Comrades Marathon month has arrived in South Africa. This legendary Ultra running event, is an icon that attracts over 20,000 runners a year. So how do you go about fuelling for a race of around 90km? Mark Wolff tells you what to do in the last 24 hours and on race day; on this episode of 32Gi Sports Nutrition.
Welcome to the latest edition of 32Gi Sports Nutrition with myself David Katz, Mr. Active and Mark Wolff. Well we’re into May it means the Comrades Marathon is just three and a half weeks away or just over three weeks away. A lot of excitement building but also a lot of people trying to decide what they’re going to do with their nutrition.
Mark looking at that nutrition; race day is so important for people to know and have that in place. What are some of the key things people should already be thinking about at this stage?
MW: Nutrition definitely plays probably one of the most critical roles at Comrades Marathon. I think with three and a half weeks to go to Comrades you should have your nutrition pretty much down pat. It would be a shame if you haven’t really thought about it and if you haven’t you really need to start thinking about it very seriously.
It’s a very long event it’s long hours on the road and I always call these events war of attrition but it’s actually war of nutrition. So the most important thing is obviously the week leading up to the event, we are gonna be doing a separate podcast on tapering and nutrition. That will be two weeks before Comrades so stay tuned for that.
For now let’s focus on say the 24 hours before the event, the morning of the event and actually on the day. What you should be planning in your head and how you should be structuring your nutrition for the day.
24 hours to Comrades Marathon – what to eat
So firstly let’s talk about the day before the event I mean obviously you should be hydrating sufficiently. You can never get to an event such as – as long as Comrades and not be properly hydrated at the start. So drinking fluid throughout the day is obviously something that is quite critical. Not to over drink but to drink sufficient amount that you are properly hydrated.
A lot of people like to generally over eat carbohydrates the day before the event in order to try and carbo load. But there’s absolutely no major necessity to do this. All you gonna do is you gonna just put on more weight or store more weight. The problem is that when you running so many thousands of steps on Comrades day.
The last thing you want to be doing is running those thousand steps on a few extra hundred grams or even kilograms. So there’s no need to over eat. I would say that you could increase the size of your lunch time meal slightly. Adding in some carbohydrates there depending on what kind of obviously nutrition plan you follow.
At Comrades you get plenty of people that are low carb high fat eaters, low fat high carb eaters, etcetera. So you’ve got to actually look at what your nutrition plan is what kind of an eater you are and structure your meals accordingly.
The night before Comrades Marathon
The night before the event I would never eat something that’s quite heavy. The reason for this is the night before the event you really need to focus on sleep. Over eating is just gonna cause a lot of discomfort. You’ve got pre-race nerves to add to that.
You gonna lie in bed you gonna be completely uncomfortable while the food is trying to digest. With the pre-race nerves thrown into that. If you’ve over hydrated you gonna be running backwards and forwards to the loo. You gonna be tossing and turning.
It’s the last thing that you wanna have to have happen to you the night before Comrades Marathon. What you need to be doing is focusing on sleep to be calm and focusing on sleep as much as possible. Because you really, really need it.
So having a very small meal before you go to sleep at night is absolutely perfect. There’s a lot of people that I work with in the nutrition space and a lot of athletes. Some will have some eggs on toast, some might have a chicken salad. Some might have a small little bowl of pasta with an easily digestible protein rather with chicken as opposed to heavy meat.
But really keeping the meal very easily digestible and quite light. Obviously don’t over hydrate before you go to sleep because that also bloats you and loads you.
Most important Comrades Marathon meal – breakfast
The most important meal that you can possibly be focusing on is the morning of the event. That’s what we going to get to next. So you wake up in the morning and you need to first of all determine that meal volume. The type of meal you gonna eat prior to Comrades. Based on how many hours before the event you actually have the ability to eat.
Generally I would recommend consuming something at least two hours before the start of the event. A lot of people have to travel quite a fair amount of distance to the event. So sometimes you’d have to look at a convenient option of taking food with you to make sure that it’s two hours before.
If it is two hours before we look at a meal that’s around probably anywhere around 350 to 400 calories or maybe slightly more. But that’s more than sufficient and that meal should be a meal that’s pretty substantial. There’s a lot of athletes that have various different choices when it comes to meal selection.
What Caroline Wostmann eats before Comrades
I know for example if we look at Caroline Wostmann. Caroline likes to eat banana’s before she starts a run. There’s nothing, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Then I’ve got athletes that like to have banana and peanut butter or nut butter on rye bread or on toast.
We’ve got people that Jodie and James, we actually interviewed recently, they not doing Comrades but they IronMan athletes, top triathletes. They try and reduced their fibre intake as much as possible before an event, you can go listen to that podcast as well. Basically they would look at something like rice or rice pudding which is very low in fibre, white rice in actual fact.
So I think you need to see that meal needs to really be selected on what’s comfortable for you from a digestive perspective. What’s gonna give you some substantial fuel for the beginning of that event. Because even when you not running you know getting to the event and going two hours later you are burning off calories. You wanna definitely top up those fuel stores they will come into play later.
In general a lot of people only start eating once they more in an aerobic stage. Than in the event once that engine is actually warmed up. So if you only have the ability to eat an hour before then reduce the size of the meal. Drop it down to 200 calories. You don’t wanna be running with a heavy stomach. You definitely don’t want to have any signs of discomfort.
DON’T try anything new on Comrades race day
One thing I can honestly say do not try anything new on race day. I’m talking about the pre-race meal now on race day. I have had athletes in the past they know they are lactose intolerant yet they take in milk; or they take in some form of dairy product which causes stomach issues.
Make sure that you do have your pre-race meal planned long before. It would be good to try it out in some runs, before some runs. Make sure that you are comfortable with what you are utilising. I definitely wouldn’t recommend trying anything new. Definitely I would say for most people even if you are not lactose intolerant avoid those fast digesting products like the dairy, etcetera. Avoid high fibre products anything that’s going to affect the bowels in a negative way.
There’s no need to over hydrates there’s plenty of water points on the Comrades route and that would be absolutely perfect. We do have some meal options on 32Gi website you welcome to go there and have a look. We’ve also got some smoothie options as well.
If you are traveling down for the event make sure that you do take your food with you. You don’t necessarily only want to rely on a hotel. Unless that hotel has got the food that you would require prior to your event.
DK: Mark if I could just jump in there. I wanna ask you more sort of about race day. I mean you’ve touched on some great points. That trying nothing new is something everyone knows, but as you say some people fall into that trap still to spite that knowledge. But looking at other things like the likes of caffeine.
How to utilise caffeine around Comrades
A lot of people over short distance it has big benefits. For something like the Comrades what sort of benefits would something like caffeine have? And another one I don’t think people are aware of the dangers on the route. If you getting into a bit of pain a lot of people pop pain pills, which can be very dangerous.
MW: So I think let me start with caffeine, I think you should try and reduce stimulants the week before an event. Obviously if you a very big coffee drinker, you know to cut down on the amount of caffeine that you take in significantly. Too quickly it forces you to go cold turkey. In actual fact it stresses you out more.
So in actual fact I would say if you are gonna reduce caffeine intake prior to the event; rather start a couple of weeks before. Because caffeine definitely does have a benefit. So there’s a number of benefits to caffeine.
I think the first one that I quite like, and this is why I take caffeine actually prior to long endurance events. It does assist in freeing up a lot of free fatty acids. Which basically brings a nice amount of fuel to the forefront which can be utilised during the event.
The second thing that caffeine does is it wakes up the brain. So by waking up the brain during and event, I mean especially an event where you fatigue. It’s not physical fatigue it’s mental fatigue as well. It does keep you going, I’m a big fan of caffeine. For example I limit my coffee intake to maybe five to seven cups a week depending on how I’m feeling. So I’m not an excessive drinker.
When I do testing as far as nutrition goes during training I only utilise it in my long sessions. I see what my response is to caffeine. But I can take in, anywhere around about 400 to 500 milligrams of caffeine in a five to six hour session. Generally I like the caffeine intake to be frequent.
Some people like to only take it when they want that wake up when they feeling a little fatigue later on. I think it depends on the intensity that you performing at. If you performing at a fairly high intensity possibly you would want caffeine more regularly. I see that with our elite athletes. Our elite athletes that are running consume caffeine shots quite regularly. They like it and they start consuming it on a 30 minute to an hourly basis. It is a frequent feed all the way to the finish.
Some athletes might only take it in the second half or towards the end when they really need that wake up. I would just I wouldn’t obviously consume any caffeine the day before the event. Again it does stimulate you and it obviously impacts your sleeping patterns the night before the event, when you actually need to focus on sleep.
The only other caffeine, the benefit that caffeine has is actually post exercise. It actually does help speed up glycogen replenishment when consumed with a complex carbohydrate. But again we’re talking about pre-race and the actual race itself.
What is recommended pre-race is generally one to two milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. If you really want to free up a nice amount of free fatty acids. That would generally be three to four hours before the event. The problem is most people don’t wake up three to four hours before the event.
So you don’t want to take in an excessive amount of caffeine because it can act as a diuretic in some people. The last thing is you wanna do is dehydrate yourself prior to the event. So taking it obviously away in advanced will allow you still to rehydrate before you go into the event.
Be careful of popping pills at Comrades
On your second question which is NSAID’s which are non-steroidal or anti-inflammatories. I’ve got a huge problem when I see people taking these during any event.
It is a huge health risk. Absolutely under no circumstances should anybody ever be taking pain killers while they doing an endurance event. A lot of people say it works for them and it numbs the pain, etcetera.
My personal opinion if you can’t handle the pain you shouldn’t be doing the event. I mean that’s what we train for it’s hard work. You are putting your life at risk by taking these non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.
I do know many people who have taken NSIAD’s even some safely for a few years where they had no issues. Then suddenly kidney failure or kidney issues. The problem is that once that happens it’s just too late. So really, really shouldn’t be taken.
I also know many athletes that have caused tendon raptures by taking them during events as well. One other thing as well is taking an anti-inflammatory during event a lot of people don’t realise this but it actually breaks down the protective barrier of the skin.
Which means that you don’t actually have any natural sun protection and that can actually cause severe burns. Again you are putting yourself at risk for skin cancer. Is it worth it? Absolutely not. Again I just absolutely stress if you can’t handle the pain then don’t even do the event. There’s no need to take anti-inflammatories and pain killers.
DK: Now Mark cramping is something that happens to a lot of endurance athletes. Comrades being that far doesn’t matter how much you’ve trained a lot of people battle with cramping. From a diet from a hydration and nutritional point of view what are some of the things you can try do to sort of keep it at bay for as long as possible?
How to try prevent cramp
MW: Well I think first let’s talk about what triggers cramping. Look some people are crampers, and some people are crampers because they’re doing something wrong. But if we have a look at the main cause of cramping, it is undertrained and under conditioned muscles.
The biggest problem is that I’ll use a simple example. An athlete does a, his training for an endurance event like Comrades. Comrades is an event with lots of hills. Lots of climbs ups and downs. It’s amazing on the Down run there are plenty of climbing in the first 50 kilometres. The thing is that an athlete might not do sufficient hill work.
If you haven’t done sufficient hill work and conditioned the muscles for hills well you actually increasing the risk of cramping, why? Because you are gonna over stress muscles which I haven’t been used in training. You gonna actually over stress them during the race and that’s gonna actually trigger cramps. So that over stress that over use of that muscles is gonna cause a problem.
The second thing is and I’m talking uphill repeats and downhill repeats. The second thing is obviously pace, let’s look at pace. So an athlete will train I’m just using this as an example. Let’s say an athlete trains at he wants a silver medal. So he wants to run it under five minutes a kilometre, that’s fine.
But during his training all he’s doing is he’s running at like a 4:20 and four minutes a kilometre he’s doing a lot of fast training. Suddenly he has to at Comrades, he has to slow his pace down. There’s no ways you gonna run Comrades Marathon at the same pace as you would run a marathon.
Now he slows his pace down he’s predominantly now shifting the work to different muscle fibres. Again he increases the risk of cramping because he hasn’t trained at the pace that he’s going to race at. You really, really need to condition your body to the actual race. You need to do that in training.
It’s the same as if you gonna run a marathon. It’s a flat marathon then you need to be doing flat work and not just hill work. So there needs to be a holistic approach to training. If that’s done correctly and any coach that’s out there would be able to guide their athlete successfully.
I think just a lot of people try it on their own and they don’t understand that holistic approach to training. But if you train properly you know obviously taking all this into account you minimise the risks of cramping.
What role does nutrition play in cramping?
Now if we look at nutrition obviously nutrition can play a role in triggering cramping as well. A lot of people look at, if we look at hydration being a possible risk of cramping, yes it can be. There’s two factors that we need to take into account.
I think one of the big ones is actually over hydration. So you know we have electrolyte levels. Actually by over consuming fluid you actually dilute those levels. Basically when you dilute your electrolyte levels that becomes a problem you putting yourself at a big risk as well not only at a big risk for cramping.
I mean dizziness, nausea and even possibly hypernatremia if you really over hydrate significantly. So the thing is that you should always obviously practice hydration during your training. One of the biggest thing is I always tell athletes is that Comrades, you running it from early morning until after lunch time, most people.
So when you doing your long training runs you do need to make sure that you doing your long runs in the heat of the day as well. You need to be able to acclimatise to those conditions. You need to understand exactly how much fluid you should be taking in and obviously at what periods of time.
So I think that that’s also very critical. I always believe in fluid management don’t overdo it, don’t under do it. Try and find a balance and small sips here and there more frequently are far better. Taking in too much fluid is a problem.
At Comrades because of the heat and because of the time I find that a lot of athletes actually start to cool themselves down. Instead of taking water sachets and throwing them over their heads or over their backs or trying to cool the core.
I think that comrades this year they actually got sponges on route as well for cooling it’s brilliant, brilliant idea. I think it’s a huge value add to the participants. But that’s the way to cool your body.
I think a lot of people when they get that cold water and they put it into their mouths and it actually goes into the body, they enjoy that sensation of cooling. Start to cool from the inside. But you really need to take into account that you cannot cool the body by consuming fluid and putting it into the inside.
Once it’s inside of you that fluid is going to go through some sort of absorption process. You can over hydrate by filling yourself up to much or and by diluting your electrolyte levels you might be over consuming. How do you know if you’ve over consumed?
It’s very simple you feel a washing machine effect. If you are training you will feel a sloshing effect in your stomach. You running you bouncing around you’ll feel this fullness of water you actually can hear it and feel it sloshing inside of you. At that stage you should stop drinking completely.
You should probably be taking in some salt to try and help with that fluid absorption. Or some carbs to try and help with that fluid absorption. Once you feel that sensation gone then you can start to hydrate again. I think a lot of people have got a fear of dehydrating.
To be honest most athletes perform to a certain extent of being dehydrated it’s not really a life threatening risk as much as hypernatremia is. If you consuming a sufficient amount of fluid you’ll never be able to replace the amount of fluid lost. But if you can just replace a certain percentage of it you should be actually perfectly fine on route.
The trick to fuelling on Comrades Marathon race day
DK: Really important there as you’ve touched on dehydration and over hydration more importantly. So some fantastic advice there but looking specifically at diet sort of what you need to be putting back from of a nutritional point of view. Looking at proteins, carbohydrates, fat and the amount of glycogen you using. How do you keep that body going for maybe 90 kilometres?
MW: Well that’s the most important question and if we have a look at Comrades it is definitely without a doubt a pace controlled event. You are not racing in an extremely high intensity. Yes elites run it in five and a half hour but they do control the pace quite significantly until they need to up their pace and up their intensity. So again it becomes a war of attrition and obviously energy sparing.
So when you running at a higher pace, we’ve discussed this in previous podcast at a high intensity. You generally tend to tap into your glycogen stores a lot more. However for me Comrades is a fat fuelling event there’s no reason to spike your blood sugar and to over consume carbohydrates on route.
Because you definitely can tap into those fat stores and utilise them primarily as a source of energy. Your pace is more controlled you getting more oxygen into the system. It’s basically a matter of utilising the right fuel tank for that event and not the wrong one.
If you gonna chew up your glycogen stores in that event your pace is way too high. Also glycogen, and you can see we’ve discussed this in previous podcasts, 2000 calories it’s definitely not gonna last you. A Comrades Marathon it is way too long for that.
Making sure you utilise your main fuel source
So fat is the main source of fuel for the day and how do we tap into that fat store and make sure that our brain is happier on route? It’s very simple I would recommend what I call drip feeding. In other words more frequent feeding but through smaller periods of time.
So in other words not feeding once an hour but feeding every 20 to 30 minutes and taking in something small. You also obviously need to plan. Do you have seconds on route can they feed you? Or do you have to rely with what is on route. There are bananas and potatoes on route. I do believe in whole foods as definitely an addition to a fuelling strategy.
Some of our elites do consume it in between their other fuelling strategies and it definitely does assist. But obviously not a whole potato and a whole banana it’s obviously pieces here or there you need to take in a certain volume.
So if we looking at a fuelling strategy; I think you need to plan it before the event. You definitely need to stick to it on the day. You need to know how much carbohydrates you gonna take in when and over what period of time.
I think that is the most important thing and in what form, are you gonna be carrying them with you. Are you gonna be relying on tables at Comrades? Sometimes you miss tables because it is very crowded on route and you can’t always rely on the tables.
So maybe you do need to carry a backup with you. And as far the kind of carbohydrates; I would recommend for most people that are running in the Comrades field that you shouldn’t be taking anything that is gonna spike your blood sugar excessively.
The minute you do that you actually mitigate tapping into your fat stores. Because that glucose in your system you need to get rid of it more quickly. Also you will need to be fuelling yourself on those products a lot more frequently you’ll be having to take them in. So if you start Comrades on a gel you need to be fuelling yourself on gels all the way through you cannot stop.
If you gonna start off with a more stable feed whether it’s potatoes or bananas or carbohydrates that don’t spike your blood sugar excessively. It provides far more stability and I will say that, that is far more suited to the majority of the field. Because they running at a far more controlled pace.
How we can help you plan
So time yourself, make sure you get in the right nutrients. We do have an online coach, firstname.lastname@example.org. You welcome to contact that email address and we have got the ability to help with your Comrades nutrition. Help make sure that you are on target for the day, obviously I’m thinking about carbohydrates now.
Not everybody is gonna fuel themselves with carbohydrates we do have people who are low carb high fat eaters they specifically fuel on fat. It’s not a bad idea in an event like Comrades, since I mentioned it is more a fat fuelling event. However because they are far more used to consuming a high fat diet and a much more lower carbohydrate diet they are more fat efficient.
So a carbohydrate dependent person would need to rely on carbohydrates but make sure that you select the right amount. A more fat efficient athlete can actually rely on fat. There again you looking at more your Medium-chain triglycerides, your MCT’s, etcetera. That becomes a very quickly accessible form of fat fuel for the day.
One of the things where I think both whether you a low carb high fat eater or a high carb low fat eater; is something that does need to be thrown into the mix at Comrades Marathon is protein. Taking in protein during a long, long endurance event is advisable. it may prevent catabolism of protein for use as fuel. It actually also stimuluses’ the system and it keeps that hunger at bay.
So what happens there is a lot of the elite athletes will actually take protein probably around the 40 to 50 kilometre mark. Possibly again between the 60 to 70 kilometre mark. A slightly more undertrained person might wanna take protein in a little bit earlier.
You can take it in the form of food, but taking in protein on route will definitely, definitely make you feel a world of difference. It will help delay, it acts like fat does, that sort of onset of muscle fatigue as well, it keeps the hunger at bay. Just ultimately stabilises the system.
Very, very worthwhile in trying to incorporate that into your Comrades feeding strategy. So I’ve just touched on a few things we can’t get in too much detail obviously because of time. But we do have that online coach facility and you welcome to contact us for more information.
Watch out for too much sweet stuff
DK: Look I just wanna ask you as well because I think it was a problem that I had with my sort of failed Comrades attempt, is taking in too much glucose. I had really bad nausea eventually I couldn’t do it anymore, that is a big concern for a lot of people.
MW: That’s one of the major symptoms on Comrades day is over consumption of sugar products. Not that I’ve got anything against sugar products. I think you know even if you looked at potatoes and bananas ultimately they break down into sugar, that’s not the thing.
What I’m talking about are blood glucose spiking products such as gels, etcetera. Definitely there over consuming these products and not running at that pace to utilise those kinds of products. You will definitely ultimately cause what I call a build-up of a glucose concentrate in the digestive system. You won’t get it out of there very quickly.
One of the biggest problems is that it leads to nausea it leads to dizziness. It leads to actually what we call GI distress gastro intestinal distress. It is really a place you in a world of hurt it’s not a place that you wanna be in. So you rather keep it very toned down and very small.
A lot of people a lot of the old runners they used to always talk about the coke water running. If you think about that it was a very, very trace amount of sugar with water. It wasn’t really spiking the blood sugar significantly. It was a small amount to keep the blood sugar yeah a little bit elevated but not really excessively.
Remember what goes up needs to come down. By spiking your blood sugar you can rest assured it is going to drop. So by keep spiking so often, actually not utilising what you taking in you going to be far worse off. I think that’s one aspect of looking at it.
Look another issue that we need to look at is that when you are taking in a concentrate like a gel. You do need to consume a certain amount of fluid with that gel. A lot of people take a lot of gel and they don’t consume enough water with that gels. Unless it’s obviously something like an isotonic gel where the gel is already premixed with water. But most gels won’t be.
The truth of the matter is if you don’t consume a minimum amount of water with those gels in order to dilute them properly and get that right absorption going, you will suffer there is no doubt. You will land up with Gi distress you will land up with a bit of a glucose overload. You will land up feeling terrible on route.
So rather not risk it and stick to very simple carbohydrates, which I feel have got good absorption rates. They won’t spike that blood sugar excessively.
A big few weeks coming up in the lead up. But I will have a couple of athletes on the programme as well. In two weeks’ time Mark Wolff and myself David Katz, Mr Active we will be looking at taper. Looking at that last week leading up to race day. Thanks for joining us we’ll catch up with you soon.