Ultra-Sleep

Picture from Trail Runner magazine

How much sleep we need never really lines up with how much sleep we get, at least for most adults in the United States. About 30% of adults in the US sleep less than six hours a night (I’m definitely in this group). Sure, we think we function alright, but do we really? Many of us are so used to being sleep deprived that it has become our new normal and we don’t know what it feels like to be full rested on a regular basis.

Adults who find themselves in this six hours or less situation during the week usually take advantage of the weekend (or days off) to get a full night’s rest. Not so for ultrarunners who tend to get up even earlier on the weekends than they do during the week to get their long run in before the day really gets going.

Going through life in a chronically sleep deprived state has health consequences and performance consequences. It’s associated with higher risk of mortality and increased chronic diseases.

Athletes need more sleep than most, which makes perfect sense. We spend our “leisure” time breaking down our muscles and depleting our bodily systems. If our sleep is interrupted or cut short, our ability to repair muscle, consolidate memory, and release hormones is compromised.

As ultrarunners, we should be getting seven hours a night minimum and up to about ten hours. Our reaction time (important on the technical trails), accuracy (also useful on trails), and speed can increase with additional rest.

Our bodies have a preprogrammed rhythm when it comes to wakefulness throughout the day-Circadian rhythm. Between the hours of 6-9 a.m. cortisol and body temperature increase waking most of us naturally. Between the hours of 1-3 p.m. we have a natural dip in our energy and then it picks back up between 5-9 p.m. This early evening pick-up means taking a nap after work is difficult and so is going to bed early.

From 2- 6 a.m. is a low point and if you’ve ever run through the night you know that those are the most difficult hours and the most crucial. Having a pacer is essential and a good caffeine plan. Once the sun comes up, you’re re-energized at least for a few hours. Countless ultrarunners start their day between this 2-6 a.m. time, especially, when doing long runs.

Another issue, kind of a tangent, with being out during these hours is our core body temperature is at its lowest. I’ve always said the outside temperature always dips at 2 a.m. but it’s not the outside temperature, it’s my inside temperature. This is something to be aware of when you’re packing your drop bags for the night time aid stations.

So, what’s a runner to do? Let’s start with the “easy” stuff. Do everything you can to prevent your sleep from being interrupted. If you have children, this can be impossible. Next get to bed an hour early or stay in bed an hour later. Get in a 20-30 minute nap over lunch when ever possible.

If you have a hard time falling asleep, establish a bedtime routine. Make sure electronics are off an hour before lights out. Keep lights low a half an hour before you go to bed. Turn down the temperature in your house. Listen to relaxing music or a meditation. Read a book rather than watch TV. Before an event, make sure your taper includes more sleep.

Taper Adaptations

Tapering for a race is really difficult for many runners. I know that there are some elite athletes who don’t really taper at all, although, they may take the two days before a race off. An important, possibly critical, difference between elite runners (many not all) and us not so elite runners is we all work typically full-time jobs. This means we don’t have the same opportunity to recover between our runs during training and thus we reach race day more depleted making tapering more important for the average runner.

I’ve tried both three week tapers and two week tapers. I didn’t find any difference between the two. Again, that’s me. Other people may be different. Tapering is– as many aspects of running are– very runner dependent.

The professional research based recommendation is three to four weeks. This is because a taper  is giving your body the time and rest needed to take all the training you’ve been doing and lock it into place in your various bodily systems.

For ultrarunners, your aerobic system has pretty much reached maximum conditioning. Other system haven’t. There are actual changes down to the protein synthesis level. Some of the adaptations that your  body makes during your taper are:

  1. Training causes minor tears to muscles. The muscle need a chance to rebound and repair.
  2. Immune system needs time to get rid of any inflammation and repair cells.
  3. Hormone profile rebounds which takes some time especially cortisol and testosterone. Both of these become depleted during your training.
  4. Red blood cells become consistently damaged when you’re running high miles, so your having to manage that while training. The taper allows those to be repaired and to increase. This is important for oxygen transportation to muscles.
  5. Metabolic wise, rest allows you to store more  glycogen in your muscles and liver.
  6. Running 100 miles is a mental as well as physical challenge. We also tend to be a bit sleep deprived which has both physical an mental components impacting our performance. It improves your vigor and mood.
  7. Many ultrarunners have some level of dehydration pretty much all the time. The taper gives you time to balance your hydration.

In addition to sleep and reducing your running, nutrition is a major part of recovery. Eat healthy whole foods, which will give you what you  need and reduce the chance of gaining weight close to the race once your body is using less calories to rebuild.

Regardless of whether you run by time or miles, you should reduce your running by 20% each week beginning three weeks from race. You on’t need to reduce the intensity, but you shouldn’t increase it. You can maintain the number of runs per week. It’s very important that you keep in mind you are going to feel better as your body rests and recovers (the point of the taper), but you shouldn’t increase your efforts. You’ll need to use pace rather than perceived effort during your runs. You’re not going to lose any fitness by giving yourself the three weeks to rest and repair.

Here is an easy way to remember the “rules” of tapering:

Trust in your training

Adjust your Calorie Intake

Perfect your race day strategy

Embrace the “free” time

Rest and recover

Coming to Terms with a DNF

At some point in an ultrarunner’s career there will be a DNF, Did Not Finish. They happen for many reasons. Regardless of the reason, in the moment, it feels like an absolutely legitimate reason. Then there is the next morning, where you’ve slept and eaten a real meal, at that time, your reason for pulling out of the race may feel like the wrong decision.

It’s hard not to beat yourself up over, what you see as, a less than adequate reason for the DNF. And maybe some self criticism is warranted, doubtful but maybe. The problem is it gets you no where. It doesn’t help you improve. It doesn’t make the DNF go away. It doesn’t make you feel like getting back out there.

I have three DNFs. All three of them were in the same year! The first was at the Speedgoat 50k. My dropping from the race wasn’t voluntary. I missed the cut off by five minutes. The second was at my first 100 miler, Pony Express 100. I went into the race injured. I had rolled my ankle 5 weeks before and then proceeded to run on it for a relay run for 50 miles. I couldn’t let my team down and knew when I chose to do the relay, I was putting my 100 at risk. At mile 75 of the 100, my knee was so painful I could barely walk. I decided it wasn’t worth risking a long time injury. My last DNF was at Buffalo Run 50 miler. I pulled out 12 miles from the finish with mild hypothermia. I had stayed in an aid station waiting for warm broth. During the time I was there my body temperature dropped, since I wasn’t moving. The next morning I went out and finished the last 12 miles.

It sucks to get a DNF. I remember each of these very vividly. I did beat myself up after each and everyone, especially the Buffalo Run 100. After sulking for a week, I decided I was done and I was going to learn from each of these experiences. I went back and asked myself several questions about each.

What when wrong?

What could have prevented the DNF?

What can I do to include these prevention strategies in my training in the future?

Ultimately, I decided two of the three could have been prevented. I realized my training for Speedgoat was not what it should have been to make the cut off times. For Buffalo, I learned to never stay in an aid station for more than what is absolutely necessary. I talk to my crew about this every time. I also learned how to better educate my crew and how to pick crew who will throw me back out into the cold, even if it’s a blizzard.

You can look at a DNF in two different ways and you’ll likely see both in each DNF you have beginning with the Did Not Finish and concluding Did Nothing Fatal.

 

 

 

Running Preggers: To Breathe or not to Breathe

Remember how great it feels to pull in the fresh air of the mountains until your ribs are at their limit and then to let it out slow just because you can and your lung capacity is impressive as a runner. Well, if you’re in your third trimester of pregnancy (28-40 weeks), you’re missing that ability and those impressive lungs.

Having reached the third trimester, you can see the finish line (even if you’re not ready for it) and you’ll be able to realize those breathing dreams once again and even baby will be expanding their lungs as yours reclaim their glory.

As your uterus grows to it’s max, it pushes on your diaphragm which shifts upwards about 4 centimeters. This also compresses your lungs a bit. This combination means you are not taking in as much air with each breath. To compensate you breathe more slowly. Wait that doesn’t make sense…

The hormone progesterone stimulates your respiratory center in your brain so the air your breath in stays in your lungs longer allowing you to get as much oxygen out of it as you can. There are a few things you can do to help with this feeling of being out of breath all the time.

First, good posture. Make sure your sitting and standing straight. If your hunched over when sitting it’s going to compress your diaphragm and lungs more (and it may keep baby turned sunny side up which is not the optimal position for birth).

Second, keep running and/or exercising. You may have to slow down to compensate for your cramped internal organs. Pregnancy isn’t the time to hit a new personal record anyway. Mostly you want to maintain your fitness level or lose as little as possible. Yoga also helps with it’s use of the breath during poses and it’s breathing exercises.

Third, relax and don’t over do it. Being hyper-vigilant about your breathing is only going to make things worse. Take time to relax each day even if it’s only for ten minutes.

Fourth, if your having trouble with breathing because of congestion try using a humidifier at night. Exercise will also help break up the mucus.

Take heart, your baby is almost ready to be held in your arms rather than in your belly. As baby gets into position to be born, she will drop into your pelvis and you may find it’s easier to breath. This is also called lightening. It usually happens two to four weeks before delivery. If this is not your first child, baby may not drop until right before delivery. As nice as this lightening is on your lungs and diaphragm, it’s not so great for your bladder.

Weekly Miles: My running is very inconsistent at this point. I run on days I feel good and it’s comfortable to run. Other days, baby’s position makes it very uncomfortable. I don’t really track miles. I’m just happy when I’m able to do a little run. Thirty-eight weeks and counting.

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.

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.

 

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.

Running Preggers: Baby Belly Support

A maternity belt is going to be a must have for most running moms-to-be as they near the third trimester. Many women even with the support of a maternity belt decide to stop running during the third trimester because it becomes too uncomfortable. There is no shame in taking a brake during your last weeks of pregnancy ladies.

Keep in mind a belly band and a maternity belt are different. If you’re running, a belly band isn’t going to help support your baby belly. The band allows you to continue to wear your pre pregnancy clothing for a longer time and delays the purchase of maternity clothing. It will cover your belly as your shirt creeps up and it will hold your pants up when you leave them unbuttoned and the zipper more and more down as baby grows.

A maternity belt will help lift some of the baby belly weight up and distribute it more evenly across your back and hips. You can start wearing one whenever you want. I started wearing mine around week 27. I actually tried a bit before then, but found that my belly wasn’t big enough to make any difference. I should have bought a size small rather than a medium, which would have allowed me to wear it sooner.

When you reach the third trimester, baby is about 2 pounds, still pretty small, but over the next 13 weeks baby will add on 4.5-5 pounds, and maybe a little more. Running with a medicine ball attached to your abs that increases in weight every week is tough. Many women begin to feel very tired and have round ligament pain as the uterus grows to its max height and baby’s weight increases. Pelvic pain can be problematic because the hormone relaxin is relaxing those tendons/ligaments holding your pelvis together. You can also have a feeling of increasing downward pressure (not time to exit yet kiddo), which is uncomfortable.

I bought the Gabrialla belt after reading some reviews from other running mamas. Things you want to be aware of when selecting your belt are: first, washability. That thing is going to get sweaty and you’ll want to wash it pretty regularly. Second, regular washing, means you want it to be durable. The third thing to consider is breathability. Being pregnant generates a lot of extra heat, so wearing something around your middle that traps heat in, is not going to work.

The Gabrialla goes around your low back and then under your belly. If you do it up too tight it can push on your bladder. You want it snug and comfortable. My daughter will kick and push at the belt before and after our run, but she is rocked to sleep while we are running. You can wear it over or under your clothing. I wore it over just because I didn’t want to risk any chafing.

I’ve had a few women come and ask me about the maternity  belt when I finish a workout at the gym and I’m always happy to help keep another mom-to-be active and happy.