolyte supplements on the market.  Combined with non-electrolyte sport nutrition gels or drinks and you can find the perfect consumption regimen for training and racing.

9) “When I ride the bike, I drink from a straw so that I can stay aerodynamic!”

Drinking from a straw...how does that impact my performance? Every time you drink from a straw you may suck up air.  In addition, you are bent over in the aero position drinking.  This combination introduces air when you swallow.  This is not a problem on the bike, but becomes a problem when you start running.  That air can cause stomach distress, gas, bloating and hinder nutrition absorption.

Solution?  Drink from a standard water bottle while sitting up on the bike.  Yes, I understand you are not maintaining an aerodynamic profile, but you gain the benefit of delivering nutrition to your stomach without air and it should only take 5 to 15 seconds.  Added benefit: While sitting up, take an additional 15 seconds to stretch out your back.  This will help keep your back from cramping up later on the ride.

10) Sticking with my game plan!

If your “game plan” is to use what they pass out on race day, then you have no plan.  If things start to go wrong, you won’t know why, so you’re condemned to keep repeating the same mistake(s).

The main reason you build in race day nutrition into your day-to-day training is to experiment with nutrition intake and hydration so you can perfect your race day performance.  This brings awareness and insight to your body’s needs and allows you to make adjustments for different race scenarios. 

Now that you’re equipped with this knowledge, you can change your “game plan” and make intelligent and informed nutritional decisions that are perfect for your race day needs!


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date: September 10, 2012