Taking Your Nutrition on the Road
By Marni Sumbal
When thinking about “traveling nutrition,” it’s important to eat an adequate amount of energy-providing foods to meet the demands of your race. If you are traveling for a sprint triathlon, avoid a day full of carbo-loading in anticipation for a 60- or 75-minute race. In contrast, if you are traveling to a marathon or Ironman race, do not let the time pass by at the expo. If you forget to eat necessary, frequent snacks you will only find yourself overeating late at night.
It is most important that you focus on your pre-race meal two nights before a race – this is designated as your “carbo-loading” meal. The night before a race should include foods from your “carbo-loading” meal, but in less quantity. Often times, you can arrange to travel to a race the day before, and you can enjoy a home-cooked meal filled with your favorite low glycemic carbohydrates two nights prior to race day. Regardless of the distance of the race, if you plan to compete at an all-out intensity, proper digestion and absorption of food is critical for optimal performance.
As you are thinking about your travel details, remember that you are traveling to a race in order to put many weeks or months of training to the test. Do not think that you can buy new clothes, a new set of race wheels, new running shoes or a new swim suit and forget to eat! Participating in a triathlon or running event is simply daily training at a higher intensity. If you are concerned about your training nutrition you should be concerned about quality pre-race nutrition.
Focus on filling meals with an abundance of healthy complex carbohydrates, as the foundation of the meal, and low-fat protein to keep your blood sugar stabilized. Keep your meals around 350-500 calories and snacks around 150-250 calories. Smaller meals and regular snacking will ensure glycogen storage and plenty of fuel come race day. Most importantly, be sure to stay hydrated by drinking water at all meals and finishing a 20-24 ounce bottle of water every 2-4 hours during the two days before a race.
Planning Your Trip
While the price of paying for a race only crosses your mind for a split-second before clicking ‘register’ on the race website, the combined cost of hotels, food and gas can weigh heavily on your checking account. After planning out your racing schedule, it is equally as important to find affordable hotels as it is to find hotels with your desired amenities.
Don’t be surprised if the coffee, cold cereal and bagels are absent from the hotel breakfast nook as you are checking out of your hotel at 4:45 a.m. Aside from a few races that start later in the morning, skip the hotels that feature a continental breakfast since it probably won’t be open until after you leave for the race.
Plan to stay at a hotel that provides a refrigerator and a microwave. Although eating dinner in your hotel room may seem unappealing, look forward to not waiting for food, meals prepared the way you like them and a good night’s sleep without any worries that you ate too much!
When booking a hotel with a ‘fridge, you don’t have to worry about missing out on healthy refrigerated items such as yogurt, hard boiled eggs, string cheese, skim/soy milk or other must-have pre-race foods. Plan ahead by investing in a cooler or insulated lunch box for your trip. This will guarantee that you won’t let your blood sugar drop between meals. When you need to stretch your legs, pre-made sandwiches such as peanut butter and jelly, are ideal for road stops.
If you choose to eat out, look for a restaurant that offers healthy food in reasonable portions. Opt to use the microwave and fridge for your early-morning breakfast (ex. oatmeal) and plan ahead to find a restaurant to help you fuel for your race. Because most races occur on the weekends, bypass the heavy rush for dinner and plan to eat around 5:00 - 5:30 p.m. You may want to make a reservation to avoid a possible wait, but an early dinner guarantees proper digestion for your early evening bedtime. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions (ex. light on the cheese, vegetarian, salad or soup as a side, bread instead of French fries or no butter/oil) and check online menus ahead of time, so you arrive to the restaurant with your meal in mind.
As you are browsing the race website for race maps, start times and your competition (like you don’t want to know who is in your age group!), check out Google for restaurants, fast food and grocery stores. You will save yourself a lot of time, stress and gas by knowing the surrounding area and the food choices that are available.
If all else fails and you find yourself in a remote area with only fast food and a few restaurants, have a plan of action when picking the best pre-race meal on the road. Don’t let a race be the only reason to eat healthy when eating out. Use the following suggestions for healthy eating, anytime!
- Parfait - McDonalds makes for a great stop when on the road and in need of a snack. Avoid parfaits at grocery stores and gas stations, as they tend to be loaded with high-sugar yogurt and canned sugary fruit.
- Bars - Avoid bars with a heavy icy coating and keep bars around 120 - 200 calories.
- Fruit – Always wash before eating.
- Yogurt – Less than 120 calories, look in the refrigerated section of gas stations or in grocery stores.
- Trail mix – Avoid overeating and portion control by taking 1 handful out of the bag and limiting yourself to 1/2 - 1/3 cup servings every 2 hours.
- Side salad w/ dressing on the side - Watch out for onions, broccoli and garlic that may create GI upset. Ask for fat-free dressings on the side.
- Bread basket - Preferably whole wheat or rye bread or ask to hold the butter on the white rolls/breadsticks.
- Nuts - Often steakhouses provide peanuts at the dinner table that will stabilize blood sugar and prevent overeating.
- Soup – Avoid creamy, cheesy, meaty soups and choose a simple broth (vegetarian, chicken, tomato) with veggies and/or lean meat.
- Vegetarian burger – Ask for the burger to be grilled and not fried or cooked in heavy oil.
- Meat – Choose lean meat.
- Fish – Baked not fried. Hold the butter.
- Baked potato or sweet potato – Hold the toppings and ask for butter on the side.
- Pasta – Ask for lunch size portions rather than dinner size. Although you have a refrigerator for leftovers, you will have plenty of post-race foods at your race. Save money on a smaller portion and prevent going to bed stuffed because you tried to clear your plate.
- Pizza – After finishing two to three bread baskets, you will be happy you ordered thin crust rather than deep dish. Ask for light on the cheese, extra sauce (marinara/tomato) and plenty of lean meats or veggies.
- Wraps, burritos, soft tacos – Watch out for excessive sodium when eating at a Mexican restaurant. Opt for rice and veggies, and ask for no guacamole and sour cream. Limit the beans, cheese and salsa. For healthy options, ask for “fresco” when ordering your meal. Save the margarita for after the race.
- Subs – Hold the toppings (mayo, dressings) and stick with lean meat, lots of veggies, low-fat cheese (mozzarella, swiss) and a whole grain sub.
- Omelet, whole-grain pancakes – Check around for diners or restaurants that serve breakfast all day. You can find egg substitutes, sugar-free syrup, fresh fruit and many healthy choices, and you can find great deals without spending a lot of money.
As a final thought, the more you dine out, the more you increase your risk for food poisoning by eating contaminated food. Although salad bars and buffets are ideal for choosing your own foods, be aware of the sharing of utensils. While washing your hands seems like a no-brainer, think about your last race expo and how quick you were to take a bite of an energy bar after racking your bike. Hand sanitizers are convenient germ-killers, so give yourself a little squirt before and after pumping gas, making a rest stop, picking up your race packet or stopping for food. Although you may not be training for the Olympic Games or a world championship, every athlete should be cautious of what he/she is eating the week leading up to a big event!
Marni Sumbal holds a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology, is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and is certified in adult weight management by the American Dietetic Association. Marni is a Level I USAT coach and is currently pursuing a registered dietician degree. She is a Hammer sponsored athlete, 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship finisher and just finished her third IM, the Ford Ironman Louisville Triathlon on August 30, 2009, with PR of 10 hours and 54 minutes. Marni enjoys public speaking and writing. She has several published articles in Hammer Endurance News, Cosmo Girl and Triathlete Magazine, and contributes monthly to IronGirl.com and Beginnertriathlete.com. You can check out her blog at http://trimarni.blogspot.com.