First Ultra?

I love running and I want everyone else to love running, so I try to make this crazy ultrarunning thing easier for others to wrap their minds around and jump in. Here are my eight quick tips for runners who want to make the leap to ultrarunning:

  1. Physical Training.

Training must be a priority and it must be consistent. You don’t have to run a hundred miles a week to be an ultrarunner. Many ultrarunners run 60 miles a week and complete 100-milers. Your training does need to be race specific. If the race has mountains, you train mountains. If the race is flat, you train flat. If it’s going to be hot, run in the heat. If you’ll run through the night, train in the dark.  Weekly long runs, up to 20-30 miles, are a must. Back-to-Back runs should be done at least a few times throughout your training. Speed work is good to include, but not necessary. Be careful, speed increases your risk of injury.

  1. Mental training.

In ultrarunning, training your mind is as important as training your body. There will be dark times during the race where you question your ability to go on. Positive self-talk, mantras, and remembering how you’ve overcome other difficult times can get you through them. My favorite is, no matter how dark it gets, the sun always rises.

  1. Rest.

An injury is the last thing you want to have as you near your goal race. Taking a rest week every fourth week by cutting your miles back by 20%, will decrease your risk of injury and help build your endurance and strength. Listen to your body and take a rest day when needed. It’s better to take a break early in training than push through and have it get worse and force you to rest late in training.

  1. Strength training.

It’s more important to add strength training than to cross train or to stretch. Core and hip strength are critical to maintaining your running form and preventing injuries. Two to three days a week is enough. If you have time add in squats and deadlifts with low repetitions(4-5) and maximum weight 4-5 days a week.

  1. Nutrition plan.

Plan what you’re going to eat during your race. If you’re going to take stuff from the aid station, know what’s there. Train with what you plan to use in the race (this goes for gear/clothes too). Relying on gels and chews is not enough for most ultrarunners. Train with solid foods that are easy to digest, high in carbs, low in protein and low in fiber. Use caffeine strategically. Stop using caffeine a month before the race, so you can use it to stay alert during the night portions of the race.

Know your hydration needs. Drinking to thirst isn’t enough during an ultra and electrolytes are a must.There are a lot of sports drinks out there, find one that works for you or use salt capsules. Pack enough for the whole race in your drop bags and with your crew.

  1. Body Functioning issues.

Plan for dealing with blisters, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, nausea, cramps, aches, and general pain. We all hope we don’t have to deal with these issues, but if you’re caught unprepared they can ruin your race. I keep a blister kit with my crew and a small one in my hydration pack. I also have ginger chews, antacids, Imodium, and Icy Hot. I avoid any pain medication.

  1. Crew/pacers.

Chose happy supportive people who won’t let you back out of your goals, even if you’re crying and limping. Family and spouses are not always the best for this. Finding crew and pacers who have experience with ultrarunning is going to be very helpful to you. If you don’t have anyone with experience, you’re going to need to educate them as best you can. See my page on the Ultra crew.

  1. TAPER wisely.

Trust in your training.

Adjust your calorie intake to match your decreased training.

Perfect your race day strategy.

Embrace the “free” time.

Rest and recover.

Hydrating, It’s Complicated.

Staying hydrated is essential to being able to sustain a good pace on race day. Too much or too little water can cause serious problems for runners. Maintaining optimal hydration is more complicated than we’d all like.

There are many factors that play a role in your hydration during training and races. We all hear the pervasive message of 8 glasses of 8 oz of water a day, but is that right for everyone? It’s not even close. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much fluid a person needs each day. Some factors that impact your recommended fluid intake are: the type of food you eat, your activity level, your body fat percentage, and your acclimatization to the heat.

Another recommendation we hear a lot is to drink to thirst, but once again the phrase, “it’s complicated,” rears it’s head. When you’re exercising, especially for extended periods of time, your body may not signal you to drink because of imbalances in your system. You need to be looking at other objective measures such as the amount of fluid you are taking in, the temperature, the color of your urine (we’ll talk about this more in a few paragraphs), and any GI issues you’re having.

You’re unlikely to need to hydrate during a 5k or 10k event. For a 1-2 hour run, you’ll need water, but not electrolytes. If you’re running five plus hours, you’re going to need some form of electrolyte replacement strategy. If you’re between the 2-5 hour range, water is necessary and electrolytes would be helpful but are not necessary like they are after 5-6 hours. Electrolytes are helpful in the 2-5 hour range because they help you hold onto the water you’re consuming rather than it just going straight through you.

 

Most ultrarunners use some type of electrolyte supplement during training and in races. There are lots of options as far as different sports drinks, powders, and tablets/capsules. It’s likely that you’ll want a variety of options when you’re racing because things change and some times something that has worked throughout training suddenly stops working. Sports drinks usually do double duty by providing you with both carbohydrate and electrolytes, so make sure you have options for both when the drink doesn’t work so well. Aid stations typical fare will consist of foods with both carbohydrate and with sodium, the main electrolyte you need, so keep a mental note that you’ve taken in some electrolytes there too.

After a run or a race, there’s no need to ingest a sports drink to replenish your electrolytes. Your body will be able to balance it out within the next 24-48 hours. If you have another run within that time frame, however, drinking a Gatorade is probably a good idea.

One way runners often judge their hydration is through urine color. The problem is there are a lot of things that impact your urine color, so it’s not always the most accurate. You can have clear urine because your body doesn’t have enough electrolytes to hold onto the water so it just spits it back out. The best time to judge hydration with urine color is when you first wake up in the morning because it’s had time to accumulate. The first urine in the morning tells you about your hydration the day before. So if you track your hydration and exercise, you’ll get a good idea of what your body needs for different workouts.

 

 

 

Chasing the Cut Off

There is almost nothing worse than missing a cut off time during a race. I’ve done it and it sucks and it leaves you wondering what went wrong and looking at all the places where you “know” you should/could have picked up the pace, but couldn’t get out of the mental funk you were in.

Cut offs are not put in place by race directors just to encourage runners to move their butts. They  set an end time for the race for both runners and race staff/volunteers. Race costs can increase when emergency and safety personnel are required to be out there for longer periods of time. It also becomes problematic if there are any road closures or access restrictions put in place due to the race event. Liability increases as participants cognitive and physical abilities diminish with the length of time they are out on the course. And lets face it, we are more cautious about jumping into a race if we think the time lines are not within our ability or we really focus our training to make sure we’re in the best possible condition to make those cut offs.

The ultrarunners who chase cut off times throughout a race are some of the strongest among us. They keep their head in the run and keep moving forward as quickly as they are able too. It takes a significant amount of fortitude and determination to keep going when you’re barely making cut offs. In my personal opinion, ultrarunners who chase cut offs or who are out there for more than two sunrises are stronger than those who finish under 20 hours.

I’ve run sub 24 hour 100 mile events and I’ve run 35 hours and 46 minutes (36 hour time limit) 100 mile events. Give me the 24 hour finish any day. Sure you get a big energy boost when the sun comes up on day two, but after two hours that’s totally gone and putting one foot in front of the other becomes more difficult with each step.

Running a 100 is hard and you’re going to suffer on some level, but the longer you’re out there the more suffering there is and the longer you have to endure it. Runners who chase cut offs are inspiring. They give me strength to push hard when I want to quit because I know they are still out there and I know they are not quitting.

So for all of you who have chased cut offs and those who will chase cut offs in the future, please know, you give us all strength. Don’t give up, a finish is a finish even if you make it by a fraction of a second.

 

Running Preggers: Vein Popping

Popping veins may be every body builders dream, but as a pregnant runner it’s not something you show your friends with joy and enthusiasm. It’s more along the lines of shock and horror. Varicose veins are another one of those lovely pregnancy symptoms. Not all pregnant women have to deal with them.

Varicose veins appear during pregnancy because your blood volume increases and at the same time the rate at which blood flows from your legs to your pelvis decreases. This increases the pressure on the veins in your lower body and can cause them to become enlarged.

Another contributor to varicose veins is the increase in progestin levels, which dilates veins. The pressure of the uterus on the inferior vena cava, the vein that carries blood from the legs and feet to the heart also adds to the possibility of having vericose veins.

There are a few things you can do to minimize and/or prevent varicose veins during pregnancy. First don’t sit or stand too long. Changing position is your first line of attack. Next is don’t wear high heels (none of you wear them anyway because your runners, right?). Wearing high heels weakens your calf and can shorten (through tightening) your Achilles tendon.

Third, wear compression socks or sleeves on your calves or you can go full out and get maternity support hosiery. Fourth, don’t cross your legs (like you could if you wanted too) during pregnancy. Fifth, elevate your legs every so often to improve circulation. Sixth, sleep on your left side. This takes the pressure off of the inferior vena cava I mentioned earlier.

Finally, exercise. Specifically, running and/or walking. The idea is to have strong calf muscles which promotes good blood flow in the lower legs. Other than these suggestions, there isn’t much you can do about the vein popping while your pregnant.

Varicose veins that appear during pregnancy typically go away within three to twelve months after baby is born. But if they don’t, you’ll be joining the ranks of 1/4th adults in the U.S. who develop them during their life time.

When they don’t go away what’s happened is the small valves within the veins that prevent blood from getting backed up are not working like they should and the blood pools and increases the pressure in the veins. The body then tries to widen the veins to compensate and they end up bulging and thickening.

Varicose veins that don’t go away after pregnancy or that you develop outside of pregnancy should be monitored by a doctor. They can cause achiness, heaviness, throbbing, cramping and swelling in the legs. They are treatable and seeing someone about them sooner is better since they can indicate a more complicated issue.

 

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.