Monday, April 18, 2011

Ultramarathon Race Nutrition

Well it’s 4 weeks out from my next race, The North Face 100, and I’m starting to get myself prepared for what the race has in store for me. The one area where I have had problems in ultra marathons previously, apart from feeling tired and all the associated pain an ultra brings, has been around nutrition.  If you can get this right the event becomes a whole lot easier (or should I say less difficult), and you can focus your efforts on the physical and mental challenges.


From a nutritional standpoint you need to consider three needs – fluids, foods and electrolytes, and each should be considered independently.  You are unlikely to find a sports drink which caters for all 3 in a way which suits your physiology and the specific environmental conditions of your race, regardless of what the promises on the packaging may claim. I have found that in hot conditions for example, when sweating a lot, I cannot stomach sports drink in the volumes I need, so change my intake to water and salt tablets and other foods.


This is the key. You need to have a nutritional plan for your race. You need to stick to your plan, even when you may not feel like it. And just to contradict myself (!) you need to be prepared to change your plan to suit conditions and how your body is responding to them.


All too often you can stop eating or drinking because you don’t feel like it, when in reality it may be because you have not eaten or drunk enough that you feel that way. When you get dehydrated the blood supply to your gut is reduced favouring your muscles. This therefore impedes the gut’s ability to process the contents of your stomach, which not only makes you feel bad, but also exacerbates the problem. So by having a (flexible) plan in place you can hopefully avoid this issue and keep your body working smoothly.


It is very difficult to prescribe a nutritional formula that will work for everyone, as I have mentioned many times before, it’s all about learning hour your body behaves under different circumstances. So use your training for trying out new foods, different volumes, and frequencies of eating, and remember to take into account the environmental conditions when you do this as your body will have very different needs on a hot humid day as a cooler dry day.


Personally I prefer “real food” which I can eat for a full ultra, rather than most sports specific products which are sweet and full of sugar for a quick energy hit, but lead to flavour fatigue. I have been lucky enough to try the range of “Elevate Me!” bars which were pleasantly surprising. They are made without baking so have all their beneficial nutrients intact, and also have a reasonable amount of protein which I believe is important for minimising muscle damage and aiding recovery. Not only that but they taste great, and my running partner who has lactose and gluten intolerances, could stomach them without any adverse effects.


I do still use gels, but these are for very specific situations. I will use them when I need a quick boost of energy . Such occasions are when I can feel my blood sugar dropping, so I use the gel to effectively restart my system, but also remember to drink plenty of fluids with them to ensure they are absorbed quickly. Also in this scenario you need to get back on the normal eating plan so that you don’t crash again when the gel wears off.


Another situation I use gels, and will be at North Face, is when I know I have a significant physical effort ahead of me (namely the climb up the stairs at Nellies Glen, and the seemingly 8km uphill trudge out of the Jamison Valley). 


There will be times when the plan doesn’t work, and whatever you try makes no difference. I guess this is just what ultras is about, in that no matter how well you plan, it can always throw you that curve ball. The best you can hope for in this situation is that you finish, and give yourself a little ego boost knowing that you still completed the distance whilst feeling crappy! It is also about having the presence of mind to realise that maybe sitting down, resting and allowing your body to sort itself out may be all you need to get back on track.


This has worked for me previously, so always keep that in mind. I did fast track this a couple of years ago when I elected to “purge my system” with the help of a couple of fingers down my throat. Not a pleasant thing to do, especially with the physical strain on my stomach muscles retching after running 100kms. Still is enabled me to start afresh and keep going.


The other suggestion I have had to settle your stomach is eating ginger, and this is something that I am experimenting with currently. The only problem is I need to be running for 50kms+ to get that feeling to test it out. So for now I’ll just get used to eating it, and hopefully it will do the job when the time comes (and if all goes to plan maybe that time won’t come).


Strictly for after the finish line!
There can be no worse feeling than having trained hard for an ultra only to be forced into a DNF through poor nutritional planning. If you have a support crew at an event make sure they are aware of what you should be eating, and get them to remind you. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the excitement of an event only to pay the penalty later.


Of course the best part of an ultra from a nutritional perspective is gorging yourself on whatever you like after you have finished!


Run happy,
Andy
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“Eat, eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink, drink, pee, pee, pee, pee, run, run, run, run" - Simon Mtuy, Tanzanian ultra runner