I recently wrote an article for Amrita on fueling for the long haul (you should go read it, I worked kinda hard on it. Also, maybe pick up some bars...plant based, all good stuff in them). When asked to write an article on fueling it's tough not to write a novel. Since starting this sport in 2007 as a way to keep healthy and keep my weight under control, I feel like I deserve a BA in triathlon. I've learned so much and I've experimented so much. I've sought out experts advice and I've still failed, even while following it. The truth is YOU possess the tools to figure out YOU. It's on you to know yourself because when your race goes south, blaming an article on gatoraid.com for your nutrition mistakes isn't going to net you much. I put the following quote in the article and this little nugget has really stuck with me!
“Learning isn't acquiring knowledge so much as it is trimming information that has already been acquired.”
In todays day and age, the acquiring knowledge portion of experimentation is easy. Spend a night performing various Google searches and reading articles and you will have more than enough nutrition guidelines to get going. Keep scouring the net, and you are going to get information overload really soon.
So, then comes the question. You've got some information, you've got some nutrition products sitting on your counter...now what?!
Here's how to do the "trimming information" portion of experimenting, the finding out what doesn't work part:
1. Pick 2 training sessions every week for 6 weeks that focus on nutrition testing. These sessions are not the ones where you stop and eat a Snickers at the quickie mart (because you can't carry Snickers on race day because they melt...I've tried). One of these should be your long ride, and hopefully you have a run off the bike here. You will know how your nutrition is going to work for sure with 60 minutes running off the bike, so make sure you have two of those in the 6 week testing period.
Your second session should have race pace intensity in it. Now, remember, sometimes the experimentation phase isn't the ideal training you should be doing, but if you don't nail down your nutrition, who cares how well you were trained. You gotta dot all your "i"s and cross all your "t"s.
So now you have 12 workouts, 6 long bikes with increasing runs off them, and 6 sessions with race intensity.
2.) Write it down. You've got some "acquired knowledge" right? You did some google searches and you got a general idea of what might work. You know that you can't have 30 calories an hour and that you can't have 700. You think maybe you should have 200, maybe 300, maybe 100. Pick what you think might work and write down your plan on paper. Decide what you are going to eat and drink each and every hour. Set out a plan of attack.
One caveat here: don't make it complicated. I had one athlete that was using like 6 different products on her training efforts. It was a little of this and a little of that. She was mixing different brands of products and it was just a huge mess. Keep it simple. Have a product in your bottles, have an edible product or two in your pockets. Have one salt/electrolyte product if you feel you need that. That's it. As a personal example: Osmo in my bottles, Amrita bar and honey stinger chomps in my pockets. That's it. The experimentation is all about concentration of my bottles, and when I eat what. It could just as easily be First Endurance in my bottles, and picky bars and GU gels in my pocket. Or Perform in my bottles, and Power Bar blasts and gels in my pocket. I'm not saying this to endorse other products, but more to make a point that you just need to pick something.
3.) Go train. And guess what, follow your plan until disaster happens. In other words don't go rogue. Don't have the Snickers Bar at the quickie mart...don't do it. But do write in your log afterwards that you were craving a Snickers Bar at the quickie mart, because that's important information. Stick to what you are testing and if you said you are going to drink 27oz per hour, then drink 27 oz per hour. Do this plan for both nutrition testing sessions of the week because nutrition is likely to go south in one of two instances: when you go long OR when you go fast (or both...ouch!).
4.) Assess and analyze on paper along the way. Write everything down. If you had GI distress or you puked, you either put down too many calories, or your calories were too concentrated in your fluid. So change your plan to take less or dilute them more. If your watts or pace trailed off into oblivion along the way or your run off the bike lacked any energy and you were weak-sauce, then you probably need more calories, or more fluid, or more electrolytes, or more of all three. OR, you were going too hard and you need to slow down.
Decide which of these things went wrong and adjust your plan. Write down the new plan and you are ready for next week.
The overall point here is: pick something and work it until it works. If after 6 weeks if you still aren't there, pick a different brand and start over or adjust...change the Picky bars to Amrita bars, or change the Amrita pars to Power Bars. Adjust, but use YOUR experiences, not others and give your initial products a decent chance at working.
5.) After 6 weeks of this process, I promise you that you will be 90% there, or you will be 100% sure what doesn't work. And guess what, you won't have to wait until race day to find that out! If you did not go rogue, if you really stuck to doing the plan and then assessing afterwards, 6 weeks later you will have made serious progress.
So, why aren't people really doing this? I will tell you this. The good ones are. The good ones are doing a little reading, a little research, they are keeping their thumb on the pulse of the nutrition industry, but for ever hour they spend researching, they are doing 20 hours of personal research. Once you have a working plan that only needs minor fine tuning, it's very easy to ignore the mass of articles and dribble out there that constantly is being spewed forth (like this one...CRAP...abort abort...stop reading...go riding).
I think in this sport, a lot of people just want to go out there and train. They just want to shut off the brain, and use the training for fun and stress relief, to feed their ego. A lot of people are out there hammering away the personal issues they are having in life. And for those types, often times, race day is where they have to face the true consequences of those decisions. It's reactive training, not proactive training. I think it was Brett Sutton that tweeted, "we only train to be faster on race day" (but probably with more typos). Think about that one.
The people at the top...they are proactively training. They are experimenting often because they are in the sport to learn more about their limits, or more about how limitless their limits really are. That type of training means constant, calculated, and reflective experimentation. It's getting out of your head, away from your issues, and onto the task at hand.