Carbohydrate Intake and Uptake

Carbohydrates are the energy source most runners use to fuel their training and their racing. Wait? most runners. That’s right there are some runners out there who use fats, protein, and even nothing. But this blog is about the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is what our bodies burn to fuel our muscles, nerves, and brains. Our bodies can store glucose as glycogen in our muscles, but it’s limited. When we run out, we hit the infamous WALL, if we haven’t properly fueled. Our blood also has glucose floating around. Maintaining our blood sugar level is how we prevent hitting, or reduce the impact of, the wall.

Ultrarunners and even some marathon runners struggle with GI issues and are constantly on the look out for ways to optimize their fueling strategy and minimize GI distress. It seems like a never ending cycle, and I’m not here to tell you there’s a way to end it, but there are different things to experiment with and thereby, possibly minimize your discomfort. In our efforts to maintain our blood sugar level and avoid the wall, we may overload on the carbs which causes sloshing, cramps, bloating, and other nasty things in our stomachs.

So the trick to minimizing GI issues, is knowing how much to intake to maximize uptake, but not overload the system. This blog is also for those who don’t suffer from GI issues, since we’re going to look at how much carbohydrate a body can uptake.

Depending on the intensity you’re running at, you’re going to run out of glycogen stores withing about 90 minutes to three hours as an average endurance runner. To maintain your blood sugar levels you need to start taking carbs in right before you begin your race or a long training run. Then, you’ll need to take more at regular intervals to meet that 60-90 grams per hour.

What we know is that regardless of how many grams of carbohydrates you intake, your body can only uptake between 60-90 grams an hour. What determines whether it’s 60 or 90 is the type of carbohydrate your taking in. Your body can process about 60 grams of glucose an hour. So if all you’re getting is glucose, don’t try to put more than 60 grams an hour in.

To get to the 90 grams an hour, you have to combine the 60 grams of glucose with 30 grams of fructose (although sucrose is a combination of fructose and glucose it’s not processed the same so avoid sucrose as a source of fuel). The reason your body can handle the 90 grams of carb processing is because glucose and fructose take different paths to be absorbed by your body.

Sixty grams of glucose produces about 232 calories. Thirty grams of fructose produces about 120 calories. For a grand total of 352 calories replaced during every hour if you play your cards right.

Dextrose and Maltodextrin are made from starches, but are absorbed like glucose. This is nice to know because fructose is very sweet and sometimes sweet things become intolerable during a race. Maltodextrin and Dextrose are not as sweet as glucose and so they can be combined with fructose to get the same benefit of the 90 grams of carbs.

Water intake with the carbs is important. Your digestive system needs water to break things down and get it into your blood stream to be used. Without water, it just sits in your stomach (which is why dehydration causes GI issues). If you put more than the 60-90 grams in an hour, your body is not going to be able to absorb them and they will just sit in your stomach causing problems.

What if you’re feeling depleted, but can’t stomach more food/gels/chews? You can rinse your mouth with a carbohydrate rich drink and spit it out. This will make your brain think that carbs are on the way and give you a little boost for a little bit, but unless your close to the finish line, you still need to figure out your GI issue.

 

How many carbs do I burn when running?

Carbohydrates are one source of fuel our bodies use to provide energy for our daily activities and for our runs. Fat is the other source of fuel our bodies use. Carbohydrates have to be replaced during training and racing, but fats don’t. How much and how quickly we burn through carbohydrates and fats depends on a variety of factors. Understanding how many calories we burn and where it comes from can help us dial in our nutrition plan for race day and for training.

When we run fast and for shorter distances we burn mostly carbohydrates. As our distance increases and our pace decreases we begin to use fat as a fuel source too. We begin to use fat at slower long distance events because we have a lot of energy stored up in fat, even very thin people. Fat takes more oxygen to burn so if you’re running hard, it’s not a good source of energy. Fat also takes longer to burn, so if you’re running fast, it’s not a good source. If you’re running a 5k-half marathon, you’re tapping into your carbohydrate stores and burning very little fat.

This is the core of the belief that endurance athletes can perform well on a low carbohydrate diet. The problem comes when the same athlete tries to push hard and go fast. I raced and trained on a low carbohydrate diet for 18 months and was fine, unless I wanted to push my limits and then…I died. Despite being low carb (under 50 g a day), my body still could not burn fat fast enough to sustain hard effort. So I switched back to a higher carbohydrate diet.

One way to figure out the ratio of carb to fat that you are burning is to use your heart rate. To do this you need to know what your maximum heart rate is (220- your age. This is a guestimate). During your run, check your heart rate. At 70 percent of your max heart rate, about 50 percent of your fuel comes from carbohydrates. At 75-80 percent of your max, it increases to 65% carbohydrate.

So a person who is 150 lbs, running at a 7 mph pace (8.5 min/mile) for one hour burns about 782 calories. If that puts the person at 70% heart rate that’s 391 calories from carbohydrate. At 75-80% heart rate that’s, 508 calories from carbohydrates. The same person running at a 5 mph pace (12min/mile) burns 544. Because they are going slower, the amount of calories coming from carbs is less and the amount coming from fats is more.

The American Council on Exercise has a physical activity calorie counter that is based on your body weight, duration of exercise, and intensity. You can find it here. There are a bunch of different tools there to try out, if you’re curious.

Once you know how many calories per hour you’re burning on average during your runs, you can begin to understand and build a strategy for resupplying your body with those calories. Your body cannot process enough food to be able to make up for the amount of calories lost through carbohydrate burn if you maintain a high intensity. The most you can hope to process per hour is about 352 calories. We’ll get into how to maximize that in the next post.

 

 

Protein Intake

We all hear so much about carbohydrates, but we don’t hear a lot about protein. Many runners think that since they’re not trying to gain muscle mass protein isn’t as important. And that is where they would be wrong.

Protein is essential for people who are trying to build muscle mass, but endurance athletes need just as much and ultrarunners may need more. The recommended amount of protein for the average Joe is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For endurance athletes the recommendation is 1.5-1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. For ultrarunners, it jumps to 1.8 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Why we need so much protein? because we push our bodies on a regular basis. And we don’t just push them a little bit. We push them beyond what most people call reasonable. We need the protein to repair those micro tears that occur through our regular training. We need the protein to strengthen our muscles when we’re doing our weight lifting throughout the week. Finally, protein is converted into energy by our bodies, requiring us to take in a little more to make sure we have enough to repair and strengthen.

Our protein intake should be spread out over the day. You’re body can only process and use so much protein at a time so taking more than 25 grams at one time doesn’t do you a whole lot of good. Eating six smaller meals throughout the day rather than three large meals, makes spreading protein out much easier. You don’t have to use protein shakes either. There are many healthy sources of protein to fit any eating lifestyle. Obtaining all of your protein from animal sources has its health consequences. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you need to make sure you are getting your protein from a variety of sources to ensure you’re getting all nine essential amino acids (there are more amino acids, but your body can produce all but nine of them).

Another myth is that you need to take in so much protein within a specific length of time after your workouts because your body is primed for absorption. This is true when it comes to carbohydrates, but not for protein. There isn’t a do or die time frame for getting it in after a workout. That said, it’s best to get it in as soon as you can so you don’t get behind in your intake for the day. Also, protein can help with the absorption of carbohydrate after a hard workout. This is only the case when your body is carb depleted. Ever heard of the 4:1 carb to protein ration after a hard workout? It comes from this benefit.

Your body’s ability to absorb protein when it is working, like in a training run or a race, is very limited. Most people are fine with about 1% of their fuel intake being protein. Much more beyond that and you could suffer some GI issues because protein is harder for your body to break down, which means it could be sitting in your stomach sloshing around for some time.

Training Framework

Training has many different aspects to it, but I think we all have a tendency to focus on the physical running part more than anything else. Running is definitely one of the defining aspects of our training, but our training should include much more than just running.

When anyone asks us what our training looks like, we immediately go to how many miles we’re running and how many days a week. They might as what we’re training for and we’ll throw out the name of our goal race or possibly just the next one on the schedule.

Even if you’ve never really thought of it, our training encompasses more than just running. Training can be broken down into physical, psychological, and nutritional. Making sure you take the time to consider each of these separate from the other, guarantees you’ll be thinking about them and adding them to your training plan in some form.  You can set goals related to each of these different aspects of your training.

Physical training includes your running, strength training and rest days. Running is at the core of our training and it is our goal. We want to run for life not just for the next race and because of that goal all of these other aspects of training get pulled in. Being the best runners, we can be means we need to address speed, endurance, and strength in our training schedule. If you want your training to mean anything, you have to rest. Without rest our body cannot adapt and get stronger.

Psychological training includes strategies for dealing with down times during a race, lack of motivation in training, boredom, going out too fast, and rest. Ultrarunners know finishing a race hinges on pushing past the low points, and there will be low points. Getting through months of training and any injuries takes mental fortitude like you wouldn’t believe. Being prepared for these challenges is critical to getting to the starting line let alone the finish line. Psychological rest is being able to find other things you enjoy that reduce your stress level because if you get injured and have to take time off, you need to have other things you can focus on to get you through and back to running.

Nutritional training includes day to day nutrition and hydration, race day nutrition and hydration, and recovery nutrition and hydration. All runners think about race day nutrition, but not all of them think about their day to day nutrition or their recovery nutrition. The same goes for hydration. Yeah, we all laugh and say we run so we can eat whatever we want, but for most runners eating ice cream, fatty burgers, pizza, and French fries is not going to help you reach your running goals. There may be an argument for recovery though, at least for your postrace meal. Our body gives what it gets. Try different ways of fueling and hydrating your body during training, and you’ll be able to dial it in making your race a success.

Limiting our definition of training to just our weekly running schedule or our next goal race is short sighted and won’t get us what most of us want, which is to run healthy and strong for the rest of our lives.

Running Preggers: Trail, road, or treadmill?

Sometimes we don’t have much of a choice about where to run, but some of us are lucky and have many options. Over the last few years, close to 100% of my running has been on trails. It has been amazing, but now I have to adjust back to being more flexible about where I run. I hate having to run anywhere other than in the mountains. I really do. But in reality, I know that there are actually few runners who are able to run exclusively on the trails.

Running while pregnant makes you take a lot more into consideration when you are choosing your running routes. Safety and listening to your body become even more important when you’re pregnant. I’m not saying we runners throw caution to the wind when we’re not pregnant, but when it’s just you, you’re more willing to deal with uncomfortable conditions and slightly higher risks.

During the first trimester, and longer for some women, you must contend with being tired and not feeling well (morning sickness). Both of these can put a huge damper on running, especially, if you have the option of sleeping in later and just running on the treadmill or road instead of driving to the mountains.

Throwing up while running is not something unusual in the ultrarunning world, but it’s also not something we want to deal with during every run either. Choosing a short loop route closer to home or a treadmill when morning sickness is lurking around every corner is more appealing. Then if something goes wrong, you have the option of stopping right away and getting home or at least somewhere more comfortable quickly.

The trails are ideal for the increased urination problem, at least for those who have no qualms about peeing in the woods. Roads make it difficult because you have to plan routes with bathrooms at regular intervals. However, that may not solve the problem. In my experience, there is no predictability to when you will need to go. Sometimes it’s every thirty minutes; sometimes it’s every ten. I can’t seem to make it longer than 45 minutes when running. What’s worse is you may not realize you need to go until you bounce just right and then you have to go RIGHT NOW.

Falling is something you want to think about too. When I wasn’t pregnant, I didn’t like falling, but the chance of falling never stopped me from bombing down the side of a mountain. Now, I think a lot more about the risk of falling a route poses. Early in pregnancy falling is really unlikely to harm the baby. Even into the second trimester, baby has a lot of room to move and is protected by muscles and amniotic fluid. As baby gets bigger, they don’t have anywhere to go to get out of the way of an impact making the risk of falling increase throughout pregnancy. The shift in your center of gravity adds to the likelihood of falling too. As does the instability of your joints because of the hormone relaxin (more on this in another post).

Weather is another thing that plays a bigger roll in deciding on a running route when you’re pregnant. I’ve always said there’s no bad weather, only bad gear, but when you’re pregnant, that’s different. Extreme high and low temperatures have a bigger impact on you when you’re pregnant and ice. Rain shouldn’t be too problematic as long as you stay warm. Ice and snow are another problem entirely (see previous paragraph).

As far as calories go, they get used up quicker the further along you are in your pregnancy. In the first trimester you shouldn’t need to adjust calorie intake. Starting with the second and then throughout the third (and if breastfeeding) you’re going to need more calories, 300-500 extra per day. This could mean taking something small on shorter runs. A two-hour run was no problem without calories for me, now that I’m just past twenty weeks pregnant I’m starting to feel the drag in the last 30 minutes.

Air quality is the one thing runners, along with everyone else, pregnant or not, should take into consideration when deciding where to run. You need your lungs and heart. Running when pollution is thick in the air will increase your risks for health problems in the present and in the future. One thing that the ULTRA research study has uncovered is a higher rate of allergies and exercise induced asthma in endurance runners and one of the hypothesizes is because we’re out in the pollution more than the average person, we develop these types of problems more than others.  When you’re breathing for two, it’s even more important for you bite the bullet and run indoors on a track or treadmill.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and will have a Happy New Years!

My running update: I’ve developed a bit of pain in my left knee, which I think is begin caused by all the treadmill running and lack of foam rolling. I’ve backed off my miles this week, but plan to bump them back to the 36 miles as soon as my knee is feeling better.

Aid Stations

I’ve talked about aid stations a few times and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but the volunteers at aid stations do a lot of work. For the past three years, my friends and I have put together aid station 13 at the Salt Flats 100, which is at mile 89.7. It’s kind of an unpleasant place as far as the course goes.

It’s about a half mile below a mountain saddle. It’s really the last climb in the race and they stop you before you hit the top! Although I’m glad my aid station is not right in the saddle. This race can be very winding, rainy and snowy all in the same race. This year was no exception, although, we had the best weather this year compared to the last two.

As a runner and an aid station captain, I think it’s important to have something special about your aid station. Our is pizza. We love pizza. We have a propane stone pizza oven and bake pizza right there for the runners. They can have it cold or hot. It only takes a minute to warm it up after we’ve baked it. We buy a bunch of pizza’s from Papa Murphy’s Pizza and it’s been a beautiful thing for three years. The pizza is always a hit, cheese is the favorite. By the time runners reach mile 90 your stomach is either screwed or starving.

This year we also had birthday cake out there because it was one of our volunteer’s birthday. The cake did not get as much love as the pizza, which surprised me. I would have eaten it at mile 90 (I will eat birthday cake here or there, I will eat birthday cake anywhere). Maybe there was too much frosting.

One of the things I find the most difficult, particularly in a smaller race like Salt Flats, is keeping broth and romen noodles warm. I wish we had a microwave. Keeping the romen simmering or warming on the stove turns everything to mush and keeping it going causes it to turn to steam and disappear. Having warm choices in the dead of night when the wind is howling and the rain is coming down is critical.

Vegan and vegetarian options are necessary to have as well. Many ultra runners are health conscious and environmentally conscious. We spend so much time in nature and among the wild things of the earth, how can we not become apart of it. There are many products which are “accidentally” vegan and easy to have at aid stations: oreo cookies, sweedish fish, hummus, tortillas (no lard or sugar), fruits, and veggies of course.

The strength of the human body and mind is amazing. It’s inspiring and rewarding to be able to give back to the sport I love so much.

Running for Weight Loss?

Many people start running because they want to manage their weight. Losing weight can be very difficult for a multitude of reasons. It’s hard to be hungry and say no to things you love to eat. It’s also difficult to force yourself to go to the gym or exercise when your energy is lagging because you’re eating less.

Exercise, such as running, is only one piece of the equation of losing weight. Losing weight may seem simple, eat less than you burn each day. But…it’s not. People are horrible at estimating calories going in and calories going out. Keep your plan reasonable for your lifestyle, simple to implement and bring your awareness along.

People start and stop weight loss plans all the time. Part of the problem is they are not seeing results or they get stressed and give up. Implementing a diet or exercise is a step forward and doing both is even better. But it all comes down to practicality.  The research out there shows that the most effective diet is the one you can stick to regardless of its approach (low carb/high fat, paleo, gluten free, whatever).

It’s the same with exercise. Do what works for you. If you can only fit in three twenty minute sessions a week, do that. Don’t succumb to the pressure of five to seven days a week for an hour if it doesn’t fit your life. You can always work up to it, if you want.

You don’t need to starve yourself to lose weight. You need to be aware of what you are eating and make healthy choices. Eating aware means not only knowing the quality of what you are eating, but when you are eating, and how much you are eating. Many of us put food in our mouths unconsciously; we pass by the candy bowl on the secretary’s desk; we grab a quick snack and a big gulp when we put gas in our cars. Eating more slowly allows your body to recognize when it is full. Using smaller plates or leaving space on larger ones will help prevent over eating. Remember you don’t have to clear the food off your plate. And if you have children, you don’t need to finish their food.

Foods low in sugar and high in protein and fiber will make you feel full longer. Eat as much unprocessed fruits and veggies as you can get your hands on. If you are having a sugar craving, eat berries or mangos. Consuming less processed sugars will also reduce your cravings for them. Eat a breakfast with high protein, which will reduce snacking before lunch. It will also reduce calorie intake throughout the day.

Make sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day. Your body can send hunger signals when it is actually thirsty. Reduce your intake of drinks filled with sugar. We consume 400 calories a day on average through our choices of drinks. It’s very easy to drink up to 800 or more calories a day with our soda and sweet coffee drink consumption.

So what are the keys to weight loss: reasonable for your lifestyle, simple to implement, and awareness.