So my last race report was the big saga of the Lakeland100. I had planned to keep this one a bit more short and concise but soon realised I had a lot to tell, so it’s another saga I’m afraid! I am essentially just “free” writing here so it’s just a bit of storytelling so to speak but hopefully the nutrition bits and training pieces give some specific info.
I spent the month of September building back into a structured training regime. I realised after the L100 that if I really want to improve my conditioning and compete at the longer distance ultra’s that I simply need to run more. Up until then I was running no more than 3, max 4 times per week. Obviously I do other training which helps my fitness but still, ultra running needs miles, you can’t really skimp. I am all about the quality though and not into junk miles so I started to do more specific sessions like 2hr tempo’s, intervals, and fartleks. I also started to run more back to back days. So I would do 2hr runs on consecutive days, this is not something I had done before and I think running on tired legs is an important aspect of the conditioning process.
My plan going into the “new” season was to focus on the series of races run by MightContainNuts. They are a series of 4 races, 30, 40, 50 and another 40miler all based in Wales and take place over the winter and spring months. So first up was the 30miler, in October. It was the heat wave week where temperatures with in the late 20’s, unbelievable for that time of the year. The race route was similar to the same race I did last year so I knew most of the course. The race kicked off on a lovely warm morning and my usual “race onempty” strategy was followed. I did take my usual shot of beetroot juice and double espresso as per norm. I was looking to just use the race as a “re-introduction” since it was over 2 months since my last race which took me a while to recover from. Looking at the entry list, I knew my main competition would be Terry Conway and didn’t really recognise any other potential threats. Terry was the winner of the Lakeland100 (http://terryconway.blogspot.com/) and we had since been in contact with each other a lot to discuss all things ultra ! So the race kicks off and I’m off out front with Terry chatting away. The first few big climbs made me lose some ground on Terry and I was passed by another runner, Piers Stockwell – who raced last year but had finished a couple of places below me. It was a beautiful day and I was really just enjoying the sunshine and the moment. I started to pick the pace back up on a nice long decent and could see Terry and Piers not that far ahead of me. Into checkpoint 1 and I caught back up with Terry who had stopped to fill up his water bottle. Then the two of us ran together and we had plenty to chat about so we were really just treating it almost like a training run. I even made us stop one time on one of the big descents just to take in the scenery! We arrived into checkpoint 2 in good spirits and notice 1st and 2nd (John Warnock)place just ahead of us. Out of checkpoint 2 and we’re still chatting away and somehow manage to go off course. We stopped to consult the map and realised that we missed a turn and the easiest way of getting back on track was to scramble up through some gorse. This was on a steep ascent up to the highest peak of the course so it was a bit of a slog. We must have lost a good few minutes as by the time we got to the top as the 2 leaders were out of sight. I decided to put the foot down and set a fairly tempo pace across the top of the mountain. The chatting stopped and Terry tucked in behind and we both put the head down. I probably pushed the pace a little too much for myself and after about 15mins I decided to just walk and get some food in. I let Terry go off ahead while I just re-charged the batteries. Off I went again to follow Terry and he started to pull away a bit. I then noticed that we were catching John, and I arrived into checkpoint 3 with him. I then managed to pull away from John but couldn’t see Terry or Piers. Into the final 5miles and the heat was starting to get to me. I stopped at the last checkpoint to refill the bottles, and a nice surprise of a caramel slice especially baked by the organisers mother!
Into the last 5 miles then and it was a fairly flat bridleway which is not what us ultra trail runners really enjoy. Leave us up on the mountains and hills where we’re happy, put us on a flat road like path and the fun stops. So it was a bit of a mental challenge. I also noticed that I had far exceeded my finishing time from last year (which was 4hr24); here I was at 5hrs and still not near home. Turned out that the so called 30miler was actually close to 34miles! Anyways, it was a good little test; I kept a pretty decent pace up and finished 3rd in 5hr22. Also won the team prize who consisted of myself, Terry and old vet Bob Smith. Happy enough with how things went, realised I wasn’t as fit as I thought I was but that’s what I wanted to use the race for.
I spent the next few weeks building up my training volume. Extended my local long runs to 4hrs and looked at planning some training camps with the boys up in the lakes. Ended up spending a weekend down in the Brecon’s with Dan Doherty (Irish teammate and top ultra runner – http://runningmad-dan.blogspot.com/) which worked out great. We camped out, weather was perfect, and ran for 6hrs on the Saturday and 4hrs the following day. Plenty of climbing, descending, and mixed terrain. It was exactly what the doctor ordered and it was nice to be able to spend it with an ultra runner of similar ability (if not better!). I also spent some time during November travelling with work over and back to Ireland. I managed to get some nice long runs in up the Wicklow and Dublin mountains and kept up my speed work too. I backed off the bike a bit and made running more of a priority which surprisingly was a fairly new thing to me as I have always kept my training mixed with 2-3 bike sessions a week and 1-2 swims. I was now putting more emphasis on the running with 4 structured runs per week incorporating speed, tempo, long and conditioning work. I even started to do some strength/plyometric type training to focus more on neuromuscular stuff and force production. I won’t go into it here but it’s something I’ve been looking at for a while and speaking with S&C coaches about. I also started using compression garments for the first time and I was finding that they were improving my recovery. So November was a productive month for me running wise and I felt like I was in good shape going into my next race.
Next race was sat 6th, 40miles in the Brecon Beacons. This was a race I won last year which took place in the snow and ice. This year I knew I had more competition with my two ultrarunner friends Terry Conway and Dan Doherty in the mix. Piers from round 1 was also entered so I knew it wasn’t going to be a clean sweep. The weather conditions this year were near perfect with much milder conditions compared to the previous year. Pre race routine was planned as normal, race on empty, use a few pre race helpers and feed early. So since I’m here to talk primarily about nutrition (and I’ve just realised I’ve written over 1000 words so far without mentioning it much!) here’s what goes on pre race
5 days before:
I start upping my fat intake and reducing my carb intake. I do this to increase ketosis and improve fat adaptation. My normal diet is relatively high fat anyway so this doesn’t require much change for me. There are some studies done using this strategy and they haven’t found any performance gains. However, as I’ve mentioned before, they haven’t looked at it in an ultrarunning context, which is where I think fat adaptation has a much bigger role to play. Two days out I try to really reduce my carb intake so that I empty my glycogen reserves. This allows for supercompensation where carb loading is more efficient as the muscle is more open to glycogen storage.
1 day before:
I use this day to carb load. Now I don’t do any silly 10-12g/Kg of carb loading which is what’s recommended. This is not only unnecessary and actually impractical but it can be counter-productive and cause excess weight gain from water retention. So you can go into the race feeling heavy, not ideal. I target about 7g/Kg which is about 450g of carbs for me. I keep the carbs fairly evenly spread out throughout the day, no big “pasta” party or anything, just rice, sweet potato, fruit, and some oats in measured amounts throughout the day. I keep fibre relatively low and protein and fat moderate. Simple enough and easy enough to do.
As always, I race on empty. This means no food beforehand. I do include a few ergongogenic aids and have recently been experimenting with amino acids. One of the big factors governing ultrarunning is fatigue resistance, this comes in many forms from muscular to mental to energy fatigue. One of the causes of neuromuscular and mental fatigue is ammonia build up caused my protein oxidation. Protein can be broken down in the muscle and the amino acids can be used in the Krebs cycle of which a by-product is ammonia. There has been some research which shows that certain amino acids can prevent this ammonia build-up leading to reduced fatigue. Specifically these amino acids are BCAA’s, Ornithine and Citrulline Malate. I’ve looked at the papers and since made my own concoction of these amino acids. Now I will say the evidence is not strong and I wouldn’t advise anyone to go out spending money on boxes of amino acids. I am doing this purely for my own research as there are no studies that fit my situation i.e. racing ultra’s on empty with high fat adaptation. So it’s a total case of N=1, but that’s all I can do for now. So, with the race starting at 7.30am, here’s what I did:
6am: wake, 1 shot of beetroot juice (nice way to start the day )
6.30am: BCAA’s, Ornithine and Citrulline Malate mix, started sipping on it.
7am: strong fresh Java coffee!
So there was a good buzz about the place pre race with everyone getting all their kit and gear ready. I met up with Terry and Dan tochat about the usual things like shoe choice and food ! Thinking about the race, I knew Dan would go out faster than me and that Terry would not be far behind. My intention was to start of steady , build into the race and then finish strong. Play to your strengths and that’s what seems to work best for me. So off we and immediately its myself, Terry and Dan out front. It stayed like that for the first 2-3km before Dan pushed on a bit as expected. Terry then moved away from me, again as expected. I decide to just keep it steady and not go out fast. After 30mins, I was then joined by 3 other guys – Piers, John Warnock and John Clarke. With Dan and Terry out front, still within eyesight, the rest of us stayed within 50m or so of each other. This is how it remained into checkpoint one. The route was tough, a lot of ascending and heavy underfoot. The section between checkpoint 1 and 2 involved technical fast descents and long steep climbs. It looked like Dan and Terry were getting further way, with Piers not far behind, then myself and the 2 Johns. I was feeling comfortable enough, still just settling into the race so the speak. I’ve noticed it takes me 1.5-2hrs to get into my groove. Might be something to do with my “empty” start, might be something to do with my engine, might be something to do with the way I train. Usually there is never one easy answer but what I do notice is that I simply feel more switched on after about 1.5-2hrs of steady running. So that’s how it went into checkpoint 2. I got a quick time check as I passed and was told the front 2 were about 6mins ahead. I hadn’t stopped at either checkpoint at this stage as I had enough liquids and foods on board.
Just a little note on my nutrition during: So I start on empty, then within 30mins I have a banana, for the glucose and fructose, plus ease of digestion. At the 1.5hr mark I had a “Baz Ball”, usually have these on any climbs as I have more time to eat. The Baz Balls are a mix of protein, fat and carbs in the form of ingredients like peanut butter, coconut oil and oats. I was sipping on water and Elete electrolytes but found that I didn’t need that much fluid due to cool temperature and low humidity. My other nutrition aid was “Baz Gels”.. simply made using honey and salt. Again, the honey is a glucose/fructose mix and the salt has all the sodium needed, along with a little potassium. I had about 3-4 of these made up in a small container and just sipped on them when I felt like I needed a quick hit. I did also have a caffeine gel which I used about 4hrs into the race, but that was it. I didn’t use any sports drinks, I find no need for them in general, especially if your fuel needs can be met through food. My approach now to nutrition during races is the same as my normal nutrition, eat clean whole natural foods. Sports drinks, gels, bars etc are essentially “junk” foods. It’s almost hypocritical to eat healthy whole foods as part of your normal diet and then pig out on junk during races. Sports supplements contain all the things I try to strictly avoid when eating foods, things like refined vegetable oils, wheat flour, soya, inverted syrups, synthetic vitamins, artificial sweeteners, flavourings and preservatives. Sure they are convenient and the odd one or two is not going to hurt. But if you train and race a lot and use these products all the time, then you are essentially consuming a lot of junk. There are some companies that use natural ingredients but they are few and far between. Since I’ve studied the nutrition content and requirements of sports supplements I have realised that pretty much everything you need can be sourced from real food. So that’s what I do now, I eat things like banana’s, oats, honey, salt, peanut butter and coconut. All real food that nutritionally provides you with everything you need without any artificial or processed crap. The amount you need to consume is completely individual. There is no set standard amount that we all need to follow as it is totally dictated by the persons fuel efficiency, fat adaptation, race pace and gut tolerance. I know some people that can get through 2-3 gels and bars per hour and others that might only get through 2-3 bars during the same 50mile ultramarathon with similar finishing times. So when it comes to ultrarunning, nutrition during really is a case of listening to the body and going on feel. You might need very little and feel good, you might need big amounts of sugars to feel good, you might function better on more savoury foods. It’s all a case of what suits you. I blend the eating on feel tactic with what I know about the science. I try to get carbs in from a mix of glucose and fructose as I know the transport systems are more efficient. I get medium chain triglycerides in as I know they can be easily used to produce energy. I get some protein in as I know this can protect muscle and possibly reduce metabolic fatigue. I get sodium along with some potassium and magnesium in as I know these help with hydration and neuromuscular fatigue.
Right, back to the race. So out of checkpoint 2 and we start on a long open moorland marshy couple of km’s. The wind was also up to gale force so it was tough going. I was running with John Clarke and suggested we work together and share the work. It actually worked quite well, 1-2mins out front, then tucking in and trying to get some wind protection. We got through it and I was starting to feel strong so pushed the pace a bit as we next entered a wooded section with some technical rocky paths. I started to pull away from John and started to focus my attention on reeling in the leaders. Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4 I ran alone and it was a mix of forest trail and marshy wet trail. I took a bad fall during the marshy section and wacked my shin off a rock. I initially thought that was game over but fortunately enough I was okay, nothing broken. Into checkpoint 4 and the marshals told me I was about 10mins behind the leaders and not far off 3rd place. The next section involved a steep path up towards Pen y Fan and then a traverse across more marshy trail. I was running fairly well and soon started to catch up with 3rd place, who was Piers. I put the foot down on a fast descent and flew past Piers so I knew I was going well. It was close to 5hrs of running at this stage and I was actually starting to feel stronger as I went along, definitely a good sign and also very good for the RFE (race focus energy, fellow ultrarunner Stuart Mills is the man behind this, check it out herehttp://ultrastu.blogspot.com/). As I came off the mountain the next part of the route involved a few road sections and rolling hills. Pretty tough on the legs at this stage of the race but I had recced it with Dan so I knew what to expect. I soon saw another runner in the distance who was walking and it turned out to be Dan himself who had experienced his first race bonk, nothing in the tank. He was ill during the week leading up to the race so it had obviously gotten the better of him. I stopped briefly to see if he was alright but he told me to go on and that Terry was a good bit ahead. So off I continued, now in 2nd place with about 10-12km to go.
The last section took us around the mountains as opposed to up and over them. On paper this looked fairly easy but it actually involved a lot of short hills both on and off road. I was still feeling pretty good and was keeping my pace up. I knew Terry had at least 10mins on me so I knew it would be unlikely that I would catch him. So I was content to just run strong and not let anyone catch me. I finished in 6hr29mins, 13mins behind Terry who had a great race too to take 1st place. I felt as if I could have kept going so I might have to look at my pacing strategy next time as if I have more left in the tank then I need to step the pace up a bit. There is a fine line between keeping a steady pace and running closer to threshold during an ultramarathon so it’s a delicate balance, something to investigate. Apart from that, this was probably one of my best races to date. Not only did I feel strong towards the end but my legs felt a lot less muscle soreness compared to previous races. Mentally I felt good all race and my pre race and during race nutrition was pretty spot on. There is never one reason why you do well or feel good during races. It’s always a combination of things. A lot of the time it’s quite simple and aside from all my training strategies, nutrition and mental approaches, I am now just simply running more!! This ultrarunning game really is absorbing and so enjoyable with the added bonus that I can apply my work. I do obviously like all the nutrition/training strategies as well as competing and doing well but what it really comes down to for me is being in the outdoors and being free! A special note has to go out to the organizers at MightContainNuts who put on another great show. Matt, Barry and the gang are continuously making improvements to the whole set-up which is great to see. Can’t wait for the next race!