There’s nothing quite like being in the middle of an adventure and completely running out of gas. Not just figuratively speaking, but literally, nothing left inside the tank. Not only do your legs feel hollow but your arms feel heavy. Your gaze is blank and your mind, well, it’s in trouble too. Maybe you’ve even stopped sweating, and if so then we have to act quickly.
How Did We Get Here?
Like most athletes, you are probably focused on the task at hand. Solving terrain challenges or anticipating the competition. Perhaps you were fixated on the weather or intermediate goals that you set along the way. Maybe you are already outside of your wheelhouse, as this was a stretch of that for you.
Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same. You’re nowhere near the finish line, but your personal finish line is right around the corner if you don’t solve the problem. What should you do?
Always Have a Strategy
Problems like this don’t happen if you have a nutritional strategy. Not one that you go to on the morning of the events, but one that you wrote out at least 12 weeks before you started final preparation training. Why so early, you ask? Because you need to practice it. Practicing your nutrition plan burns it into your muscle memory. You begin to associate fueling times with metrics outside of hunger and thirst. Perhaps you have a timer on your bike that goes off every 5 miles. Over time you will learn that that’s a great opportunity for you to drink as well. Perhaps there is a time in your watch that goes off on the hour. Perfect opportunity to consume some salt or maybe stop for a quick stretch break.
Just as importantly, focusing on your nutrition early on to see the opportunity to learn what does and doesn’t work. That would’ve been really helpful to know now, wouldn’t it? Before you dug this hole? Because nobody knows they are digging a hole until they’re at the bottom of the hole. It’s much better to learn that in training when you have many resources at your disposal to fix them unlike right now. Yes, I know this does you no good, but it’s still important to put out there.
Fluids are the most critical part of your race nutrition plan. They are what help you moderate your temperature and facilitate digestion.
Fluids instantly bring notice to your body that calories and hydration are on their way. Even this neural signal can have a benefit on performance. But not just any fluid will do. Make sure you have access to a drink that has critical electrolytes and some calories in it.
We don’t want liquids to be our only source of calories but we also don’t want to just drink water. Yes, water is one of the building blocks of life but on race day as our system becomes more and more stressed our ability to process water effectively is reduced.
Our body begins to push water away, directing it outside of the body because it’s not as easy to absorb as a drink with electrolytes. If you have nothing else, have a sip of the water. Otherwise plain water is often best used for staying cool, rinsing your mouth, or washing away an impromptu bathroom break (yes, I just said that).
When you’re experiencing a caloric deficit your body is under stress and so too is your mind. Coming across a station or place where you can refuel is a massive sense of relief. But you also have this looming field of desperation. The desperation you just had overwhelming you prior to this moment.
It’s that desperation that will lead you to over consume at this moment. Eating too much at this juncture will feel good at first but will quickly become a problem. Your system goes from low-calorie to all-calorie and it’s quite a shock. You will be unable to move at your prior paces because your gut is now dominating the energy agenda.
Instead of making that mistake, take all the things you can reasonably carry. Worst case scenario you don’t need it. In the best case scenario, you have something that you can give to another athlete who was in trouble just like you were moments ago.
Keep It Simple
Whether it’s an aid station or an emergency bag of your own design, there’s likely some food in there that you love to eat. Maybe it’s a peanut butter cup. Or some kind of sandwich. Maybe it’s a Big Mac. Whatever it is that is in there right now you have to avoid it.
Remember this is just reentry, and we have to start slowly.
Just like Indiana Jones and the Temple of doom when he had to pick the true relic, you two need to pick the true calories that will help you get back on track. Something simple, easy for you to digest is really important. It could be something as simple as a cup of Coke from any station. Perhaps you have half an energy gel. Whatever it is, start small and then give it 15 to 20 minutes to see how you feel. Nothing says you have to eat the whole bar or the whole sandwich in a single go.
Put some calories into your system and then see how your body responds. If things look good, you can continue biting the rest. There’s no rush at this moment because solving this problem is the first step to getting back to regular speed. Applying speed to the solution to every nutrition problem will only cause issues.
Getting Back on Track
Hopefully, by now you’re back moving again and feeling much better. It’s still important that you keep 20% of your attention directed towards nutrition. You are now riding the knife’s edge between a performance you can be proud of and one where you end up broken and walking home.