Racing weight is a term a lot of endurance athletes are familiar with. It is based on the premise that racing at a lower body weight will improve sports performance and achieve faster times.
Because of this principle, many endurance athletes frequently find themselves restricting their food intake in the hopes of getting leaner to achieve peak performance.
Thankfully, current sports nutrition evidence demonstrates that food’s true benefit lies in what we need to add and not so much in what needs to be subtracted.
These are the main reasons why achieving a racing weight shouldn’t be your top priority:
This one shocked me. For years we’ve been told that leaner and lighter athletes achieve better results than their heavier counterparts. However, no data demonstrate that getting an athlete to drop weight and fat ahead of the competition is beneficial. In other words, Joe at 60kg performs better than Peter at 65 kilograms, but nothing is demonstrating that asking Peter to aim for a racing weight 5kg lighter will improve his sports performance.
There is, however, plenty of evidence demonstrating the harmful impact energy restriction has on performance and health.
This is achieved by either reducing energy intake, increasing energy expenditure or both. However, restricting energy intake can put the athlete at risk of developing energy deficiency, ultimately significantly compromising their performance.
Someone concerned with looking after their weight is less likely to do carb-loading, include nutrition during long training sessions and prioritise recovery after training. As a consequence, they are missing meaningful opportunities for supporting training adaptations and getting the most out of training.
Often, racing weight goals don't consider the athlete’s body composition, bodyweight fluctuations, and overall individual circumstances, making these goals very unrealistic.
Additionally, restricting calories does not always translate into weight loss. Your body’s priority is survival. When energy is missing, it conducts adaptations to preserve energy. Therefore, you are constantly tired and cranky, craving high-calorie foods and struggling to perform at the expected level.
Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is a severe problem. Consequences include impairments of metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis and cardiovascular health. In addition, weight-loss attempts and desire to be leaner are risk factors for RED-S.
Health (left) and performance (right) consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) Source: IOC consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update
What can you do instead?
I’m not saying that weight loss can’t happen. What I’m saying is that it needs to stop being your focus. Fuelling your body right, getting quality training sessions and prioritising your body’s overall recovery and ability to support the training adaptations will bring you better results than keeping a close eye on the scale.
I love the way Jesse Thomas talks about this after overcoming an eating disorder that put his career and life at risk. “Don’t aim for a number on the scale. Aim for consistently healthy habits (...) If you eat consistently healthy, sleep well, and get your workouts in, your body will adjust to the appropriate weight, and that is your ideal race weight.”
Mountjoy, M., Sundgot-Borgen, J., Burke, L., Ackerman, K. E., Blauwet, C., Constantini, N., ... & Budgett, R. (2018). International Olympic Committee (IOC) consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S): 2018 update. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 28(4), 316-331.
Tomiyama, A. J., Ahlstrom, B., & Mann, T. (2013). Long‐term effects of dieting: Is weight loss related to health?. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(12), 861-877.
Hicks, L. (2020, July 29). For young female athletes, losing weight may not improve performance. Retrieved from https://www.science.org/content/article/young-female-athletes-losing-weight-may-not-improve-performance
Tornberg, Å. B., Melin, A., Koivula, F. M., Johansson, A., Skouby, S., Faber, J., & Sjödin, A. (2017). Reduced neuromuscular performance in amenorrheic elite endurance athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 49(12), 2478-2485.
The Ironman 70.3 is an endurance event with an approximate duration of 4 to 7 hours. Your body undergoes a constant effort, so physical and mental preparation are vital to achieving a successful result. In addition to proper training, nutrition plays a fundamental role in this physical preparation. Whether this is the first time you will compete at this distance or already have accumulated experience, mastering your nutrition strategy for an Ironman 70.3 will help you achieve the best outcome.
Properly executed carbohydrate loading is essential, and its positive impact on performance during long-distance events such as an Ironman 70.3 is well-proven. However, there are particular guidelines you need to follow to ensure you maximise your fuel stores without compromising your gut comfort.
For an event such as the half ironman, the carb-loading needs to start 36 to 48 hours before the competition. This means that if your race is on Sunday, your carb-loading should start Friday and continue through Saturday.
Carbohydrates should be the priority for your meals. The trick is increasing carbohydrates without significantly increasing fat or fibre since this can cause stomach upset.
An intake of 7 to 10 g of carbohydrate/kg of body weight is recommended. This means that if you’re a 70 kg athlete, you should be having 490-700 g of carbohydrate per day.
Protein and fat intake should remain the same and, if possible, decrease a little bit.
“Thanks for the numbers, Gaby, but I don’t want to count grams for everything I eat”… alright, alright… here are some practical tips:
Split your meals into three main meals and three snacks. In each of these, make sure you’re having high carbohydrate foods (fruits, rice, pasta, bread, wraps, oats, etc.).
Adding energy-dense options such as sugar, jam, or honey to your meals helps increase your carb intake.
Drinks are pretty helpful as well. During these days, you can have a glass of juice or sugar-sweetened tea and have some Gatorade/Powerade throughout the day.
Try having 1 to 2 extra serves of carbohydrates per meal (i.e. if you usually eat half a cup of rice, try having a full cup).
This is an example of what your day would look like
Well done! You completed your carb-load with success, but this is just the beginning… Today is the day! Breakfast is vital for your nutrition to ensure you start your Ironman 70.3 with your fuel tank full (you’ll need it, trust me).
Eat your breakfast 2 to 4 hours before the race. The advantage of triathlons (I see it as an advantage) is that usually 2 hours before the race starts, you need to be in transition getting all your gear ready, so the chances of being awake 3 hours before your start are relatively high… take advantage of it! I usually suggest that my clients have breakfast as soon as they wake up; that way, you have enough time for processing your breakfast.
Don’t, I repeat, DON’T eat something you’re not used to. Make sure you try your breakfast before with training.
The guidelines suggest having 1 to 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilo of body weight. So if you’re 70 kg, you’ll be having 70-280g 2 to 4 hours before the event.
Avoid fat intake as much as possible and keep your fibre intake low.
Have you heard this expression before? In Mexico, we sometimes say “se me acabó el Gansito” which translates to something like “I ran out of Twinkies”! And yes, it precisely means that you run out of fuel. You have your fat stores, but the body can’t burn these stores as quickly as it burns carbs, so performance starts decreasing significantly. To avoid this, it is necessary to include carbohydrate consumption during the race, and the recommendation is to have 30-90 g of carbohydrate per hour.
There is an excellent range of products you can have, such as gels, jelly beans, and high carbohydrate bars. If you have the talent and inclination, you can also make your snacks with bread, honey, jam or dried fruit. I usually recommend getting pre-packaged products as I find them easier to carry, but that’s your own choice. As long as you get your carbs in, there’s no big deal. Sports drinks are also beneficial since they help you stay hydrated and carb-ed at the same time.
Here’s a table with high-carbohydrate foods that can help you plan your nutrition for your Ironman 70.3:
|Option||Serving size||Grams of carb|
|Dried cranberries||20 pieces||15g|
|Sports beans||1 package||25g|
|Honey stinger waffle||1||21g|
Congratulations! You crossed that finish line. What a tremendous accomplishment after all those hours of effort, not only during the race but during training as well… Well done! But guess what? Your race is not over yet, at least not nutritionally speaking. Recovery is essential! (No, I don’t mean beer.) Even though you executed your carb load, you had a great breakfast, and you topped up your carbs during the race, your body is running on empty, and you must recover those nutrients ASAP.
After such a considerable effort, you often don’t feel that hungry, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat – it’s the opposite! This is when your body is ready to get those nutrients and send them straight to your muscles so they can recover properly. So take advantage of what is offered to you at the recovery zone, eat that fruit, drink the choc-milk and gobble down a sandwich or an energy bar.
Just as you need the right nutrition for an Ironman 70.3, hydration is critical. Losing as little as 2% of your body weight in water can significantly negatively impact your performance, so make sure you drink water before, during, and after your race.
Caffeine intake has been shown to impact athletes’ performances positively. Therefore, having your breakfast with a strong cup of coffee with sugar/honey (carbs!) could be beneficial. Of course, this is without even mentioning the other great benefit of having coffee in the morning.
Don’t try anything new during the race. This is very important. Make sure you try all that I’ve mentioned before during training to know how your body reacts to it.
More is not always better. Yes, 60 grams of carbohydrate can help you perform better, but this doesn’t mean that 120 grams will give you superpowers… don’t do it! Your gut has an absorption tolerance of ~60 grams of glucose per hour, so having more than this increases your chances of having gastrointestinal discomfort.
Do you have any questions? Would you like to share your experience with me? I would love to hear it! firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck at your race!
Cermak, Naomi M., and Luc JC van Loon. “The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid.” Sports Medicine 43.11 (2013): 1139-1155.
Higgins, Simon, Chad R. Straight, and Richard D. Lewis. “The Effects of Pre exercise Caffeinated Coffee Ingestion on Endurance Performance: An Evidence-Based Review.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 26.3 (2016): 221-239.
Jeukendrup, Asker E. “Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling.” Journal of sports sciences 29.sup1 (2011): S91-S99.
Rankin, Janet Walberg. “Dietary Carbohydrate as an Ergogenic Aid for Prolonged and Brief Competitions in Sport.” IJSNEM 5 (1995).
I’ve been a dietitian for more than nine years. During this time, I’ve been a strong advocate for nutrition and how this can make a significant positive impact on endurance athletes’ sports performance and health. In addition, being a triathlete has helped me understand the main struggles endurance athletes face when it comes to improving their nutrition.
Information overload. Everybody seems to have an opinion on the best diet to follow, the new magical supplement and the #1 food you should avoid.
Constant body battle. Your body refuses to change despite how much you train or look after what you eat.
You are going nowhere. It feels like you are barely improving. You are often cranky, lacking energy and unable to bring out your best self.
Understanding how to use nutrition to your advantage is fundamental to unlocking your true potential. The following are key principles I have identified as paramount to maximise your performance and move your results from average to outstanding.
Fad diets are not sports nutrition
A common mistake I see is thinking that nutrition is a quick fix. Unfortunately, I know many people wasting time and energy finding that ‘magical supplement’ or following a trendy diet hoping it will be the solution to all their problems.
As much as we all would love a quick fix, unfortunately, that is not the case. Fuelling your core is all about getting your foundations right. Ensuring your diet has all essential nutrients that you are consistently fuelling throughout the day and paying attention to hunger and fullness cues.
Your nutrition needs to include all essential nutrients in your diet, so your body has the vital tools it needs to work as efficiently as possible and put up with the endurance demands. Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients your body needs daily. When one of these nutrients lacks, the body needs to make adjustments that can ultimately create imbalances.
Diets advising against consuming any of these nutrients are likely to be unsustainable and to put both your health and performance at risk.
Burning calories is part of the activity, not the purpose
The ultimate purpose of your training sessions is to provoke a physiological adaptation that eventually will lead to improved performance. This is because your systems receive different stimuli depending on the type of training, and your body adapts in different ways. Ultimately, the idea is that you can perform the same effort faster, better or easier next time.
It turns out that nutrients and energy are critical for each step along the path. Your body needs the energy to complete that training session, but it also needs nutrients for those adaptations to occur.
Fuelling your endurance means ensuring that you can commence your training sessions feeling energised, maintain your energy levels throughout the session and optimise your recovery and performance adaptations afterwards.
A frequent error I see athletes making is underestimating their training sessions. They often think the session won’t be as hard or long, so eating before or during is unnecessary. However, even if you can complete your sessions in a fasted state, many athletes would likely benefit from consuming energy beforehand.
Another essential thing to keep in mind is the importance of prioritising post-workout recovery. Right after your training session, your body becomes very efficient at absorbing essential nutrients that will replenish your fuel stores and repair your muscles. So in the first hour after your training session, remember the following: Refuel, repair and rehydrate.
“Do not try anything new on race day” is a saying known by most athletes. As important as I think this is, I believe most people do not adequately implement this phrase. Just because you ate an energy gel while running and nothing happened, it doesn’t mean that having five while running a marathon will go as smoothly. Therefore, it is important to try things the way you intend to do them during the event.
Doing this will help you decide if what you are planning is truly going to work or if some adjustments need to get made BEFORE completely ruining a race and months of preparation for it.
Fuelling your performance is all about feeling confident at the start line, knowing you have a successful plan to ensure you will feel energised during the event. As a result, the likelihood of gut issues is low and you will be crossing that finish line feeling strong.
This principle took me the longest to understand, mainly because they don’t teach this at uni. Nutrition and sports units teach you about nutrients, pathways and systems for endurance athletes but rarely about the influence food has on mood and its cultural and social implications. All this seems secondary and irrelevant.
I thought that what was pulling me towards eating certain foods was weakness and lack of willpower. I used to think that maybe I didn’t want it bad enough. Today I understand that food is more than energy and fuel; food is connection, family, joy. Having a truly healthy and balanced diet also means embracing and accepting these other components of food.