Carrot and stick - My first Ironman

Zuckerbrot und Peitsche - Mein erster Ironman
Text: Franzi Reng. Photos: Joel Reischmann und Marcel Hilger
There are countless things that I learned during my first Ironman, not only about the extreme form of physical and mental exertion, but also about myself and my body.
You don't, as you might think, only push yourself to your physical and mental limits during the competition, but actually way before  while preparing yourself, when you are not yet aware of your physical limits and how far you could actually push your own body if you're determined to. And above all: If you provide it with sufficient fuel.

Even if this may sound almost too simple - long-distance triathlon is first and foremost a pretty blatant food game and if you fail here, you won't get far in training. Although it seems logical that a high endurance load also requires a lot of energy, in the end you are still surprised at what extreme traits this can and must sometimes take on.

When I think of my first Ironman preparation, I think mainly of sugar. A lot of sugar. But to start from the beginning: Increased energy requirements in preparation for an upcoming high endurance sports goal were nothing new to me per se. The first time I experienced this was during my time as a long-distance runner when I was training for my first marathon.

I was coming out of a long period of injury and was therefore no longer able to muster the necessary speed in training for the track races of the summer season that had just ended, which is why my coach and I made the decision to reschedule and instead benefit from my "rested" condition and the low kilometer load in my legs and add an endurance block in the form of a marathon preparation to the weeks of easy re-entry into training.

Even if I would say in retrospect that at the time there was probably a lot that was done quite wrong in terms of training methods and nutrition, I can at least make the argument that knowledge about optimal nutrition before, during and after training and competitions was hardly widespread, even in professional circles. At that time, I had already been a member of the national long-distance running squad for many years and, in addition to my own training in a high-performance team, I also had enough insight into the training of my national team colleagues to say that they didn't know any better.

Access to well-tolerated sports nutrition, especially for me as an athlete with a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, was extremely poor or non-existent. Today, I am proud and grateful to have sporthunger at my side as a partner who is extremely well positioned in this area and provides me with a wide range of products that help me to optimize my sports nutrition during training and competitions.

When I was a runner, however, the unspoken principle was to do everything that was possible in training without hydration and carbohydrates, without energy. I didn't eat gels or bars during training, nor did my Regensburg club mates, who included a number of Olympic athletes and top German long-distance runners. During long runs (35 to 40 kilometers, mostly with intervals or final acceleration), we usually had water bottles - if at all. Energy in the form of carbohydrate drinks or gels was not provided. Some even completed these units on an empty stomach. As I'm writing this down, I'm getting goosebumps myself.

In addition, nutritional strategies such as the Saltin diet, in which carbohydrate stores were gradually reduced to zero about a week before the race by eating a low-carbohydrate diet and a "depletion run" a few days before the race in order to achieve supercompensation of the glycogen stores by subsequently replenishing them (not always successfully), were still in use at that time.

Fortunately, this has now been abandoned, at least by the general public, and the realization that such an "overshooting" effect can also be achieved with normal tapering in combination with a carbohydrate-heavy diet four to three days before the competition not only ensures that some ambitious athletes certainly enjoy the days before their sporting peak much more, but also that the extreme health risks associated with a Saltin diet are avoided.

In the meantime, it has become an integral part of my training to provide sufficient food not only before and after strenuous or extensive units, but also during them, which incidentally means that really hard units can also be really fun or a piece of bar at the right time can be extremely motivating. Carrot and stick, so to speak. When I started triathlon, however, it was actually quite strange for me to eat during running training. Now, when I was training for my first Ironman, I would probably never have seen the start line without this food during the sessions.

Franzi Reng Verpflegung

I can therefore only warmly recommend anyone who is planning a long-distance triathlon this year: Don't forget to eat. You don't even realize how much your body is doing. Of course, feeling hungry is always a good indicator. However, if you have a bike ride of several hours ahead of you and then perhaps even a short run afterwards, you are not well advised to wait so long to eat until your body signals: Hey, my reserves are empty.

You can think of it like a campfire where you wait until it goes out every time, only to have to go to the trouble of lighting it again. Doesn't make sense. Instead, it saves energy and time to add a few logs in suitable portions in good time and keep the flame constant before it dies down and goes out. And of course this comparison applies not only to training, but also to competitions. With the small but subtle difference that the effort here is a little higher and, above all, longer. Why go easy when you can go hard? 😊

The (nevertheless) nice thing about an Ironman: you have time, a lot of time. You don't have to go full throttle right from the first few meters and you don't have to do any intermediate sprints, but you can try to get into a rhythm, just like the fire should burn constantly. A flow.

Nutrition can even be a structuring element here: When cycling, for example, I always set myself five-kilometer markers at which I constantly fed myself food. I had planned it similarly with pure hydration (i.e. water). Unfortunately, I lost my large water bottle on the first few kilometers, which I wanted to refill regularly at water stations.

Annoying, after all I had driven the race track several times, even with my race setup, and had never had the feeling that the surface would be so uneven that this could happen. So I had to change my plans a little during the race - but that's also part of it.

The bike course consisted of two 90km laps. At the transition from the first to the second lap, there was the option (as with most long-distance triathlons) to take personal supplies, so-called "special needs". Some of my professional colleagues skipped this option to save time, but I accepted the sacrifice, stopped and packed everything I could possibly need on the second lap so as not to be hypoglycemic.

Nevertheless, there was no avoiding the fact that I started to feel disgusted by my gels and all that sugar (relatively early on in my eyes) from the 110th kilometer onwards. I had heard about this from others and never thought I would feel this way (I had always looked forward to sweet gels, drinks and bars at races). Now I can say, even though I really like my race food from sporthunger, that at that moment I would have loved to just stop squeezing all those carbohydrates into me. However, that would have been a serious mistake and I am glad that I was able to follow my nutrition plan very consistently on the bike.

I didn't know exactly how much I would actually need. I always like to be on the safe side during races and probably always take a little more than I need. However, this paid off in the marathon that followed, where I had to deal with the consequences of a crash on the bike course:

Fluid that had leaked into the area around my knee compressed a nerve and caused pain. As a result, I could no longer feel my foot for some stretches. Nevertheless, my energy levels were so good that I was able to keep going relatively well until at least the halfway point before my stomach started to rebel due to the pain. From that moment on, I was no longer able to eat.

I tried everything to get anything into my body at the aid stations. It didn't help.

Franzi Reng Laufen

I probably completely drained myself on the second half of the marathon, but luckily there was still enough left in the tank to make it possible and I was able to cross the finish line. Secretly, however, I'm already looking forward to my next long distance because I know for sure that it can and will work better.

Another new feeling for me was not being able to eat anything solid at all after the race despite my extreme weakness and exhaustion (or precisely because of it). A huge buffet with pizza, pasta, cake and all kinds of soft drinks awaited me in the athletes' tent. However, I didn't manage to down more than a potato soup and it wasn't until late in the evening, after I had slept for two hours in our accommodation, that I felt at least something resembling hunger.

The only thing I really didn't want to see at that moment was sugar.

Franzi Reng is a professional triathlete and co-editor of the excellent print magazine PODIUM. Together with Philipp Hofmann, she talks about her everyday life between training sessions, power naps and carboloading in her podcast "Sweet Spot, Baby".


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