The First Leg: Is Honey Water Holy Water for Triathlon Success?
I called Sigma Human Performance founder Benjamin Stone in the middle of a break as he built “metabolic fitness” schedules for his clients. He was watching one of his favorite movies on TV, the first of the Disney “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Stone has seen it countless times and can practically quote it on demand. His favorite sequence?
Will Turner: “…In a fair fight, I’d kill you.”
Jack Sparrow: “Well then that doesn’t give me much incentive to fight fair, does it?”
I can relate. I’ve tried for years to “fight fair” when it comes to race-day nutrition. That has meant dutifully eating the same steady stream of bars, gels and sports drinks that everyone else seems to be consuming. Some races have been better than others, and over the years I’ve learned I can sustain my performance while eating less than I thought possible.
Now, Stone and Sigma’s registered dietician, Katie Rhodes, are asking me to essentially think like Sparrow and try something a little more…unconventional.
Or is it Winnie the Pooh whom they want me to emulate? After all, they’re talking about eating nothing but honey.
Both Stone and Rhodes swear by pure honey as a natural nutrition source because of its high glucose and fructose count. Stone told me he races endurance events such as the Leadville 100 consuming nothing but water and honey along with an electrolyte drink filled with potassium and sodium. “Honey is freakin’ perfect,” Stone said with his Matt McConnaughey-esque accent. “It’s the most perfect source of energy. It’s a lock and key fit for your body. You’ll start to feel somewhere between less like god, but more than man.”
At the end of my initial piece on working with a sports nutritionist to create a custom meal plan for the next few months, I wrote that Ironman 70.3 Boulder would serve as the first progress report on my new training and racing nutrition regimen. (Full disclosure: I’m paying for the $199/month nutrition plan with my own funds but at a discounted rate.) In the days leading up to the race a few weeks ago, I was in the process of shifting my eating habits to include a greater emphasis on non-starchy vegetables, including several I’ve avoided eating in the past, as well as mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (e.g., avocado, variety of nuts). When I wasn’t turning my office desk into an organic farm storefront, I was gulping down nearly 80 ounces of water a day – and peeing. A lot.
How did my new habits affect me on race day? I achieved a PR at the Ironman 70.3 distance by 25 minutes and miraculously earned my first trip to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships early next month.
I’d say Sigma and I passed our first exam.
Granted, the Boulder course is fast, but it’s also warm and at 5,430 feet above sea level. So I’m concluding that proper nutrition planning had something to do with the day’s success.
Here’s a look at what I ate and drank on the course, along with approximately when.
Typically I’ll eat a bowl of oatmeal (with honey and nut butter) the morning of a race, roughly 1.5 hours before my wave begins. Rhodes suggested I ease back on the portion and eat it an extra half-hour early. I also consumed a full bottle of Fluid Performance drink starting two hours before race time. In addition, I ate a Gu Roctane gel approximately 15 minutes prior to the swim – I was a little hungry and it’s a race morning ritual that I wasn’t quite ready to ditch.
After a personal-best swim, I felt energized for my bike ride. Here is where my normal eating routine changed the most. Instead of eating another gel or bar right away and another full bar an hour in, Rhodes wanted me to drink nothing but water for the next 30-60 minutes. She said it’s not necessary to consume carbohydrate for energy within that window because the body is using its own glycogen stores for energy. “Your body has a storehouse to store glucose when it is needed on the fly but that is depleted around the 60-90 minute mark if you have fueled right the morning of the race and days before,” Rhodes noted.
After that milestone, Rhodes advised me to ingest 45-60g carbohydrate per hour as that’s what’s needed to provide cells with enough energy to keep going strong. To accomplish that, it’s best to consume high glycemic foods (e.g., electrolyte drinks, skinless fruit, white bagels) due to them being quickly absorbed by the body and thus enter the metabolism. Fiber, fat and protein should be used in minimal amounts at best because each slows absorption of glucose and can cause gastrointestinal stress since more energy is required for digestion. When that happens, “your body is essentially competing for fuel for digestion versus energy for activity,” Rhodes said. Not good.
To reach the 45-60g carbohydrate goal through the race’s second hour, I had added several tablespoons’ worth of honey to my electrolyte drink. That got me close to the desired total, and a Honey Stinger waffle (zero protein) got me the rest of the way there. For the final hour of the ride I drank more honey electrolyte water and downed about half a Bonk Breaker. Since I was new to this eating regimen, I didn’t want to go completely without my old stand-by foods. Still, I did not exceed my carb goal.
The result? A personal-best by 12 minutes. Again, it’s a fast course, but as I prepped in T2 for the run I felt really good. In fact, my teammate asked me how I was doing when he saw me heading out on the run course and I yelled something positively unprintable here. I’m not used to acting that spirited in a 70.3-distance event. I was indeed feeling more-than man-like.
My eating strategy – or lack thereof – on the half marathon was also uncharted territory. Usually I’ll consume at least two gels roughly at the 45 minute mark and another 30 minutes later. Stone refers to gels as being like 85 octane gas (due to the maltodextrin that slows digestion) – it’s OK fuel but if you can put in 91 grade why would you choose anything else? He and Rhodes advised me to stick with nothing but honey and water, snapping open a packet of honey every 15 minutes while gulping water at each aid station. Two things happened. First, I got frustrated opening the honey packets with sweaty, sunblock-slick hands. Pro-tip: Either pour honey packets into small bottles (mixed with water) like Hammer gel flasks, or cut the edge of each honey packet pre-race so you have a grip point to tear. I’ve recently seen honey packets you can literally crack open like activating a road flare, so that may be a better choice. Second, this was the first time I finished a Ironman70.3 half-marathon without stopping or even walking the aid stations. No cramps either, despite the warm weather. Less than two months prior at Ironman 70.3 Boise, I didn’t make it through the first mile without significant leg cramping, and I wound up walking the entire course.
The only area for improvement would be that fatigue set in around mile 10 and my pace slowed somewhat. While I was largely consistent across the entire half-marathon, perhaps I should have added more honey, a gel, or some cola around mile 8 to aid in the final stretch. Stone and Rhodes suggested salt and possibly dried bananas as an alternate fuel source too.
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After only a couple weeks changing my diet I’ve noticed energy and performance boosts. I’m fighting the proverbial fair fight, though if you had predicted my race results beforehand I’d have thought that maybe somehow I gained a Sparrow-like unfair advantage to do it. The next big fight is the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in blazing hot Las Vegas. That will require a new nutrition strategy altogether. More on that in my next dispatch.