Ironman Nutrition and Personal Bests


Michael, you made some changes in your approach to nutrition. Please share.

Starting last October, I changed my diet in hopes of becoming more metabolically efficient, meaning that I wanted to be better at utilizing fat for energy when swimming, biking, and running. The main change was to drastically reduce grains and refined carbs, like pasta, sugar, etc in my diet. I was still eating carbs but they were mostly from nuts, various beans and vegetables. And finally, I always tried to combine carbs with a protein and fat in about 1:1 carb to protein ratio. The main goal was to avoid food that would cause spikes in my blood glucose levels which would in turn cause an insulin spike.


I also eliminated all carbs while I was training during the winter. This was manageable because my training load was pretty low last fall. A typical weekend session would be a 2-4 hour bike ride with nothing but water. The intensity was low and only once or twice did I feel like I was on the verge of bonking. 


What influenced you to make these changes?


I didn't feel like I was performing in races like I should. I was making gains on the bike in FTP and you had me putting in a lot of really good quality work, but when it came to race day I was not performing. The bike power wasn't the main problem either, it was the run which is normally my strength. The first year we worked together 2013 I just chalked it up to the fact that I was getting much faster on the bike and putting down splits in races that I hadn't even been close to in the past. And I just figured that it would take me a while to adjust and get my run back. I did IM Louisville that summer and after a very good swim and good first 70 or 80 miles on the bike, I found myself almost soft pedaling the last part of the race and then of course walking most of the marathon. It was disappointing but I was determined to come back the next year and be much better.


Well, 2014 didn't go much better and in fact, was probably worse. Again, I made really good progress on the bike and we had my running (after being injured on and off for a couple of years) at a very high level. In March I ran a 1:21 half marathon -  a 3 min PR.  However, that summer I did a couple of half ironmans and neither went well. While my swim was generally good and bike was ok, my runs were a real struggle and 20 mins slower than they should have been.


The final straw was IM Chattanooga in September. Again, after a strong swim and ok bike, I was reduced to walking after only a few miles of the marathon. I don't know exactly how I did it but I managed to run a slower marathon in Chattanooga than I did the previous year in Louisville. This was absolutely a low point for me. I remember when you called to talk about the race and you tried to point out some positives and I stopped you cold as I was having none of it. To me there was nothing good  positive about an ironman that ends in a 5 hour marathon. Not only was I very disappointed but I was embarrassed.


It was at this point that I decided I had to change something. I wasn't quite sure what I needed to do but I knew I somehow had to address the energy issues I was having in races. I think my first inclination was to try a ton of long slow very aerobic exercise in the off season. Then I don't remember how exactly how I happened upon it, but somewhere in my research I came across metabolic efficiency and the idea that one could use fat to a much higher degree for energy even at higher intensities with the right training. And the key seemed to lie in diet changes much more so than actual training. So I decided to give it a try.


What type of changes did you see and feel with these nutrition changes?


One of the first things I did, even before changing my diet, was to a baseline metabolic efficiency (ME) test. I found a place in louisville that offered the testing and followed the protocol of Bob Seebohar. He has written several books on ME and how train your body to burn fat for energy during exercise. I did the test on a bike. The test consists of riding at progressively higher power levels while taking readings from respiration gases. The ratio of the gases determines how much energy is coming from carbs and how much is coming from fat. As I expected, the test showed that I was very good at burning carbs for energy. Even at very low intensities like 75 and 100 watts, close to 50% of my energy was coming from carbs. At 200 watts, which is my target IM watts, I was burning 800 calories an hour and 73% of those calories were coming from carbs. At 220 watts I was at 80% carbs. 


It's no wonder that I was continually running out of fuel in races and if I look back closely at my training log, I was in training as well. I've never been one to be able to stomach 300-400 calories an hour when biking and if I tried to get those calories from gels and drinks, I just ended up with what I felt like was a locked gut. But even if I was able to digest 300-400 cal/hr on the bike, I was still going to end up empty at the end of IM bike and certainly with not much left in the tank for a marathon. 


I followed the diet all fall and winter and well into the spring  of this year. I was continuing to do my long rides with no calories or very few calories and was feeling fine. I know we had some trouble jump starting the higher intensity bike workouts but if I remember correctly, they started to come around in February or March. 


I went back for a retest in May and the shift was incredible. At low intensities (about 100 watts) I was getting almost 95% of my energy from fat. At 200 watts, I was still getting 70% of my energy from fat! At 235 watts I hit what they call my cross over point, which is the point where you getting about 50% from fat and carbs. 


Another added benefit to the diet was that I got really lean over the winter without even trying. I normally stay around 157 +/- 2 lbs, but with this diet and with no real effort at all, I was 3-5 lbs lighter all winter. Just in general I felt much better too.


You recently made a bike switch, do you feel like that made a difference? What did you switch from/to?


Yes! I've been riding a Trek Equinox TTX 9.5 since 2009 so it was time for an upgrade. I got a Felt IA2 this summer literally just in time for Muncie 70.3. I picked it up on my way to the race and the race was my 3rd ride on the bike. And yes, it definitely made a difference and I love the bike! I had the bike set up very close to where I had my Trek which I would say was a pretty conservative position. I was comfortable on it and decided not to change anything this summer even though I felt like I could much lower in the front. The electronic shifting is especially nice (and much safer) on the horns when climbing. The shorter crank arms are a nice change as well. 



Take us through your swim? You have been making some big swim gains in practice but they didn’t translate in years past. It was good to see the swim time!


Yeah, my swim times in the pool have been improving for the last 8 years, but until last year I saw only very minor improvements in my races. So it was nice to see the swim time and even more so my AG placing. The times can vary so much from course to course and the current plays a big role in Louisville, so the best indication for me is how I do in my AG. Up until last year, I was usually top 20-30% in the big competitive races, but the changes we made last year helped me get to the top 10%. The first change you had me make last year was to increase my stroke rate. You saw from videos I sent that I was around 60 spm which for a real swimmer might be ok, but for me in open water all I was doing was slowing down between strokes. I started swimming with the metronome and eventually got very comfortable doing my faster sets in the 72-78 spm range. That change got me to the top 8% in Racine last year. The next big step came in May this year at our training camp in Brevard where you pointed out that I was still crossing over, a problem I thought I had corrected. Once I corrected that my stroke become much more efficient and I even dropped my fast swimming rate to 72 spm. We had another session in Louisville this summer where you pointed out a few more things as well. Having a coach on deck was certainly invaluable.


I felt like the race itself went ok, nothing special though. I was pretty anxious the two hours prior to starting but relaxed quickly once in the water. The first 3rd of the race before the turnaround was pretty crowded and I had trouble getting around some people. Once I made the turn I just focused on keeping my stroke rate at 72 and sighting as well as I could. I wasn't expecting to see 62 mins when I finished. I didn't know at the time but I was 25th out of the water in my AG and more importantly, of the 7 guys that finished ahead of me in my AG, the fastest was only ~4 mins faster. It's nice to know that I can now put myself in a very good position with my swim.



How about the bike. Take us through your plan. How you established this plan (nutrition and pacing)


The bike was great. By far the best IM bike I've had and I felt it went exactly as I had planned. The nutrition part was pretty simple. I had been fueling with UCAN all summer and was having pretty good luck with taking in about 100 up to 200 cal/hr max so I just planned for that. I had a few cookies with me as I found they calmed my stomach during training. And on 3 or 4 occasions, I took several sips of gatorade through the aid stations. I estimate that I had about 600-700 calories on the bike. As far as pacing, I felt like I could average 200 watts based on my workouts and long rides. Without a doubt the experiment with glycogen super compensation you had me do 4 weeks out had me feeling very confident in my ability to do that. That's when I did a 130 miles on the bike with an average of 207 watts (215 NP) for 4700 KJ of work followed by a 9 mile run at a sub 7 pace. I took in a total of 950 calories on the bike and run including breakfast. The next day I did 80 mins of continuous tempo at 241 watts. I knew at that point I was ready to race and I was going in very confident. 


I really enjoyed the bike part of the race. I was got caught up a bit the first 20-30 miles as the course was very crowded and I could see groups forming. I reminded myself that I wasn't going to qualify for Kona by riding too hard the first half of the bike and soft pedaling the 2nd half so I settled into my own pace trying to keep my watts around 200 and trying to stay as aero as possible. At about 80 miles I made the left turn to come back into town and I put the hammer down and my legs responded. I think I averaged 220 or so watts the next 20 miles and then maintained a very strong pace into town on the flat section. I passed several people in the last 20 miles that were paying the price for riding too hard in the beginning. I got to T2 feeling really good. 


Finally the run. The run is always tough. What was your mental process for the run? 


Very tough. I ran the first half pretty consistently at 7:30-7:45 pace but I started to really feel the fatigue when I started that 2nd lap. I was able to maintain close to that pace for the next 6 miles but it was a real struggle and I was falling apart. Mentally, I just wanted to separate myself from the pain I was feeling and just look for the next aid station where I could walk a few steps. I got down on myself a couple of times when I knew I was starting to fall apart, but pulled it together and just looked for the next station. The last 6 miles really hurt and made me realize how big a role strength plays in IM marathons. I could feel everything in my hips and core start to go. I'm glad we did the strength work we did, otherwise I might have been in real trouble.


The last 3 miles I actually started to feel just a bit better or I was just able to push though the pain better. I had lost track of my overall time at that point and was only focused on finishing. I was able to run the last mile at sub 8 pace and really enjoyed the final two blocks. I've never been so happy to finish a race!


When you walk away from a great performance, what are some things you want to work on for next year?


I just want to build on what we started this summer. We did a lot of experimenting with nutrition and training this year. I will probably work with a nutritionist for my ME. I gained some weight once I stared added carbs back into my diet in the lead up to IM and for sure that wasn't ideal. At the time I was making huge gains in fitness and didn't want to risk messing things up by adding the stress of trying to lose weight. I think it's time to get some expert advice on how to fuel in an efficient way to support the training load and not gain weight. Training wise, we took a conservative approach to increasing threshold on the bike. We focused on consistency and strength and making sure I didn't go over the edge like I did the two previous summers. Since I have the nutrition down better, I'm in a better position to start working on threshold again. I love running so being able to put in 20-35 miles a week all year has been great. I know I can improve more on the run with more miles and consistency, but I think that most of the improvement for me is more a function of bike fitness and dialing in my nutrition. So if I can just stay uninjured and run consistently, I'll be happy and hopefully fast.



What are your goals for 2016? 


I've signed up for IM Louisville again and qualifying for Kona will be the number one goal. I missed the Kona spot by 6 mins and a few seconds this year with a race I felt reflected my fitness and capability. Not perfect by any means, but finally I was able to put together the bike run I felt I should be able to do and as an added bonus my swim was great. I don't feel haunted by the 6 mins. I did what I could on that day and walked away very pleased, but I want the spot for Kona.


I will race two or three 70.3s with at least one late in the season with the goal of qualifying for worlds in 2017. And since I'm running again, I want to get a Boston qualifier for 2017 and maybe even an auto entry time for the NYC marathon.