I was lucky enough the other week to be invited to a nutrition seminar that was held by one of our pre-eminent Universities. Specifically the seminar was about nutrition for extreme ultramarthon events and spectacularly for me, the Marathon Des Sables was the case study they used through the day.
The whole event went through the latest research on how to maximise nutrition in Ultra marathons.
So what did I learn?
1) The reason I’ve found it so difficult to find information on how to put together a nutrition and training program for the MdS is that effectively there is little to no official research into how the body responds to training in such extreme environments. In most cases the information available is just anecdotal.
2) The human body shouldn’t really be able to cope with such extreme stress but we know from experience that it does. The human body is extremely adaptable in extreme environments
3) Because the body is under such extreme stress, the bowel will often leak into the stomach cavity. The leakage is sufficient to cause blood poisoning and if for any reason I end up hospital after the event, I have to let the doctors know I’ve done such and event and it is okay, otherwise I’ll end up in intensive care for a week. Funnily enough, no one at the seminar really regarded this as a problem.
4) I am going to get some sort of gastro intestinal distress. Everyone does, the main question is how to minimise it. Immodium apparently works really well. (see note on toilets below)
5) I really need to sort my gaiters now. I had never really understood why people have so many issues with blisters in events such as the MdS. It had always been my view that if I trained in the right shoes and took the right precautions (tape known hotspots) then you shouldn’t have an issue. What I hadn’t taken into account is that often the gaiters competitors use are made from a parachute type material and/or non breathable materials. These types of material don’t breath and when your feet don’t breathe they sweat. And sweating causes blisters. One of the guys giving a talk recounted the story of him training 4hrs per day/everyday back in the UK with no issues. Within 2hrs of running in the desert his feet were covered in blisters. One of his tent mates had the sole of his left foot completely delaminate on day 2 and the other foot did the same on day 3. How does this relate to nutrition. Well basically the guy was in so much pain that he didn’t want to and couldn’t eat, which affected his performance dramatically. (though he amazingly still finished)
6) Lidocaine or preferable cocaine is good for blisters (I added the second option). Apparently morphine is in ready supply as well.
7) For the most part sweet food isn’t tolerated well in the heat. After day one most people are craving savoury and/or salty food. The challenge here is that many of the gel/supplements are of the sweet type and hard to stomach. The best food to use in negotiations with other competitors are salty potato chips. No-one will be interested in your ‘healthy’ gruel or trail mix.
8) The standard recommendations for endurance athletes are to consume 90g CHO/hr. (this is up from the previous recommendation of 60) There is a problem though, research suggests that only about 1 in 100 athletes can consume that amount during competition without becoming ill. In the desert it is even worse. In most cases athletes will only be able to consume 20-30g, well below what they need to recover
9) All the standard recommendations for nutrient timing (i.e. when to eat) are simply impossible to adhere to in the desert.
10) Surprisingly dehydration is extremely unlikely in the desert, even though we are rationed to around 10-11litres per day and will be sweating buckets, the general consensus that most athletes who collapse do so from hypotraemia (low sodium levels) rather than from dehydration
11) The latest research suggest that salt tablets (to increase sodium levels) make absolutely no difference to hypotraemia at all.
12) Hypotraemia can be fatal, blood poisoning can be fatal, heat stroke can be fatal, not having sufficient potato chips can be fatal.
So what is the best advice I received regarding nutrition from the seminar?
Absolutely everything will be going against me. I’ll feel like crap so just eat as much as I can, as often as I can and stay away from the toilets. When you have 1000 people all using the same hole in the ground and everyone has some sort of gastric distress, they aren’t pleasant places.
Oh and I forgot to mention, there won’t be enough water to wash my hands afterwards……..