Why everyone should run an ultramarathon

If you’d asked me a year ago, perhaps two, whether I thought I could realistically run an ultramarathon, I would have laughed in your face and probably said something like ‘no, and I don’t really want to either’.

The root of this belief was:

1) That I found (and still find) running 15km very difficult so could never imagine how I was supposed to run over 3x that amount and not die…

2) If I believed I could, I knew that I would have to give it a go. ‘Giving something a go’ means months of hard training, anxiety, doubt and the possibility of ‘failure’, which many of us aren’t inclined to experience, let alone seek out.

Last month I ran my first ever ultramarathon, 50km across the gorgeous Peak District hills. I signed up 3 weeks in advance of the race with no expectations, no ‘goals’ per se, just a desire to race at least once in 2020 and spend time outside. The race went better than I ever could have expected, and I truly loved every minute.

Image by Benedict Tufnell

4 weeks later I took part in my second ultra (depending on your definition) – 48km along the Jurassic Coast – simply because it was close to home and I know how beautiful the route is. I signed up one week before, and the whole experience was a delight.

Image by Jake Baggaley

From what I’ve seen of ultramarathons, they are friendlier, prettier and far more forgiving than your average road marathon. People rarely run the whole thing, you have support the entire route (in the form of checkpoints with water, foot, medical aid etc every 10k or so) and everyone is so friendly! Walking isn’t frowned upon and you see people of all shapes and sizes signing up – there is far less judgement than I think people expect from these events. Because it’s a small community too, you tend to get to know people pretty fast!

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, people stop believing in trying out new experiences in favour of keeping to the known and the predictable. In short, people stop believing in themselves.

With this comes the knowledge that you’ll probably always be OK, but equally, probably never have the best time of your life, never find a new hobby and never experience all that life has to offer. Fear of the unknown, combined with mental images of elite athletes laughing at you for hobbling around a 50k course is enough to put anyone off… but I’m here to say that it shouldn’t!

Reasons to run an ultra:

  • Without pushing your body, you will never see what your body is capable of. It’s a lot more than you think.
  • Humans like to see progress. There is almost nothing more satisfying than seeing physical progress in running, whether that’s running to the end of your road, doing a faster 5k, or simply enjoying your run for the first time!
  • Trail ultras are far more forgiving on the joints than road marathons and similar, which means you’re less likely to experience running related injuries.
  • People (women especially) tend to improve or maintain endurance long into their 40s, meaning it’s the sort of hobby that you can take with you through your life, or pick up late! Runners (contrary to popular belief) actually have better functioning joints in older age than the average person.
  • It’s essentially an eating competition – the longer the run, the more you need to eat. If eating is one of your favourite pastimes (I know it is for me), you’ll probably do pretty well in an ultra!
  • The views! Maybe you think running is boring. Ultra running is NEVER boring. Choose one in a place you want to explore and enjoy the views!
  • You can’t pressure yourself to get a particular time on an ultra. Unless you’re an international champ, there’s no ‘doing well’ or ‘not doing well’ on an ultra. You signed up and showed up – that’s pretty epic! If you finish, you get a medal. Everyone is a winner here.
  • Training is about time on feet rather than pace or even distance. One of the hardest things about an ultra is being out on your feet all day, but if you have a busy job and spend a lot of time standing up, or enjoy walking a lot, you’ll probably be really good in an ultra. Of course, running training is important, but you have a head start if you are used to spending hours on your feet, even if you’re just standing still!
  • You get space. You might enjoy running with thousands of people around you – in which case I’d suggest doing a road marathon or something like the Great North Run. For ultras the chances are you’ll meet plenty of people along the way, but will never be penned in or surrounded by people.
  • It’s an adventure. While many road races feel quite similar, ultras are all different. They’re a great excuse to travel and explore somewhere new.
  • It’s a life experience. Ultras, especially multi-day ultras, can take over your life for up to a year, but the chances are they’ll also become one of the best things you’ve ever done. I’d say that’s reason enough to sign up!

If this blog post makes you keen to sign up, check out my vlog ‘10 things I learned from my first ultramarathon‘ and vlog of the ultra itself – I hope it’ll inspire you to get out there and give it a go!

Image by Jake Baggaley

How to run in the rain

As winter draws nearer for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the weather closes in, making sunny days a rarity and rainy days more and more common. For anyone who has recently taken up running, this might be a bit of a shock – after a glorious 7 months of sunshine, it’s the sort of time where hanging up your trainers, sticking on a cosy jumper and curling up in front of the fire seems far more appealing than the idea of heading out for a run.

There are loads of great reasons why running in the rain can be a good thing, not least because rain happens and if you want to progress, it’s something you’ll probably have to get used to as a runner. On top of that, rainy days are usually fairly empty out and about, meaning it’s one of the few times you won’t have to worry about crashing into people or sharing the trails with too many others.

SO, I thought I’d write this little piece with the aim of encouraging you all to get out. If you can get out in this weather, you can get out in anything and that makes you pretty badass. It’s also worth noting that by far the hardest part of many runs is getting out the door – once that’s achieved the rest is often plain sailing. Thanks to my Instagram followers and Tribe Run for Love crew for sharing their advice too!! Ps. If you’re looking for a 2021 challenge, their 250km ultramarathon may give you all the motivation you need. Sign up to be notified when it launches!

Good wet weather gear is vital, but don’t overdress like I always do! You’ll regret it.
  1. Meet up with people. Running in the rain doesn’t seem so pleasant until you pair it with another reason, such as a social one. Meeting with someone to run, whether you talk the whole way or run in silence, is one of my favourite things to do. Knowing you’ll be letting someone down if you don’t show up is good motivation to get out the door.
  2. Don’t overdress. It’s currently Autumn, which means the temperature is actually perfect for training (apparently the optimal endurance training temp is 9-11 degrees). Don’t be overzealous with the layers, or you’ll be stripping down and carrying them around for the rest of the run, and sweating too much can actually cool you down further. Dress for 5-10 degrees warmer than it actually is. Be bold, start cold!
  3. Men – use Vaseline on your nips or wear a bag to stop everything rubbing! Esp important for longer runs.
  4. Wear a cap. These aren’t only useful for sunny runs – caps are great for preventing rain from getting in your eyes.
  5. Cooler runs are easier on the body. Make the most of the cooler temperatures to get in some speedy runs!
  6. Your skin is waterproof! Nothing bad is going to happen if you run in the rain and get a little wet.
  7. BUT avoid the most stormy days. Running in a named storm may be possible, but it might not be sensible, especially if you’re running under tree cover, as branches are prone to snapping off in high winds. Plan your training days to avoid the worst weather.
  8. Invest in good gear. Good wet weather gear can make the difference between being able to train comfortably all winter and avoiding running altogether. Invest in a good rain jacket (a light one and one with taped seams for the heaviest rain on cold days) and a base layer that’ll keep you warm when it’s cold, and cool when you warm up. If you’re into trial running, make sure to have good shoes that won’t rub when they get wet. Consider Goret-Tex or OutDry for waterproof trail shoes.
  9. If you wear glasses, don’t. (Contacts work better).
  10. Motivate yourself with what you’re going to do post run, be it a warm bath, hot shower, cuppa and/or cake. Everything feels better after a tough run.
  11. Don’t forget to drink! When it’s wet and/or cold, it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re sweating. You still need water, even when it’s cold!
  12. Put your phone somewhere waterproof (sandwich bags work well).
  13. Braid your hair/avoid ponytails – the rain will matt it an it’ll be a nightmare to deal with when you get back.
  14. If you get cold hands, invest in good running gloves. I find that if my hands are cold, the rest of me is cold, so I wear gloves all winter. This is esp important if you have Raynaud’s.
  15. If you’re running far, tell someone where you’re going and/or share a tracking link (Strava has Beacon so family can follow your location). This is useful for dark runs and those in low visibility for ease of mind.
  16. Most of all, have fun! Running in the rain really isn’t that bad once you’re out, and it’s the chance to let your inner child out! Splash in puddles and enjoy the empty streets.

Watch this vlog to see some of my favourite winter training gear. If you found this blog post helpful, please do share with anyone who might find it useful or share and tag me on Instagram!

My first ultramarathon – the lowdown

On 19th September, I ran my first ever ultramarathon, a 50km, 1900m elevation gain jaunt in the Peak District, one of the UK’s National Parks. The race itself was different to any other I had done, not least because of social distancing measures put in place to ensure the competitors safety, and was superbly organised by Ultra X (the co-hosts of my other big adventure, the Tribe RFL).

I arrived in the Peaks on the Thursday afternoon, wanting to get a feel for the area and have the chance to explore a little – the issue with racing somewhere is that in the couple of days before the race you don’t want to do anything that might hinder your ability on the day, but then after the race you’re incapable of actually moving and doing anything fun. I’d always recommend arriving 3 days before a race if you want to be able to explore and get in a shakeout run!

Warmup hike around a gorgeous Mam Tor loop

We did just that – on Thursday we did a short walk, and on Friday a slightly longer one of about 12km, scouting out a small part of the course. Saturday was, of course, a total rest day (which I found myself very much needing after our walk the day before). It wasn’t a ‘carb-loading’ day per se, but the whole week previously had been filled with a slightly greater proportion of carbohydrates than usual to make sure muscle glycogen stores were as full as they could be.

On Saturday I set up camp with the runners completing the full 125km weekend, who were coming back from their first day (75km) as we set up my tent. The evening was spent eating our freeze-dried meals and snacks while listening to people recount their adventures from the day.

My tent setup!

Meals/snacks/beverages:

The next morning started with a big breakfast and some snacks at around 8am, followed by taping of my irritated tibialis posterior, a little niggle I’ve been having on and off since January. Better to preempt injuries than have to stop mid race! Coffee x2 in (I tend to save caffeine for race days), three loo breaks (nervous wees are a thing) and a little jumping around at the start line, we were off. COVID restrictions means that we set off in waves, so I started alone, but shortly caught up with a friend from the Azores Run for Love (these events are small, so you often see the same faces pop up again and again, which is part of what makes them lovely!).

Simba and I running the old Mam Tor road down to checkpoint 1. Photo by Benedict Tufnell

Race kit (where I can’t find the exact kit I’ve put their newer versions, or left blank if there isn’t one):

The first 5km of the race were done at my usual long run pace, which may have been a bit fast but we made the most of the downhills and easier terrain to warm up quickly. We made it to the first checkpoint in less than 30 minutes, after which I took off my trousers and packed them away. I also took my in first nutrition around then.

Race day nutrition:

  • Lucho Dillitos coffee and guava cubes
  • Fruit sticks (like YoYo)
  • Human Food
  • Boiled sweets
  • Phizz rehydration salts
  • Homemade ginger parkin cake
  • Coca Cola (while I usually hate coke, it is one of THE BEST things to drink mid long run. I guess it’s the combo of sugar and caffeine that does it!).

I preempted one of the colder parts of the route by keeping on my warm weather gear for the first peak, as it was still early and cold and the wind was freezing up there! But after summiting the first peak, I took off my rain jacket and stored it away in my bag. This was the order of the day – run, drink, eat, strip a layer, repeat, until I was just wearing my shorts and a t-shirt (while I love to run in just a sports bra, for longer races I try to wear a t-shirt to avoid bag chafing and sun/wind burn). And that’s how I got round the race! Food, water and one foot in front of the other.

I finished the race in 6h49mins, which was over an hour quicker than I had anticipated! It also afforded me the place of 6th woman, which is better than I could ever have expected. I hope to do more soon – it really was SUCH a fun day. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the outdoors, and this was the perfect way to spend as much time in it as possible (and eat as much food as possible!). Watch this space for another race 😉 I’d love to hear if you have any plans for similar races coming up? What gear do you swear by? I’m always up for getting more recommendations! Comment down below!

One of the more roady parts of the race (15km in or so)

You can see my vlog of the race below – don’t forget to like and subscribe if you enjoyed!

Huge shoutout to Simba (middle) for running back from the end to collect me 3km from the end and force me to run the whole last segment. I wouldn’t have otherwise!
Second massive shoutout to my dad and his girlfriend, Charlotte, who drove me to the Peaks, helped me set up camp and plied me with ginger parkin when necessary. I literally couldn’t have even got to the race without them!

How periods affect training

Despite working in the realm of ‘women’s health’ for many years of my life, I recently realised that this wasn’t something I’d ever written, vlogged or even talked about much on my social media. As something that affects so many of us, I thought it would be a good idea to rectify this, and hopefully shine some light on how menstrual cycles can affect training, what it means to lose your period and how we can take care of our bodies the best we can, while achieving the fitness goals we set out to achieve.

To give a little background, I worked at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists as a press officer and social media manager for over a year after I left university. I then went on to run the social media accounts for Freda, a sustainable period products brand that helps reduce period poverty here in the UK with every purchase. So, I know a thing or two about periods and the taboos that surround them, but for some reason have never spoken about it openly. Many thanks to Renee Mcgregor, a sports dietician specialising in overtraining and athlete health, for her help talking me through the complexities of the human body. Give her a follow, and check out her ebook for more information on this topic. 

Do periods affect training?

Historically, scientific research on women has been limited, thanks in no small part to the fact that periods are considered a ‘confounding factor’ when it comes to medical trials. In addition, the difficulty of finding a large enough cohort of people whose cycles match up adds an extra layer of complexity in organising scientific trials, limiting the number that have been carried out. However, more recently there have been several studies that show that changing hormones can affect both how we feel, as well as our performance. For years, scientists and coaches have worked on the assumption that biological females are essentially the same as males, just with different reproductive organs, but when it comes to training and the effect of hormones, we see that this isn’t true. 

Anyone who has periods will know how moods, energy and motivation vary throughout their cycle, although you might not know why this is. FitrWoman, an app designed to assist training planning around the menstrual cycle, explains how training can be affected by fluctuating hormones throughout the four-phase cycle. It is important to remember that while the average length of a cycle is 28 days, for someone else it may be more or less – what is important is knowing what is normal for you. 

“Starting with periods (phase 1), this is when women can experience a high amount of symptoms (e.g. back pain, cramps, fatigue) which can impact how you are feeling and therefore may impact exercise training/performance. Anecdotally, lots of the sportswomen we come across also cite that heavy bleeding has either caused them to change the way their train or miss training altogether, so this is definitely something key that we want to address. Things like moon cups can be game changers for some, and really heavy bleeders may want to be referred to a gynaecologist.

“After menstruation, levels of the sex hormones oestrogen start to increase (in Phase 2), and this can often be a good time to progress in training and just crack on. There is a little evidence to suggest that you can actually capitalise on strength training a bit more in this phase, likely due to the effect that oestrogen has on muscle anabolism/muscle protein synthesis.

“Oestrogen levels rise to a peak just before ovulation, and then progesterone levels start to increase (in Phase 3). Both of these hormones travel in the circulation and therefore can affect many physiological systems, not just the reproductive system. Progesterone often causes a small increase (by about 0.3-0.5 degrees C) in core body temperature and may cause an elevated heart rate, both which may affect exercise in the heat. Phase 3 can also be when sleep disturbances occur, and so without the right strategies in place, this can affect training. 

“Towards the end of Phase 3, and in Phase 4, pre-menstrual symptoms are likely to occur, and this is where a lot of our work with our Female Athlete Programme is focused on. Whilst there is little evidence that exercise performance is affected by menstrual cycle phase, this is with a slight caveat of: ‘given that symptoms are managed’. Research has found that many active women say their menstrual cycle has negatively impacted their performance, and it is often during this phase. The sharp drop in oestrogen and progesterone concentrations could result in delayed recovery, increased cravings, increased fatigue, pain, mood swings and poor motivation through a multitude of mechanisms. However, it’s not all doom and gloom! It’s just about learning what your individual menstrual cycle means for you and being savvy about how to manage any symptoms you experience”. 

Esther Goldsmith, sports scientist at FitrWoman
How hormones fluctuate during a standard 28 day cycle

All this to say: where you are in your cycle really can affect how you feel during training, but provided it’s not too hot, and provided you are able to manage symptoms, there’s little reason why your overall performance would be affected by your cycle. Having said that, it is important to note that if you are struggling, it might be worth switching round your routine in order to capitalise on days that you feel stronger. Tracking your cycle might help explain days where effort felt higher, or days you really aced training. I generally think that if I can workout on a day where I feel very ‘meh’, I can workout any day, and it’ll feel so much easier!  It is important not to beat yourself up for a ‘bad’ training session – every session serves a purpose – and while your cycle may not be an excuse for a bad session, it may well be a reason. 

Should you exercise on your period?

We are all unique, and as with so many health-focussed topics, the answer to this depends on personal preference and how you feel, as mentioned above. For many people, exercising during their period alleviates symptoms such as cramps and low moods, meaning that training is a great way to manage these things. For others, however, training can feel impossible, or at least immensely unpleasant. Dr Vanessa Mackay, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, recommends attempting light exercise during your period. 

“Women may not feel like exercising during a painful period, but keeping active can help relieve period pain and discomfort. Woman are encouraged to try low impact exercises such as swimming, walking or cycling.

“Exercise can also help to regulate menstruation. If women are stressed, their menstrual cycle can become longer or shorter, their periods may stop altogether, or they might become more painful.  Regular exercise, such as running, swimming and yoga, can help women to relax.

“If women experience severe period pain, or their normal pattern of periods change, they should speak to their GP.”

What’s important to note is that while it may assumed to be ‘normal’, being bedbound during your period is not something you should just ‘have to live with’, and if you are experiencing extreme discomfort and pain, you should visit a gynaecologist or doctor. Sadly, understanding around these issues is still pretty poor – it takes on average 7.5 years for someone to be diagnosed with endometriosis, for example – but if you feel something is wrong, please insist on seeing your doctor and getting a diagnosis. Similarly, if your normal pattern changes, e.g. you experience very heavy bleeding suddenly or lots of pain, speak to your GP, or even better a gynaecologist or endocrinologist. You should not have to suffer in silence. 

Fuelling also may need to change around your cycle, especially in endurance sports. As hormones fluctuate, the need for protein and carbohydrates varies, as well as micronutrients, such as iron. Iron is especially important during and after your period, as iron is lost when you bleed. During phase 1 and 2 (the first half of your cycle), more carbohydrates are required, as the body is burning more fat. This is especially important in endurance training, and long fasted sessions should be avoided, as they place unnecessary stress on the body. During the second half of the cycle (phases 3 and 4), progesterone levels are higher, as is the BMR (basal metabolic rate), meaning that cravings are higher, but also that the body really does need more food. Energy expenditure can increase by 2-11% during this half. Here you should consume more healthy fats and have a regular intake of protein. A general rule of thumb is to make sure you’re getting in enough carbohydrates, have a regular intake of protein and listen to your body – it may be telling you exactly what you need! 

For what it’s worth, I do not consciously change my exercise routine around my period. However, I do experience very low energy at certain times of the month (not every month – I’m still trying to figure out when, exactly) and often change around my routine to allow for extra food and rest on these days. I would never head out for a long run on a day when I feel exhausted to the point of needing a midday nap, and might instead take a walk or fit in a stretching session (both of which are useful parts of training, just less intense). Having said that, I also find a short (5-8k) run helps with PMS symptoms more than anything else, including painkillers! They’re definitely not my best runs, but for cramps and low mood, nothing beats an easy run for me.

TL;DR

  • Your hormones may affect perceived effort in training depending at the point you are in your cycle, especially in endurance training and in the heat.
  • Every woman is different: while some may feel no change, others may experience severe symptoms that affect how they are able to train each month. If you feel unable to complete normal tasks, consider visiting an endocrinologist or gynaecologist.  
  • Low intensity exercise may help reduce pre-menstrual symptoms and regular exercise is recommended to keep the body healthy. 
  • Your hormones can be capitalised upon to make the most out of your training – it’s not all bad news! Some parts of the cycle may be better for muscle growth, and training when you don’t feel your best can make other training sessions and races feel that much easier. 
  • Be kind to your body! Don’t beat yourself up about a bad training session. Ensure you are getting enough rest days and taking on enough fuel and you’ll be back on track in no time. 
  • Don’t forget that carbs are a necessary part of training, and especially required in the first half of your cycle. Make sure you have a good intake of protein and healthy fats. 
  • Periods and hormones are healthy. It is impossible to be optimal if these hormones are out of whack e.g. if you lose your period due to overtraining. More on this later!

I hope this helps you and answers some of your questions about training at different parts of the cycle. Many thanks to Fitr Women for explaining the different phases and how these may affect training. If you are not sure how your cycle affects you, it may be worth tracking it with an app or on your calendar. While it may not be an ‘excuse’, it can often be reassuring to know why a particular session felt so hard, and know the days you will be able to make the most out of your training. 

What I’ve learned from this research is that everyone is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. However, it does seem to be the case that when everything is functioning well, the menstrual cycle can be beneficial for capitalising on training and optimising performance. It’s sad to see so many women experiencing debilitating symptoms every month and assuming this is normal. I hope this encourages more people to know what they are capable of, and others to seek help if they feel something is off. 

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, these podcasts were particularly helpful for me:

If you found this blog post useful, please do share with anyone who might find it useful. If you enjoy my posts regularly, please consider contributing so I can keep this page up and running (no pun intended).

How heat affects your training

As summer kicks into full force here in the UK, I see more and more comments about how heat is affecting training – both from others and myself! Running in the heat is hard, as is doing any form of exercise that raises your temperature. Our bodies work hard to maintain a stable internal environment and when that’s put under pressure, it has to work even harder to keep everything steady. If you learned about homeostasis at school you’ll know all about this!

The ideal temperature for endurance running is 9.5 – 11 degrees C (50F, with women preferring the upper end of this). For sprints, however, the optimum temperature is around 22 degrees C (72F), showing that the best temperature for training depends on what you’re doing, as well as personal preference. However, there are numerous benefits to training in the heat, not to mention it’s fun to get out on a sunny day! So long as certain precautions are taken, there’s no reason hot days shouldn’t be enjoyed just like any other.

Make sure you plan long, hot runs and are kitted out appropriately! Check out this vlog for an introduction to trail running.

What happens to your body when you train in the heat?

To compensate for the warming temperates created from exercise, your body sends more blood to the skin, allow heat to be lost via convection, radiation and evaporation. The warmer and more humid the external environment, the harder it is for heat to dissipate quickly, meaning you’ll cool down more slowly.

There are many physiological changes that occur to keep you cool, but after a point they may not be able to keep up. If your body gets too hot, it starts to rebel, telling you to slow down, drink, maybe even have a sit down. The first symptoms of heat exhaustion are dizziness, nausea, headache, extreme fatigue, cramps and mild confusion. Pushing through exhaustion can lead eventually to heat stroke, with the result being damage to vital organs as the body’s internal thermostat goes out of whack. It’s advisable to slow down long before this point, and planning your nutrition and hydration can stave off heat exhaustion for a long time.

Humid weather reduces the speed at which your body can cool down, meaning that even relatively cool temperatures can become exhausting.

How to train in the heat

It takes our bodies one to two weeks to adapt to training in the heat, which is why training can be especially hard at the start of summer – as soon as you get used to running at one temperature, it gets hotter again! In addition, beginner runners and people new to exercise will be less optimised to cool down quickly – the more you exercise, the more efficiently your body learns to cool. Hence very fit people may sweat more, and less fit people may need to take it easier on hot days! There are, however, certain things you can do to still make the most of hot days, and make sure you’re keeping safe when you train.

  • Avoid training in the hottest part of the day. Aim for early morning for the best temperatures (there’s also nothing nicer than a run at the start of a glorious summer’s day!).
  • Replace lost electrolytes (salts) with dietary salt or an electrolyte drink/rehydration salts.
  • Make sure you are hydrated well before heading out on a run or to the gym. This doesn’t necessarily mean glugging 2L of water before heading out, but make sure you’re hydrated the night before and morning of a big run or training session. If you’re working out for a long time, take water with you.
  • Wear sunglasses, a cap and light clothing to reduce the effect of the sun when outside. Always wear sweat-proof suncream.
  • Take it easy. As you acclimatise, your training sessions will get easier, but while you’re adapting, train by effort, not data. This means you may be running slower, shorter and lifting lighter with fewer reps, but that’s ok! The effort you expend is the same, and it’ll leave you a better athlete.
  • Avoid training on the hottest days if you’re concerned. It is possible to plan training days around the weather – I often do this to avoid rainy or extremely hot days, and train either side of those days.

The more you train in the heat, the more tolerant you will be to it. Stick it out, knowing that your runs/workouts may be compromised in the meantime, and within a week or two you’ll be amazed how normal it feels. Think of it as training adaptation – in the same way that training stresses out the body to make it more adapted, heat does the same. So long as you’re being sensible with hydration and your goals, there’s no reason not to train on hotter days. It’s just up to personal preference!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider contributing so I can create more. Feel free to suggest more topics while you’re at it!

Common Running Nutrition Mistakes

This is a guest blog post by Renee McGregor, a dietitian who I look up to for evidence-based information, especially in regards to running and nutrition. 

Renee is a leading Sports and Eating disorder specialist dietitian with 20 years of experience working in clinical and performance nutrition. She’s worked with athletes across the globe including supporting Olympic (London, 2012), Paralympic (Rio, 2016) and Commonwealth (Queensland, 2018) teams. She is regularly asked to work directly with high performing and professional athletes that have developed a dysfunctional relationship with food that is impacting their performance, health and career. On top of this Renee is the founder of Enspire clinic, a centre specialising in supporting individuals and athletes of all levels and ages, coaches and sports science teams to provide nutritional strategies to enhance sports performance and manage eating disorders. This is reflected in her work on social media too, priding herself on proving an educational hub for both the professional and everyday athlete. When not inspiring others with her incredible work, Renee can be found running the mountains and chasing the trails, most likely training for a crazy ultra-marathon!

burst

Everyone has an opinion about nutrition – why shouldn’t they? After all, we all need food to survive. However, there is a difference between anecdotal nutrition advice and actual nutritional science. On social media we are exposed to the former a lot more than the latter. What works for one person in a sample of n=1, may not work for another. Just the other day I was on a group chat where someone very boldly stated that their new vegan regime was the cause of their newly found energy and improved recovery. However, this was based on subjective information, which they had collected over a few weeks. Is this science? No – this is one individual’s personal experience with no information of what her diet had been like previously or even if any other aspect of her life had also changed which may have resulted in how she was feeling. Presently there is no evidence in the literature to suggest that a plant-based diet can improve an individual’s performance – such anecdotal evidence could cause more harm than good.

Nutritional science, and particularly sports specific nutrition, is actually quite complex. While many simply look at the impact of one particular nutrient or process on performance, this completely ignores the fact that the human body is run on an intricate system of endocrine, biochemical, immunological, physiological and psychological pathways that all work collectively.

Let’s take the keto diet as an example. This was a huge trend a few years ago and many still promote it with the idea that if we remove carbohydrate from our diet, then our body will use more fat for fuel and improve our performance but also our body composition. While on the surface this may seem to have some gravitas – take out carbohydrate and the body will have to find another fuel source to provide the body with energy – what has been completely ignored is the importance of carbohydrate intake on the hypothalamic pituitary axis, which is necessary to get adaptation from a training response. In addition, carbohydrate has a critical role in optimising immune function in those who are physically very active.

So, with this all in mind, here are some of the common mistakes often made…

 

Carbohydrates

Numerous studies have demonstrated that carbohydrate is the preferred fuel used by the body and is definitely the key to optimal performance. That said, many runners still have little understanding of how much they actually need in order to meet their requirements with many under fuelling.

As stated above, carbohydrate availability is particularly key for the hormonal cascade needed in order to see adaptation and thus progression. This means ensuring sufficient carbohydrate before, during if your runs are over 90 minutes and within 30 minutes of completing your session. While everyone’s physiology is slightly different, as a rule of thumb the requirements set are 5g/Kg BW of carbohydrate if you are running for 60 minutes a day, with this figure increasing for longer or multiple training sessions. In general, I do not encourage fasted sessions and the recommendations state that if you are going to include these, you should not do more than 2 a week and they should be no longer thank 60 minutes, at an effort of no more than 6/10. More than this and at higher efforts, potentially can result in chromic stress on your body leading to a depressed immune system, higher risk of injury and down regulation of your hormones, particularly your thyroid gland, oestrogen and testosterone, leading to further negative health consequences.

In practise, if you are training regularly, it is unlikely that you will ever have full glycogen stores and so it is essential to ensure that you consume carbohydrate at meals and snacks throughout the day. Aim to include nutrient dense carbohydrates such as oats, potatoes, whole grains, fruit and yoghurts at 3 meals (about a 1/3 of your plate) as well as including 2-3 smaller carbohydrate based snacks such as bananas, cereal bars, 2 slices malt loaf or 2-3 oatcakes with peanut butter.

One common observation I have seen is that many people view vegetables as carbohydrate, often displacing these for pasta, grains, bread and potatoes. While vegetables play a role within our diet and should be included, they are predominantly fibre which means they add bulk to the diet but not essential carbohydrate fuel.

 

Protein

There is a lot of hype around protein in the recovery phase, with many runners stressing about not getting enough to enhance recovery. Protein does play a role in the response to training and should be included in addition to carbohydrate, particularly immediately after. The general recommendations are that a recovery meal/snack/choice should provide 1.2g/Kg BW carbohydrate and 0.4g/Kg BW protein. So for someone who is 55Kg this would be 66g of carbohydrate and 22g protein and looks like a medium size baked potato with a small tin of tuna.

It is important to appreciate that the body will struggle to utilise more than 0.4g/Kg BW post training for muscle protein synthesis and adaptation. Any additional protein consumed will be used as fuel or stored as excess. Therefore, it is actually really important to spread your protein requirements out throughout the day. Aim for palm size portion of protein at 3 meals and then half this amount for snacks. This will ensure that your body always has an amino acid pool to draw from in order to repair and rebuild muscles, throughout the day, as well as preventing blood sugar fluctuations.

 

Sugar

With so much negativity around sugar, it is hardly surprising that many runners are equally concerned about their intake. While I would never advocate a high sugar diet, there are definitely times during training and competing, where sugar is the only option. During endurance events, such as a half or full marathon, the body will need an easily digestible source of carbohydrate to keep stores topped up so that running pace can be maintained beyond 60-90 minutes. Gels, jelly babies, sports drinks are all suitable options and they all contain sugar. So in this case, sugar actually enables and potentially enhances your performance.

 

5 Nutrition Staples:

  • Don’t be drawn to the latest fad – many runners will try almost anything to improve their performance. Focus on training and getting the building blocks of your diet correct first – this is going to have more impact than whether you are gluten free or not.
  • After a very hard training session and especially when you will be training again within 12 hours, taking on something like flavoured milk is an ideal choice to start recovery as quickly as possible. The combination of added sugar to the natural milk sugar causes insulin to increase in the blood. Contrary to what you might think, this is actually really important. Only when our insulin levels are raised, can we draw carbohydrates and protein into the muscles to start the recovery process.
  • Always practise your race day nutrition – the worst mistake you can make is to use what is available on race day without previously having tried it –this could have real negative effects on your performance.
  • Work out what is right for you – just because your training partner swears by a bowl of porridge every morning, this does not necessarily mean this is the right fuel choice for you.
  • You don’t have to eat less on your rest day – for most this will fall between two training days so it is the perfect opportunity to recover and then refuel. By being consistent with your nutrition, you will also allow for consistency with your training which allows for progression.

 

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Running essentials – gear

Hi everyone! I get asked (pretty much on a daily basis now) what gear I’m using to train for the Tokyo marathon, from shoes, to leggings that don’t fall down, to fitness watch. So here I’ll share my absolute faves.

Tops

This mid layer from Underarmour is a godsend in the cold. I have many versions of this, but for this weather I’ve not found anything more comfy!

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Under all your gear you’ll want a base layer for warmth and moisture wicking. This one from Asics does the job nicely.

Bra

A good, well fitted sports bra is of vital importance when it comes to running. I love this one by Underarmour and this one by Asics as featured in my latest vlog.

Leggings

The most important thing for me when choosing leggings is that they don’t fall down when I run. Second most important thing is that they don’t get sweaty and make me cold when I’m outside. I have a couple of favourites that smash both of these elements!

These coldgear leggings from Underarmour are perfect for colder runs. They’re super soft and a little thicker than my usual legging, so great for this time of year.

Alternatively, my all time favourite running leggings come from technical brand 2XU. They’re not cheap, but if you’ve ever raced, you’ll see a large proportion of the runners wearing this brand and for good reason – they’re fab! The compression technology also promises to deliver you faster times and less muscle soreness (I did indeed get both my 5k and 10k pbs in the leggings). I couldn’t find the exact ones I have (they’re old) but here are the same type in another pattern!

Socks

Socks are easy to forget when it comes to running, but when you start to run further the importance of a good sock becomes very evident. My favourite brand is Stance, so have specific socks for all kinds of activities. Again, not cheap, but fully worth it.

Shoes

Potentially the most important thing when it comes to running – shoes! Because we all run slightly differently, a shoe that works for me might not be a shoe that works for you. However since I have a neutral stride and wear a neutral shoe, chances are it’ll be great for a large proportion of you!

My all time favourite running shoe is the Gel Nimbus 20 from Asics in Platinum. Most colours are also reduced, but get in there fast – they’re selling out!

Alternatively, if you’re planning on running off-road/in muddy places, a good trail running shoe makes all the difference. They’re also great if you don’t want to invest in cross-country spikes but need some extra grip. These shoes from Columbia can be raced right out of the box (they gave me no blisters on a wet and muddy 23km trail race) and will keep your feet dry for the most part. I can’t find them in my colour but you can find other colours here.

Rucksack

I don’t think people realise how useful a running rucksack is until they have one, at which point it becomes invaluable. Whether for holding gels, water or extra layers (usually all of the above for me), it’s just so useful to have with you on every run. This is my all time favourite from Columbia – however, if you’re much smaller than me and not wearing lots of layers, it may sit a little big.

Watch

I used to use the Fitbit Versa (for about 8 months) before it broke. I was impressed with the heart rate sensor and ease of use, but when it came to running it really let me down, cutting off as much as 10% off any route due to poor GPS. I hope new Fitbits have better sensors! I’m now looking at the Garmin Forerunner collection which is unfortunately obscenely expensive. But when it comes to running, Garmin and Polar definitely lead the way!