Since 2015, when the "Iron Cowboy" James Lawrence shook up the endurance world with his 50-50-50 world record (50 Ironman triathlons in 50 days, through all 50 states), much has been written about this remarkable athlete...
...Most of it motivational (who's not inspired by this incredible feat?).
As amazing an adventure as it was, and as much as there are infinite lessons to be gleaned from his seemingly impossible accomplishment, I'm going to focus on only one aspect of his routine that quite literally fueled his success, in hopes that you can model it for yourself and support YOUR optimal performance:
I'm talking about his diet.
Ever wonder what and how much he ate in order to drive his body through 50 consecutive, absolutely grueling days of 140.6-mile races, which included a total of 120 miles swam, 5,600 miles cycled and 1,310 miles ran in less than two months!
Well, I'm going to break it down for you below.
I think you'll be surprised at how simple and commonsense it was, and hope you can appreciate how easily it can be applied to your day-to-day nutrition.
Diet 1: Training For The 50-50
James's nutrition during Ironman training mirrored that of his event nutrition, except that he consumed fewer calories (although he did not count them).
He estimates that he consumed 4,500 - 6,500 calories per day in the weeks leading up to the 50-50.
I know what you're thinking...
"Whoa, that's a LOT of calories (and not very strictly monitored)."
Indeed it is, but James is muscular and lean, with a low body fat percentage. In order to maintain crucial lean muscle under heavy exertion and exercise volume, his metabolism demands a relatively high calorie intake.
You might say, "well that's great for him ... but what about me? I gain weight every time I see someone eating that many calories."
Determining your "maintenance" calorie requirement under various scenarios takes some experimentation, but it doesn't have to involve a calorimeter.
What is often more important than measuring calories is focusing on balanced macros (protein, carbs and fats).
James's philosophy was simple: eat lots of green vegetables, moderate carbohydrates like potatoes and rice, and do NOT shy away from protein, including an assortment of animal proteins.
James had this to say about the subject of vegan diets:
“Typically, I go for either steak or chicken. I’m definitely not vegetarian, I’m not a vegan. It’s kind of the trendy thing to do now, be a plant-based athlete. And I would say I am a plant-based athlete because I consume a ton of greens. Lots of salad, lots of green vegetables, but I also don’t shy away from the meat lineup.”
In other words, his diet is balanced.
In my experience, just as strength athletes like bodybuilders tend to over-emphasize protein consumption (at least in terms of quantity, not quality), endurance athletes have a propensity to prioritize carbs to the detriment of important fats and proteins.
James was able to ensure optimal macro balance by eating a lot of stir-fry meals, using the following "recipe":
- Rice or potatoes for complex carbohydrates
- "Pile" of vegetables for a variety of micronutrients
- Various meats for protein
Here's a tip to determine proper portion sizes:
- 1 Protein Portion = the size of your clenched fist
- 1 Carb Portion = the size of the palm of your hand
- 1 Fat Portion = the size of your thumb
Don't overthink it. Remember, this strategy propelled James through 50 Ironmans in 50 days!
Which brings us to...
Diet 2: Race Nutrition
So, to recap...
For training nutrition, James consumed 4,500 - 6,500 calories per day (the wide range attributable to his lack of precision measuring), including a balance of macros from plant and animal sources, and a wide range of micronutrients from plant sources.
He did that mostly by taking advantage of the stir-fry, and how it tends to naturally produce a harmony of proteins, carbs and fats, while lending itself to determining reasonable portion sizes.
So, what did he do differently during his actual race days?
1. He consumed more calories
During his 50 Ironman days, he estimates that he consumed up to 8,500 calories a day, summarizing it this way:
"I wasn’t eating just to fuel for the moment or that day, I was eating for today, tomorrow, and the next day. There’s an incredible compounding effect of nutrition. A lot of people tend to think that if you’re an athlete and have the right amount of exercise, that kinda gives you the green light to just shovel shit into you."
There's a vital point in that remark.
In order to fuel a given day's performance AND recover before the next one (the very next day ... day after day), he needed his nutrition to have a compounding, or carryforward effect.
Once again, he used a commonsense strategy of balanced macros from a variety of sources, both plant- and animal-based.
2. He timed his nutrition around specific events
Typically, his day looked like this:
- Before and after race: 4,000 total calories, spread over a balanced macro mix
- During the race: 2,000 calories between the swim and bike, and another 2,500 calories during the bike event (typically via sandwiches handed off to him)
I know it seems almost ridiculously simple for such a feat, but as with any topic that can easily become overwhelming and convoluted, there is elegance in simplicity.
James's approach to both training and race nutrition was basic but principled, and demonstrates the power of consuming the right nutrients, in the right quantities, at the right times.
Follow that basic blueprint, and you can't ever go wrong.