Fuelling for your run
Getting your fuelling and electrolyte regime right is critical to race success, especially in long distance events.
There are many pre-mixed or ready made electrolyte drinks on the market, but not all are created equal. I am not a fan of any of them personally, preferring tablets as a more practical form of covering my requirements. Many drinks are full of chemicals and straight simple sugars. Just because the All Blacks are drinking Powerade (apparently) this doesn't mean you should copy them.
I get my electrolytes from endurolytes, a Hammer nutrition product. There are others out there on the market too. I also take Branch chain amino acids or BCAA's during super long training or races. This helps combat lactic acid build up in the muscles and to slow the break down of my muscles for energy and to speed recovery. Put simply, BCAA's are like the building blocks of protein that the body can use to rebuild and recover. They help get the body from a catabolic state (where it is eating into its own muscle to provide energy and stops growth of muscles ) into an anabolic state where you are building the body up.
If you go more than 3 hours without food (including protein) your body can go into a catabolic state. This state is where your body thinks there is a shortage of food (and is depleted of nutrients), so it then lowers the importance of growth, and can go into a catabolic state, which means your body eats its own muscles to get the protein it needs. You want to stay in an ‘anabolic’ state, which means your body is constantly in a growth mode - you can do this by eating 5-6 small balanced meals each day.
Try it in training before your race.
In many races I have witnessed others, and experienced myself the effects of consuming pre-mixed drinks provided by the race officials or sponsor companies. The results sometimes lead to gastric stress and increased acidity in the gut. This can lead to vomiting and worse case - hitting the wall i.e: running out of glycogen in the muscles and/or liver causing a sharp drop in performance and making you feel like someone pulled the plug on your energy supply.
If you want to drink sports drinks for easy consumption of calories, a valid reason for taking them and perhaps their main advantage, then dilute it more than the instructions on the packet say, a weaker solution is better than a too strong a solution which is a sure thing for stomach problems. This should at least lessen the gastric problems while still providing calories and your necessary electrolytes.
Another reason I don't like these drinks is that I start to despise the taste after several hours of these dreadful sweet, sickly tasting drinks and that makes me not want to drink which leads then to dehydration and all its associated problems so at the very least have one bottle of pure water and in addition to the one with electrolyte solution.
Another tip, if you use camel baks and you put electrolyte solution in there, the taste will linger for ever. So I have one dedicated extra bottle for the electrolytes and don't ever put it in my camel bak.
What about Gels?
I personally don't like gels at all and still shudder at the thought of them after using them in my second time at Death Valley. They very nearly cost me my race. I suffered a very acidic stomach and vomited off and on for hours. I became severely dehydrated and hit the wall many times over the period of one damn long night. An exuberant salesman had managed to convince me that these gels were different and better than all the rest. After enduring an entire night battling through the agony of having to run/walk/crawl, vomit, passout, hallucinate… rinse and repeat I wasn't endorsing that product. Ever!
Their only redeeming feature is their single serve size, their easy to carry and open packaging. They may well be fine for short distance races, say up to 21km, where you aren't under prolonged gastric stress but over the longer distance be wary.
Another reason to practice eating during your long runs is to train your body to keep digesting while running and also to learn to eat when you have no appetite or desire to do so and while you are often breathing hard. It takes practice and discipline but you won't go far without it.
Never eat or drink something in a race that you haven't thoroughly tested in a number of training runs of varying length, especially long hard runs. You won't develop problems in the short training runs (those gels were fine on my training runs) but you may in your long training ones - so practice, practice and see what works for your body. Your body is unique, and there is no better way to know for sure if something will work without trialling it first.
So what are the consequences of getting it wrong?
If get the combination wrong - eat something that doesn't work for you, you can end up hitting the wall with a "brain bonk". This is when the brain runs out of glycogen which means your brain will tell you you are extremely fatigued and can't carry on and will even try to stop you moving by restricting your ability to recruit muscles. This is the interesting point, if your muscles are not empty of glycogen your central governor can still be telling you they are, i.e.; the brain is buggered from lack of glycogen and is telling you the muscles are finished.
The second type of bonk is a "muscle bonk" where you skeletal muscles used for running are actually out of glycogen fuel. You may experience an acidic tummy, vomiting, feeling like the plug is pulled on your energy systems, lethargic with legs like lead. You may also get the dirty word dysentery mixed in with the gastric problems (pretty much guaranteed in any long hard ultra marathon) Fair to say, running isn't glamorous.
Is it then all over? Are you done and dusted?
A resounding "NO". If you bonk either in the brain or in the muscles or if you get gastric stress and the calories aren't getting through, or even in you are mildly dehydrated or suffering from heat exhaustion - you can still come back and come right! Its time to sit or lie down or do whatever you need to get back into a state of equilibrium. If I had given up every time I had faced one of these situations I would never have finished a single ultra marathon.
You may need to even throw up if your tummy is doing wild things, you often then feel better. Depending on the length of the ultra and time pressures you are under, try at least to take out 20 mins to get back into balance. Perhaps stop or even slow to a gentle walk to get back on an even keel. You need to get some simple sugars in to start with if nothing else is able to get through, lollies or sports drinks if you can tolerate it (lollies or straight sugar will partially bypass the usual digestive process and go through the membranes in your mouth). Your digestion may have shut down and these quick sugars can provide some emergency level sugars or glycogen to the depleted system and you will immediately feel better, just know you need to get some real food through as possible soon after to prevent just a quick spike then relapse happening. But often if nothing else is working the lollies, gels, the flat coke or even better - flat ginger ale can help. Give your body a few minutes to recover then try and start the regime again sipping and nibbling your way back to strength again. Getting operational again is your priority, steadying your blood pressure, lowering your heart rate, cooling your pulse points on your body if overheated or getting more clothes on if you are freezing. Sometimes its better to stop and reset than to fight on in a horrific state making it worse. A stitch in time saves nine. But the most important thing is, in this phase, not to pull out of the race. Give a little bit of time even if all your competitors are flying past you, even if you are depressed that your personal best time is flying out the door, it is better to finish than to have a DNF by your name, when in half an hours time you would have come right again.
So many runners I have seen give up at that point and then come right soon after but it was too late they had already pulled out. Delay pulling out till you really know, theres no coming back unless you are of course fearing for your health or safety, no race is worth dying for no matter how long you have been training, no matter how many people know you are doing it, knowing when to pull the pin to fight another day is a crucial decision. Remember at the end of the day its still only a sport, we are not at war.
Hitting the wall
Hitting the wall feels like the end of the world and is just bloody awful but you can come back usually within 30 minutes. I remember running 170km non stop race through the Jordanien desert as a relative newbie to the sport. I had a film crew filming me and was showing off for the cameras, going out way too fast at the start for the first 20km as they were able to follow me for that period of the race. I forgot to eat and drink enough too as I was concentrating on them then as soon as they disappeared (thankfully) I hit the wall and subsequently ended up passing out. Another French runner ran past and found me unconscious in the midday sun, got me up and helped me limp into the next check point a few kilometres away. (Check point one I might add, another 145km odd left to go) I had no choice but to rest for half an hour to rebalance my systems then I was good to go albeit at a much more realistic pace. 43 hours and a number of other minor and major dramas and crisis points later including severe dysentery, getting lost on the second night and being followed by a pack of wild dogs I still managed to stumble across the finish line in a very sorry but upright state.
So don't give up just because you hit the wall.
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