"The power of my engine is never an issue, but it needs the right fuel to work!"

The ironman Hawaii isn’t just extremely challenging physically and psychologically, but also in relation to the management and planning of nutrition. These challenges already begin in the days leading up to the race during the event preparation phase, as eating and drinking in a foreign country requires a well thought out strategy. Climatic conditions such as the extreme heat in Kona make the competition even tougher, and strongly influence the nutritional tactics during the most spectacular long distance event in the world. In an exclusive interview the freshly crowned Ironman champion Sebastian Kienle gives us an insight into his personal nutrition strategy in Hawaii.

Corinne: In the days leading up to the race a well-tested nutrition strategy is essential for the optimal preparation. Were you able to follow your typical eating and drinking habits in Hawaii?  

Sebastian: To make sure a certain routine can be followed, a professional athlete should not just concentrate on the food that is easily digested, but also available in every country and supermarket in the days leading up to the event. Among my favourite foods are pasta (not wholemeal), and turkey, as both are generally always available. I purposely bought water in the supermarket to allow for consistent water quality and hygiene. However, in most Hawaiian shops you can only buy distilled water. This can be problematic for athletes, especially in the heat, as this lacks the important minerals. Therefore I always dissolved 5Electrolytes tabs in the water so that I could start the event with sufficient electrolytes in my system.

Corinne: Did you use additional salt tablets before or during the race?

Sebastian: No, that isn’t necessary. My gels and sports drinks have plenty of salt in them already. Muscle cramps aren’t usually due to a lack of salt, but more a result of the extreme demand on the muscle, which then shuts down.

Corinne: How did the evening before the race look?

Sebastian: At 6pm I had dinner with my girlfriend and my coach in a relaxed atmosphere. We had pasta with tomato sauce and turkey, mineral water and half a glass of red wine to help me sleep. It gets dark pretty early in Kona, which made my 8pm bedtime easier; I already had to get up at 3am again.

Corinne: In the last hours before a race many athletes get nervous, which can often affect their stomach. How about you?

Sebastian: My routine is especially important but so too is the support of my girlfriend and coach help me to be less nervous. In the evening, before I go to bed I prepare my traditional breakfast so that I don’t have to run around hectically in the morning – up to now that has always worked well.

Corinne: What does your traditional breakfast look like?

Sebastian: It has to be easy to digest and taste good. 3 slices of white toast with sugar beet syrup, 1 Energize Wafer, 2 cups of black coffee and approx. half a litre of water. That doesn’t sound like a lot of liquid, but you need to remember that I’m not a camel. Too much liquid in one go isn’t good, therefore it is more important to try and achieve a good fluid balance in the days leading up to the event.

Corinne:  ‘Ready, focused, and not too nervous’ is your mantra for the last minutes before the race. How did you put that into practice in Kona?

Sebastian: During my 20-minute warm-up run I listened to aggressive music to really get myself pumped up. This is followed by the swim-specific warm up, then I get changed into my race gear and apply suntan lotion. During this preparation I drank 0.75 litres of Isoactive and ate another Energize wafer. These just taste good and contain the right mix of carbohydrate. Bananas are always difficult, as they have to have the optimal level of ripeness to contain the quickly available carbohydrates. That is just a little bit too complicated for me. Just before the start I did a 10-minute warm-up swim and then we set off.   

Corinne: A particular challenge in Kona, in addition to the salty water, are the many waves in the Pacific ocean. Did you employ a particular tactic during the swim?

Sebastian: Swallowing water with all that salt in it isn’t a very good idea. It was therefore important to consciously keep my head high above the water when trying to orientate myself. As soon as I got out of the water I rinsed my mouth with clear water, then I had few sips and started with the feeding. 

Corinne: What exactly did your nutrition strategy on the bike look like?

Sebastian: It’s really important to immediately begin feeding, as you mustn’t forget that the last energy consumption was over 1 hour ago. I prefer solid food so that I’ve got something to chew on, and my stomach can settle. As a result I have relatively slow beginning splits during the bike, as the first turn around indicates it’s time for a snack. In my bike bento box I had 1.5 Energize Wafers cut into 5 pieces, and 1.5 Energize bars cut into 6 identical pieces. I cut the Energize bar whilst in the wrapper so that I can easily squeeze them out. During the first 40km I ate the bits of the bar and had a small amount to drink with them until the box was empty. There are athletes that eat dried fruit, but I find it too much hard work to chew on a dried apricot for 5 minutes so that it’s small enough for me to be able to digest it properly.

In total I always have 4 full bottles on the bike. One bottle with Isoactive sports drink, one bottle with Isomax sports drink containing caffeine, and 2 bottles full of gels mixed with a little bit of water. Each gel bottle contains 12 Powergels. It’s a colourful mixture of liquid Powergels Hydro and normal Powergels. In total there are always 4 Hydromax gels with 100mg caffeine each. I think a consistent level of caffeine in my bloodstream is important, therefore I always switch between the bottle containing caffeine and the one containing Isoactive. At the different feed stations I also take coke, water and sports drinks at different feeding stations, so that I probably consumed approx. 7.2 litres of liquid in total. My carbohydrate intake is likely around the 90g recommended per hour, consisting of an even mix of fructose and glucose sources. Put succinctly, my engine is always powerful enough, but it needs the right fuel!

Corinne: Do you also follow a sophisticated sports nutrition strategy during the run?

Sebastian: I always keep 2 Powergels with caffeine in my race number belt. Additionally I carry one gel without caffeine in my hand, which I take just before the first feed station. It’s important to not forget that most feed stations have 200mL cups that are only ¾ full. Quite a bit also gets lost because it spills out of the cup during the run. As a result I always make sure I slow down for feed stations and take several cups.

Corinne: What are your tips for an Ironman Hawaii or other long distance events?

Sebastian: The room for error between race and nutrition strategy in Hawaii is very small, and doesn’t allow for any mistakes. The increased fluid demand has to be taken into account. In addition, it probably takes 30 minutes longer to complete the distance compared to, for example, the IRONMAN Frankfurt, and as such the energy delivery needs to be adjusted accordingly. Never use gels during a race that you haven’t tried out in training beforehand.  If there is no tried and tested sports nutrition available during a competition, I can recommend opting for cups of coke instead. Almost everyone has tried coke, and it is usually tolerated well.

Sebi, many thanks for your time and the interesting insights.

All the best and success for your future. 

© Corinne Mäder, European Sport Nutrition Manager PowerBar, Certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN), Personal Trainer und Ernährungsberaterin

PowerBar® Nutrition Blog - science & practice, Oktober 2014

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