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My Long, Painful Road of Discovery: Triathlon Race & Training Nutrition, Hydration & Electrolytes – by Coach Bob Ford

It literally took me YEARS to get this dialed in, despite having both a Triathlon Coach and Sports Nutrition Coach helping me along the way.  No matter what I tried, I suffered with GI issues at the 2-3+ hour point in both racing and training.  I hope my story can help you if you struggle in this area.  For those that just want the bottom-line up front, here it is:

  • Racing with too much weight was absolutely the key factor for me. Once I dealt with the excess weight issue (I was racing at 30-40 pounds above my ideal race weight), this resolved my  GI issues. 
  • Getting tested for my sweat & sodium loss rates (which are separate) allowed me to perform even better in training and racing.  I was off in each of these areas.  Testing was key to optimizing my performance. 
  • If you have these two areas in good shape, I believe the vast majority of sports nutrition products will work. Obviously training and dialing in how much you need is key.  The converse is also true, if you are overweight and struggle with GI issues, I believe it’s virtually impossible to overcome this regardless of the nutrition products you use.  I tried everything, in search for the “holy grail” nutrition/electrolyte mix that would resolve my GI issues.  Never found it.  However, once I took care of the excess weight issue, most products seemed to work just fine.    

If you are interested in the full story, here it is. 

I started my triathlon journey in 2012, at the age of 53.  I had been a lifelong athlete, and was intrigued with triathlon, and wanted to try it.  I had steadily gained weight in my 30s and 40s and early 50s, and saw exercise and training as a way to keep from getting worse!  Despite being an avid exercise fanatic, I continued to struggle with my weight, and hoped triathlon would be the answer I was looking for to help me manage my weight.  As they say, you can’t outrun your fork, so triathlon never helped me with my weight issue, despite the amount of training I was doing.   

My first race, a Sprint Triathlon at a local Lake (really it was a pond) didn’t go well.  DNF.  Why? Well, I was going to be such a Rockstar triathlete, and so awesome, that I decided to consume a double dose of a pre-workout supplement called “Insane” just prior to donning my (too tight) wetsuit (which I had never actually swam in because I considered myself a pretty darn good swimmer — in the pool).  Well, you can imagine how this played out.  After swimming a grand total of 30 yards I realized I was unable to breathe.  Full blown panic attack, followed by peeling my wetsuit down to my waist, and the guy in the safety kayak asking telling me to “just grab onto the kayak buddy.”  To which I responded, #$*&^@S). 

Defeated and exhausted after flailing around like a Gator had me for several minutes, I doggy paddled the 30 yards back to shore, where all the family members and children were still there watching the swim.  I remember this little girl with her Mom say, “Mommy, why is that man coming back out?”  The Mom replied, “Honey, don’t look at him, he didn’t do good.”  Nope, he didn’t do too good, not at all.   On that lonely walk up the beach I was thinking how I was going to break the news to my wife that I had wasted all this money on triathlon gear and I simply wasn’t cut out for this sport!  From Rockstar wannabe to DNF.  This was my baptism into the crazy world of sports nutrition for triathlon!

Those early years I focused on short course racing, where nutrition wasn’t nearly as critical as it is on long course.  Still carrying a lot of extra weight, I managed to finish my Olympic races before my GI issues became too bad.  They were bad towards the end of the run, but I managed to finish on fumes and thought I was doing just fine.  Little did I realize what was to come once I made the switch to long course racing for the next several years.  

The pattern was consistent.  No matter which combination of products I tried, the outcome was always the same.  At about 2-3+ hours into any training or racing event, my GI system would begin to shut down.  You know the drill here.  Bloating, inability to effectively process they hydration, nutrition, and electrolytes.  I worked with my Coach, as well as a Sports Nutrition Coach, to try and resolve these issues.  We tried every product on the market it seemed, as well as whole foods.  Different combinations.  Different water, electrolyte and nutrition levels.  Same result.  GI shut down after a few hours, then holding on for dear life until the end. I thought this was just they way it was for “some people” and I was just one of the “unlucky ones.” 

The light bulb finally came on when I was doing my USAT L1 Certification, and a L3 Coach was giving a presentation on excess body weight impact on race times for 70.3 and Full Iron Distance Races.  His presentation really awakened me to the issue I was trying to solve, which wasn’t going to be solved by different products, different timing, or different combinations of these things – it was going to be resolved by simply getting to a healthier race weight, and staying there.  I often wonder if this issue of being overweight isn’t the elephant in the room that no triathlete wants to talk about, but we all know it’s there?  I mean, it is  common sense that being at a healthier weight will help your GI to function more efficiently in both training and racing, yet I was in denial about it, and those around me never really challenged me to consider it as the main culprit for my GI challenges – my excess weight.  It was always about finding the right concoction of products that would work for my system, and never really facing the true culprit – excess body fat. 

Fast forward to 2018, when I finally got serious about my weight, and was tired of just being a “finisher” who was miserable at the finish line (racing prior to 2018 included IMCHATT, IMLOU, IMMD plus multiple 70.3s each year).  My goal back then was not to be last. Well,  I was finally fed up with this mindset, and said enough is enough.  Time to face this elephant in the room, and Slay It.  I sought help from a Health Coach I trusted, dialed back all exercise for about 3 months, and lost ~40 pounds (going from 204 to 160, which I have since maintained for 2 years now through proper nutrition). 

Then I resumed my training and the results were as stunning to me as was the fact that my GI issues had completely resolved themselves.  I raced as hard as I could, and not only was I moving up from the bottom or middle of the pack to the top 25% or higher, I wasn’t experiencing any GI issues.  Wow, so this is how it feels to race strong throughout an entire race and not holding on finishing on fumes with a GI shut down!! Good stuff!  I also visited the SlayRX facility in Atlanta to get my sweat rate and sodium loss rate tested, which further helped my performance. See my video about this experience here: https://vimeo.com/351803809  

A elephant that is standing in the grass

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The next year, 2019 I had all of  this dialed in – healthy weight, dialed in hydration and sodium levels, and I raced 3 x 70.3s – Chattanooga in May (25th AG), Lake Placid in September (14th AG), and Augusta in late September (8th AG).  Qualified Ironman AWA Silver and 22nd in US in 60-64 AG.  How was any of this possible?  I Slayed the elephant in the room, didn’t let him back in, and dialed in everything else.  I tried many different nutrition products, they all worked.  I have stuck with the SlayRX products because they seem to keep me stronger throughout long training sessions and races as compared to other products.  As I am seeking to be my very best, I am looking for any incremental gain possible, and I believe I get this with these products.  But make no mistake here, none of this would ever had been possible without Slaying the Elephant.     

Coach Bob Ford is the CEO & Head Coach at Optimum Health & Financial Coaching, LLC and is a Certified Health & Financial Coach, as well as a L1 USAT Triathlon trained Coach. He helps both athletes and non-athletes achieve better health through balanced nutrition and Habits of Health.  You can contact him at optimumhealthcoach@icloud.com or (706) 627-6753.