If you have been reading any newsstand magazines for the past few decades, you have probably watched with amusement the trail of articles on the “Last Diet You Will Ever Need”. These began with a total war on FATS and a brand new aisle in our grocery stores of fat-free products, including the infamous Snack-Well Fat Free cookies which satisfied no one in the satiety OR nutrient departments. That was followed by a mine field of articles on CARBOHYDRATES versus PROTEINS, which led to the further debunking of ANY carbohydrates, and in more recent times, ANY sugars (added or otherwise), except for the possible exception of “natural, unrefined cane juice” aka “sugar” with a better-marketingname. Sugar-in-the-Raw, as the slogan goes … which leads to “cavities-in-the-raw”, “diabetesin- the-raw” and “obesity-in-the-raw – the natural way” (my quotes). It would seem, if this progression continues, that PROTEIN will be the next enemy-of-the-state and we will soon have a real dilemma, or maybe a solution in disguise. Since only the macronutrients of fats, carbohydrates and protein contain calories, if we eliminate all three, we would at least begin to solve the obesity problem in the United States, albeit through slow starvation.
What does all this have to do with ultrarunning and more specifically, you, the ultrarunner? Well, have you ever wondered why each of our sports nutrition products claims to be the “best” and the “last thing you will need for your PR”, and that each of these products is backed by “scientific studies”? How can all these scientific studies prove something very different for each product? The bottom line falls into two categories.
First, the human body is very adaptable. It is possible to run a 100-mile race on any food including ice cream (let those support crews carry the dry ice), raw eggs (bring the chickens along to the aid stations), any kind of food in any form of processing, and yes – even alcohol. If we include the Ancient Olympics as well as the modern ones, there have been many more athletes who used alcohol to enhance athletic performance than those that have abstained. Ancient Greek athletes drank wine or brandy before competition and in somewhat more modern times, the marathon runners (Paris, 1900 and London, 1908) drank cognac to enhance their performance. Race Directors, make a note to call your local winery for sponsorship. In all seriousness, if the human body needs calories for perceived survival, as in flight-or-fight (running), we have many systems that can convert whatever we have on board to energy. Some forms of calories may work, or rather convert to energy, more easily than others but then again, the human body has adapted for thousands of years, day in and day out, in a struggle for continuous survival and a mere 100 miles has not been the ultimate challenge.
Second, scientific studies can be designed, by chance or by design, to prove almost anything. For instance in a 10K race, carbohydrates – or nothing – may be all you need to fuel your muscles. But in ultra-distance events, your needs may change during a race and your individual needs may differ from that of your fellow runners. You may be out on the course for 24 hours, or more, or much more, and while carbs may be fine at first, protein may be better later on. If you become discouraged or depressed, a good snack of fat may be just the satiating tidbit you need to make it to the finish line. Depending on how a study is designed, or when the results are gathered, or how objective or subjective the researcher is in collecting the data, the results can be very skewed. And your individual interpretation of what you drank or ate and how that affected you may not always be the most scientific analysis. Take the following example.
You head out on a new trail on a colder-than-usual day after a two-day lay off. You went out the night before with friends to that new fish restaurant and you are feeling guilty that you ate the whole meal. You have been trying to cut down on calories lately because you haven’t run as consistently as you wished – even though you have been cramming in the miles where you can. You started a bit late, after having a bowl of oatmeal with your significant “we-never-eat-breakfast- together-anymore-because-you-are-always- out-running” other. About 40 minutes into the run, you try the new Product X that your buddy gave you; he said it really changed his running. Ten more minutes on the trail and you feel great. Wow…you see what your friend means about Product X and you plan to go out and buy a case later today.
ANALYSIS No. 1
Product X is the ultimate sports nutrition food and it definitely made a difference in your run. Besides, there are scientific studies that prove it.
ANALYSIS No. 2
Some of us might have looked back a bit further and thought…I wonder if the oatmeal might have been part of the great run I had, too. Those who may have been injured in the past might also have wondered about the new, softer trail. Those who have bonked due to the heat or dehydration may have wondered about the effect of the cooler-than-normal temperatures. A few of us may have considered the dinner we had the night before and wondered if the fish helped…or just the additional calories. A very few of us might have surmised that we needed the additional break and rest. In other words, we are usually not very scientific in our observations. And we didn’t even touch on the placebo effect.
SO, DO WE NEED CARBOHYDRATES, FATS OR PROTEIN TO FUEL OUR ULTRA?
All three of the macronutrients can be used for energy production during an ultra. Some of the better choices are influenced by intensity and duration of the exercise. If you go slowly enough, for long enough, you can use anything. Put it in another context, if you run out of the muscles’ preferred fuel, you can use anything to keep going – you just may have to slow down (decrease intensity), or, if you don’t slow down, you may bonk and stop all together (modify duration). There are many factors that influence these processes; training also modifies an individual’s adaptations to these factors therefore assuring that, (1) what works this year, may not work next year, and (2) I will continue to have a job as a nutrition columnist trying to sort it all out for you. To further complicate matters, the majority of studies result in respondents being plotted along a “bell curve”, where most of the subjects had a similar reaction, but a few under- performed and a few more over-performed. If you wind up in one of these categories, the study really doesn’t apply to you, at least not for performance enhancement.
If you read Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, you may have read my definition of an ultramarathon, “An eating and drinking contest, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.” I think we probably were born to run but I know we were born to eat. So, my “expert opinion” is that it would be a good idea to try many different foods and sports nutrition products in training, to see what works for you and what makes you feel fueled-on-the-trail. I would advise you to read my articles, read other scientific articles, try different combinations during your long runs and tune-up races and read labels.
Remember how adaptable the human body is and remember the bell curve: the scientifically perfect product for someone else, may – or may not – be the best for you. And we STILL haven’t touched on the placebo effect.