The sports science around ultra running is an interesting area. My own personal belief is that most conventional sports science doesn’t apply very well to long distance endurance sports, since most of the theory is base on shorter distance experiments. As a result I’m very sceptical of orthodox theory and received wisdom about these matters. I find that using my own observations and experience as a basis for my own theories on ultra distance events far more useful and rewarding. As a result I tend to analysis every race I do, whether it is successful or not, and scour it for learning opportunities.
Nutrition is an area where my theories have tended to depart wildly from conventional wisdom. Although I have noticed that in the last year or two a few notable experts in the field are coming up with new theories that agree much more strongly with my own theories and observations. My teammate and occasional training partner, Barry Murray, who is a professional sports nutritionist by trade is one of those, and we have had many long and interesting discussions whilst roaming the Dublin mountains. We have used different routes to arrive at a very similar set of conclusions.
My pattern of eating and drinking before and during the UTMB is a good illustration of how different my approach can be to most athletes following the conventional wisdom.
I didn’t vary my normal eating pattern in any way before travelling to the UTMB. We arrived in Chamonix on Thursday at about lunch time. Barry, Paul, Helen had lunch at crepes restaurant. I had a nice savoury crepe with duck and brie as the main fillings! That evening I had my main pre-race meal in a restaurant I frequented many times before in Chamonix. It does a great main course which consists of Steak strips on a bed of baked potatoes and cream, covered surrounded by a lettuce and tomato salad. The portion size is generous, which suits my own pre-race appetite. I had shared a typical savoyard cured meat platter as a starter.
On race morning I had my normal breakfast of a bowl of musili. During the day I snacked on cashew nuts and bananas, and drank a combination of fruit juices and a vanilla yop. In the hour or two before the race I was sipping steadily from a bottle of mango juice (I do love the fabulous range of fruit juices you can get in French supermarkets).
I consumed no food or drink in the race itself until the 2nd aid station at Les Contamines. From that point on I drank either one or two cups of coke (because I tend to crave the taste in long races) at each aid station. The only other drinks I consumed was a bidon (water bottle) of “For goodness Shakes” recovery shake on the climb back to Les Houche, and half a bottle of the race provided isotonic drink on the climb out of Les Houche towards Chamonix.
As for food, I had a small piece of cheese at 4 or 5 aid stations, a piece of cured meat at the second visit to Les Houche. I had two bazzballs, one on the second climb out of Les Contamines, and one on the second climb out of Les Houche. On the last big climb I used to gels (one a small sample size) to get a quick energy kick. And that was it!
Bazzballs are small energy snacks that Barry Murray has formulated and created for his own use. He kindly agreed to prepare a few for me for the UTMB so that I could try them out, as I liked the sound of the ingredients, which are all natural, and are all good energy sources.
As you can see there is a large amount of received wisdom which was ignored (because I knew from experience it was flawed). There is not a trace of pasta, or indeed of pre-race carbo-loading. Sports drinks and sports food are used only in emergencies. The emphasis is on “real” food as far as possible. I don’t either eat or drink ahead of thirst or hunger, but instead allow my natural instincts to regulate my intake.
Years of training, and in particular long slow running training days, without bringing any food or water with me, or fueling up beforehand, has allowed my system to adapt to burn fat more efficiently and to learn to perform without needing a constant supply of food, or even water. I cringe when I hear of people bringing gels or snacks with them on training runs, or even bringing liquids on anything but the longest sessions on hot days. Most people understand that training is about pushing out the limits of your performance and getting your body to adapt as a result of the stress it us put under. My own belief is that you can do the same with your energy (food) and hydration requirements.
Conventional wisdom would probably lead most people to conclude that it would be impossible to finish the UTMB on the food and liquids I consumed, nevermind race it towards the front of the field. Experience has taught me otherwise.
(The day after the UTMB was spent indulging myself in a bit of an eating festival, but more because I was rewarding and indulging myself than because I needed to!)