On Friday afternoon I had a meeting with one of the country's top sports nutritionists, in an attempt to improve my eating for the WHW race. I have always had problems with my food strategy: I find it difficult to stomach anything when running, and I have had a lot of problems with cramp over the years. I was sure there must be things I could be doing better, and I was keen to get an expert's opinion.
In a nutshell, there are so many things I could be doing better. It was a fascinating discussion. I am sure this is an area where a lot of us could learn - while the advice given was specific to my issues, a lot of the principles are applicable to anyone taking part in an extreme endurance event such as the WHWR.
I've noted the main points below.
* As I find it very hard to stomach solid foods, I shouldn't even bother trying. For the race we have put in place a 'no dry food' rule; instead my main meals should be liquid foods, such as Complan or Build-up. These are specifically designed for people who have small appetities or find it difficult to digest solid food - in other words me when I'm running an ultra! They contain all the things that I need, so there is no need for anything else that will be more difficult to digest and is likely to lead to nausea and sickness. I should try and have one of these Complan meals every 3 to 4 hours.
* We have also put in place a 'no milk based products' rule. Milk is a great food, but not a great food for extreme endurance events as it will upset the stomach and cause nausea.
* One of the main reasons I have been getting cramp is because I am drinking plain water, which is flushing the electolytes out of my system. If cramp is to be avoided I need to ensure these electrolytes are replaced. So I should not drink water on its own, but ensure electrolytes and glucose are added to it. A good way of replacing electrolytes is by adding a rehydration treatment powder to the water (the same products used if you have had diarrhea on holiday). I should also add glucose polymers to the water - around 40 to 60 ml per litre of water. Both the glucose polymers and electrolyte replacement can be added to the same drink.
* Fructose is a good thing to take - it was suggested that I might want to have a couple of spoonfuls of honey in the later stages of the race.
* For optimal performance I should be trying not to lose much weight during the run but should be replacing the lost fluids and maintaining my weight at a similar level. To achieve this I need to know how much fluid I am losing during the event - it is known as my 'sweat loss' calculation, and can be worked out by comparing my weight at the beginning and end of the activity with the amount of fluid I have taken on.
* Iron is also very important for extreme endurance, but building up iron levels will take a a number of months and require me to focus on my longer term diet, There is not much I can do now in respect of the 2010 race.
* I drink quite a lot of coffee, and I was surprised to hear that this was not really a concern. On race day caffeine can be useful - it helps alertness and it provides a slight cushion against pain. However these benefits will only be achieved if the body is getting something it is not used to - therefore it probably makes sense for me to cut down a bit on my coffee prior to the race.
Yesterday was the ideal opportunity for me to test out the things I have outlined above, and see if it made a difference. I followed the advice very closely: I had no dry or solid foods, my eating was restricted to 2 Complan meals (one after 3 hours and one after 7 hours), I added glucose and electrolytes to my water, and didn't drink any water on its own at any time. It was probably the hottest day of the year, with temperatures for the most part in the low to mid 20s. We were out for just under 10 and a half hours, covering 41 miles.
Despite the intense heat, I had no problems with cramp at all, which I found incredible. Had I not changed my nutrition strategy there is no way I would have been able to cover yesterday's run without serious problems. Also I had very few problems with nausea or sickness, apart from one small period just after I had taken my second Complan meal. I am sure the reason for that was the fact it was one of the strawberry Complans, with a higher milk content than the more savoury ones. For race day I plan to stick to the savoury ones.
Despite following the advice I still lost a significant amount of weight, so perhaps I was not taking enough on board (I will follow up with the sports nutritionist on this and find out). I monitored all my food and drink intake very closely, as well as my weight. At the start of the run (just before leaving Balmaha) I weighed 87 kgs (13 stone 11). When I arrived at Bridge of Orchy my weight had fallen to 82 kgs (13 stone 0). So I lost 5 kgs (11 pounds) throughout the run - a significant weight loss. My food and liquid intake was as follows:
2 Complan meals
3.6 litres of water/electrolyte/glucose drink;
2 small coffees (about 0.4 litres in total);
2 and a half cups of tea (about 0.5 litres in total).
I am seeing the sports nutritionist again this week, so I'll have a chance to talk through yesterday's run in more detail.
Although my original plan was to do another 35 mile run today from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William, I have decided to give that a miss. Yesterday was very hot and the forecast is for another hot day today. I think I'll benefit more from an easy recovery day today than I will from depleting my body further.