Lessons From Ultra
Last Saturday I ran an ultra marathon organised by Endurance Life in the South Downs, Sussex. It was windy and cold with plenty of ascents and descents. Although the terrain was tough, it was a great experience, and - as is the case with many ultra marathons - a unique way of seeing and experiencing some very beautiful landscapes. The views were spectacular and I met some wonderful people along the way. There are many reasons for why I put myself through these events, even if the runs require me to push myself to the limit mentally and physically. There is a lot that I learn about myself, not only during the events, but also in preparing for and recovering from them.
The lengths of the runs vary, in this case it was 33.7 miles. Because the terrains and weather also differ from event to event, the time needed to complete them also varies. This one took me 06:39:46. After having done quite a few, I am now fairly good at estimating how long it will take. I know how much training I need to do in order to improve, but - more importantly - I am more aware of how to feed my body before, during and after.
A key reason for taking part in endurance sports is that it allows me to understand my body better. In particular, the nutrition required to keep it in motion more efficiently and enjoyably. I push myself to fairly extreme levels of performance to test and learn about how my body and mind function when most taxed so that I can apply in my daily life this understanding of how I react to and function under pressure. Life, after all, is often an endurance sport.
When transitioning to a plant based diet, I looked to science, but I also looked to athletics for ideas, evidence and guidance. I was particularly fascinated by plant-based endurance athletes, as it seemed that if they can do it, then I should be able to survive and flourish rather than suffer from malnutrition. I have since discovered that this way of approaching food is also prominent in other competitive sports, such as sprinting, tennis, body building and in martial arts. My research led me to Brendan Brazier, whose approach is very appealing, and one that I continue to develop for myself and my family. He advocates eating foods that do not take too much of a toll on the body to digest. If one is experiencing stress (be it as a result of sports, work, or other life situations) then why aggravate the body further with foods that are physically taxing to benefit from? This post is about to go geek-speak, so please bear with me.
I have been incrementally incorporating more raw foods as an integral part of my training regime. I have adapted my training so that I can burn a good percentage of my energy through fat. To do this I make sure that most of my runs are at a very low heart rate zone (Zones 2 and 3). This way I can consume, on average, roughly 40% of calories from fat. The human body is very good at storing fat, so I have plenty to burn. When training in this way, I am able to perform at a much higher intensity level. In the Sussex Ultra, my heart rate was in Zone 4 for 3.5hrs and Zone 5 for 3hrs and I managed to burn 23% of the total 7000 calories from fat. It is near impossible to consume, digest and use that many calories in under seven hours, and carbohydrate stores are pretty much depleted after around 90 min of intense activity, so fat is, in this case, my friend.
I do not like to look at food as macronutrients, as it can be confusing and in a lot of cases, not very useful. Carbohydrates, fats and protein (amino acids) are in all sorts of different foods. In the case of plants, the same foods also contain hosts of phytonutrients, minerals, vitamins, water and fiber, which can be overlooked if concentrating solely on macronutrients.
Consuming fat is very different from using stored fat. Foods that contain high levels of fat are more calorie dense, and therefore seem appealing as sustenance during a long run. However, fat consumed does not equal fat burned. Sure, calories are units of energy, but the type of energy that my body needs comes in the form of carbohydrates. My brain freezes up, and begins to engage in deception, discouragement and general bad humour, all of which in my experience results from low stores of carbohydrates. It is not easy for me to eat while pushing my body to quite uncomfortable limits. It is therefore even more important to have food on hand that I want to eat and know will make me feel better. Fruit is great on a long run, although it contains fiber, which some people find filling and perhaps uncomfortable. I love biting into a crisp and juicy apple, especially when I’m tired.
I also find fresh fruit more hydrating than drinking water. Unfortunately, fruit can be heavy to carry over a long distance, so I have developed (please see previous post) a raw and dehydrated energy treat that is dense in energy and nutrition, as well as tasty to consume alongside the fresh fruit I can carry. I now consume only whole foods when training and during events, and as much as possible otherwise. This way I know that I receive all the nutrition in its correct proportions and I do not have to worry about any assumed optimal combinations, formulae or potions. So far so good, this last run was my best. I didn’t win any medals, I wasn’t even in the top 40%, but I accomplished what I wanted: A very good time for myself, a comfortable run, in good humour, and easy and fast recovery. I also managed to be a little more environmentally friendly and kinder to our cousins in the greater animal kingdom.