by Drew Davis, all pictures courtesy of Wattie Ink. and Chris Bagg. The author running with Heather Jackson at our Tucson Dream Camp.

Ed. Note—today we launch our Flash Collection as well as continue guest contributor Drew Davis's approach to daily and triathlon nutrition. Today we are jumping into his rolling experiments on race nutrition over three seasons, from raw beginner to sub-five 70.3 finisher. As with any nutrition advice, make sure you take any of these ideas for a test run in training before putting them into practice on race day.

There are many perils in triathlon. We extend our bodies to the limits of their physical abilities while swimming with thousands of our closest friends, biking with our hands far, far away from the brakes, and then running through the hottest part of the day.

But there may be no sensation more dreadful, or more feared, than the first signs of a grumpy tummy. Sometimes it’s that uncomfortable gas bubble.  Or that sudden and wicked stab of a cramp that arrives out of nowhere. Perhaps you’re the type of person with a system that goes to nausea when your equilibrium is out of whack.  No matter the symptom, the reaction is the same: my body is sabotaging me.

I came to Ironman as a New Year’s resolution as 2016 heaved itself shut: a January 1st proclamation that this would be my year, dammit: I was going to stare down the seemingly impossible task of an Ironman and take it on. I self-coached myself most of the way save for some sage advice from more experienced athletes and racers, didn’t have a bike until four months before the race (if you’re wondering, four hour rides on a Peloton are as bad as they sound), and I knew NOTHING about nutrition.  I just ate and drank whatever I felt like before, during, and after workouts, and when Ironman Louisville arrived, the das was nearly perfect day for racing. The temperatures hovered in the high 50s and low 60s all day and humidity was reasonably low, which meant that having an imperfect fueling plan wasn’t a problem. I drank decently well on the bike, took a few gels on the run, and made it to the finish line unscathed. Unscathed enough, in fact, that I decided that I should do this triathlon stuff WAY MORE.

Heading into 2018, my second year in the sport, I was ready to get serious.  I started regimenting and tracking all of my fueling to better dial in what I should be consuming during my key sessions and races. Starting with the skeletons from Louisville, I used the exact same products and came up with a plan for my 70.3s in the season ahead. At the risk of ruining the suspense, many of my nutrition decisions resulted in disaster for 2018. Through some trial and error, however, I went into 2019 with lessons learned and trials tried, resulting in two successful days out from a fueling perspective. How did I get there? Let's wind back the clock.

Raleigh 70.3 

2018's first race was Raleigh 70.3 which is sadly no more. I trained from November through the race in early June, so I had A LOT of basement time built up which I was ready to spend on the race course. Here's how I torpedoed my own race:

Pre-Race
60g Carbs
3500mg Sodium
40oz Liquid
16oz Iced Coffee

Race

Bike
180g Carbs
3600mg Sodium
60oz Fluid

Run
50g Carbs
50mg Sodium
6oz Water

Raleigh was HOT! 90 degrees and 90% humidity. I have not had the best history with hot races, so I was trying to get ahead of my sodium. Way ahead. You'll note the 3.5 GRAMS of sodium I consumed before the race alone. My stomach was already swirling before the race started, not happy with all of the salt-preloading that I tried to do. I got into a tricky spot where I was dying of thirst but my bike bottles tasted extra salty and burned my throat, so I couldn’t get as much fluid as I needed, and then ended up very dehydrated despite my efforts. Further, the lack of fluid made it impossible to get the carbohydrates into my bloodstream, so I felt weak for most of the run. My goal was breaking five hours and I ended up racing around a 5:30. When I crossed the finish line, my entire black kit was tie dyed with salt stains.

I reviewed the race with my coach and we agreed that I should get more carbs, less salt, and the same amount of fluid. I experimented with some new products on my long bricks over the next six weeks, and arrived at Muncie 70.3 with a new plan.

Muncie 70.3

Pre-Race
100g Carbs
1500mg Sodium
40oz Fluid
8oz Hot Coffee

Race

Bike
240g Carbs
1400mg Sodium
72oz Fluid

Run
50g Carbs
50mg Sodium
12oz Water

Another hot one! We cut sodium in half and nearly doubled the carbs and got...the identical results. It was much easier to get my bike bottles down the hatch but when I got to the run, it felt like my body wasn’t able to put the carbs to good use and my body started to shut down. On mile 8 of the run, I was walking. In five previous marathons, I had never walked on the course, so that told me that something was materially wrong. After the race, my coach and I were a bit stumped.  All of the numbers were in line with what I should have needed, and represented a marked change from the last race. We turned our focus to pre-race nutrition, and I started working with the Core Diet team to better understand what I should be eating and drinking.

For my last race of 2018, Lake Placid 70.3, I went in with the express goal of enjoying myself. Two disappointing burnouts left me feeling blasé about performance, and I just wanted to enjoy the day. I committed to another new nutrition protocol, but it was not the focus of my performance.

Lake Placid 70.3 

Pre-Race
200g Carbs
1500mg Sodium
40oz Fluid
NO COFFEE

Race

Bike 
125g Carbs
1500mg Sodium
30oz Fluid

Run
24g Carbs
50g Sodium
6oz Water

The low, low temperatures of the day meant that I was sweating way less than normal, so I barely made it through one-and-a-half bike bottles out of the three I was carrying AND I still had to pee in T2, but I had an excellent race. I PR’d the run and the overall, posting 5:01 and change. Obviously the colder weather had an impact, but I was able to produce a really promising performance taking in much less fuel than I had in the previous events.

My final race of 2018 was the Chicago Marathon in October. The weather was peculiar, with temperatures in the low 60s but humidity was near 100%. The air was more spreadable than butter. Absorbing my lessons from the previous races, I went with the following:

Chicago Marathon

Pre-Race
180g Carbs
600mg Sodium
40oz Fluid

Race
120g Carbs
600mg Sodium
16oz Fluid

For this race, I took almost all of my calories in through gels, and my stomach was not pleased. I’m sure it had also adjusted to absorbing most of the fuel BEFORE the run, so by mile 22 my stomach explained to me in certain terms that it would not tolerate ANYTHING, even water, for the rest of the run. I held strong, only losing :10-:15 per mile in the end, but I crossed the line feeling totally depleted.  I had to relearn  the lesson, apparently: too many carbs and not enough fluid or sodium to carry them into the body.

2019

Coming into 2019, I continued to tinker. In early January, I ran a half-marathon time trial to assess my fitness level. It was freezing cold (thanks, Chicago!), and I ran 1:26:30, a three minute PR, with the following formula:

Pre-"Race"
150g Carbs
1200mg Sodium
40oz Fluid

Race
50g Carbs
100g Sodium
2oz Water

The pre-race meal was substantial and consumed well before the workout, but I took in very little, especially fluid, during the run itself. My major takeaway here is that my body is well-equipped to absorb substantial fuel, including some fat and fiber, before a race but does not necessarily need a huge feed during the event itself!

Oceanside 70.3 

Oceanside 70.3 was my first real test of the year. I was coming off of a really strong training block, and my coach laid out a plan. We agreed to try to incrementally bump up the in-race fuel and keep the pre-race fuel the same. In practice, this meant drinking through two bottles on the bike, and using each aid station to grab and chug as much of a gatorade bottle as I could during the aid stop, tossing it at the end. 

Pre-Race
200g Carbs
1500mg Sodium
40oz Fluid
75mg Caffeine (in pill format)

Bike
125g Carbs
1200mg Sodium
40oz Fluid
3 Long Chugs of Gatorade Endurance at each aid station

Run
40g Carbs
150g Sodium
16oz Fluid

The results? HUGE PR! Swim PR. Run PR. Overall PR.  Good good good good, and virtually no GI distress throughout the entire event.  

So, why should you care? There’s a very small chance that following this exact protocol will give you the same results that it did for me. The reason I wrote this piece was just to share how my thinking evolved as I continued to notch more and more races. I not only understood what the numbers needed to be but how my body reacted to them and what is unique about the way that my body processes fuel. This is, in many ways, a euphemism for almost every part of triathlon. Even the most experienced coach needs time, data, and feedback to understand how YOUR individual body will react key sessions, rest, and racing. When it comes to nutrition, be a student of your success and failure.  Keep track of what you did. Make incremental changes. Keep improving. The big failures are devastating, but the highs are so, so high.  

PS—for the sake of civility, I left all of the product names and full nutritional spec out of this piece. If you are curious about what I experimented with, please leave a comment and I will gladly share in more detail.