Nutrition for 24-hour ultra races
RENEE McGREGOR EXPLAINS WHAT ATHLETES CONSUME DURING A 24-HOUR ULTRA-DISTANCE RACE
IDO NOT think anyone can argue that we have become a 24-hour nation. The internet and social media means we have access to films, news, information and retail therapy around the clock. However, one 24 hours that is not a new concept involves running.
I’m not talking about ultra-trail races that can take 24 hours or more to complete, but the actual discipline of running for 24 hours, repetitively around a loop that can be anything from a 400m track to a mile, with the sole aim of trying to see how much distance can be covered.
For the last two years I have been fortunate to work with the Great Britain and Northern Ireland 24-hour team. In 2017 I attended the world championships in Belfast as a crew member and provided nutritional support. This year I was part of team management at the European Championships in Timisoara, Romania (the IAU Euro 24 Hour Race).
John Pares headed things up as team manager, while Robbie Britton and I took on the positions of men’s and women’s team leads respectively. We also provided the team with the benefits of our day jobs as running coach and sports dietitian.
John and Robbie bring further insight into this unique running discipline as they have personal experiences and success with 24-hour racing themselves.
John won the gold medal in the 2013 Commonwealth race while Robbie won bronze at the world championships in 2015.
We took nine athletes out to the Europeans this year, six men and three women who had qualified with the appropriate distances within the last two years (there is scope to take six athletes in each gender). See box out for qualifying distances.
Working as a team
While each athlete obviously has their own race, we have always put the onus on working as a team. Specifically we focus on the cumulative distance of the first three runners as this score decides where the team places in the world or European rankings.
Twenty-four hours is a long time to be running and so each and every team member has an important role to play; the top three counters in the first 12 hours can be completely different to those at 22 hours.
While the athletes face the challenge of managing their pace, not getting carried away with speed too early on, and using well tried strategies that help them maintain the mindset to stay mentally strong throughout the 24 hours, it is the crew behind the scenes that is responsible for fuel and hydration. In Romania, we had a really experienced team, including friends and family members of the athletes that had all crewed previously.
I know both Robbie and John have previously commented that what makes a great 24-hour runner is the ability to take on fuel continually and constantly, even when the body is saying otherwise. But does it matter what you eat?
Over the last two years I have used scientific evidence plus practical reality to help the teams we take out to these major championships to put together an optimal nutrition strategy. This has meant working with the athletes in the weeks and months prior to race day helping them to practice
and test different combinations and collecting feedback in order to create the ideal race day scenario.
Scientifically there is not a huge amount of data pertinent to the fuelling and hydration practices of ultra-runners, let alone for 24-hour runners. While this makes it very challenging, it is also exciting to think that some of what we learn will be useful in developing evidencebased nutritional guidelines.
The key aspect of a 24-hour race is the lack of predictability. Twenty-four hours is a long time and anything can happen. No matter how much training and simulation of race day nutrition strategy is done, the only way you can really test is on race day. For this reason, one of the things I always encourage all the athletes is to ensure they have sufficient contingency plans.
What if the gels they have been using in training no longer sit well after 12 hours? What if they get bored of the energy drink they have been using for their 100km races? What if their stomach just isn’t going to play ball for the first half of the race? All these aspects need to be covered, discussed and planned for.
From a science perspective, using what information there is on ultra running, the theory suggests that optimal nutrition would include:
90g of carbs per hour, as a mix of glucose (60g) and fructose (30g). Research has found that our body has the capacity to absorb this amount of carbohydrate per hour. The combination of glucose to fructose is really important as we have less fructose receptor sites which allow for efficient
absorption and so if we were just using sports products, this is easier to manage. However, the reality is that very few runners want to eat gels, bars and energy drinks for such a long duration.
The challenge is to try to find the ideal mix of real food and easily absorbed sports food which can provide both physical and mental comfort.
While 24-hour runners are well trained athletes with a high level of fat adaptation, carbohydrate is still the preferred fuel in order to prevent liver glycogen stores running to empty, which would result in compromising brain and cognitive function.
Being able to keep your wits about you in 24-hour racing is fundamental to completing the race.
700-900mg of sodium per litre of fluid – although salt losses are highly individual and need to be adjusted dependent on the environmental conditions.
750ml fluid per hour – again individual variation and environmental factors will have a huge part to play, although we encouraged little and often throughout the race.
Small amounts of protein at regular intervals – there is some evidence to suggest that taking on protein regularly throughout the race can reduce the net breakdown of muscle and reduce inflammation after. This year I suggested a protein shake every 6-8 hours.
Caffeine – highly individual with athletes responding in different ways, and so needs to be calculated precisely.
The optimal dose for most is 3-6mg of caffeine per kilogramme of bodyweight over 24 hours.
While this seems simple, practically it is very difficult to apply. Even the most meticulous planning and attention to detail will not help if your stomach is rejecting what has been allocated to hour seven.
In the GB team, we work on the principle of trying to fuel athletes every 20-30 minutes with a small amount of food and/or fluid/energy. Foods included gels, jelly sweets, chocolate bars, salted new potatoes, noodle soup, porridge pots and soya puddings.
When an athlete comes into the tent area, we work in the same way as a F1 pit stop crew – one crew member will provide food and drink, another will aid with stretches, and then a further member will provide cooling strategies or kit change if necessary.
One of the biggest challenges
One of the biggest challenges we faced in Romania was the extreme heat and humid conditions. These affected all the runners and everyone’s nutrition strategy had to be changed to reflect this. For me I had to think on my feet, calculating what each athlete had managed to consume, taking on board what their current issue was – that’s to say, low glycemic index, nausea, fatigue, and then providing on the spot suggestions. Toward the latter part of the race, I was making up bespoke energy drinks for each runner ensuring it provided them with sufficient calories and salt to maintain their performance.
None of this is possible without excellent communication between every single member of the team – athletes need to provide feedback to their crew member which is then relayed back to me so that I could make my calculations.
Another key process necessary for success was
‘taste fatigue’. So introducing fruit such as oranges and watermelon, sweets like mints and ginger and savoury foods such as cheese were all used to help clean and change the palate at regular intervals so that the runners could then once again take on the energy they required.
The 24-hour race is a tough endurance challenge but it is different from other races as it also relies on teamwork, making it a really interesting, challenging, friendly and unique event.
Success takes discipline and also managing adversity – you can’t race from the start or your race will be over before you know it. You will go through dark periods – and that includes the crew too, for me the hours between 2am-5am were extremely difficult, I quite literally could have slept on my feet if it wasn’t for the fact that I needed to keep my wits about me and make critical decisions.
It is an opportunity to capture, test and implement information on how the body functions best under these extreme conditions, from pacing and nutrition to running technique and mental robustness, so we can continue to build on our performance as a team year after year.
This year we returned with the silver medal for the men’s team and bronze for the women’s team. We learnt a lot and now we will use this information to formulate planning for the worlds in May 2019.
“SUCCESS TAKES DISCIPLINE AND ALSO MANAGING ADVERSITY – YOU CAN’T RACE FROM THE START OR YOUR RACE WILL BE OVER BEFORE YOU KNOW IT”
Male runners can cover over 260km in 24 hours and females over 240km
Successfully running for 24 hours is a team effort
Britain celebrate men’s team silver and women’s team bronze in Romania
Renee McGregor was part of an F1-style back-up team for the IAU 24-Hour European Championships