Tis the season to rest, relax, and reflect on the past year. For triathletes, we will make New Year's resolutions, our 2010 race schedule, and reevaluate our past performances. Often overlooked are the hydration and nutrition strategies that we rely upon so much during race day. We tend to procrastinate planning the parts of the race that we would like to forget....mainly excretion. There is a lot of information available about what to put in our bodies, but there is little talk of how, when, or where to relieve ourselves.
When fluids enter through the mouth they travel through the esophagus, empty into the stomach and then pass into the intestines. This process is called gastric emptying. Once in the intestines, approximately 90% of the liquids are absorbed by the intestinal wall while the remaining 10% will enter directly into the colon. Fluids absorbed by the intestines will enter the bloodstream and journey to the kidneys. The job of the kidneys is to filter and extract waste, excess water, sugars, urea, and toxins. The waste products then pass along the through the urethra and will be excreted.
The amount of fluid you put into your body will determine if it will absorb or not absorb. The reason is because each person has their own rate of gastric emptying. While one person can drink two water bottles of fluids per hour during a race without incident, others may be able to handle more or less. How much or how little you can handle is going to be a personal decision based on your experiences training and racing.
With that being said, most of us are probably not doing a good job of practicing our nutrition plan. One main reason is that in addition to not practicing at all, we are not practicing at race pace. At effort levels above 70-75% of our max, combined with heat, humidity, stress, and higher body temperatures, you can see how difficult it is to not have some type of GI tract, or hydration issues on race day.
The range of calories and fluids that each individual can take in while exercising or competing is also personal. Most sources will recommend consuming 200-500 Calories/hour and no more than 31 oz. (800ml) of liquids per hour, and 1 gram of salt during physical activity. In contrast you might be burning 900 calories per hour while sweating out up to 1L of fluids and 24-41 grams of salt per hour. Since we know that the body can only absorb a small percentage of calories per hour in comparison to what we might be burning, the focus should be on getting the right stuff in the correct amount into the body in order to sustain our efforts. This is where a large amount of the experimentation begins.
While racing, we are mainly concerned with ingesting, carbohydrates which are converted into glycogen or "fast fuels", electrolytes to maintain the balance of the cells, and H2O. There are many theories on this topic, and every product on the market will make "scientific" claims endorsed by "professional " athletes. Feel free to experiment with some different types, flavors, textures and dosages. Make sure that you are including, a liquid that has calories AND electrolytes that is going to be appropriate for the type and length of race in which you are participating. Many of the products on the market come in single serving portions and several companies offer a money back guarantee or a risk free trial.
Dehydration occurs when the body lacks the proper fluids to keep it working. If you don't drink enough you can become dehydrated. We have all experienced mild dehydration at some time in our lives however, severe dehydration may cause an elevated heart rate, rise of body temperature, and a decrease in the amount of blood the heart can output. Fatigue, depletion of carbohydrate resources, warm weather or extreme temperatures and humidity can all further contribute to dehydration. Too much carbohydrate or energy content, stress, not enough water, combined with performance efforts over 70-75% can cause GI tract issues such as diarrhea, cramping and lots of other nice things that no one likes to experience.
Urine is comprised of about 95% water, and 5% waste products (urea, salts, organic compounds, ammonia, proteins, hormones, and metabolites). The average person urinates 1-2L per day. When we ingest an excessive intake of water without electrolytes, we are essentially flooding our systems. The body maintains its own special fluid and electrolyte balance. If there is a disruption in the natural PH this can cause all types of problems. The excess of free water in the blood, combined with a low sodium concentration can cause electrolyte disturbances resulting in edema (body swelling), and in extreme cases can lead to pulmonary edema, seizures, and eventually death. Early signs of hyponatremia are restlessness, headache, and nausea. The solution is to add some salt and electrolytes into our water while competing.
Other things that can affect the way that our bodies work while we race are medications. Even over- the counter drugs such as NSAIDS have been linked to kidney failure when ingested in large doses. If you are on prescription medication, make sure that you are aware of the way that they affect the body in terms of hydration, heart rate, consumption or excretion. Consult with your doctor of pharmacist if you have any concerns.
Face it, we all have to use the bathroom at least a few times on race morning. In order to accommodate our nervous bladders, Race Directors will set up porta-potties in several locations if local restrooms are not available. As most of us have learned the hard way, you can't always rely on having toilet paper available so it is a good idea to bring some of your own in your transition bag. If the bathroom line is too long, it is a socially-accepted practice to enter the warm up area of the start and urinate in the water. Some will also claim this is a good way to "warm up". (I am not sure if I agree). However, some race locations make this a bit of a challenge. For example, I remember one triathlon start was from a boat. With only one bathroom and over 100 professionals, there was no other option than to walk to the outside deck and pee right there on the floor creating a disgusting mess.
During the race, relieving oneself presents different challenges. While swimming, it can be difficult to relax enough but there is always the option to swim to the side of the course, tread water and go. During the bike or run portions of a shorter race (sprint or Olympic distance) it is best to pull over to the side of the road and use a porta potty. Especially with the increase of races in urban areas, finding a bush seems no longer plausible. For longer races (half-ironman or ironman), you can find a porta-potty, pull over on the side of the road (but check the race rules as some strictly prohibit this practice), or pee while biking (more popular for the professionals and top age-groupers but if you try this, make sure to wash yourself off with liquids from your water bottle and be respectful of those behind you:). If you are concerned that peeing down your leg causes chafing, gets in your shoes, is smelly, and gross, then wait for a porta-potty.
A few tips:
1. If you are new to racing or to long-distance racing, wear a two-piece suit. This way you can help to prevent an embarrassing moment should you have a bathroom issue. It also makes for less time in the porta-potty.
2. If in doubt about where to "go", the best option is to pull over at the nearest porta-potty.
3. If you are having a bathroom emergency or are in a remote area, it is ok to go in a tree or a bush if available to you. However, someone's front lawn or flower garden is probably not the nicest alternative. Be respectful of your environment.
4. Go-girl.com makes a portable urinal for women. "you won't be like a man, You'll just pee like one." I am not sure how practical this would be during a race but it could make for a funny story.
5. Do some of your training at harder, race simulated efforts. Obviously you are not going to do an entire Ironman at race effort while training but don't be afraid to do some longer efforts or some hard interval work to practice your nutrition plan. Keep the efforts appropriate to your skill level and the race distance that you are preparing for.
6. Add some salt to your diet and drink sports drinks instead of just plain water.
7. Practice and plan your nutrition before race day. Don't be tempted to use something new that you have discovered at the expo.
This is intended to be a humorous yet simple look at the human body however, not all-inclusive. I welcome your comments, suggestions, and ideas. Please feel free to post them here on this forum however, make sure that your comments are appropriate for a general audience.
See you at the porta-potty line