Sunday, May 23, 2010


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.


Subversive Runner said...

Intersting stuff Ian. I know Mike Mason has a 'no solids' race nutrition strategy too. In previous years I've had no issues with sickness, eating army composite rations at stops (stew and dumplings/ chicken casserole/fruit dumplings and custard). But in 2008, after that dastardly KFC, I was ill big time on Rannoch.

BTW, who was the nutritionist? Or can't you say. I used to train with Anita Bean years ago, she lives near me and I keep hoping I'll bump into her and cadge some free advice.

Peter Duggan said...

Yep, interesting stuff (Dave took the words right out of my mouth). So, for what it's worth (having tried the gel and energy bar yesterday that came in my Cateran goody bag), I've just been doing some research of my own and came across Hammer Nutrition's downloadable 'Fueling Handbook' which includes a section on 'the 10 biggest mistakes endurance athletes make'. Now of course they're trying to sell you stuff but, considered with that in mind, it's still quite interesting. And there's a bit about tapering that's had me digging out Noakes to double-check my planned strategy (had been thinking of one last really tough hill run as late as next weekend, but swithering now!).

Peter Duggan said...

PS On the other hand, there's always Dean Karnazes with his mega pizzas and cherry cheesecake!

Vicky said...

Really interesting stuff Ian, and good timing too asi am sure we are all thinking about our fueling strategies at the moment.

John Kynaston said...

Thanks so much for posting this.

Without doubt I think it's the hardest thing to get right in ultra running.

To be able to find the right nutrition strategy can make all the difference between completing the whw race or not and also being able to keep running right to the end.

Some new ideas in this post which I'll be thinking about in the next few weeks.

I'm glad it seems to have helped you with the cramps you've experienced in recent races.

Speak to you soon

Tim said...

Hi Ian, I won't be rushing off and trying any of your nutritionist's advice.

Firstly, whilst Complan and Buildup may have all you need, they do tend to induce a certain "looseness of the bowels" which isn't always helpful in an ultra. ;-)

Secondly, eating every 3 to 4 hours? Way too late and too much at once in my opinion. "Little and often" I think is a much better approach. Trying to get 4 hours worth of calories down in one go is just asking for trouble I think.

Lastly, I've tried and gone off putting electrolytes in my water. Fine in theory but what if you go off the taste (as you almost certainly will) as some point in the race? I've experimented with Nuun (which I think is a lot more palatable that rehydration salts from the chemist) but even they get cloying after a while. I've gone back to Succeed capsules which you can take any time.

Given your weight loss on Saturday I'd would have to question the "success" of your new regimen. Admittedly exceptional weather but that's not the kind of weight loss that you could bear in the full WHW race.

Lee Maclean said...

Great to hear you felt so much better using the new regime

All that running malarkey, tactics and stats are way over my head, but food I know ;-)
Like you say, nutrition is as personal as choice of shoes, training methods and the like. Some people at the pointy end might get by on a few gels and a handful of raisins. There are others like my crazy BF who fancy a steak n chips washed down with a pint of Guinness at the halfway mark.

As an interesting wee bit of science on relation to the race. If Saturday was race day you would almost certainly, in the worlds of Sean ‘Lord of the Bridge’ Stone, have been BINNED. You lost almost 6% of your body weight during the course of your run, taking you well over the limit suggested by Dr Chris.

"I therefore recommend that all athletes who gain weight, or who loose more than 4%, be reported to the race marshals, who should seek medical advice."

You made the right choice about not running yesterday. It was damn hot!!

Debs M-C said...

Great posting, Ian.

Like you, I really struggle with eating. During the fling, I only had a few jelly babies. Drank loads of coke and lucozade though. You should try Red Bull shots for caffeine. They do indeed give you wings.

Marco ran with a bloody sponge cake in his pack at the weekend. He certainly doesn't struggle with eating.

Debs x

The Sunday Adventure Club said...

good post Ian. having an eating strategy is really important, rather than just a big bag of goodies which you randomly try to eat from when you're keeling over! keeping it simple is the best way for me, high carb, plain tasting, easily digestible food is what you need & a good energy drink too. the advice you're getting will make a big difference to you on race day, thanks for sharing.

Peter Duggan said...

@Lee, think your quote from Chris's advice maybe suggests a more draconian 'binning' rule than he intended and needs taking in the context of his whole preceding paragraph, including:

'A cut-off point for acceptability, at 4% weight loss, appears cautious and arbitrary, but also sensible which I accept and will apply it in the WHW race as a possible indication for withdrawal.'

On which note (especially that word 'possible') medical advice in individual cases may well be that it's OK to continue.

Now, I was out for a big hill run in the heat on Saturday and still 5lb down on my starting weight (from 163.6 to 158.6) the following morning. Which probably means I'd lost a fair bit more than that (when 4% would have been about 5½lb) while still out... but, still feeling fine and running strongly, I'd have expected Chris (on referral for 'medical advice') to look at me, ask me how I was feeling and then give me the green light. Whatever, I'd have been very, very disappointed to have been 'binned' for that and don't think it's that black and white!

kate said...

thanks for sharing. some really useful info, and those in the comments too.

i thought i had my food worked out but after a ridiculous hot run at the weekend i need a re-think. maybe the liquid diet is best, as chewing is too hard when it's so hot.

Peter Duggan said...

Thought I'd made a mistake with my calculations in previous comment and I had, because 4% for me on Saturday would have been about 6½lb, not 5½lb. But that's almost immaterial when I'm guessing I'd have been past that at some stage too.