Eating Like an Ironman

Jay Hewitt shares how he balances the nutritional demands of the Ironman triathlon in a race and workouts, as well as his daily life.

| Apr 30, 2009

What do you eat in a 140 mile Ironman triathlon?  I get that question a lot. It's been said that the Ironman race is 10% fitness, and 90% nutrition. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but for those of us with diabetes, that's our daily life.  Nutrition affects everything we do. Exercise, sleep, driving a car, all of those activities require a person with diabetes to think about the carbohydrates they have consumed and when they will eat or drink them again

The demands of the Ironman triathlon take nutrition to another level, but I'd like to tell you how I balance it in a race and workouts, as well as daily life.  In a 10 hour Ironman race I burn approximately 11,000 calories.  I consume only about 2,500 calories, mostly from liquids, gels, and sport bars, all on the go.  There's no stopping for a sub sandwich in the Ironman.  I know from experience and lab testing at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute that I need between 60 and 80 grams of carbohydrate, 250-300 calories, per hour during the race. Any more and I risk stomach upset and hyperglycemia; any less and I will slow down (bonk) or worse, get hypoglycemia. It's a delicate balancing act to stay disciplined to my nutrition plan during the middle of an intense competition, when the body is severely stressed and the mind can get distracted.

For me, food is fuel.  It powers my body on and off the racecourse. Think of it that way and you are less tempted to clog your engine with junk food, greasy fast food, processed foods, fat and sugar. This is true for the elite athlete and the working mom and dad who just want to exercise to lose weight and be healthy. I always eat before I workout. A few grams of carbohydrate depending on your body weight before that 30 minute or 1-hour exercise will give you the fuel you need.  I also consume carbohydrates immediately after exercise to help my body recover-a sport drink, banana, or a healthy sport bar. I make sure not to eat or drink junk calories and ruin the good work I just did.

Off the race course, I am not a fanatical athlete who weighs my portions and counts every calorie.  I eat a healthy mix of fresh vegetables, steamed or baked, not coated in creams and butter. Fish, chicken, or lean meat are usually a part of my meal for protein. I don't eat fried or greasy food, I try to eat meat that's grilled or baked in light but tasty sauces. Because of my training demands, I eat a lot of pasta, but again, not coated in fat and heavy cream. I also love salads and fruit. I do not count carbs or do food exchanges. I generally know from experience how a serving of each item will affect my blood sugar and I set my Omnipod insulin pump accordingly. I check my blood sugar several times in the hours before and after a meal just to make sure I got it right.  If necessary, I bolus with insulin or supplement with a few carbs.  The key is to check your blood sugar frequently, and eat a fairly consistent diet with a variety of tasty foods you know and trust.

Most people think I can eat whatever I want because I workout so much, which is probably true, but I am also meticulous about checking my blood sugar 6 to 8 times a day.  The great reward of exercising is being able to eat when you are hungry, and even enjoy occasional treats for your hard work. I love chocolate and bacon. I also love Mexican and Italian cuisine. Knowing you burned 500 calories on a one-hour power walk in your neighborhood allows you to have a meal you couldn't have had if you sat at your desk or on your sofa all day.

Move more, eat less.  That's a pretty easy motto to follow.  But you don't have to eat less if you just eat well. That will get you to your finish line.  Now, I need to workout so I can have that piece of chocolate...

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Categories: Beginners, Blood Sugar, Diabetes, Diabetes, Diets, Exercise, Food, Insulin, Insulin Pumps, Jay Hewitt, Losing weight


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