Nutri­tion for 24-hour ul­tra races


Athletics Weekly - - Contents - re­neem­c­gre­

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.

24-hour fuel

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.


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

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