As a marathoner, I've learned a lot of lessons about the critical components to running a perfect race (example: tights, rather than shorts, are my running secret sauce). But it wasn't until I recently joined Gatorade Endurance to spectate my first Ironman—the World Championship triathlon in Kona, Hawaii—that I truly understood just how much it takes to crush an event of that magnitude. Because let's be honest: tackling a 2.4-mile open water swim, slaying a 112-mile bike ride, and finishing it off with a 26.2-mile run is superhero status—especially since it's done in temperatures peaking upward of 100 degrees.
Whether you're training for your first race or working to cross an Ironman off your personal bucket list, here are five important lessons you can steal from top triathletes. (Also, meet these 6 majorly inspiring women who've completed an Ironman themselves.)
1. Fueling Takes Practice
In order to perform your best on race day and in your training sessions, fueling is key. Yes, hydration is important, but intaking carbohydrates from things like gels, energy chews, gus, and bars is imperative to replace your body's depleted stores. "For athletes to run their paces and hit their watts on the bike, it takes a lot of trial and error in terms of their nutrition plan," says Matt Pahnke, Ph.D., of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.
So what's the right amount of fuel? It depends on how long you're out there, as all intake should be based on exercise duration, says Pahnke. Generally speaking, you can abide by the following guidelines: For 1 to 2 hours of exercise, you need up to 30g of carbs each hour; 2 to 3 hours calls for 60g/hr; and more than 3 hours requires up to 90g/hr. "As with anything, test your nutrition plan in training before using it on race day," he suggests.
2. What You Eat After Matters
Every athlete has their own agenda for their post-race (and training) meals. For eight-time Ironman champion Luke McKenzie, he's a fan of BYOB (that's short for Bring Your Own Blender). "For me, it's all about the protein shake," he says. "Usually an almond milk base, and I'll do whey protein, banana, and some frozen berries. It's simple, but it gives me what I need to feel good even after tough sessions."
Generally speaking, athletes need at least 20 grams of protein to aid in muscle recovery (other recent studies have suggested 40 grams does a better job) and almost triple that amount in carbohydrates. "If you don't give your body the building blocks it needs to help adapt, your progress may be shortened." (All the more reason to try these post-workout snacks, don't you think?)
3. Don't Skip Recovery Sessions
Whether you're into foam rolling (here are 10 ways to use a roller) or more of a lacrosse ball person, self massage gives your muscles essential TLC and helps break up adhesions and scar tissue, which speeds up the recovery process post-workout. "I'm big on using multiple tools: a foam roller, medicine ball, and a lacrosse ball," says Pahnke. "Having different tools allows you to target different muscles."
And don't forget to add in extra stretching time for areas that typically tighten up when you repeatedly pound pavement—areas like the hamstrings, hips, and calves are all begging for a little extra love.
4. Block Out the Negative Noise
Staying positive may not feel easy on mile 20 of a marathon, but it's important to keep those encouraging affirmations flowing. "Any negative thoughts, they just don't serve you, says McKenzie. "I'm really all about positivity. I like to prep for a race the day before by tackling an easy run at sunset, and finishing at a point that's somewhere significant to me. [It allows me to] feel the energy, watch the sun go down, and have a moment to gather and prepare for the next day." (Here are 6 mantras that can help keep you motivated.)
5. Celebrate the Small Victories
Training for any endurance event is hard work, but endurance athletes agree that it's important to appreciate the smaller wins that happen throughout a training cycle. "You can put everything into this one day, and it could not go to plan," says McKenzie, who knows what that feels like, especially after coming in second in the Ironman World Championship in 2013. "[During] the highs and lows, remember what you learned over the past few months, and remember that you can overcome [obstacles]. You're already winning, and an Ironman is all about how you ride the highs and lows [that get you to the finish line.]"