Thoughts on Running


First, let me start off with a disclaimer – I am not an orthopedic doctor, physical therapist, certified trainer, or coach.  I am, however, a runner.  Eight years, almost 13,000 miles, and over 200 races have taught me lots of lessons, which I am hoping to share here with anyone who’s interested.

I wasn’t always a runner.  Though, I’ve been relatively active my entire life, I was never an “athlete”, and I was certainly not a jock.  I was just an ordinary, average guy, who found himself overweight and out of shape at the age of 38.  I have since lost 40+ pounds and, more importantly, gained a great deal of fitness.  In early 2008, I thought people who ran marathons were “special” and I had never even dreamed that someone could run 50 or 100 miles.  Yet only a year later, I ran my first marathon.  A couple of years after that, I ran 3 - 50 milers and within the past 12 months, I've run 7 100 mile races.

I’m not bragging here, I’m just making the point that with a little bit of time and perseverance, ANYONE can run a marathon (or ultramarathon), if they enjoy running.

Motivation
Find what motivates you – running with a club, running with a friend, trail running, etc.  For me, it’s running lots of races, an average of over 30 per year.  Knowing I have a race in a few weeks keeps me pushing through the training and helps me to turn my back on that extra cookie (most of the time).  Bigger races, farther out on the horizon, create yearly goals.  I put these on my calendar 6 to 9 months in advance and try to fit my training and other races around them.  I also find that, for me, races are the best training.  No matter how hard I work during a training run, I will push even harder during a race.  Additionally, if I was building my whole year around a single race and happened to have a bad day, it could be rather devastating and demoralizing.  This way, if I have a bad race, I can’t afford to dwell on it because there’s another one coming right up.  And, a few bad races out of 30+, don’t really matter that much.

Another good motivator is tracking progress.  I use both a spreadsheet and the Garmin Connect website.  I personally get a sense of satisfaction when I enter in a run or workout, or a new low weight.  It also helps me to compare what I’ve done from year to year.  There are lots of websites, programs, and mobile apps that can be utilized.  Tracking you workouts and runs will provide clear indications of the progress you’ve made.  And in the beginning, progress is pretty quick, so tracking it can be quite exciting.  The point is, everyone needs to find what motivates them through those slow, lazy times, especially during the holidays and the long winter months.

Foam Roller, ITBS & Hip Bursitis
Other than shoes, one of the most important pieces of equipment for runners is a foam roller, which is as the name implies, a roll of firm foam, 6” in diameter and typically 18’ long.  It’s about as simple as it gets and can be bought for as little as $15, but it can save your running season.  What does it do?  Well, it actually doesn’t do anything.  It’s just a cylindrical roll of foam – no batteries, electric cord, USB plug, etc.  The key is what YOU do, and that is to simply lay on it and roll back and forth.  This may sound and look gimmicky, but believe me, it’s not.  You can look up various pictures and videos on the net to get a good visual.  The unique thing about using a roller (and the same applies to the massage stick) is that it stretches the tendons, bands, and muscles at the point of contact, typically more in the middle, rather than at the joints or connection points.  Most active stretching (where you bend your body into positions to stretch) puts stress on your joints and tendon connections.  This isn’t typically a bad thing, but it can be at times, depending on where the pain and irritation comes from.

ITBS (IT band syndrome) is one of the more common running issues (especially as you put on more miles).  This is basically a tightening of the tendon-like band that runs from your glutes, down the outside of the thigh, across the outer part of your knee, to the upper part of your lower leg.  A tight/irritated IT band typically exhibits itself via pain along the outer part of the knee, or just above it (check with your doctor if you’re not sure).  Hip Bursitis is the irritation of the bursa (small, jelly like sac) on the outside of the hip, and is also caused by the IT band tightening, putting pressure, and rubbing along it.  The pain is typically felt at the top, outer point of the thighbone.

Believe it or not, you can overcome these without the need to take time off of running (though it’s best that you don’t overdo the mileage while it’s flared up).  All it takes is regular work on the foam roller.  Lay on your side with the roller under your thigh and simply roll yourself back and forth so the roller moves from your hip, down to almost your knee (don’t lay right on your knee joint).  If you have ITBS in only one leg, you will notice a distinct difference when you roll on each side.  On the “good” leg, it should feel like a strong, but manageable pressure massage.  On the “injured” leg, it will be extremely painful at first.  You will probably not be able to lay your full weight on it for days or even a couple of weeks.  But, within a couple of weeks, you should be able to roll your full weight on it and feel a significant relief of the ITBS.  It should go away within a month or so, but don’t stop rolling.  The roller not only cures ITBS, it can prevent it in the first place, and that’s the best thing to do!

Same as with the ITBS / Hip Bursitis rolling, you can utilize the foam roller on just about any other part of your body – quads, calves, glutes, back, etc.  Just modify the direction of roll and the weight concentration to get the most impact.  Again, don’t just save this for a “cure”, use it to prevent issues and keep your body loose and nimble, as well as working out the tightness after a hard work-out.

Massage Stick
The massage stick works in much the same way, with two main differences.  Instead of using your body weight, you’re using your arm strength to create the pressure.  Additionally, because of the much smaller diameter, the focal (pressure) point is much smaller.  The stick can be used in many of the same place as the roller – quads, IT band, calves, etc.  One advantage of the stick is that it is much more portable.  First, it takes up less space, so it’s more easily transportable.  Secondly, you can utilize it while sitting at your desk or on the couch.  There’s no need for a 3’x8’ area of open floor space.  The one disadvantage is that utilizing your arm strength, it’s hard to generate as much pressure as the roller on parts like your upper legs.

I found the stick especially useful in overcoming other “typical” runner’s issues – Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis.  Use the stick on the back of the lower leg, all the way from the top of the calf, down to just above the heel.  As with the roller for ITBS, the point here is that you’re stretching both the tendon and muscle structure that it’s connected to, thereby reducing the tightness that is causing the inflammation and irritation.  I did suffer through a sever case of Achilles tendinitis and wrote about my fast recovery here.

Plantar Fasciitis
Most runners (and many occupations that involve long periods of standing) have had to deal with plantar fasciitis.  Unfortunately, many get the same advice – “stop running”.  While stopping for a while or at least easing up on the mileage might be necessary in extreme cases, most runners can press on without any ill effects.

First of all, stretch the calf muscles well after every run and workout.  Then, apply ice to the bottom of the foot by freezing a bottle of water and rolling it under the foot for 15 to 20 minutes.  A night splint or sock (both of which keep your foot at a 90 degree angle while you sleep) can bring relief within a single night or two.   You can get these for $20 to $40 at a drug store or online and they are extremely effective.  Good orthotics can make a huge difference while running.  The best are custom made (usually $250+), but a $40 pair of store bought orthotics can help tremendously.  For extra support (if you don’t want to spring for custom orthotics) you can tape the arch of your foot to provide that extra support.  Taping is very effective, but you have to be careful (especially on the longer runs) that the edges don’t start to slip and cause friction/blister issues.  I have had great success with KT tape in other areas, but for arch support, I’ve always preferred simple, non-stretchy athletic tape.  You should also get in the habit of doing foot strengthening exercises with a towel or golf ball (while watching TV or sitting at your desk).  For the long haul, stretching and using the massage stick cannot be overemphasized as it’s the tightening of the plantar fascia and the calf muscles that it attaches to that cause the irritation.

Softball
I first read about using a softball in Ryan Hall’s book.  You use it just like a foam roller, but beware – due to its smaller diameter and harder structure (despite the name), it can hurt much more than a foam roller.  This is good if you’re trying to really work an area hard, but it may be too much if you’re already starting out with pain.  The main advantage is its portability.  You can easily throw it in a travel bag.

Stretching
There seems to be lots of conflicting info out there on stretching these days.  I happen to be a very strong believer in stretching.

One area of agreement is that you should never stretch cold muscles.  ALWAYS warm up before stretching.  Ideally, you should warm up, then stretch, do your workout, and then stretch again.  In my experience, stretching helps muscles recover more quickly and keeps joints loose and flexible, allowing for a wider range of free/easy motion.

Barefoot Running
If you haven’t heard of it, there’s this crazy movement over the past few years that encourages barefoot running.  You’re probably thinking “this is for aborigines in some southern continent”.  Well, it isn’t for aborigines, nor is it all that crazy.

The theory is that humans were born (and anatomically evolved) to run, and it’s only been over the last few thousands of years that we started putting “stuff” on our feet.  And only over the past few decades have we been continuously adding foam padding to these foot coverings.  Most shoes, until lately, have had ever-increasing padding, especially in the heel, with the intention of cushioning the running foot strike.  The problem is that the more you raise the heel by adding padding, the more you cause heel strikes.  With a typical heel-elevated running shoe, you would literally have to run on your tip toes in order to avoid landing on your heels.  With a raised heel, you are basically encouraging your body to heel strike, and while the cushioning eliminates pain to the heel, it doesn’t actually reduce the impact stresses on the rest of your body.  Landing on your heel sends a tremendous amount of force through your foot, ankle, leg, hip, back, neck, all the way up to your head.

If you have a cat or a dog, look at their feet closely.  Like all other quadrupeds, they actually run on their toes.  Their heels never even get close to the ground.  Heel striking is simply unnatural, even for humans.  There’s a common saying in the barefoot running world – “if you land on your heel, you’re going home”.  Try just jumping up and landing on your heel, barefoot – Ouch!  Running barefoot forces you to land on the ball of your foot.  It simply forces a more natural and efficient running style - one that puts considerably less impact stress on the bones and joints.

As great as this all sounds, I am not a barefoot runner.  But, there are some really great lessons to be taken from this.  I use minimalist shoes and love them for most situations (except 24 hour races, where I do need the padding).  I also do some of my training in Vibram 5-Fingers, which are basically gloves for your feet, with protective rubber on the sole, but minimal support, and no padding.  Doing just some of my training in these has greatly improved my form and strengthened my calves.  I have found the biggest gain in my downhill running, where most of us tend to heel strike the hardest.  Barefoot (or minimal shoe) running forces a shorter stride and faster cadence, both of which will increase speed and reduce the risk of “running” injuries.  There are lots of testimonials on the web from people who claim that barefoot running rid them of plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, ITBS, knee issues, etc.  But then again, there are just as many accolades for maximal shoes like Hokas and Altras.  I personally like Altras since they have a zero drop from heel to toe and a wide toe box to reduce rubbing between the toes.

I would highly recommend mixing in some barefoot (or nearly barefoot) training.  This can be done in a gymnasium, on a smooth track, or on the treadmill to start.  All it takes is just a few minutes at a time to force your body into a good running form.  Just be careful to start with VERY short runs, especially if you’re going completely barefoot.  If you do even a few miles your first time out, your cramped up calves may keep you home-bound for weeks.

Treadmill
Most people love it or hate it.  I’m pretty much in the hate it camp.  Out on the road or trail, I don’t even listen to music.  On the treadmill, whether I’ve got the iPod on, or am watching a captivating show on the iPad, the minutes seem like hours.  I know lots of runners who do much of their training on the treadmill, so don’t let me discourage you.  It’s strictly a preference thing.

If you do lots of training on the treadmill, keep in mind that it’s easier than running on the road.  Just because you’re able to crank out 8 minute miles in the gym, doesn’t mean that will translate to the road.  It’s not a big deal, just make sure you do enough running outside to get a good feel for what you will be able to do during a race.

While I generally despise treadmill running, I think it can serve some very specific purposes.  While running on a treadmill, you can spend more time concentrating on specific elements – cadence, foot strike, arm swing, posture, etc.  It’s much easier to focus on these elements when you don’t have to pay attention to the road and surroundings outside.  Just don’t get so caught up that you trip and roll off the back of the treadmill.

Tapering
A taper (not to be confused with the South American tapir) is the period of time before a race (typically 1 to 2 weeks) where you modify your training program to be ready and fresh for your race.  The general misconception is that you simply stop running altogether, or just do some lite jogs.  While you do want your body to be rested, you don’t want your body to get accustomed to running at a slower pace.  If your goal pace for the race is a 9:00 mile, don’t spend the 2 weeks before the race jogging at an 11:00 mile pace.  Sure, you will be rested come race day, but your body may have a hard time remembering what it’s like to run 9:00 miles.  By all means, cut back on the mileage and intensity of the training, but continue to do some (or most) of your running at or above race pace.  Believe it or not, running a moderately fast 5K a day or two before your big marathon will give you much better results than “resting” on the couch.

I don’t taper very much.  I’ll keep the mileage low for the last few days before a race, but earlier in the week, I might run pretty hard.  I found that, for me, resting too much is counterproductive.  The day or two before an ultra, I’ll typically stick with the bike or elliptical, with very few miles of actual running.  I want to keep the muscles working, but I’ll give the joins a break from the pounding.

The other critical part of tapering is mental.  You want to go into the race confident and relaxed.  Some short and “easy”, yet fast, training runs in the week prior will do that.  Make sure your muscles and joints are loose and ache-free.  Get some good sleep, especially the couple of nights before the race.  Some people find it hard to sleep the night before a race, and many times you will need to wake up quite early to get to the start.  That’s why it’s imperative to sleep well the 2 to 3 nights before.

Recovery
You’ve just completed the big race you’ve been working up to and your body wants some of the food and treats they serve at the finish line, followed by an afternoon (or maybe a few days) of laying on the couch.  Whether your big race was a 5K or a 50K, your body may want to be immobile for a while, but that is the absolute worst thing you can do.  As soon as you lay or sit still, your muscles and joints will seize up.  You’ll feel the worst of it over the next day or two, as you need help from your 90 year old grandma to make it up or down a flight of stairs.

Don’t let this happen to you!  The first two things you want to do after crossing the finish line are getting rehydrated and stretching.  Yes, many runners relish the beer garden that has become so ubiquitous with finish line festivities.  I’m not going to try to convince you to turn your back on the beer, but make sure you also get some hydrating liquids (water or diluted sports drink) into your body as soon as possible.  This post-race rehydration becomes more critical as the temperatures rise and the race mileage increases.  After a quick 5K in chilly weather, rehydration may mean a single cup of water.  After spending 5 hours on an 85 degree marathon course, you may need to drink a couple of quarts of water and sports drink over the next hour.  The point is that your body can’t start fixing itself if you’re dehydrated.

The other critical thing to do after the finish is to stretch.  Make sure to do this within minutes after the race, while your muscles are still warm and flexible.  The longer you wait the less benefit you will get from stretching and the more likelihood of actually causing injuries.  Stretching properly while the muscles are still warm greatly improves blood flow to the muscles and joints and will eliminate (or greatly reduce) the mummy-walk that so many suffer in the days after their big race.  Find a place on the grass and spend a good 10 to 20 minutes stretching every muscle you can while your friends and family stand around and congratulate you.  Of course, make sure you keep taking sips to rehydrate during all of this too.

Re-fueling is important, but listen to your body.  If the thought of putting anything solid in your stomach makes you nauseous, take your time and start slowly.  Post-race food should consist mainly of carbs and protein to re-fuel and repair muscles.  Be cautious, as many finish line festivities include lots of unhealthy fatty foods.  While they may be tempting (and you’ve earned the right to treat yourself), too much heavy food too quickly after the race may be quite disagreeable to your stomach.  Low fat chocolate milk has a good blend of carbs and protein.  I’m not lactose intolerant, but after heavy activity, it doesn’t always agree with my stomach, so I’ve switched to chocolate Silk (soy milk).  It’s got all the good carbs and protein, but seems easier on the digestive system.

Active Recovery
While your body may be screaming for rest after the big race, inactivity is your worst enemy.  I’m certainly not suggesting running your first marathon, taking a lunch break, and going out for a 10 mile run in the afternoon, but don’t just snuggle up with your blankie on the couch.  Keep your legs moving as much as you can, later that day, and over the next few days.  For most people, this will not mean  pounding out more running miles.  Your muscles and your joints definitely need a break, but that break should not mean inactivity.  The key is to keep the muscles and joints moving, keeping the blood flowing and preventing stiffness and pain from settling in.  This “active recovery” can take the form of swimming, easy biking, walking, or some time on the elliptical.  The key is movement without impact.

Cross-Training
I’m not a “serious athlete”.  This is my first marathon.  Do I really need to cross-train?  The answer is no, you don’t NEED to cross-train, but you SHOULD.  Why? Because you can increase your training without dangerously increasing your mileage.  Because you can prevent injuries by strengthening other muscles.  Because you can continue to train, even if you can’t run for a while due to an injury.

A typical training plan will limit the number of miles that you should run and that maximum is generally only increased at 10% per week.  This is actually quite sensible as too much mileage, too quickly is an almost guaranteed way to cause an injury.  So let’s say your plan has you running 20 miles per week right now.  Depending on your pace, that might equate to 4 hours of running.  If doubled to 8 hours and 40 miles, you might as well make appointments with the orthopedic doctor and physical therapist right now.  However, if in addition to the 4 hours/20 miles, you add in a couple of hours on the bike and a couple more on the elliptical, you’ve got nothing to worry about.  You’re burning more calories, strengthening muscles, pushing your cardio vascular system, and probably reducing your chances of injury than by just running alone.

So what kind of cross training should I do?  First of all, it should hopefully be something that you enjoy doing and typically not include the pounding that’s inherent in running.

Biking is great for leg speed.  Try to spin at 90 to 100 rpm.  Do not grind.  This will not only add to the leg muscles, but it encourages a faster cadence while running.

The elliptical is good for similar reasons as the bike.  Make sure to keep the cadence up.  The elliptical is more closely related to the running motion.  You can work on things such as upper body form, breathing, cadence, strength, etc.  I would recommend not using the handles on the elliptical, whether they are stationary or movable.  The goal is to mimic the running motion and you would never run with your arms pumping out in front of you like the handles force you to do.  Instead I would recommend either just swinging your arms freely, like you were running.  Or, if you want an upper body workout, use hand weights, but keep the arm swing just like you were running.  This is especially good training if you run trail races and carry hand-held bottles.  Women are usually more sensible in the case of using hand weights, but the guys invariably go for 15lb or heavier.  Don’t be a dumbbell!  You cannot swing your arms properly for 30 to 60 minutes, at 90+ pumps per minute, with 15lb weights.  I do this regularly and only use 3-4lb weights.  You want something to tone your arms and chest, not turn you into Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Stair climber is good for leg strength.  It’s basically like doing repetitive single leg squats.  Taking long, slower steps builds strength, but shorter, faster strides are more akin to running.  Be sure to mix it up so you get the benefit of both.

Swimming is a great zero-impact sport.  There is simply no pounding (or even weight bearing) on your body.  It is not very effective at improving leg strength, as most of the swimming work is done with the upper body.  It is however, very effective at strengthening the core and pushing the cardio vascular system, both of which are necessary for running.  If you want to get some leg work in the water, try pool running.  It can be done with or without a flotation belt (I prefer with).  You basically stay in the deep end of the pool (you don’t want your feet to touch bottom) and run.  The advantage of the belt is that you can keep your arms in a true running motion, as opposed to using them to stay afloat.  This is a great workout and can be especially beneficial during injury times when you simply can’t handle the pounding of true running. I did quite a bit of pool running during a 6 week break necessitated by a hip injury.  My hip could not take even 5 minutes of running on a treadmill, but I was able to do hours of pool running with no pain.  At the end of the 6 weeks, I was able to jump right back into a 25K, and a 50K the following week.  While not quite at peak performance during those initial races, there is no way I could have even finished them if it wasn’t for the hours spent in the pool.

Strength Training
Runners have an irrational fear of strength training.  I spend extra money for light-weight shorts and shoes.  Why would I want to carry around all those extra pounds of muscle?  True, an Olympic weight lifter would have a hard time on a marathon course, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.  You want some strength, not big bulky muscles.  Leg strength specifically will help you get up those hills, or propel you in the later miles of a long race.  Leg curls and extensions will strengthen your quads, ham strings and glutes, the biggest leg muscles.  Aim for higher repetitions, rather than high resistance and you won’t need to worry about too much bulk.  You can even get a great leg strength workout by just doing one-legged partial squats.  Stand on one leg and squat down just a couple of inches (you don’t’ want to bend your knee more than 10-15 degrees).  This is a great exercise that can be done while watching TV, at work, or while traveling – no equipment necessary.

Strength training is also critical for the core (your torso).  Your legs may seem to do all the work while running, but remember, they’re connected to your core, and so are those swinging arms.  The abdomen and back do quite a bit while your legs are propelling you down the road.  Most core strengthening can be done without much equipment, which means you can do it at home.  Sit-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, and planks (front and side) are all great ways strengthen the core and build stability.

Negative Splits
Simply put, a negative split is when you run the second half of a race faster than the first.  That’s for the pros, right?  After all, I’m just a recreational runner.  I start out strong, and of course I get tired, so I slow down as the race progresses.  Believe it or not, you will not only run a faster race overall, but a much more enjoyable one if you learn to run negative splits.  Don’t you want to cross the finish line with a burst of speed and, though winded, feel energized?  Running negative splits isn’t some kind of magic reserved for elite athletes.  It is simply about pacing yourself properly so that you have adequate energy stores to finish the race.

I have NEVER had a bad race because I started out too slow.  Yet every single bad race that I did have (unless it was due to illness or dehydration) was because I started out too fast.  This may not be too applicable in a fast 5K where you’re basically going all out from start to finish, but the longer the race, the more critical proper pacing is.  Once your body gets pushed just a little too far, it’s very difficult to recover.  That may be the difference of running 10 second per mile too fast.  It doesn’t sound like much, but we all have our limits.  If yours is an 8 min/mile pace for a marathon and you try to run 7:50’s, you will crash and burn and probably resort to walking and shuffling to the finish.

YOU CANNOT BANK TIME!  I cannot stress that strongly enough.  So many newbies, and even experienced runners go in with the mentality that they will “bank time” while they are strong and fresh, only to do the death march towards the latter parts of the race.  I’ve not only seen this in every single race, but I’ve been guilty of it myself early on.  Let me say it again - YOU CANNOT BANK TIME.  But, you can bank energy and speed and this is just as applicable to 5 min/mile runners as it is to 15 min/mile runners.

So how do I find this magic pace?  First, start with realistic training runs so that you can determine your realistic race time, and thereby your pace.  Next, start the race slowly.  It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the race and find yourself running 30 seconds to a minute faster than you should in the first miles.  Don’t do it.  Start a little farther back in the pack if you need to.  If your realistic pace is 8 min/mile, start out with a couple of 8:15’s, then slowly speed things up by only 5 to 10 seconds per mile.  If you make these accelerating modifications gradual enough, your body will adjust easily.  You’ll be surprised that you can push out some 7:45’s towards the end, passing plenty of other runners, and feeling exhilarated as you cross the finish line.  You should practice this during your long runs.  Don’t start out as fast as you can, only to wither away.  Start with the intent that you will speed up by 5 or 10 seconds every mile and push to the end.

Nutrition
This is the most individualistic element of running so the following is based strictly upon my experience and preferences.  You need to figure out what works for you (and preferably do it before race day).

I discovered very early on that I simply cannot have a good run (or any other workout) too soon after I eat.  There are two elements at play here.  First, I can’t have physical food in my stomach.  The sloshing around that is caused by running is not just uncomfortable, it speeds up the journey through the digestive system and 30 minutes into a run, I have to scramble to find a convenience store or port-a-potty.  Secondly, and most importantly, I can’t afford to have too many calories in my stomach as it upsets my blood sugar levels.  If I ingest any calories within 2 hours of a short, hard run, I start out strong for the first 15 minutes and then I quickly and catastrophically crash, to the point where I grind to a shuffle or walk.  Then it takes at least 30 minutes or more for me to recuperate.  For marathons and ultras, I find that I can actually eat a bit of a breakfast 1 to 2 hours before the race.  It usually consists of a smoothie, orange juice, bananas, fig newtons, etc.

It works out great for me that 95% of races are in the early morning.  For the shorter races (half marathon or less), I have a full dinner the night before, preferably a little early, and do my best not to overdo it.  Then I don’t have any food or other calories at all until I’m 30 minutes into the race.  If my stomach is too grumbly in the morning, I may munch on a couple of pretzels or pita chips, but very few, and at least an hour or more before the start.  Again, this is what works for me and I’ve figured it out through trial and error.  There are plenty of runners out there who can be seen squirting gels in their mouths prior to the start, or munching on bananas and bagels.  Figure out what works for your through your trainings and stick with it on race day.

During a race, feed your body the type of calories that can be most easily digested and absorbed. This means mainly carbohydrates.  That’s why they make so many gels.  They’re basically gooey sugars.  You don’t even need to physically chew them (except when the temperatures get real cold and they stiffen up).  The last thing you want during a typical race is to have to chew your calories and then have the stomach divert precious blood supply to absorb them.  For the most part, stay away from fats, fiber, and most protein (things change when you get into ultrarunning where you’re out there for 10 to 30 hours).

There are many different brands of gels or gu’s and each one makes different flavors and formulas.  Try as many as you can and figure out what works (and more importantly, what doesn’t work) for you.  Some have a bit of protein, some have electrolytes, some have caffeine.  As mentioned, in cold weather, some of them get thick and difficult to swallow, while some stay runny.  I’ve learned to stomach pretty much any brand or flavor of gel during a race, but if it’s a cold start, I’ll bring along a couple of my own low viscosity gels until the day warms up.

There are also an increasing number of chews/blocks on the market.  Some people find them more palatable than the gels but beware of cold temperatures.  Those yummy chews can turn to stiff taffy in cold temperatures.  It defeats the purpose if you expend more energy chewing and picking bits out of your teeth than the calories you’re getting out of them.

You need to figure out how many calories your body can handle while running.  You typically burn 100 to 125 calories per mile.  That equates to 500 to 1,500 calories per hour that your body is burning through.  The crazy part is that the harder the effort, and thereby the more calories you are burning, the less your body is able to digest calories.  When you’re in an all-out effort (whatever pace that is for you) all of your body’s resources are directed to your running.  Muscles, lungs, heart, etc. are all working to propel you forward.  That means that there are very few resources (such as blood flow) that can be diverted to the digestive system to break down and absorb calories.

Things vary greatly depending on the length of the race and your effort.  During an all-out marathon effort, I will burn about 1,000+ calories per hour or about 3,000 calories total.  If I tried to ingest 1,000+ calories per hour, I would be spewing my guts by the side of the road pretty quickly.  The body simply can’t process that many calories during such an effort.  I typically ingest about 100 to 200 calories per hour during a good (3:00 to 3:20) marathon.  The other calories come from the glycogen stored in my muscles and I know I will need to replenish the energy stores after the race.

Again, this is very individualistic, but during a short race (1 hour or less), I won’t eat anything at all and simply run on the glycogen stores in my muscles.  With 1½ hour races, I will typically eat 1 or 2 - 100 calorie gels.  With ultramarathons (5 to 10 hours for me) I will eat more calories and more of them will be “regular” food such as PB&J, cookies, bananas, etc.  Because of the reduced effort, my body is more able to digest regular foods on these longer races.


One of my go-to staples for ultras has become Doritos.  Despite the fact that I have gravitated towards a more natural and healthy diet, Doritos taste great, and have a good combination of fats and carbs, as well as lots of sodium.  All of the characteristics that make them bad as a couch-potato snack, make them ideal for ultras.  I like to stash a small bag (the kind you get for $.50) in each of my drop bags.  I can stick it into my waistband and eat it while out on the trail.  I usually crush the chips into small crumbs to minimize the chewing.  And unlike salt capsules, the salty taste makes me thirsty, therefore forcing me to increase my fluid intake - win-win.

I have also found that ginger snap cookies, Justin's nut butter packs, and Honey Stinger waffles are great for mixing up the type of calories I consume on along run.

Hydration
As you see on the news with hunger strikes periodically, the human body can survive for many weeks without food.  However, it can only survive a few days without water.  More importantly, athletic performance plummets dramatically as the body is deprived of water.

Proper hydration starts in the 2 days before the race.  Drink plenty of water.  Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and even some herbal teas that all act as diuretics and serve to dehydrate, even while you’re ingesting liquids.  Make sure you drink plenty the night before the race.  Don’t skimp just to avoid getting up to pee.  Keep hydrating the morning of the race, but cut back in the 30 minutes before the start.  You don’t want to be sloshing off the start line.

Hydration during a race is somewhat dependent on conditions and duration.  In moderate heat, for races under 1 hour, I may take a quick gulp or two, or I may just pass the aid stations by altogether.  As the temperature rises, or as the race length increases, I try to drink more and more.  During a typical marathon, I will try to hit every single aid station (usually at 2 mile intervals).  That means a drink every 14 to 15 minutes.  While that may seem like a lot, keep in mind that you typically only get about half of the partially filled cup of water into your mouth.  If it’s an especially warm day, I’m going to try to grab two cups at each aid station.  On ultras, where I’m going to be out there considerably longer, I will try to drink at least 30 ounces per hour.

Hydration is somewhat like nutrition in that the more intense the effort, the harder it is for your body to absorb the liquid.  Luckily, on a shorter all-out effort, hydration is not that critical.  As the mileage increases, hydration becomes downright critical, yet the effort is reduced, allowing for better absorption.

Keep an eye on your urine!  It’s somewhat normal to not pee during a race of 4 hours or less.  When you do visit the port-a-potty, take a close look at the color of your urine.  If it looks like coffee or blood, that’s a very bad sign.  If it’s after a race, take it easy and drink fluids and replace electrolytes.  If it’s during a race, fix the problem immediately.  If your performance hasn’t already plummeted, it soon will.  Stop and take the time to replenish both fluids and electrolytes.  Walk for a while if you need to.  I had this situation arise at the half way point of my first 50 miler.  I spent a whole 10 minutes at the aid station, a wise investment, not a waste of time as some may think.  In addition to filling both my bottles for the trail, I downed 2 full cans of club soda (I like the taste and feel of it, especially on a hot day) and swallowed a couple of S-Caps.  When I left the aid station, my belly was sloshing, but the liquid quickly got absorbed and I ran the second half faster than the first.  Had I rushed through the aid station to “save time”, I would have turned into a walking zombie and would have lost hours.

Electrolytes
How much do you need to worry about electrolytes?  Similar to hydration, it depends somewhat on temperature and duration.  For a 1 hour race in cool temperatures, you don’t need to worry at all.  For a 9 hour race in 80 degree temperatures, electrolyte replacement is absolutely critical.  I drink a little bit of “sports drinks” during races, but prefer mainly water.  All sports drinks have some sort of electrolytes in them.  They just don’t agree with my stomach that well, and if they’ve been sitting out on an aid station table in the Colorado sun for a few hours, it’s like drinking warm urine.  Not very appetizing when you’re trying to force yourself to hydrate.  I try to augment my water with S-Caps, though there are a few other brands out there.  They are basically salt capsules that you can easily carry in a small baggie and pop into your mouth every 30 to 60 minutes.  Many ultras now serve them at the aid stations.  Some marathons will serve little salt packs.  These are not quite as effective as the more balanced electrolyte capsules and it can be hard to get a pack of pure salt down the gullet.

The deal is that you lose electrolytes as you sweat.  During a long race on a hot day, my black shorts are covered in white salt and so is my neck.  That salt is critical to the body’s ability to soak up and process liquids.  After my first 50K, I was so dehydrated, I passed out as I bent down to pick up a can of soda.  I knew this was a bad sign and tried to rehydrate by nocking back numerous sodas and waters.  The problem was that I was not replacing the electrolytes, so 20 minutes later, my sloshing belly gave up and all that liquid came back out again.  This was the first time in 30 years that I had vomited and it was all liquid.  I learned my lesson – when you’re that dehydrated, you have to include electrolytes.

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