Running on Empty – How I’m learning to avoid race day fueling disaster!

We often think of triathlon as three disciplines: swimming, biking and running.  The reality of it though, as I’m slowly figuring out, is that it’s much more than that.  Recovery, everyday nutrition and fueling all play such a vital role in attaining those often thought lofty goals that we’ve written down for the year and dare not share with anyone else.  Since it’s the time of year where workouts seem to be ramping up and the beginning of race season is only a few months away I thought I’d share some of my experiences with fueling to hopefully save some of you from some of my mistakes.

As you’ve probably already heard it said, you can’t win a race based on fueling, but you can definitely lose one.  This is so unbelievably true, we should all know this, but time and time again I see myself, friends and even world champions botch their race performance by not getting their fueling right.  Where it usually starts though isn’t on race day, but in training.  I’ll get into this but first I’ll share a couple of my fueling blunders.

My first ever triathlon was the North Shore Sprint in May 2011.  I was very green to triathlon at the time; I’d only begun training with a group 4 months prior and had been introduced to the concept of fueling about a month before the race.  Before the race I thought it would be a good idea to fully load a water bottle with about 500 calories of carbopro, some electrolytes (cause there’s definitely a risk of cramping in such a short race) and a couple scoops of Vega Sport pre workout energizer for good measure.  I thought it would be like rocket fuel and would somehow make me go really fast!  Wow was I wrong.  I got about halfway through this concoction on the bike leg before I made it to T2.  As soon as I made it up the first hill, about a minute in, I started to get an excruciating stomach cramp.  It was so bad I had to walk.  I couldn’t believe this was happening.  Finally a friend from our training group, Lexi, caught up with me and motivated me to push through it the rest of the way.  Looking back on the race now, I could have done the entire race without water let alone fuel and had a faster result; however, at the time I didn’t piece together that the cramping was based on what I drank on the bike so it would come back to haunt me yet again.

My next race two weeks later was the Oliver Half Ironman.  Once again, I prepped my fuel bottles in the same manner, there was no real calculation to how many calories I thought I would need to consume, I just went by what I thought was a reasonable amount.  This time, half way through the bike my stomach started to feel a bit off but I continued to drink the fuel I’d prepared.  And once again on the run I found myself walking 5 minutes in.  I managed to get myself to a jog and remembered that I had brought a couple gels that they had supplied in the promo bag we received at package pickup; I figured I had nothing to lose so I tried one.  Within 5 minutes I was feeling good again and moving at a much better pace.  After this I took 3 more, one gel about every 20 minutes and it seemed to really work.

My next couple of races in 2011 I used gels and they worked really well.  The cramping issues completely went away and my results started to improve.  I wouldn’t say I had my fueling dialed by any means, in 2012 things continued to improve but I still think I can get it even better.  Everyone is different when it comes to fueling, what works for one person may not work for you and that’s why it’s so important to constantly be training in your fueling just like you would for swimming, biking or running.

I would say the biggest mistake I made and see others make is not practicing race fueling strategies in training.  We get this idea in our heads that our “perfectly” devised fueling plan is going to work flawlessly on race day.  More often than not that’s probably not the case.  Without testing out a fueling plan on several occasions, including training sessions that are at race pace, there’s no way of knowing how our bodies are going to absorb those calories.

PowerBar Double Latte and Strawberry Banana Gels

Mmmm… Double Latte!

When trying to figure out what fuel I would roll forward with at the beginning of 2012 the key was simplicity.  I think fueling can get really complicated when using various products, especially if they’re not supplied on the course.  If you drop a bottle or drop your salt pills it could mean mental game over if you’re not prepared for it.  I decided gels would be my best bet as they worked well in my last couple of races in 2011. I compared different gels looking at their contents: calories, carbohydrates, sodium and caffeine.  PowerBar’s product had exactly what I was looking for and from experience I knew it agreed with my stomach which is half the battle.  Another consideration was what brands sponsor the events I’m racing, the majority of the races I’ve done have been sponsored by PowerBar so if I lose my fuel I know that’s what I can get at the aid stations.  I used their products throughout 2012 and was ecstatic with the results.  In my half ironmans and Ironman I mixed gels with water in one of my bottles on the bike and did the same thing with my fuel belt for the run, it worked great.  I would calculate beforehand how much time I thought I would be spending in each segment and made sure I had a little more than enough fuel.  I also made sure I knew what they were serving at aid stations and how much of that type of fuel I would need to take per hour if worst case scenario I lost all my nutrition.

PowerBar Gel Double Latte Nutrition Facts

PowerBar Gel Nutrition Facts

I will admit that I don’t like to live off of gels all the time.  I’ve recently been using PowerBar Perform for most of my spin sessions.  It’s been a really good way to change it up.  Like the gels, it covers all the bases and tastes really good too.  And when I really want to treat myself I get the PowerBar Brownie Bites, need I say more, BROWNIE c’mon!  In Ironman I thought I might feel hungry later in the race if I didn’t start with something solid so for the first hour on the bike I ate a package of those and they were amazing.

PowerBar Perform Energy Drink

PowerBar Perform Sports Drink

If you’re looking for help to find the optimal fueling plan a really great person to speak to is Melissa Spooner from Endurance Health & Fitness.  She spoke at our Ironman Training Camp last summer and provided us with a wealth of information.  She’s won 3 Ironman’s and placed 4th in Hawaii so I’m pretty sure she knows a thing or two about fueling before and during a race to get the most out of your body.

Endurance Health and Fitness

I know this post is dragging out but if you are to take anything away from it it’s practice your fueling in training just like you would anything else.  Hope to see some more sunshine sometime soon in rainy Vancouver and to see some of you out on the roads.  Happy training!


  1. Bob Blais says:

    Good blog…nice personal in sight…

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