When it comes to tipping the scales in your favor on race day, the secret ingredients that people try can be extreme. Some athletes become almost like monks and keep conversations to single-word mumbles leading up to their biggest races of the year. Others thrive on surrounding themselves with energy of the event. Just take a gander at some of the most popular coffee shops on Ali’i Drive in Kona during the days leading up to the Ironman World Championship. Some people do drop-dead tapers with almost no training the final seven to 10 days before their race of the year, while the other half can be seen doing world-record sprints just a few days before the gun goes off, in the hopes of topping up the fitness tank.
While there are endless rhythms and mantras that can help you gain the final few percent you are searching for, here are my top five secrets and quirks that I used going into the day of the year where I didn’t want to look back with any regrets. They helped me toe the line with no doubts that I had covered everything I could possibly employ to win. Some are common knowledge, some a bit quirky. And they might just do the trick for you.
You can find this mood-elevating compound just about everywhere. Caffeine is the rallying point for the majority of group ride start lines. The local bike-friendly coffee shop is the last place to juice up with a double shot of something loaded with caffeine before you go out and try to become this week’s champion of the local ride. But it’s important to understand how caffeine figures into the bigger picture of your highest-priority race at the end of the year.
It’s a stimulant. It gets you going, more than you would likely go without it. Caffeine releases free fatty acids into your bloodstream, which enables you to access more of your stored fat for fuel than you would have been able to without it. This can increase your pace and power output at any given heart rate. That is a plus during the bulk of your training sessions.
But nothing is free. Caffeine also affects your adrenal system, drawing out some of the energy you have stored in there. Your adrenal system is like your reserve battery. It’s what enables you to sustain high levels of output to race fast, run from a hungry tiger or deal with just about any kind of stress that crosses your path. But it can only do that if there is enough reserve in there to respond.
When you train with caffeine (by drinking a few cups of coffee before a workout for example) the stimulant enables you to go just a bit harder than you would have gone without it. Over time that little bit extra can add up to also causing more fatigue than you would have built up if you had not train with it. It draws from the stored energy in the adrenal system. In extreme cases, people get to the point where they become exhausted and can’t sleep soundly. They might have one day where they feel superhuman but then feel like a truck ran them over them for a week after that.
In the short term, the fatty acid releasing effect of caffeine wears off after about three hours. At that point you are actually less able to access stored fat than if you had not had the caffeine. Then at the end of the day, when it’s time to sleep, the caffeine can also keep you from getting as much deep REM sleep as you would have had without it, even if you last drank a cup of coffee or tea in the morning.
Here’s how caffeine can be your ace in the hole come race day: Cut out all caffeine about three weeks before your biggest “A” race of the year. Yes, three weeks. It’s not for the rest of your life, but be ready for what will happen. If you are a solid caffeine drinker, the first three days after you stop won’t be that pleasant. You can have a nagging headache, feel exhausted and have an overwhelming desire to sleep. The best way to overcome all of this is to get up and train right away in the morning. That generally helps to set your system into action. Then, if possible, take a nap during the afternoon. It can be best to start this untethering process on a weekend when you can actually begin to get the deeper sleep that you’ve been missing.
The good news is that after those first three days you will start to feel yourself again and usually even better! A key element is that your sleep at night will get deeper and deeper. Three weeks before a big race is the perfect time to do this, because it coincides with your taper anyway and you won’t be calling on your body to go that extra yard anymore.
The break from caffeine will help your adrenal system charge up, which is something that will help you on race day. Without caffeine your body remembers how to bring its energy up on its own, which is another skill that will serve you very well when you start to get tired during the race. You will rally quicker. Then, if you like, have some coffee on race morning. Even a small amount will give you the benefits you associate with drinking it: elevated mood, feeling like you want to go for it and a real physiological benefit from the free fatty acid release. Just keep in mind that after about three hours that last effect starts to wane, so you may want to have something with a bit of caffeine in it during the race if it’s a long one like an Ironman.
We tend to focus on the positive effects of our vices. Research has demonstrated a reduction in cardiovascular disease from low to moderate alcohol intake. The hero of this seems to be red wine, which has flavonoids and antioxidants that can reduce heart disease risk. But just like caffeine, some other effects are not as useful.
One of the main issues is that recent research suggests that alcohol slows your muscle repair and rebuilding process post-workout. There are a few reasons for this: One is that alcohol messes with your sleep patterns, reducing the amount of time you spend in the phase of sleep where human growth hormone (HGH) is released. Remember your recovery physiology? You train in the day, then at night, while in deep sleep, your body releases HGH, which is essential to stimulate the rebuilding and repairing of muscles used during your day’s training. Without good sleep you just don’t have the same recovery rate. Alcohol consumption can reduce the body’s release of HGH by as much as 70 percent.
A second reason to keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum or at zero is what happens in the liver. A huge part of your internal machinery that helps you adapt to training and gain fitness has to do with your liver being able to devote all of its energies toward recovery, rebuilding and replenishing. Alcohol competes for those functions in your liver. The end result is that fitness gains get slowed. Wine and beer are better than hard alcohol if you must. Drinking hard liquor is often much more taxing on your liver because of the concentration of alcohol.
Another issue is that alcohol causes the release of a compound in your liver that inhibits testosterone production. If you are 25 years old and have all the testosterone in the world, this may be a non-issue. However, if you are over the magic age of about 35, testosterone is going to be in shorter and shorter supply naturally. Alcohol makes that even tougher to get.
Alcohol can also wreak havoc on your cells’ water balance, which has the effect of reducing your ability to produce ATP. Have you ever felt tired and out of energy after a hefty night letting loose? Could be that your cells just don’t have their energy production up to snuff.
Another negative is that alcohol reduces your body’s ability to handle heat. So if you are going to be competing in a hot race, drinking alcohol close to the event will set you at a disadvantage with respect to being able to tolerate and deal with the heat when compared to your competitors who chose to give it up in advance of the big day.
Last but not least, alcohol gets converted into a form of fat that is not very metabolically active. The type of fat that endurance athletes have a lot of is a metabolically active form called brown fat. Babies have a lot of it. Endurance athletes have a lot of it. Alcohol doesn’t find its way to the brown fat pathway. It goes directly to the belly-fat pathway. So if you are hoping to be lean and mean on race day, an IPA may not be your best friend.
Do you hate me yet? The bottom line on alcohol is that it’s going to be just like caffeine. There are prices to pay for the day-to-day enjoyment of both. In the end it becomes a choice of what the gains might be for what you would forgo. Can you race well without giving up either? Of course! Would a period of abstaining from both give you an extra advantage? Very likely.
Most athletes are already dialed into how sugar affects the body. Even small amounts can trigger insulin to be released, which in simplest terms sets up instability in your blood chemistry. You need carbs to restock the glycogen stores that get depleted from training. However, the best sources to do that are going to be low- to moderate-glycemic foods. One of the toughest things about Ironman racing is keeping your blood chemistry steady. When blood glucose gets low, you can’t concentrate, your muscles stop responding to what you want them to do, and eventually your blood glucose can dip so low that you have to dramatically reduce your pace because energy is just not getting produced fast enough to keep up.
The more time you spend with stable blood sugar levels throughout your training season the better off you will be in your race. This is not to say that getting low on blood sugar in training is necessarily a bad thing. That can actually train your body to access stored fat more efficiently. But what you want to avoid are blood sugar highs that come from eating high-glycemic foods. These are foods that are likely to cause your body to release insulin in large amounts. Refined sugars, grains without their fiber, white pastas and yes, alcohol, can cause insulin to release. Stick to carb sources that still have their fiber and are in their original form, like fruits rather than fruit juices, whole grain products rather than processed grains, beans and lentils.
Another huge reason to keep sweets and simple sugars to a minimum before the race is that on race day you will be relying solely on sports drinks and energy products that are sweet. You do not want to tire your system out from having that source—save it for race day.
Samson and Delilah.
Most myths have a deep root in the reality of human impact. The Biblical story of Samson and Delilah is no exception. For those unfamiliar with the tale, Samson was a man of extraordinary physical strength whom the rulers of the Philistines wanted to overpower. Delilah was a woman that he fell in love with in the Valley of Sorek. The rulers of Philistine offered Delilah a fortune if she could figure out how to weaken Samson. Over time his secret was revealed. If his hair was cut he could be subdued. And so it went. Delilah put him to sleep and then called for his hair to be shaved. With his strength gone, he could not fight off the Philistines, who shackled him and made him perform at their whim.
So what the heck does this have to do with you and your Ironman? Cutting your hair and nails close to your race can weaken your body’s overall energy levels. It’s subtle but it’s real. Best advice on this is to get that prerace haircut at least two weeks before your event. Cut your nails at that time as well. Whatever you do more frequently won’t make a big different (shaving legs, shaving your face, etc.), but the big ones like a haircut or nails are best to do well in advance of your event.
Before 1989 I always went to Kona with a full head of hair and figured I’d get it cut a day or two before the race so that I’d be cooler. From 1982 to 1988 I did that. I never won the Ironman in Hawaii during those years. Finally before the race in 1989 I was alerted to this subtle element of performance. That year I cut my hair and nails three weeks out from the race. That ended up being the first year I won. Was this the critical element? Probably not. But it did become part of my planning in the next five Ironman races that I did in Kona and ended up winning!
Salt, Magnesium and Everything Else You Eat.
On race day there are a few things that you will have control over that can help you out. One is pace. How fast you should go is an entire topic all its own. But in an Ironman there should be a part of you that feels like you are holding back until you get to within about 10 miles from the finish of the marathon. At that point, if there is fuel in the tank, let it rip. Another thing is going to be the nutrition you take in. Your calorie plan should be developed over months in your training.
The final piece of the nutrition plan is your electrolyte strategy. All the calories in the world won’t help you if your muscles are depleted of precious electrolytes. The two main ones that are necessary for a top-level performance are sodium and magnesium. Sodium is easy for your body to stash away and to replace in the race. You can “sodium load” just like you can store up on carbohydrates in those final three days before your race. Eat foods that you like to add salt to and do so (unless you have hypertension issues). Then in the race, target getting roughly 350 mg per hour of sodium, especially after the first few hours of racing. That will help you to keep your energy levels up. If you are replacing fluids and calories but still not feeling an effect, try taking a salt tablet. If that is the issue you will come around in a matter of minutes.
Magnesium is not as easy to replenish. It gets depleted through sweating in training and in the race and can only be replaced to optimal levels over time. It is a daily need that must be attended to through your diet. Foods that are high in magnesium are dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, avocados and dark chocolate. Eat plenty of these foods on a daily basis so that your magnesium levels will be where they need to be on race day.
There you go: my top-five super-secret ingredients to Ironman success. Don’t tell anyone.
This first appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of LAVA. Get your issue here.
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