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Old 03-12-2012, 07:59 PM   #1
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Long-distance Race Nutrition/Prep for Beginners

Reposted from FB note that I wrote for people at CF Brunswick who are about to do a 50K trail event. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong and site your sources, document your experience or link to better. I'm no longer an Endurance-specialist, so my knowledge is outdated and was probably wrong back when I was severely addicted to LSD (I still am, but I know how to fight it now). I don't pretend to be an expert, this is more a Lessons Learned than anything else.

My background: 2 full IRONMANs, 4 halves (last two on consecutive weekends accident), 6 years of Crossfit, too much LSD (Long Slow Distance), umpteen 10k's, marathons and 5K's like candy. 2003, 2004 All-Navy Triathlon Team.

If you've spent $100 on a race, $100's on training/clothing/transportation, spend another $50 to figure out what kind of race food you'll be able to chow down. You spent at least 6 months training for a big race. You spend a weekend and a lot of energy doing the race, and take significant risks doing so. Shouldn't you make the effort to try out different gear solutions for the race ahead of time, given that you're investing a lot of time and effort and money already - and that a few pieces of gear can make all the difference in success or victory?


Check your preferred nutrition information source for specific recommendations on food/drink source+calories+fat/protein/carb ratios, but realize that when you're tired, wired and not thinking clearly you're not likely to behave like you do when you're fresh. That extends to eating/drinking. Even Lance Armstrong forgot to eat on a stage (see "Beat the Bonk" below), and you're not a professional. There is some evidence supporting including protein in your race nutrition, but the overwhelming majority should be carbs.

If you like the flavour of one certain brand and are used to that consistency you're more likely to grab that drink/gel/food. If it tastes like crap it might just come right back up in a race. If you're forcing yourself to eat there's something wrong. Too much effort or not enough training your belly to eat on the bike/run prior to the race, or not the right tasty flavour/product. I am liable to puke at the sight and/or smell or feel of a PowerBar, but I can handle 1 gel/hr in a big race, not more than a few hours in a row. For some reason I like 2-3 flavours of Endurox but not much other drink mix stuff - but it's the wrong protein/carb/fat ratio so I have to dilute it and eat some other stuff, too. Proper prior planning prevents ****-poor performance.

What to buy?
- Experiment, experiment and experiment. Try sample sizes. Try every flavour of gel that you can get your hands on. Try Endurox watered down (usually a recovery drink). A gel goes down easily if you're running. Solid bars, not so much. Drink mixes weigh a lot. Read the directions and the protein, carb and sugar amounts in each thing you put in your body. Some ultra-runners swear by cheeseburgers. Talk to people at your local running store, and try one of everything. If something tastes good you'll use it when you really need to. Try gels with and without caffeine - it's the only legal performance-enhancing drug that I know of, and you'd be at a disadvantage if you didn't ingest some caffeine during race day. For Creatine research, see SFW

You did try all this stuff in training, during a run or a workout, right? If not, you screwed up. How do you expect your body to perform in a race when you're throwing all kinds of new variables at it in an environment that it's never been in before? Reduce the number of new variables on race day, and increase the number of variables you evaluate in training.

Racebelts - by far the simplest and easiest solution most of the time. Can be nothing but a shoestring or piece of 550-cord tied around your waist with safety pins to hold your race number and some gels (works really well, cost: $2), to a $100 solution with interchangeable pouches and custom gel flasks and water bottles. Conveniently slides around your waist if you like running with your race bib behind you but have to have it in front for the finish line and pictures.

Camelbaks/Backpacks - I don't recommend this solution for anything but the longest and most demanding off-road races. They tend to bang around and be too heavy and usually there'll be water along the way.

If you're running you should be super-hydrated starting out, end up having to pee at least halfway through a marathon for all but the very extreme top level athletes - and you should know exactly where you can pick up water on the course. Or diluted Gatorade (know your personal favourite flavours, and how much you can take), or diluted Coca-Cola or Orange Juice or if it's cold, Chicken Broth. This is the one time in your life that it doesn't really matter if you get some extra sugar.

Clothing - most race-specific clothing comes with pockets. There's no shortage of light-weight jerseys and even windbreakers that work very well in long races, have plenty of pockets and can be the difference between a really big problem out in the middle of nowhere when the weather turns bad, or a successful finish. I personally prefer long-sleeve shirts and a wide-brimmed light hat to protect from sunburn, but if I'm really gunning for someone or a specific time, I might adjust my risk-taking and go light, making sure to have pockets for a gel or two and trust in what's provided on-course - assuming I can check what they'll have before I travel to the race. Usually what they had the year before is a good guideline, but have a back-up plan.

Ankle/wrist/shoe-pockets: Not recommended for competitions. Reason why is that your hands and feet will be oscillating millions of times during that race. Extra weight at the extremity distance from your midline will cost you multiples in energy wasted. Don't even wear a watch if you don't have to. But don't cut your hands off just to save weight, please.

Don't run with music playing in your ear. It's disrespectful to your fellow racers who can't tell you that they need to pass or that there's a problem. It will contribute to permanent hearing loss since the speaker is so close to your eardrum. It's dangerous in terrain, on roads and in the woods. Race officials can't yell warnings to you. It may or may not be classified as cheating in age group competitions. If you insist, then only wear one ear-piece, and keep the volume down. Switch ear to ear to help avoid hearing loss.

Figure out what you're eating and doing the day/week before the race. Full IRONMAN/ULTRA tapers are usually 3 weeks or more (gradual tapers!), but if you're like most athletes you'll go bonkers doing nothing or little, so get some easy sprints/visualization/transition training in. Be over-RESTED rather than over-TRAINED going into an important race. Figure out what you need to accomplish your goals in the race, whether just to finish or to beat your best mate or go sub-10hrs. Sleep is a good thing. Breakfast is a good thing, figure out when and what you're eating, and how busy/crazy your race-day morning will be. If you're sore starting a big race then you screwed up. And don't get stuck in a travel position where you can't race in your training shoes and don't have race shoes available and end up buying a pair of race shoes the day before the Paris Marathon.

Carbo-loading: The research is disputed. Paleo people like Robb Wolf speak against it, though the evidence is equivocal. Google it, make up your own mind. Eat food that you like and enjoy yourself. Don't go crazy and no alcohol. [link deleted]

Changing your diet is something you do in training, not the day before a race. If you've had bacon and eggs for breakfast your entire life, that's what you're having for breakfast on race day, too - just earlier, probably, since most big races start early and you have to get from your location to the start and make sure your stomach has the right amount of junk inside it when the gun goes off. Try to eat 3-4 hours before a race, then maybe top off with a gel or a paleo chocolate chip cookie 1 hour prior to start if need be.

Long race: slower start, slower pace - therefore you can handle more in your belly, less warmup required since you're asking less of your body right out of the gate.

Short race: faster start, faster pace, you're asking more acceleration from your body early on, and things are going to bounce around a bit more. So have less in your belly and do more warmup.

Drive or recon the course. Run part of the course, esp. out of the Start and into the Finish (esp. any transitions for Triathlons). You can only learn so much looking at a topographical map or an elevation change graph. Be ready and know what will happen at what stage of the race. People who say "I had no idea that hill would be that bad" have no excuse 99% of the time. They screwed up and didn't prepare. They might be better athletes than I, or have trained better - but you can beat them by doing some homework and showing up a day or two early to check things out.
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Old 03-12-2012, 07:59 PM   #2
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Re: Long-distance Race Nutrition/Prep for Beginners

Know where your stuff is. Visualize and roleplay every stage of the race. Take a 10min nap. Listen to your favourite pre-race song over and over and over again, then it'll play in your head for the next 10hrs (I personally prefer Pantera's "****ing Hostile" or Rob Zombie's "Superbeast"). Or they'll play some Britney Spears over the loudspeakers right before the gun goes and then you're screwed in the head for the next few hours - horrible true story.

Have it all planned out. Clothes, where you're going (check the day before to see where you're running/picking up bike), what you're drinking. Have alternatives for unforeseen circumstances, like the weather is colder than you thought it'd be. If you don't care much about your finish time, get your favourite, most comfortable run/bike/training clothes and go be happy.

The last thing you do before the race is go pee. You should be super-hydrated by now. Then the endorphins and adrenaline kicks in and you …should be okay. Your mileage may vary. Adjust risk continually. Am I drinking too much? Is the line to the bathroom too long, should I just have a disposable water bottle in my hand as I wait for the start? Will there be porta-potties along the course? What's my emergency back-up plan? Do I have a few very lightweight napkins tucked away somewhere just in case? Live this type of life long enough and you'll have something bad happen during a race.

A lot rougher on your stomach than taking in nutrients on the bike portion of a triathlon. Eat/drink/gel too much and go HUUUUUUUURL. Not enough and pass out. Get your clothing wrong and it'll be really nasty cold which will affect your belly again. Sunburn can really mess you up, so prepare for it. Go out too hard and pay the price later. Luckily not many people care if a triathlete or an ultra-runner can walk the next day, so it's ok if you barely have enough energy to sustain yourself past the finish. Chicken broth can save you as the night falls and it gets cold. Many a triathlete has been saved by diluted Gatorade or flat coca-cola.

Do you like chafing on the inside of your thighs or bleeding nipples? I don't either. Bodyglide and/or shaving and make sure you know how fabric X will interact with your skin when you're sweaty, cold/hot and moving. Or you can wear a heavyweight cotton t-shirt for your first marathon like I did (OUCH). Talk to yourself. Visualize. Self-coach. Mega-jump over the finish line and you'll have a kickbutt picture for the rest of your life like I do.

Active recovery. Get in the gym and do some light Crossfit movements. Get a massage. Take a mini-vacation. If all you do is sit or lay in bed you'll get very stiff and be in pain for a long time. Get in the gym, do some light work. Compress and elevate swollen areas. According to Kelly Starrett of Crossfit Mobility Wod fame, ice will just hurt the healing process and make it take longer. Sleep with your legs on top of a stuffed backpack. Read a book (!) on the floor with your lower legs on a chair.

Balance risk, money and effort. Not enough effort and your time is unsatisfactory. Too much effort and you risk DNF/bellytrouble. Continually adjust in the latter stages of the (bike and) run. Have a game-plan but accept that you might have mis-underoverestimated something. Moderation in all things, including moderation. If you're feeling good with 5mi to go - you're the fat kid and the finish is the candy store.

Note:$600 Crossfit Endurance cert might sound expensive, but could save you years of your life in training time and tons of injuries. SFW

Beat The Bonk: SFW
Bonking generally happens when your body runs out of fuel and minerals, you cramp up, dramatically lose speed and simply can't move very fast. Most endurance athletes make mistakes and bonk …once, and then never again, because they learn their lessons. I make sure to properly hydrate and fuel and re-fuel and re-cover my losses. I will never bonk again like I did that one humid hot summer Florida day in training. (SFW) might help, they're basically meant to replace the minerals lost in your sweat and urine, but depending on your other nutrition might not be needed. One or two tablets doesn't take up much space or weigh much, so it doesn't really hurt. Plus I used to get them for free in race packets all the time. SFW
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Old 03-12-2012, 10:10 PM   #3
Damon Stewart
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Re: Long-distance Race Nutrition/Prep for Beginners

Great post. Thank you

Quick question? Do you believe CrossFit Endurance works for Marathon and above events as it's RX'ed?
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Old 03-12-2012, 10:34 PM   #4
Jared Ashley
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Re: Long-distance Race Nutrition/Prep for Beginners

Not an endurance specialist, but a shout-out for endurolytes... they are amazing!

I do a lot of hiking in the AZ sun and all that sweat bleeds out my electrolytes VERY quickly. I spent many dizzy, shaking, near-stumbling hours on the trail before I figured out it wasn't a lack of hydration, but rather the opposite.

Long story short, if I'm going to be out more than an hour or so, wether it's on a run, dayhike, or backpack, I bring the endurolytes... they are the only thing that can get the minerals back into me faster than I can burn them.
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