An Ironman match made in Heaven

An Ironman match made in Heaven

Two great 32Gi fuelled Ironman athletes, James Cunnama and Jodie Swallow, recently announced their engagement. We caught up with the dynamic long distance triathlon duo just before the announcement, on this edition of 32Gi Sports Nutrition. Don’t miss fuelling tips from two of the best!



You listening to 32Gi Sports Nutrition I’m David Katz, Mr. Active, Mark Wolff has stepped aside once again this week because we’ve got not one but two fantastic guest for you right here on the podcast. It’s none other than James Cunnama and Jodie Swallow dynamic triathlon and ultra-triathlon and Ironman distance partnership. Both of them fantastic triathletes in their own right.

So we’ll get into that we’ll get into their fuelling and see if their competitive edge helps them push each other to the great heights that they’ve achieved. Both of them been to the Ironman World Championships at Kona. Both have a best finish of fourth.

I know their goal is to get back to Kona this year so would be fantastic to see. Around the corner though we have Ironman South Africa and a race that is close to both of their hearts. So James and Jodie thanks very much for joining us today.

JC: Thanks for having us.

JS: No problem.

DK: James start with you PE specifically because I know you stayed in PE for a long time. You were at the University there, it really is sort of still home even though you based in Stellenbosch now.

JC: Yes it’s a race that is pretty close to my heart. I actually started my whole Ironman journey there. I was a volunteer in 2005/2006 at the Ironman which is how I got into triathlon; I hadn’t even done triathlon before that. So yes it’s a pretty special race for me. I still haven’t managed to win it though. So hopefully we can get there.

Big year on the cards

DK: Well you haven’t gone and won that but you’ve had plenty victories over 70.3’s and for Ironman around the world. I mean your best time at Challenge Roth which is the race that’s within the 32Gi family, you went under eight hours, which is absolutely phenomenal. At the moment how do you see your fitness? Are you sort of at peak fitness? Are you hoping that 2016 is going to be a big year?

JC: Yes obviously we always hoping that it’s going to be a big year, my fitness is really good at the moment. Training has been going really well here in Stellenbosch.

I was maybe a little undercooked at 70.3 in January. But since then my training has gone really well and I’m feeling really positive looking forward to the race in 3 weeks.

DK: Jodie you’ve been on the scene also for quite a while. I know 70.3  for a long time you’ve kind of dominated that distance. You’ve won in East London now six years in a row which is absolutely incredible. You were the 70.3 World Champion back in 2010, you were silver medallist in 2014 I think again last year.

So you’ve really done phenomenally over that distance but also Ironman. The full Ironman it’s a big goal for you, and you have been to Kona and you’ve also come very close.

JS: Yeah obviously I won South Africa last year and that was a massive achievement for me under the circumstances that I was coping with at the time. So went to Kona with high hopes. Had a pretty bad summer last year it was kind of out of the realms of possibility unfortunately.

But I think with a good summer this year following qualification in Ironman South Africa then you know I’m aiming for the podium. There’s no two ways about it, it’s the only thing that I’m interested in is Kona.

How to get to Kona as comfortably as possible

DK: Now I know with, over the distance it’s quite a challenge to go and do a lot of them over this course of a year. Is the goal to hopefully get the qualifier in and then that full focus is towards Kona.

JS: Well you have to win as an elite athlete, you have to win Ironman South Africa to get in automatic slot in Kona. Because I didn’t finish Kona last year I’m on the back foot. The points system runs from the end of August, whilst people were collecting points, I was in Kona preparing for the World Champs. So it’s kind of chasing your tail a little bit at the beginning of the year.

I did manage to win it last year and I’m in better shape than I was then now. So you know you can’t really help what other people do. You can just concentrate on what you’re doing and put the best in. if I was not to win it and to put in a good performance then that’s fine. I’ve got another sort of four months in the summer to put together another good Ironman.

DK: Talking about being in good shape, obviously South Africa we’ve come through the summer great training months for you and James. How do you handle your training. You obviously got two different goals you probably have two different coaches do you do a lot of training together?

JS: We have the same coach because James coaches me in fact and he coaches himself. So that’s fairly easy to coordinate things with.

Do you train together?

DK: So do you do a lot of your training together?

JS: James finds it difficult to keep up with me so not really.

JC: We do all our swimming together, we swim here with the Marty squad when we in Stellenbosch. But the rest of the time we always swimming together and we do easy runs, we do easy rides together.

Obviously when you doing your specific stuff you have specific power numbers, you need to maintain specific speeds on the run. So that makes it kind of impossible to train together. Obviously we are training for the same distance and the same race but you know the men’s race and the woman’s race are very different races.

We both have different strengths and weaknesses that we need to work on. So we coordinate a lot of our training. We have rest days on the same days and that kind of thing as far as possible. But for the most part we train on our own.

Making use of all Stellenbosch has to offer

DK: But I’m sure the motivation of having each other training around on the same days must be absolutely phenomenal. Sort of a great push for both of you. Living in and around Stellenbosch I mean obviously Ironman is all about that TT bike being on the road. Do you guys ever do a bit of training on the trails around there?

JC: I get out, we do a lot of running on the trails. We spend a lot of time on Jonkershoek on the trails. I think running off-road is very good for your strength and your core work and all those supporting muscles. So that’s definitely a positive. I’ve also been out on the mountain bike quite a bit this summer.

I did Xterra I did Wine2Whales at the end of last year. I did Xterra a few weeks ago and I got second there. Just for a bit of fun and a bit of cross training. But most of the time we spend on the TT bars. Obviously we’ve got to prepare for 180 kays of time trialling. You can really only do that on a time trial bike on the roads.

DK: Yes of course let’s look at fuelling now you know looking at sort of your fridge do you guys have similar diets very different?

What’s in James and Jodie’s fridge

JS: Our diets are fairly different they used to be more different than they are now. I used to try and limit carbohydrate intake which I don’t do so much anymore. I think probably about 60% the same, 40% different.

James eats a lot more than me, his got a lot higher metabolism naturally than me I think. But that’s the thing nutrition is so individually specific that you can’t have a household doing the same thing. Even if you had a woman’s gymnastics team competing together and training together doing exactly the same thing.

Different body types would need different things and yeah we have to keep an eye on it. When we first got together it was a challenge in cooking and getting the right nutrition for each other, but we kind of got the right balance now.

DK: Well a very good point every person is an individual case when it does come to fuelling and nutrition and trial and error is the only real way to find out. So who does the shopping in the household?

JC:  We share the responsibilities, I think we both find that we can go to the shops and get most of the stuff. We both know what each other needs at this point. But we do make sure that each of us gets a trip to the shop regularly.

To make sure that those things that you craving you know. You got to listen to your body. There’s times when you craving certain stuff you know, especially now when we training really hard.

Sometimes you just have to wonder around the shop and see what jumps out at you what you really need, listen to your body in that regard. So we both prepare meals either together or one of us would prepare meals for both of us even if it’s slightly different.

We don’t always eat exactly the same stuff. I generally have like Jodie says, a lot more carbs in my diet. But we have the same lean protein with our meals and salad that kind of thing.

A serious amount of calories required

We try and eat healthy as possible but of course you got to get a lot more calories in for what we do. We looking at 6/7 hours days of training regularly almost every day actually.

That kind of calorie intake you can’t be too stringent with what you take in if you trying to get that kind of calories with purely salads and lean meats. You simply won’t be able to do it to be honest, you’ll breakdown.

DK: That’s something I was going to ask you guys. I mean the general person calorie intake is pretty high but as a triathlete probably the biggest diet requirements. Even looking at you guys specifically looking at Ironman distance and all training you doing over three different disciplines is phenomenal. So you are eating a serious amount of food.

JC: Yeah you know it becomes part of your life and stops seeming so extreme when you look at it, when I look at it. I guess a person looking at what we eating would be quite amazed at the amount we eat, and more probably the regularity that we eat.

I can barely get through two hours without having something to eat at any point in the day. I don’t have breakfast at 7am and then nothing until lunch. I get through about two hours and I have to eat something. And that goes for while I’m training and when I’m not training. It’s pretty constant you’ve got to be eating all the time.

I just found that you know if you starve yourself for the between meals that dip in your blood sugar is so negative for the rest of the day, and possibly the rest of the week. So yeah I guess that’s probably the main difference between a regular persons diet and our diet is just the consistency with which we eat.

DK: Well consistency is important I think for anyone. I eat consistently but I doubt I still eat the same levels and amount that you need to eat to fuel yourself. Jodie looking at racing in specific in the week leading up to on the morning of and during the race how do you tend to feel?

How Jodie fuels around a race

JS: Very carefully. I mean the week before the race more carefully than usually actually. I think as your training dips down before especially before an Ironman you kind of into high mileage, you drop down from two weeks out.

I tend to eat less definitely less energy bulk. But try to keep protein up and vegetables up as well in that week. But I drop all fibre foods sort of two days before the race.

So then my diet completely flips on it’s head because that’s the majority of what I eat normally is fruit and veg. That just goes because I don’t want the fibre in my system when I race. So then the diet ironically becomes quite unhealthy, on fast, you know easily absorbed, white rice.

Foods that aren’t going to cause any problems and they going to go straight through and then the same on race morning. So usually I’ll eat probably yoghurt and white rice on race morning which isn’t very appealing and at 3am.

DK: Jodie you talked about that big change for a lot of people that would really affect their system. Is it something that you had to train your body to get used to? To know that then by race day you not going to be battling with your stomach?

JS: No I think people underestimate what fibre does in an Ironman. I think they have a morphed view of what healthy eating is. Because two days before Ironman is not going to cause you health issues when you go on kind of highly absorbed quick sugars.

That’s what you need in those couple of days because otherwise there’s going to be stomach cramps. There’s going to be toilet stops and that’s exactly what you don’t need. It’s not going to do you any harm for two days before a race. It’s quite common in the kind of elite circles to do exactly that.

DK: And talking about quick sugar release how do you feed during the race?

JS: Again I only eat gels and I usually decant them into with energy drink as well. That I only take in liquid calories I don’t take in any solids. I know James takes in solids but I find that just for peace of mind knowing that you’ve got a three hour run coming up. I just need the peace of mind that my stomach is not going to have anything heavy or something in it that will take time to digest.

How James fuels around a race

DK: As you eluded to earlier every person is different so you need to know your parameters when it comes to what you can take in. James looking at you, how do you tend to fuel and supplement around the race?

JC: Similar to Jodie in the last few days before the race be very careful on what you eat. Making sure that there’s not going to be anything in your diet that’s going to potentially upset your stomach going into race day.

You know nothing that’s going to cause gas, nothing that’s going to cause your stomach to slow down or not work on race morning. Nothing that’s high fibre that’s going to sit in your stomach, in your system.

Because on race day obviously you don’t want any stomach cramps or bloating or gas or anything like that. Similar on race morning I’ll generally have rice, rice with honey or something similar on race morning.

Just because it’s carbs that leave you know pretty much a hundred percent of that is going to get absorbed and turned into energy. You not going to be left with any residue that fills your stomach during the race. Obviously the difficulty with Ironman is that you’ve got five or six hours of exercising of racing before you start the run.

Then you got to run for 2:40 to three hours. That’s very difficult it’s a very difficult thing to plan for and to wrap your stomach around. Because it’s not natural to be able to run on an empty stomach after six hours of exercise. But it’s also not natural to be able to eat while you exercising.

So both of those things need to be trained and we do train it. You do practice it. Obviously the best way to practice it is Ironmans, is the actual events themselves. I’ve done quite a few now so I think I’ve got my nutrition strategy down.

In the race I do similar to what Jodie just said I have mostly the gels decanted into one bottle. So that I’ve got one bottle full of gels with a really high carb mix. Which then I supplement with the race fuel or just energy drink that’s on the course depending on what’s available.

Then going into the run I might have an energy bar or something solid during the bike. Just to you know make the stomach feel that it’s had something. But again something low fibre one of the specific race energy bars that doesn’t leave anything in your stomach for the run.

Then going into the run cut back the intake quite substantially it’s mostly just energy drink. Maybe a few gels earlier on in the run to keep the energy levels up. But again you want to keep as little as possible in your stomach.

Fuelling for Ironman is a very tricky thing. It’s very individual and there really is no way to practice it in training. Because basically you can’t do 8/9/10 hour training days.

So you’ve got to go with what you feel is going to be right and then tweak it for the next race etcetera until you get it right.

DK: Well some fascinating tips and advice from the both of you. I know personally I’ve picked up one or two new nutritional tips and you never stop learning when it comes to nutrition. I’m sure for you guys either but thank you so much both of you for your time and all the best for Port Elizabeth.

JS: Thanks very much.

JC: Thank you.

DK: That’s James Cunnama and Jodie Swallow they’ll be in action at Ironman South Africa. It’s going to be a great race to watch as it’s always been since the establishment here in South Africa. Joining us on the line from Stellenbosch via Skype, but we’ll be back with you next week right here on 32Gi Sports Nutrition.

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