Saturday, 11 December 2010

Chewing the Fat and the Need for Speed

Clearly titles for two posts here; I've been thinking about both recently but eventually realised that they really are related so you get the double helping. The result is likely to be one of my lengthy ramblings but I'm hoping to draw some conclusions relevant to the middle-to-back-of-pack performer like me, so if you're interested pour yourself a G&T (or whatever other aid to thought you favour) and hang in for a while.

Since I started in 2007 I've covered a bit of ground and learned a lot. I've started 21 ultras and finished 18 of them. I know that I can run a fairly creditable 10 hour race and an acceptable 24, but I'm useless at the longer 30+ hour events. I don't suffer from sore feet or aching muscles, I just run out of steam. I was convinced this was a nutrition problem, don't eat enough during the event, run out of fuel. I've spent the last couple of years trying to find ways to cure this, what do you eat after you've just stuffed in your twenty-third gel of the day and nothing at all seems even vaguely palatable. I think I've tried everything, nothing works well.  I've finished several races on nothing but chicken noodle soup and coke for a marathon or two, worrying all the time that this isn't enough to get by on.

I had an inkling that there might be another way after this year's Lakeland 100.  Reading the winner Stuart Mills' report he seemed to cruise round on a few cups of coke and a handful of Jaffa Cakes. I asked about his nutrition strategy and he replied with a really interesting blog entitled "Race Nutrition - is More Always Better?" Now Stuart's a scientist and argues a detailed case but the main points I took out were (a) in ultras you run at a low enough intensity for fat rather than carbohydrate to be your prime fuel source, and (b) don't waste valuable liquid in digesting carbs - use it to keep hydrated for running! He also said that he did the majority of his training without eating. It raised some discussion in the comments of course, and I guess because it was so opposite to everything I thought I knew that I was pretty sceptical myself, after all Stuart's a class runner, probably anything works for him. I had also heard Joss Naylor talk about "going 50 or 60 miles without anything to eat or drink" but again this is a special character, his rules are not for the rest of us.

But then I entered the Lakeland 100 again for next year, and race director Marc Laithwaite started sending out a series of training articles. The first ones were pretty obvious, along the lines of "if you're going to take part in a race with hills, over uneven ground, carrying a rucsack, then you have to train on hills, over uneven ground, with a rucsack", etc, but then the third one a couple of weeks ago was on nutrition. Marc seemed to be saying pretty much what Stuart had advocated, but it was put together in such simple language that it had a big impact. I was impressed, and recommended it to John Kynaston who also found it interesting and put it on his blog. John's blog is widely followed so it immediately caused some debate, which I'll come back to in a moment. What Marc's article basically said was
- when you run an ultra, a percentage of your fuel is going to come from stored fat
- the longer you run for, the higher this percentage gets
- you can't substitute carbohydrate for fat beyond a certain point, because you can't absorb it fast enough
- to get more efficient at burning fat you have to practice
- when you practice this, you go slower and you don't feel great, but it's training so just get on with it, it will pay off.
For a simple player like me this makes great sense, a bit of an eye-opener. I'm certainly going to give it a go.

The arguments against are mainly of degree, ie it's not that simple, everyone's different,  and of course you need a certain amount of carbs for optimum performance, etc. That's fair, but it shouldn't stop you trying to get better access to a huge store of energy you already possess.  The other disadvantage put forward is that the training might be unpleasant - one comment on John's blog talked of  ".......the thought of turning enjoyable long runs into dispiriting hungry plods...".  Well actually I haven't found that so far. In the past two weeks I've tried two 16 mile runs and a 20 miler all on the "no breakfast, no carbs en route" regime.  What happens, for me at least, is that for the first couple of hours everything seems normal, then I do tire and have to slow down, but by then I know the end is not so far away. I'm sure it's purely psychological at this stage but it seems to get easier each time and I'll start pushing the time/duration out progressively in the new year.

The other mental leap I think I've made in taking on board the fat-burning principle is that as I build confidence in it, I don't have to worry about not eating much in the later stages of a race. I'm sure in a couple of my DNF's I've actually thought myself out of contention by convincing myself that I couldn't possibly finish on the fuel I was taking in (the rational engineer overcoming the passionate ultra-runner!) Stuart again presses that it's not just 50% of ultra-running that's in your head but "a lot more than that" - if you start off with the absolute conviction that you will succeed, then you will. So maybe the confidence that come what may, the fat reserves will get you home, is a big barrier removed.

Andy Dubois, another runner whose opinions I value not particularly because he is another trainer/sports scientist but because of his sub 23 hour completion of the Hardmoors 110 miler in truly appalling conditions this September, strongly advocates sticking with carbs in both racing and training on the grounds that when you run on fat alone you simply don't go fast enough - remember the Seb Coe quote "long slow runs make long slow runners"? - and if you train slow, you'll race slow. But a key (for me) observation he makes is that "......unless I run at 10 minute miles or slower, I need carbs after around 90 minutes.....". Think about this. I never run faster than 10 minute miles in a 100 mile ultra unless it's downhill. We weekend warriors at the gentlemen's end of the field should be wary of getting too caught up in the area of debate that applies mainly to elite athletes.  But I believe Andy does have something of a point relative to the masses when he talks of training at speed, and this leads me nicely into part 2, if you're still with me.

I hate speed training, if you follow my ramblings you'll know that already. All that sweaty effort, continually out of breath, not my style, we go running for fun don't we? I stopped running 10k's and don't really enjoy half marathons, no time to chat or admire the views. But when I started running a few years ago I had an ambition to do a 3.30 marathon so a certain amount of speedwork was called for. I did my tempo runs, my Yassos and so on. Apart from being unpleasant it tended to give me niggling injuries, hamstring pulls, calf pains, you know the sort of thing. Eventually the spring of 2008 saw me break the 3.30, I did it again in 2009 to prove it wasn't a fluke and I thought great, that's it, no more speed training for me. I still enjoy marathons so March this year saw me trundle round a very flat Barcelona course in 3.37, a satisfied medal collector. I enjoyed my summer of ultras and long slow training runs in the hills.

By the end of August I was feeling tired, and I hadn't felt any sharpness at all in my last two ultras. I took a month off running in September to recharge the batteries and take stock. I began to think a bit about speed.

On the UTMB site there is a series of videos called "Get Ready For" which gives training advice. In the one entitled "Improve Your Speed" I was amazed at the recommended tempo training for a race which for me had always meant walking up a lot of big hills and shambling slowly down the other side. There was a discussion on the WHW forum, I forget the actual thread but contributors were comparing effort and enjoyment and someone referred to "an enjoyable plod over the hills"; it hit me quite sharply, that's what I do, enjoyable plods over the hills. I started looking at other ultra-runners training paces where I could find them on their blogs, they were nearly all doing some significantly faster runs than I was. So when I started running again in October I gradually introduced some speed once a week; not long distances, maybe 3 or 4 miles in the middle of a six mile outing; it didn't seem too bad, but even that small amount seemed to have a dramatic effect on what I considered a comfortable speed for a cruisy 6 or 8 miles, it went from 8.30 miles to 8 minute miles in a couple of weeks. In the Snowdonia marathon at the end of the month I got round in 3 hours 40, the equivalent of way under 3.30 on a flat course. A lesson learned ,a bit of speedwork does hurt, but the reward to effort ratio is very high. Three years with a good physiotherapist and a bit of discipline in stretching and core exercise seems to have cured my propensity to niggling injuries, so speed has to stay for me. I copied one of John K's workouts recently doing alternate 6.45 and 8.15 miles, something I wouldn't have contemplated even 3 months ago; I think I might even have enjoyed it!

So where does this leave this very average ultra runner. Well, our lessons are hard won in this game, but all the more valuable for that. My plans for the future will now include

1. Learn to burn fat. It may not be the whole answer but it certainly works in my head. I won't be forcing down carbohydrates in races any more.
2. Get the heart rate up with some speedwork once a week. Then when you need that burst of energy, it's there.

My final outing of the year next weekend is the inaugural "Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver", 36 miles over what looks like being a pretty white landscape with a fair bit of up and down. Looking forward to it.


Ali said...

Great post Andy - what you say makes a lot of sense to this runner at the gentleman's end of the field. I think you're right about speedwork - I've had it explained to me by an expert that it improves running efficiency, which has benefits no matter how slow you're going. Running faster than you're normal pace undoubtedly makes that normal pace seem a bit easier.

John Kynaston said...

Thanks Andy.

I'll be following your progress in regard to learning how to burn fat more efficiently with interest.

I thought your comments about what works for elite athletes and the rest of us really helpful.

Plus I must read Stuart's blog post again. I don't think I understood it first time round but I might have a better chance this time.