In case you don't know, I am not a registered dietician or nutritionist but, rather, a curious athlete, coach and trainer who has studied the affects of how we fuel our bodies within my own study. As a professional trainer I have been lucky enough to be exposed to some very astute pros in the field of nutrition and have had many great conversations on it's affect on performance in athletes. As with everything we know, it is only ever just pieces to a puzzle that we may never fully complete. So, as with most things, we do the best to understand the whole picture with the information we have. There are a couple basic principles that I believe in when it comes to nutrition. The first, that each person has a unique set of nutritional requirements based on genetics and body type. The second, that fueling the body should directly correlate to the level and type of activity in which a person is trying to perform.
Maximizing your nutrition, for sport performance and overall good health, is to identify and understand your basic nutritional needs and the foods that work best with your body to fulfill those needs. Once you have that knowledge, your daily responsibili
ty is to adjust and control the volume and ratios of those foods to accommodate the workload of your sport and/or lifestyle.
That all in mind, the purpose of this blog, is to point out, through a couple of experiences, what I feel is a sound strategy in fueling for racing in the MARATHON, my favorite sport, and perhaps one of the most difficult to manage energetically.
Running 26.2 miles is not always the same. It is almost always a different experience, even for the same athlete, from one course to another and from one day to the next. One's level of fitness determines just how fast one is able to complete the distance relative to their own boundaries. So we train and train and train... Always looking for the highest level that we can possibly achieve, compelled towards greatness. But as you may have experienced yourself, even when we are extremely well prepared and fit for a marathon, too often things start to unravel somewhere around that famous mile... MILE 20... THE WALL! So the question is, what really is THE WALL? Why is there so often a point when the entire system seems to just shut down on us? And most importantly, how do we keep that from happening?
I think there are two fields of popular thought in running and fueling.
The old school, which I agree with in many ways, is all about conditioning the body to run hard and fast regardless of weather, gear, fuel, water or anything else for that matter! I love this. It is RAW. It is WILD. It is FREE! Dependance on anything other than yourself is a weakness of sorts. I'd like to think, if my shoes tore apart and my shorts ripped, that I could run naked, free from every material comfort to the horizon... And while I'm at it, run straight up to the heavens to show the gods that I wont be held down by anything!! Okay... Slowly descending back to Earth now, head still slightly in the clouds, I realize that is only one side. This perspective is important because it embodies the power of the will and the human spirit but also, it reminds us that in order to become great, there are no magic tricks. We must train as hard as we need to in order to achieve our greatest potential... No excuses!!
And then there is the new school, a scientific approach that explores the physiology of the body and what is happening energetically during exercise. To me the new school would be foolish to ignore, as I, and probably most of us, need as much help as possible in order to continue along the road of progress. The long and short is this: We don't store enough glycogen (sugar) calories in our bodies to run anaerobically ("without oxygen" or otherwise know as "hard and fast") for distances over about 20 miles. When we are running hard and fast and there isn't enough oxygen coming in, the body uses primarily sugar for fuel (compared to an oxygenated or "aerobic" state, where the body efficiently breaks down and uses fats for a large percentage of fuel). Now, if you look at the amount of sugar calories that can be stored in the average person, say it's somewhere in the range of 2,000 calories, and the you burn about 100 calories per mile, all of which are coming from sugar... BAM!! Game over at 20 miles!!
So let's say you take a gel that is supplementing around 100 calories. The math doesn't really start to work until you are in the range of 5-6 gels (500-600 additional calories)... That puts you at every 5 miles for taking a gel during a marathon. For me, that sounded like a lot when I first heard it. I would try to take 2-3 but never really paid much attention to it. I wondered how much of a difference this would, or could, really make.
So this year I tried an experiment. I had a really solid training cycle leading into the fall season and was ready to go for a PR. We had trained most of our runs with the old school approach and hadn't used much gel support. So I went into the Chicago Marathon in October, fit and confident, ready to test myself... without taking ANY gels. Yep. That was the plan and I stuck to it.
Part 1- Chicago: I had a great race, holding back to 5:30 pace to keep it comfortable. I felt smooth, I felt good! And then... I didn't. Somewhere around mile 20 my pace fell, I held on... Figured it was just a little wall. It got worse. I slowed more... It got worse. Mile 23 was hell but I hoped if I kept focused I could get a second wind. It never came. The last mile I closed my eyes and ran for an eternity... More tired than I can ever remember being. 4 minutes slower than my goal time, all lost in the last 6. I wasn't expecting it to be THAT bad... At the finish line I drank a smoothie and was instantly revived. The sugar was back and I felt like I had done a hard 20 with a cooldown, that's it. So I set my sights on CIM a couple months later and started training, I didn't even need a day off after Chicago. While I didn't think the crash was going to be so hard, the outcome of the race wasn't a surprise.
Part 2- CIM: I posted a detailed account and race report of CIM in my last blog so I won't go too much into the details. The training was, once again, perfect leading up to the race. So I implemented the fueling change, took 5 gels with me, knocked one back every 5 miles through 20 and another one at 23. I felt clear headed and focused all the way across the line. The last mile and a half was a battle but I held pretty close to my goal pace all the way through. Three and a half minutes faster than the Chicago experience with way more elevation up and down, much colder temps and, most importantly, I felt GREAT all the way through!
In the end, I learned that which I had already known. For me, I love the first-hand experience because it lets me share it with you in a way that is more visceral. If you, too, like experimenting... I welcome you to conduct a similar experiment. It can be... Uh... Fun? Or, just take my experience as a little piece to your own "puzzle of progression" and see how much better you feel when your brain has enough sugar to stay focused. Even if there is no muscular function benefit, which means you still need to train like the old school, the mental benefit keeps the brain from shutting everything down just when you need it! And that is golden in a race!!
I had a long conversation/interview (in its entirety on YouTube) with Josh Cox at the 2013 Malibu Marathon expo and we discussed the whole nutrition thing in detail. The biggest shocker to me was how much nutrition both he and Ryan Hall take in during marathon races. Every 5k, which is about every 15 minutes for them, they take a mixture of Powerade and gel... Every 5k!!! Kind of mind blowing but it makes sense. When the engine is running that hot, the caloric expense is even higher. A lot of people think these guys are just genetically gifted and wake up one day and run a 2:10 marathon. It's not that easy. They work hard, really hard... and, being professionals, they know what they are doing!
I have friends who prefer to think "less" about the science and technology when it comes to running and I get it. Running can be spiritual when it's just you and the birds out there on the mountain, floating along a trail with the wind in your hair, chasing the sinking sun into darkness... Why take away from that? Well, that's easy... Because I want to run FASTER!!!
Good luck out there! Hope this helps you findyourFAST!!
(*originally posted January 10th, 2014)