Its June 29th, 2013, just after 8pm in Aubern, California; its been a swelteringly hot day with temperatures of 39°c and little shade. We’re waiting at the finish line of the Western States Endurance Run, on the second hottest day in race history. Athletes have battled stiff competition, 40,000ft of elevation change and blistering heat to make it to the finish line.
Timothy Olsen, ultra-marathon running legend, rounds the corner onto the track to win this race for a second year running, in a sensational time of 15hr 17. He looks elated, knackered and dehydrated; he will have likely lost a lot more than the ‘2% dehydration’ fabled to impair performance1. So why do the athletes who lose the most weight tend to finish the fastest?
That was how I wanted this article to start, before I went on to explore the science behind it all. But fast forward to IM Frankfurt last weekend where we saw the tragic death of a British man due to ‘swelling of the brain likely caused by insufficient salt intake’. This is a tragedy, and my heart goes out to the family and friends of this man who succumbed to a condition athletes should not be suffering from in this modern day and age.
But was insufficient salt intake really the problem? We’ve seen several paradigm shifts in hydration advice in the past few decades, starting with industry forcing the idea that we must drink before thirst and drink as much as we can to stop thirst form ever happening.
This advice was closely followed by many endurance athletes becoming very unwell during and after races, and raised concerns about hyponatraemia: below-normal plasma sodium levels. The problem at stake here is that when sodium levels in the blood become very low, water enters brain cells, causing the brain to swell inside it’s rigid box, which can lead to a chain of deadly events.
So the knee-jerk reaction by industry was to tell us all to use sodium supplementation. Makes sense right?
But what have we actually seen is quite different: the most sodium you consume, the more you weight at the end of the race. However, those who are hyponatraemic are the athletes who tend to gain weight (or not lose weight). So there is a disconnect between taking sodium and developing hyponatraemia. In fact, many cases have been seen where symptomatic hyponatraemia has been seen following ‘excessive’ sodium supplementation.
Sodium intake stimulates thirst, for which you drink, and thus exacerbate the problem.
Current research suggests proper hydration can be maintained during exercise when thirst is used to guide fluid intake2, and avoiding overhydration is the most important means for preventing hyponatraemia in hot conditions3.
Perpetuating the myth of the need to beat dehydration by beating thirst is deadly advice, to which we have already lost too many people.
Craving salt? Eat something salty.
Feeling bloated? Stop drinking.
Will that work?
- Barr SI. Effects of dehydration on exercise performance. Can J Appl Physiol 1999;24(2):164-72.
- Bennett BL, Hew-Butler T, Hoffman MD, et al. Reply to: Is drinking to thirst a prudent guideline to avoid hyponatremia? Wilderness Environ Med 2014;25(4):493-4.
- Hoffman MD, Stuempfle KJ. Sodium Supplementation and Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia during Prolonged Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2014.
Summer is over (for me).
No more bronzing myself in true student fashion. Final year has started. Time is squeezed. A routine has been settled back into and I’ve finally started training again. Time to have a good think about what makes the biggest differences in training, and what gives me the best chance of staying healthy and injury free.
Training for and racing multiple ultras a year takes a huge toll on the body and if you’re not careful that progressing stress can creep up on you and completely wipe you out. We sadly see endurance athletes burn out far too often.
As time goes on and I learn more about myself and about training, I’ve learnt smart training isn’t about logging more and more miles; smart training is about prehab and health.
What am I talking about?
– prehab –> stopping injuries before they happen; as opposed to recovering from injuries. Then developing more strength with better movement patterns. Movement ‘slings’ and accessory muscles are fashionable concepts in gyms these days with everyone starting to do weird and wonderful crossfit-esque exercises, but the simple truth is that if you want to do a complex movement like running, you cannot work muscles in isolation. The right muscles must be activating in the right order, with sufficient strength and endurance to work for hours on end, still working properly when pelting downhill putting huge amounts of force through them.
The better the movement pattern, and the stronger the muscles, the less running form will degrade over time, letting you run further faster. Point made?
– health –> if you stay healthy, mentally and physically, then consistency can follow. And we all know consistency is hugely important for progression. Healthy = happy.
So how am I going about trying to get these two crucial components in order?
I’m going to split this into 4 parts so we can all come up for air in-between:
4- The mental game
Lets deal with basic movement first:
My flexibility is rubbish, and was even worse a few years ago. I was far too stiff to be capable of getting any proper movement. I can’t swim and I can hardly cycle, but I have got just about enough flexibility now to get a good endurance-style running gait. I’ve had to work it a huge amount, but flexibility isn’t the main problem. It doesn’t matter than I can’t touch my toes, and look stupid in a yoga class.
The crux of the issue is being able to hold the right joints in the right places, allowing the right muscles to be recruited in the right order. Right?
Fire my glute max (bum) to act as a powerhouse, glute med and its friends to hold my hips, and work with bits of my quads to stop my knees collapsing and making them strong enough to take the huge shock-absorbing loading of running downhill.
Or to think of a different bit of the running gait: ‘toe-off’ at the end of the stride is hugely important, and if you can’t use your big toe properly, let alone the rest of your feet and calves, you’ll lose power and speed.
What about if you’re on a rocky unstable trail? What about all those accessory muscles in your legs to keep your strong and upright?
Just think, if you can’t balance on one leg happily in your comfy lounge, what hope have you got over difficult terrain with strong side winds?
After I hit a plateaux in training a few years ago around the South Downs Way 100 miler I went to see an excellent team of physios and S&C coaches to get some advice on where I was going wrong. After they’d stop laughing at my lack of any discernible ability to do anything vaguely athletic whilst trying to run monster marathons, they stopped me in my tracks, changed my ingrained rule-book of how training worked, and re-built me from the ground up to work as a body, as opposed to a sack of jumbled bones.
I’d (typically) dug myself into a pretty big pit of poor technique, lack of stability and strength, and had to put a lot of remedial work in to get any improvement.
Since then, I’ve tried to get 20-30mins of prehab-type work in every day to keep myself moving properly. Now I’m not angel at this, and of course I go through periods when I’m rubbish at keeping up with it, but my best running improvements come when I’m keeping it up.
The key with developing good movement patterns is perfect practice. We all know that “practice = perfect” is a load of rubbish, because if you repeatedly do something badly, you’ll learn to do it badly. So take that single leg squat, and learn to do it perfectly before you do it repeatedly, and before you stick weight on your back.
There is this great concept in neuroscience called ‘synaptic plasticity’, whereby the more you use certain parts of the brain, certain neuronal pathways, the more sensitive those neurones become to being excited and firing, and the more ingrained a pathway becomes. Its essentially like a trail in your local woods: no-one uses it during the winter except hardcore trail runners, so its overgrown and hardly visible. Slowly more and more people use it during the summer (teenagers first searching for a place to drink underage, then everyone else setting up BBQs) and the vegetation gets trodden down, dies back and an obvious path is left. If the path sets off in the wrong direction (practice with poor form) you’ll get a well-trodden path that leads somewhere to a smelly swamp. If however those legendary trail runners have laid down a path to an awesome viewpoint (perfect practice), you’ll get a nice wide path to a great place (that perfect squat…that actually engages the muscles its meant to work…).
Ideally good movement patterns should be ingrained during the off-season / beginning of the season, so you can progress to develop raw strength early in the season, turning that strength to strength-endurance and power later in the season, giving you the speed to set the course on fire.
I’m not great at all this but I’m trying, and season by season I get a little faster, a little less injured and a little more capable. If you want to take your sport seriously, or have a pain-free and fun time of it, take the time now to invest in your future, engage the correct muscles and use them to your advantage.
Neglect prehab at your peril.
Physiotherapist: Gordon Bosworth (The Bosworth Clinic)
S&C coach: Paul Ledger (The Bosworth Clinic/Performance Solutions)
Next time: a few ideas about how to look after your health, especially when searching for an edge
It had been a full on few weeks back at home so I was glad to eventually touch down in Geneva, just a short drive away from Annecy. I spent a nice few days relaxing pre-race with the local town getting pumped to hold a whole host of races the coming weekend, from a Vertical Kilometre to the ‘big one’, 86km around the lake taking in all the local peaks; 2 races were being run on this course: the World Championships of Trail Running – the best in the business representing their country, the olympics of long distance trail running; and us mere mortals, running in their wake!
I went out for a short jog up one of the local hills on the Thursday before the race, and rapidly realised these hills were slightly larger than those resident in the South of England. Although the North Downs are spectacular, they’re not quite alpine mountains.
The night before the race a couple of friends were flying out after work to join me, in a very selfless gesture, and bag a long weekend away at the same time. They ended up arriving at 0130 after a delayed flight, so I ended up having breakfast before a bit of a nap, shortly followed by coffee and action time!
The race village was alive with excitement, especially for 4 in the morning, with music playing and head torches bobbing about in the dark. After many pre-race nervous/excited pee stops we were penned in behind the start line for some final pre-race announcements. My french isn’t great, but I pretty much made out them saying “don’t fall off any mountains”, then counting from 10-1 and we were off!
With a huge surge of adrenaline and excitement 2000 runners started making their way from Annecy’s lake through the pre-dawn traffic-free streets packed with supports making all sorts of “Allez Allez!” encouragement.
As we started making our way up the first mountain we could see down into the valley with street lights lighting up the cities. It was stunning; a clear star-studded sky above and towns in darkness below only lit up with small street lights.
I was only wearing a running vest, shorts and small pack but was sweating already…today would be hot.
Dawn broke as we made our way up this ridge towards the summit of the first hill, and the path was lined with excited supporters with cow-bells. I’d never been in a race with such great support before. I hit the first aid station and was amazed by the spread laid on at the top of a mountain for us. Soup, bread, cheese, crisps, coke, fruit…all sorts. I picked up a few bits and shot through keen to keep moving. Needless to say I spent much more time in these feed stops later.
It was as I was negotiating the pretty steep never-ending descent off this mountain that it hit me; it was pretty obvious in hindsight looking at the elevation profile, but this race really was nothing but straight up and straight down pretty huge mountains. I was loving it, but my legs were really not cut out for this. The last race I had done (T60 Night Race) was 60 miles along the Thames, with about 2 metres elevation gain. This had 5300m elevation gain and loss. Thats like running up Mt Kilimanjaro, pausing briefly at the top to enjoy the view, then running back down again in time for dinner. This was going to be epic.
I saw my friends for the first time going into the half way point after they’d had a lie-in that morning, and had missed me at one of the water stops as I was a little ahead of schedule. Lazy buggers. The schedule was really a huge amount of guess-work, as I had no idea how much these mountains were going to take out of me. Chris and Simon were amazing all day. Well all weekend really. They also nicely surprised me by turning up in scrubs and face masks of my face…which is bad enough as it is, let alone when blown up even bigger.
I felt great flying through the party village at half way, and started powering up the next mountain. This was when it hit me. After only about 7hrs of running, it felt like a train hitting me with this almighty tiredness. The sun was out in force cooking me, and these hills were sapping every bit of energy from me. Even ‘runnable’ flats were technical trails requiring immense concentration. Long uphill drags were interspersed with short vicious downhills annihilating our quads.
This was by far the hardest section of the course, the 3rd leg, as it seemed to have 3 peaks condensed into one section. We were climbing higher and higher above the valley, treating us to stunning views and immense leg-sapping gradients. I was amazed at the support from the locals; I could hear cheering and cow-bells ringing as we approached false summits and mountain passes. I could hear especially dedicated group of cow-bell ringers as I approached a technical section high up, only to realise it was a herd of mountain goats. I felt like they were laughing at me, making light work of this outrageous terrain. I briefly wished I was a goat; funny what running does to you at times.
As we descended this epic 3-summit mountain I was dipping my sun-visor into every glacial stream we passed to try and cool me down. We ran over a very short section of glacier at one point, and I was tempted to throw a snow-ball from the sheer novelty of it. I’d better get out of that habit before we go to the Arctic…
By the time we hit the penultimate town I was starting to pick up and feel better. This mammoth task which only an hour ago felt a little overwhelming suddenly became very possible again. My ankle had briefly complained and locked up on a steep downhill, then set my back off into a spasm, and both of these had calmed down now, as if to tell me that was I was doing was indeed quite silly on a background of no hills.
Summiting the final mountain felt amazing, and although I was knackered, I felt so close to the end. Signs at the top showed ‘6km to go’…touching distance. It may be 6km of technical steep downhill, but I was going to give it everything I had left to get in under 13hrs. I had 45minutes to do it in, normally a breeze, but this was going to require some brute force to get my lead legs on side to let me fly down the mountain.
On the first part of the steeper downhill I had some very talented local females making light work of the trail dancing down ahead of me, which evened up a little when it became slightly less steep and slightly less technical where my brute force and ignorance approach allowed me to open up and hammer down the trail as hard as I could.
We popped out at the bottom next to the lake, a moment I’d been imagining for a long time now. I felt as euphoric as I’d been expecting, with the streets lined with supports, my legs and body just felt more exhausted than in those daydreams. A final big effort over the last kilometre and into the finishing chute by the lake. 12hrs 48. 175th. It felt great to have finished something that had properly challenged me with such big climbs for a lowlander, and to have done it in a respectable time. That was until I got hit by a crippling wave of nausea which reduced me to a gurning limping mess, missing all the post-race treats available at the end.
Thankfully this didn’t last too long and was relieved by my friends getting me a coke (simple solution?) swiftly followed by a recovery beer and pizza.
Overall it was a great experience. This race, with pretty bad prep, had made me really struggle and suffer, which made completing it all the most satisfying. It is miles apart from what I’ll need to do to get to the Pole, but a good lesson that these low moments do not go on for ever, and when they pass, achieving becomes all the more rewarding.
Training vs overtraining, stress and adrenal fatigue
The line between training and overtraining is a fine balance between training vs recovery, exercise vs exercise capacity and stress vs stress tolerance1. We all have day-to-day stresses, whether that is from your job, commute, family, studying, redecorating your house or that broken boiler; then we add training into the stress mix. If all these ingredients leave stress levels too great, training no longer has a positive effect on health, and the toxic mix of chronic stress becomes detrimental to health2.
We are a motivated bunch: we run double, triple and quadruple marathons for fun; swim-bike-run in one sitting further than most people would in a month; then we decide that’s not enough, and aim to compete, not just complete. We push ourselves in all aspects of life, as mediocrity just doesn’t cut it.
It is no surprise that as endurance athletes we are highly…
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Well…that hurt…a lot.
This was a race I had been intending to hit pretty hard when I made my plans for the year, but obviously plans change and my prep going into this was no where near what I had wanted. A couple of months out with injury meant most training was done in the gym or on the bike, but I had managed to get running again in the couple of weeks before the race.
In the week leading up to the race I was keen to do it to just see what I could do, knowing full well it wasn’t going to be a stand-out performance, but hoped I could cobble something together and had a bit of faith that even though I wasn’t going to be particularly speedy, I still had a fair amount of experience in my legs.
Sadly my dog, Zeta, fell very ill the day before the race; she was having uncontrollable seizures with no history of epilepsy. The vets were great in trying to help, first control the seizures then get to the root of the problem, most likely a brain tumour. She passed away later that night, a very sad sight to see. She’d had a great life and has been my running buddy for the past 10 years, really since I started to contemplate running. She was a rescue dog who we met at 6 months we’ve shared some amazing times, lots of them running related.
So late Friday night the drive behind wanted to do T60 became very different, wanting to do it for her as some closure from where we both came from to where I am now. A very sad and sleep deprived Ollie got all his stuff together Saturday morning in an experienced-robot fashion and we (the better half and I) headed up to Oxford.
It was fun being the centre of the pre-race hype along with Karen Hathaway, the winner of last year’s T184 – the much harder longer version of this, also a GB 24hr runner. There were no pre-race nerves; I just felt empty.
A night race makes prep and registration much easier and it was all quite chilled having a kit check in a pub, with the other patrons thinking we were a little odd in our dress sense and sense of a good Saturday night.
Well it was all chilled until I lost my tracker, before we even started, but about 5 minutes before the start of the race. No idea how I managed to misplace a GPS tracking device, a pretty epic fail on my behalf, but the guys from Go-Tek were great, saw me flapping and programmed another device for me. Hopefully that was going to be the last boo-boo.
We all set off at 8pm and Karen, Mark (an incredible and bonkers runner who did Thames Path 100 last weekend….) and I formed a little group and took it easy for the first 20 miles or so. It was pretty sociable running like this; much more sociable than setting off into the dark by myself like I did last year.
I started pulling a way a little before half way, then after hitting the half way mark wanted to start racing. My plan was to get to half way in good nick, then hit it form there. Turns out if you hardly run for 3 months, your legs get pretty lethargic, and I was suffering much earlier than I really should have been. I tried to pick the pace up after half way but hardly did at all, until I went over a bridge, glanced behind me and saw Karen’s headtorch bobbing along close behind. This gave me a solid injection of adrenaline at the thought of being chased by a GB 24hr runner… The race pretty much continued like this for the rest of the night…I couldn’t shake her off! It was relentless! My guts were getting pretty sad with me so I was eating much less than I would’ve liked, and the whole time I could see this torch bobbing along close behind me. I was like there was a massive elastic band holding us both together stretching out a bit then pinging us back together.
Karen sitting behind me like that made me run the race much faster than I would’ve otherwise! It was actually pretty exciting; we were actually racing. Not just running our own runs by ourselves, we were properly racing. And it hurt. It hurt a lot.
I dug a pretty massive hole that night, the whole time thinking about running with Zeta and wanted to thoroughly commit myself to the race for her.
I eventually pulled away slightly from Karen in the closing miles of the run, and was getting update-texts through to give me an idea of where abouts she was. I was dammed relieved to read that I’d manage to shake her off briefly, but kept the pace up as high as I possibly could convinced she would burst out of the trees right behind me.
It was a huge relief to make it into the last few fields and get that dammed stone in sight. The stone marks the head of the Thames, the point we were racing towards. I tried to run strong into the finish, and was absolutely pooped when I got there. Boy was I glad to see everyone.
Relief is really the best word to describe what I felt. I was empty; emotionally completely exhausted. I didn’t get much euphoria, I was just empty. That emptiness was pretty quickly filled with nausea and I provided zero chat for all the amazing volunteers and Shane at the finish.
After hobbling round for a bit and watching Karen finish, looking so fresh as if she’d just done a ParkRun, I hobbled up to the finish-admin site to try and stomach something warm and get changed before heading off.
The next race had pretty much just begun, with Gail needing to get to her bike race nearby, so I couldn’t mince and complain to everyone at the finish how much I hurt for too long, before we jumped in the car and shot off to join a very different race.
Enough rambling; the bottom line is that I’m exhausted. Its been a difficult few months, and a difficult past few days. The T60 Night Race is nails…it really is a hard race, and although the conditions were PERFECT (dry underfoot, clear sky, warm enough for tshirt and shorts all night), I still suffered big time.
A massive thank you has to go out to everyone who makes these experiences happen: Shane and his volunteers from T-series racing, for a very hard weekend; Gail for being the ever-helpful support driver and keeping me up-to-date on how much Karen was hunting me down; and all of my support from Tri Training Harder, the Bosworth Clinic and InDurance for getting me and keeping me healthy, and of course Athlete Service for my kit.
Now to try and recover from that humungous hole I just dug myself, in time to try and get on this Antarctic expedition team this weekend….