Every now and then, I start my run with an empty stomach. Sometimes I’m up before my stomach can even handle food, and I often dream about the breakfast that will revive me afterward. Or maybe I’m trying to shave off some calories by simply skipping a meal.
I know this is a harmful, diet-culture-adjacent line of thinking. But during training for a recent half Ironman Triathlon (which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run), I had a nutrition reckoning that completely undid everything that diet culture had taught me about fueling my body.
Fresh off of a pelvic bone stress fracture, I knew that I needed to be intentional about meeting my nutritional needs. After all, research shows that nutrition can not only influence your performance during your training cycle, but it can also prevent stress fractures and hormone disruptions. In order to perform at my peak and stay injury-free, I’d need to focus on my nutrition — and let go of the pervasive diet rules that plague endurance athletes, such as avoiding entire food groups or trying to have a daily calorie deficit.
So before starting my training program, I decided to connect with a dietitian. Here’s what I learned (and unlearned) about race nutrition and diet culture while training for a half Ironman.
Why Nutrition Is So Important for Triathlons
ICYDK, newbies and casual exercisers can expect to finish a half Ironman triathlon within five to seven hours. Over the course of those 70.3 miles, plus before and after the race, you need to be carb-loading, noshing on white bread, Pop-Tarts, pasta, and even pure glucose gels. These easily digestible sources of carbohydrates aren’t always appetizing, but they provide the readily available energy you need to keep chugging along.
In fact, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can be broken down quickly enough to provide energy (in this case, in the form of glucose) during high-intensity exercise. And if you don’t consume enough carbs to fully replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores post-workout, your performance can take a hit — especially if you’re tackling strenuous exercise regularly, according to…