May 25, 2017 8 min read

I wanted to follow on from the article Caroline Steffen wrote about what she had learnt working with Darryl Griffiths and how making a few simple changes to your nutrition plan can make such a big difference. I also want to assist other athletes in finding ways of improving and pass on the knowledge that I have gained over a very short period of time. I am very glad that I made the effort to make contact with Darryl, which was back in February of 2013, as I have no doubt that it fast tracked my understanding of how to plan a nutrition strategy based on my own needs and be able to adapt that strategy to the changing environmental conditions that I compete in.

As a heads up there’s no substitute for working hard, finding the training sessions that work best for you and being consistent, because no matter how good your nutrition strategy is if you haven’t done the work you won’t realise your true potential.

My story kind of starts off not unlike Caroline’s in that I made contact with Darryl after meeting him down at a race in Geelong, this was my fourth Half Ironman distance race, so still quite new with lots to learn. Having made the step up from Olympic Distance racing I recognised very quickly that getting my nutrition plan dialed in was going to be imperative. No matter whom you speak to, the overwhelming response to someone not having a good race is – I didn’t get my nutrition right; it worked fine last time but not this time. So how do you get your nutrition right and ensure that you have consistency every time you compete?

First and foremost you have to have an understanding of what you are losing most of and Darryl made this very clear right from the beginning. Without having an understanding of your sweat rate in different conditions, the sodium concentration of that sweat and your calorie expenditure per hour you are just guessing. I went about gathering that information and quickly learnt what my likely losses would be based on the conditions I was doing the testing in. Lets start with calorie expenditure, as most of you will have a heart rate monitoring device that will provide calorie expenditure.

This is not something I took much notice of prior to working with Darryl but once I started taking more notice you soon realise the importance of this number. Obviously the more power you put down, the more energy (calories) you are going to expend and with Triathlon it’s all about finding that perfect mix of power and efficiency so you can ride a fast bike time but not bury yourself that you risk not having enough energy in reserve for the run.

I typically burn anywhere between 1100 – 1300 calories per hour for the 90km bike. Armed with this number I now needed to find out how many calories my stomach could tolerate per hour. This was done during my key training sessions on the bike where Darryl would recommend I trial a Shotz Energy Gel every 30 minutes, which provided 234 calories per hour. This seemed very manageable so my next session I trialed 1 Shotz Energy Gel every 25 minutes, which provided 290 calories per hour. This amount brought me closer to my overall calorie expenditure but I felt I could get closer. After testing and finding the limit of what my stomach can tolerate I now consume 1 Shotz Energy Gel every 20 minutes, which provides 350 calories per hour.

This amount of calories is now set for me and it’s the amount I consume every time I compete in a half ironman. Given such high calorie expenditure per hour I want to make sure I’m bridging the gap between how many calories I am expending per hour and how many calories my stomach can tolerate per hour. It’s really quite simple and makes so much sense when you have someone explain it to you in easy to understand terms. As you can see there is still quite a big gap of around 750 – 950 calories per hour that’s not being replaced but that is sports nutrition right there, it’s replacing as much as your stomach can tolerate in an attempt to minimise percentage of loss.

I’m not saying every athlete should consume the same 350 calories per hour that I do. The amount of calories you require will be based on your calorie expenditure per hour and the amount of calories your stomach can tolerate per hour.

Start taking note of the numbers you collect when out training as you will see a pattern forming, which you can utilise to address your individual needs. These numbers, whether it be heart rate or wattage, will allow you to learn the intensity you can hold during the bike leg so you can stay controlled and run well off the bike.

It’s then a matter of fueling the body because no matter how good your fat burning capabilities are; there will be a gap (some more than others) between your calorie expenditure and the amount of calories your stomach can tolerate. Then there’s this other very important element to endurance racing – hydration.

Hydration is where Darryl sets himself apart from anyone in the sports nutrition industry and his own research into this area is one of the reasons my results have been so consistent over the past couple of years. It’s the separation of calories from my hydration that allows me to customise my hydration strategy to suit my unique requirements and adapt that strategy to suit the varying conditions that I compete in. Why this is not mainstream thinking when it comes to sports nutrition is mindboggling. If you remove the calories from your drink and separate your hydration it allows you to alter the volume of fluid you require based on the conditions you are experiencing at the time. I found out through practice that 350 calories per hour works best for me and regardless of the weather conditions I will consume this amount whether it’s 3 degrees or 33 degrees. I’m still pushing out similar amounts of power and my calorie expenditure does not alter that much despite the changing weather conditions. What does change is the amount I sweat and this is dictated by the weather conditions at the time and as my sweat rate changes it also alters the amount of sodium that I am losing. I never have the same hydration strategy for every race because my requirements for fluid will change from race to race.

Having done a sweat test with Darryl to learn what my sweat rate and sodium concentration in sweat is and having learnt how these numbers change based on the environmental conditions has allowed me to learn to set a hydration strategy for each race I compete in. By not relying on any calories in my drink I can alter the amount of fluid I consume so I’m not drinking too much when it’s cool conditions and potentially compromise the stomach, but make sure I am drinking enough to minimise percentage of loss in warmer conditions. During the earlier days working with Darryl he would never set a hydration strategy for me until we knew what the weather conditions were going to be and over time I have learnt to adjust my hydration strategy based on the likely conditions and not be forced into drinking a volume of fluid that doesn’t suit me in those conditions.

A good example of why you should seriously think about separating your calories from your hydration is a race I competed at down in Busselton in May. I had competed in some cold conditions previously, but nothing this cold. Fortunately Darryl was at this race and we discussed my nutrition strategy for the following day while out for a ride. This is how it went.

OK Sam, your calorie intake stays the same so 1 gel every 20 minutes to give you 350 calories per hour. Now it’s looking like 3 – 5 degrees in the morning and unlikely to get much more than 8 – 10 degrees by the end of the bike, so your need for fluid won’t be that critical, remember you only need to drink based on what you are losing and the amount of sweat and the accumulative loss of sodium is likely to be low in these cold conditions. You may only need a few hundred mls per hour but make that call out there, as you don’t want to compromise the stomach by taking on too much fluid. Keep an eye on the athletes around you and take note of how often they grab for a drink and whether they are accessing calories from other sources. You can use this information  for the run leg, because I doubt they are going to be consuming anywhere near the amount of calories you will be. Those athletes relying on calories from their drink will find it somewhat difficult in these conditions as they will have two options, to be forced to drink a set volume of fluid to access the calories, which is likely to be more than they need given the cold conditions and potentially compromise the stomach, or not drink much at all purely because they won’t feel like drinking and not access the calories they need to ensure they minimise percentage of loss prior to the run leg. Does that all make sense? Good luck and have fun!

It makes perfect sense and having followed this simple strategy for nearly three years makes me wonder why every athlete isn’t doing it. I wasn’t surprised to see Felicity Sheedy-Ryan win the women’s race that day knowing she also works with Darryl. I felt I had a distinct advantage going into the race that day knowing I could access all the calories I needed, without having to consume large volumes of fluid. Every race I go into now I can be confident that I have a nutrition plan for all types of weather conditions. When competing on cooler days I will only take two bottles of water with two Shotz Electrolyte Tablets in each bottle, on warmer days when my sweat rate and accumulative loss of sodium will be higher I will take three bottles with three Shotz Electrolyte Tablets in each bottle. I can consume the same amount of calories each time but I am able to customise and adjust the volume of fluid I am drinking to suit what I need in changing environmental conditions. This allows me to limit the possibility of experiencing stomach problems (which I have experienced in the past), it allows me to make changes during the race if need be and allows me to minimise percentage of loss in hotter conditions.

If you are still relying on calories in your drink and still guessing when it comes to planning a nutrition strategy I hope that this information gets you thinking a bit more about how important it is to know your own numbers and how important is to know your own stomach’s limitations.

To learn more about what I have been doing when it comes to planning a nutrition strategy grab Darryl’s book – Sweat. Think. Go Faster

See you at a race soon!