Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dear Runnerfolk, We've Been Sold a Bill of Goods!

Hello there, my blog-reading public! This post marks the beginning of what might become a new regular feature of this blog. As I develop as a runner and as I consume and digest more knowledge and opinion about the sport of long-distance running (and ultrarunning in particular) and as an engineer and an analyzer, I find myself coming to a number of strong opinions on various topics related to training and running.

Also, having recently joined Facebook and begun collecting a good number of friends in various running communities, I find myself increasingly tempted to jump into conversations of those friends (or friends of those friends) with this 'sage wisdom' with which three years of training for and running ultras has endowed me. In other words, I'm tempted to be a real jerk!

In an attempt to save me from that fate, I am launching "Dear Runnerfolk" here on my blog as a place for me to vent some of these opinions without pushing them. Anyone interested can come and read my rants here. No one uninterested will be forced to read around them or be offended by them in a conversation they're otherwise happy with!

Ain't I a considerate guy?

Well, with that as an explanation for what's to come, lets jump into this inaugural post!

Dear Runnerfolk,

This is to let you all know that we've been sold a bill of goods when it comes to 'fueling' and 'hydrating' for our training and racing endeavors! Oh, and also 'balancing' our electrolytes. If you enjoy spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for stuff that you probably don't even need and (even if you did need it) can be found in most ordinary foods anyway, then stop reading now because there is nothing for you here. If, on the other hand, you don't like being duped by expensive, athlete-endorsed, 'high-tech' products, and especially if you don't enjoy constantly battling nausea during your long runs and races, then read on!

Here's what set me off on this (exchanges like this among mixes of experienced and noob runners are common - my editorial comments are added inside []):

OP: It's that time of year, when my morning runs take place earlier and earlier, to beat the heat (and humidity, and ground level ozone). I'm curious, what do all of you drink for electrolytes? I like the taste of Powerade...I also drink salt water (don't like the taste, but I'll drink it).

[Right away, there's a problem with the question. Electrolytes can be dissolved in water or various flavored beverages, but they need not be. The assumption that everyone must 'drink' their electrolytes is wrong.]

Responder #1: I just started using Generation UCAN - I did 15 miles on Saturday and a morning run last week and yesterday. I was using Accelerade. I find my alertness stays level and I don't have any hydration issues with UCAN. Some don't like the texture but I'm not picky. Nothing artificial and it's vegan - which is a bonus for me. Their pure electrolyte drink isn't out yet but I'm loving the drink that's out now - I drink it 30 minutes before a run and during my long runs. Give them a try.

[Generation UCAN, first of all, is primarily a 'fueling' product. That is, it is a sports drink intended to be the source of calories for an exercising athlete (we shall discuss the notion that an exercising athlete requires a constant source of calories shortly). It incidentally contains some sodium (Na) and potassium (K) - the two most important electrolytes - but it's primary purpose is the delivery of 80 calories per serving of 'superstarch' - supposedly a new, 'high-tech' form of starch that is more readily available to your body.

If you need to specifically ingest electrolytes during exercise (a questionable premise to begin with) you need them to correctly balance the level of electrolyte to fluids in your body. Taking your electrolytes in a fixed mixture of additional fluids and artificial food limits your ability to do that well. What if your fluid levels are fine and you just need the electrolytes? You can't get one without the other with UCAN - but then that's a problem with the whole premise of 'drinking' your electrolytes, isn't it? BTW, the cheapest you can get that serving of UCAN on their web site is $2.00. This responder didn't say how many servings used per hour during those long runs, but if conventional wisdom is followed I suspect that a 15-mile training run costs this person maybe as much as $10.00 in UCAN.

I also really, really wonder what was meant by 'hydration issues' with Accelerade, but the responder did not say.]

Responder #2: I put a GU flavoured salt tabs in my water bottles....and I also take salt tabs along the way!!!

[Salty water plus salt tabs! What do you want to bet this runner has to pee a lot along the way and comes home crusted all over in salt?]

Responder #3:  Lemon lime Scratch Labs!
Responder #3: Oops that's spelled skratch labs..

[We'll just cut Responder #3 some slack on the spelling issue (well ok, by calling attention to it I suppose we didn't - I continue to be amazed at the number of posters on FB who are unaware that you can edit and correct your posts). Skratch labs' Exercise Hydration Mix (they do use a small 's' but I capitalize when I start a sentence despite trendy case usage in proper names) is at least cheaper than UCAN - less than a buck a serving - but it has all of the same issues discussed above. Its name also hints at another peeve of mine - the way these products tend to confuse people about what 'hydration' is. Hydration is water. <- Note period on the end of that sentence.]

Responder #4: I definitely suggest Succeed S-Caps ( every 20-30 minutes instead of salt water-yuck.

[This responder has chosen a product that at least separates electrolyte control from hydration and fueling. Those are three independent variables in the lives of human beings in general and the notion that athletes should solve the problem of having a good balance of each by consuming one pre-mixed, fixed ratio of the three - and only that - during their exercise seems quite suspect to me at the outset.

I use S-Caps BTW and also recommend them as a convenient-to-carry electrolyte supplement for when you really need one. I almost never use them however except in the hottest weather and then I might take one every hour or two during the worst heat of the day. Every 20-30 minutes? That's not even what the directions with the product tell you to do (Succeed's web site has some very good, scientifically based advice on how to calculate 'proper' electrolyte intake given ambient temperature and your individual sweat rate). No fixed schedule is right for everyone (if it's even right for anyone). I'd wager this responder also comes home caked in salt.]

Responder #5: I like coconut water too.

[Coconut water is in vogue lately. It has a low level of electrolytes compared to the artificial products and its balance of electrolytes has been criticized - too much K, not enough Na. Neither of those facts makes me dislike the idea of coconut water. Actually I like the idea of it better than the idea of artificial 'sports drinks.' I don't think you need either though.]

Responder #6: In my long run two weekends ago I grabbed a bag of salt 'n vinegar potato chips midway. Most of us have tons of salt stored up before we run and will quickly replenish with tons of salt after we run. I do carry some S-Caps with me, but almost never take one anymore. Most of that just ends up crusted on your skin or goes down the toilet.

[Finally! Someone who thinks like me about this! Oh wait, that WAS me. Sorry! (Smart advice though.)]

Responder #7: Coconut water the week before race. The mango is yummy and nuun during.

[The week before the race?! Your body works to keep the level of sodium in your blood and extra-cellular body fluids constant to within a tight range, and it has very efficient mechanisms for doing so. I have no idea why anyone would think they need to 'do something' to correct their electrolytes a week before a race!]

Responder #8: Nun (sic) hydration tablets in 20 oz of water. No need for salt water. No phlem (sic) production like Gatorade or powerade. Goes down easy and absorbs quickly.

[We have, BTW, introduced the 'nuunies' now. The people who like this product are (because of the market literature from the manufacturer) the most likely to talk as though electrolytes ARE hydration and that your body can't even absorb water unless you drop one of their fizzies into it.]

The thread goes on a bit, but I've already brought out the issues in commenting on the parts I've shared. I could go on and on about the whole electrolytes issue, but why would you believe me anyway? Why don't you read it from a reputable source: Dr. Tim Noakes, author of the classic running book, "Lore of Running" and now author of the new groundbreaking work, "Waterlogged - The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports?" Here is a review providing an in-depth discussion of the content and conclusions of the book.

For anyone who doesn't want to read that much, his conclusions, in the end, are nothing but simple common sense - which I don't need a researcher like Noakes to tell me about with the stamp of scientific authority. They can be summed up in one simple idea:

"Your body knows what it needs, and it knows how to tell you."

Somehow, somewhere along the way (and Noakes' book identifies specifically where - and why it was wrong) we got the idea that exercise mysteriously shuts down such simple mechanisms as thirst to tell us when we need to drink, or food cravings that tell us when we need fuel, or when we need salt. Somehow, a majority of us believed such nonsense!

I never did (or I only did for a very short while before I called BS on it). I think it was because I was a kid at a time when there were only three channels of television, no computers, no video games, and no organized sports where we might have had coaches forcing us to drink and take electrolytes to a schedule.

What we did for entertainment instead was play outside. As a country boy, my 'play' involved some pretty intense exercise - lots of running, biking, climbing, wrassling, building forts and tearing them back down again, football, basketball, kick the can, etc. Somehow (even though we would be engaged in all these activities for blocks of often four to six hours at a time - in the summer - under the sun) our mothers never felt a need to strap 'hydration packs' full of Gatorade on our backs or stuff salt pills in our pockets and admonish us to take them! We were never warned that we might die if we didn't drink and take in some sugar every 15 to 20 minutes! None of us did those things, and none of us died because of it (or 'ran out of energy' to keep playing).

Dad 'splains it to me while Mom fills my Camelback with Perpetuem
Where on earth did we ever get the notion that human beings are like hummingbirds? Where did we get the idea that without a near-constant (intra-venous would be ideal) flow of sugar water we will suddenly just stop working? None of this makes any sense to me having grown up as I did.

Another reason I didn't buy it is that I'm an engineer. As an engineer, I'm in relatively close contact with scientists - through their writings if not in person. I have more than the average person's insight into how science works, and what I know from that is that scientists are nincompoops like the rest of us! I know enough about science to tell me to be very skeptical of some claim, "backed by scientific studies," that absolutely contradicts common sense.

Certainly common sense can be very wrong too, but we're seeing enough cases (like this) of decades of science being overturned in favor of the old common sense that prevailed earlier that I'm a good bit more inclined to trust my grandparents' view of things than to trust the view of science in the past forty years or so, particularly in the field of nutrition - either sports or everyday.

Or have you not been paying attention as the decades-long scientifically supported notion that fat is bad for you has also been overturned? Remember (if you're old enough) when grandma told you that eating too much bread and potatoes would make you fat? Hello obesity! Everybody chucked grandma for some agribusiness-friendly 'science' and here we are deep into the obesity 'epidemic.'

But that's a whole 'nother rant -sorry!

For this edition, Dear Runnerfolk, just realize that you DO NOT need to consume a steady stream of high-priced crap to get you through your long runs and races. In fact doing so may be causing you real problems - like vomiting all of that back up because (go figure) your stomach doesn't really want to work hard digesting stuff while the rest of you is trying to run 20 miles!

If you are well-trained, your body knows how to access its fat stores for energy (even the leanest runner has enough calories stored there to run well more than 100 miles). It knows how to use its stored glycogen sparingly, how to signal you when you need to drink WATER, and how to make you crave exactly the right food (like salt 'n vinegar potato chips) when you need it.

All you need to do to make this work is stop sucking gels and sports drinks the way THEIR MANUFACTURERS and THEIR SPONSORED ATHLETES tell you to, and start listening to your body instead. For those of you who have been attached to the sports drink teat for a long time there may be a withdrawal period. You've actually been inhibiting the fat-burning adaptations your body is capable of. Once you get used to training and racing without all that stuff though I have a hard time imagining you will want to go back.

That, Dear Runnerfolk, is my rant for today! Now back to your regularly-scheduled internet.

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