Saturday, 6 July 2013

I am not only an Ironman, I am a metabolic efficient Ironman

It's no secret that since completing my first triathlon two years ago I had Ironman on my mind. This is my 3rd season as a triathlete and after finishing a few half-ironman distances and a 3/4 ironman last year I was ready to tackle my first Ironman in 2013. There are many races to choose from but Ironman Austria has a reputation for being one of the best in the world in terms of organisation and the beauty of the course. I also thought that even if I decide that Ironman is not for me I would have completed a great race. Well, I can’t see that happening and I am already planning another one for late next year!

The main thing I want to discuss in this blog is my ironman nutrition, one of the things you need to nail for Ironman or risk bonking during the race or losing valuable time in the portable toilets.

A few months ago I was introduced by a US friend, Harvey, to the concept of metabolic efficiency (ME hereafter) developed by American dietician Bob Seebohar. The idea behind ME is that you manipulate your daily nutrition with the aim of maintaining blood sugar levels and reducing insulin spikes, thus making your body more efficient at burning its own fat stores and as a result allowing athletes to have a reduced need to take in calories during training and racing. The idea can seem a bit daunting at first, to imagine that you'll be taking in less calories especially during races such as Ironman, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made to me. The human body is only capable of storing a very limited amount of glycogen in the liver and muscles, and there is only so much carbohydrates that your gut can tolerate per hour. Now when it comes to fat, even the skinniest of the top elite athletes have enough to keep going, in theory, for days on end. For me, with a genetic problem of high sugar blood levels at a young age, ME provided an escape route from the high carbohydrate/sugar diet that the majority of athletes follow.

In 'Nutrition Periodization for Athletes', Seebohar explains in simple terms how to achieve metabolic efficiency. The concept involves moderating carbohydrate/sugar consumption when training volume and intensity is reduced and depending on the athlete, sport and number of competitions, possibly even during the competition season. When blood sugar is high from eating a high carbohydrate/low fat diet, insulin levels will increase which will inhibit the breakdown of fat. It is really as simple as controlling your blood sugar to teach your body to burn more fat and preserve carbohydrate stores. There is NO need to starve yourself. A typical ME meal or snack is composed of high quality protein, fat and fibre. This combination, according to Seebohar, has a blood stabilising effect and therefore keeps you fuller for longer and able to turn your body into a fat burning machine. Seebohar also supports the idea of missing your target and eating what you like 10% of the time.

Prior to the start of my Ironman training I spent some weeks minimising carbohydrate consumption and developing my ME. I love cooking, so for me it was fantastic coming up with lots of new recipes for the whole family to enjoy. What I can report from following Seebohar’s ME concept is that my cravings for sugar reduced tremendously, my ME meals and snacks normally kept me full for 3 to 4 hours and sometimes more. Even more encouraging was the result of my recent fasting blood test which showed a great improvement and although I did not lose any weight with Ironman training (not that I tried), I look a lot leaner. Now every time I eat I always ask myself: Am I hungry? Where is my fat/protein and where is my fibre? And of course I miss the target within the 10% recommendation without any feeling of guilt; I just enjoy it and move on. It is amazing as well to go out and train without using any form of sports nutrition; it has saved me a fortune.

The training for Ironman Austria went reasonably well, I didn’t miss many sessions and I listened to my body when it needed rest and managed to keep injuries at bay. The hardest part of Ironman training is the frequency of workouts and at times it got to me especially in the base period when it was still very cold in the UK. A week of training normally comprised 4 rides, 3 runs, 2/3 swims, core strengthening exercises & weight training. From this you can see that if you want a day off a week then you will be doing a lot of days with 2 sessions. With work, sleep, house chores and some time for my young family you can imagine that there isn’t much time for anything else. It was hard on my family even though I tried to get up super early to do my sessions, particularly for the really long bike rides.

I decided to drive to Austria as I didn’t fancy any airline messing about with my lovely bike and I also chose to stay in an apartment in Klagenfurt as I needed to prepare my ME meals, with the ME concept there is no need to carb-load (i.e. 8/10g per day per kg of bodyweight) for three days; in actual fact I went really low carb till Thursday, and as I hardly trained on Fri and Sat I ate just enough carbs to top up my carbs stores but still kept my insulin spikes very low. I ate a bit of couscous and oats and my pre-race evening meal was roasted sweet potato wedges, tuna and mayo, two boiled eggs, and some full fat Greek yogurt with blueberries as dessert.

The race started at 7am so it meant a 4am breakfast for me, luckily my apartment was only 10min from the start. Breakfast was a smoothie prepared with milk, frozen strawberries, whey protein, banana, Greek yogurt and a sachet of Generation UCAN corn starch sports drink. This year it was Ironman Austria’s 15th anniversary and there was an early wave start for the pros and fast age groupers and 15 minutes later for the rest. I figured out that since the faster people were going first I would try my chances with the rest of the group positioning myself at the front of the swim, a tactic that I believe worked to my advantage. I got kicked and slapped a few times but managed to draft behind faster swimmers than myself. My goal was to try getting to the last 900m in the narrow canal as soon as possible and just draft thereafter. I was hoping to swim 3.8k in under 1h20 and I managed it in 1h13, so a great start to my day. Transition 1 also went smoothly in under 6 minutes.

The bike course consisted of two loops of 56 miles, it had some very challenging hills but you were rewarded with long descents and absolutely stunning views, on one side was the beautiful lake and the other the beautiful mountains. I had heard stories of people going too eager on the bike portion than having to walk the marathon so I decided to pace myself with the help of my Quarq power meter, I had set myself a budget of watts I didn’t want to exceed and I stuck to that as much as I could with smooth pedalling, high cadence and staying seated up hills. After all I am no machine and miracles don’t happen on a race that long, pacing was the key. The first lap went in a flash; the locals provide great support in the various villages. By the second lap you really start to feel like you are working harder, your back and neck start to hurt from staying in the aero position. But I pushed on and managed to be just over a minute slower than the first lap. A well paced 112 miles bike ride in 6h06 with no punctures or mechanical issues. Transition 2 was quick as well in just over 5 minutes. For the bike portion I was fuelled by Generation UCAN, Nakd bars, water and salt sticks.

The run course consisted of two loops around Klagenfurt. I had planned to aim for 9min/miles from the start and wait until the end to try breaking the 4 hour marathon mark, but I settled for around 8.40 from the start as it felt natural and easy. My new favourite running shoes, Skechers GORun2 worked a treat, as they made me run light and easy, with quicker cadence. I set my watch to beep at each mile and they were very consistent as I went. ME was working well and I felt I could run like that for a long time. With each mile ticking over I overtook many competitors who had been reduced to walking and it felt awesome. Around mile 22 it got steadily harder but I fought to keep the same pace and I got a massive boost seeing my wife and daughters cheering me on the course. By mile 24 I knew I had Ironman in the bag and just had to keep myself emotionally composed. With one mile to go I had nothing to lose and recorded my fastest mile of the day with 8.11. On the approach to the red carpet I slowed right down to enjoy the moment and the awesome crowd support: Rodrigo You Are an Ironman. I loved it. A few tears were shed once I crossed the line, after 6 months of training it was a very special moment. I finished the race in 11h15 with a great marathon time of 3h44. To think that only five years ago I finished my first solo marathon in 4h22 and now I am running sub 4hr at the end of my first Ironman. I have come a long way especially as I am no genetic freak, improvements have come from hard work and keeping myself injury free. During the run I consumed, Generation UCAN which I left at the special needs tent, one regular gel, Pepsi, water and salt sticks. I exceeded my expectations on the day and haven’t stopped smiling since.

Back to nutrition, the advice I regularly see for Ironman is to consume anything between 300 to 500 calories an hour, with my finishing time that would have meant 3375 to 5625 calories. With ME, I consumed about 160 calories per hour with a total of 1800 calories, I didn’t bonk, I didn’t have any dark patches and I didn’t suffer any GI distress. I also saved a lot of time by not stopping at the various aid stations, I ate every hour and consumed water and salt sticks at the half hour mark more or less. I’m pleased to say metabolic efficiency is here to stay!
I would especially like to thank my coach, Vic Ulfik, for getting me in the best shape for my first Ironman. Vic is an experienced athlete himself and has the qualifications and know-how to get the best out of each of his athletes. He has helped me with open water swimming, bike building and fitting, half Ironman training and now with my first Ironman. So a big thank you to Vic!
I also want to thank my club mate and swim coach Alex Fry aka The Fish for getting me to swim bilaterally early in the year, it made a massive difference to my stroke without a doubt.
Thank you as well to Mark Kleanthous, the Ironmate, for his company on many of my long rides and runs. Mark has done over 30 Ironman races, doubles and triples, there is no way you won’t pick up a tip or two by training with him, his website is full of great advice and tips.
And the most important thank you of all goes to my beautiful wife and daughters for supporting me on this journey and tolerating my absence during the training. It’s a lot more special for me to have shared my journey with your company.
Well, what’s next for me? My next A race for 2013 is the Abingdon marathon in Oct. But having tasted the beauty of ultra-running last year I also have a 55-mile trail Ultra in Sep which will allow me to qualify to run my first 100-miles ultra next May, the Thames Path 100.
My main tips for a wannabe Ironman:

  • ·         Get yourself metabolicly efficient, read Bob Seebohar’s book, check his website and follow his blog.
  • ·         Invest in a power meter, if you learn how to use the data effectively it will give better rewards than a some sexy new racing wheels. This book covers everything you need to know about power meters.
  • ·         Budget for Ironman, it can get expensive. Book your accommodation as soon as you sign up!
  • ·         Get yourself a coach that is willing to pass his knowledge on to you. It doesn’t have to cost a bomb.
  • ·         Tell your family how much it means to you and how much time it’s going to consume.
  • ·         Have fun along the way, enjoy the journey!


  1. Brilliant post!! Congratulations on becoming an ironman after so much dedicated training and wow!! What an amazing time and achievement!! Really interesting reading about the nutrition strategy you followed too. I agree that huge mourns of carbs aren't necessary - my nutritionist wasnt happy about my refusal of pasta, potatoes and rice for my marathon either but it goes to show that these aren't required for a successful race!! Congratulations again I your new ironman status!!!

  2. Great blog Rod. Some great advice and its well written. I can sense your pride well done and thanks for all the advice you have given me. You are a true Ironman.