Friday, January 22, 2010
The Banana Diet
The question was raised on Woofie's ultra discussion list, "How do I get better at running ultras?"
My running partner Catharine is new to ultras and she's trying to figure it out to prepare for her first 100 mile race this year.
Next week I am doing a long training run, it will involve something in the range of 10 hours or 50 miles. We're going to allow 12 hours which will include up to 2 hours of rest breaks. Catharine is going to join me. She's going to use it as an opportunity to work on her eating, drinking, and resting habits.
What does this have to do with bananas?
About 15 years ago I was running the Pueblo Marathon and I was standing at the starting line with all the other runners. I had my usual pre-race snack, a banana, in my hand and I was eating it as we waited for the race director to make announcements before the gun went off.
Everyone was bouncing around with all their pre-race energy. I stood there calmly, eating my banana, with my water bottle pack around my waist. Few people were carrying waist packs, they planned to rely only on the water cups at aid stations. One of the other runners looked at me, surprised that I was eating right before the start. She said, "I could never eat right before a race, I'd be sick."
I said, "This keeps me from going out too fast."
She looked at me like I had just said the strangest thing she ever heard. But a few seconds later, she said, "I might be wishing I ate a banana when you pass me around 20 miles."
As it turned out, I did pass her late in the race, and I went on to finish second or third among the women. When she got to the finish line she came up and told me she remembered the banana when I flew past her. She said she was going to try it in her next marathon.
I want to show Catharine that the things you'd think would slow you down, like eating, drinking, walking, and resting at aid stations, even sleeping, actually buy you time. They are part of a strategy of self-care that pays off dividends in the second half of a long race.
As I've moved to longer distances, I have come to rely on these strategies even more, building in rest breaks, taking the time to eat well, followed by a period of walking in order to digest and use the calories. I also take time to get off my feet and change any clothes that are uncomfortable, like a wet bra, socks, or anything else that I'm aware of. I like to wash my face and neck because they feel sticky and sweaty. Inside my elbows and behind my knees I do the same. That always makes me feel better.
I follow this run/eat/walk/run pattern using the eating periods as rest breaks to drink, take in electrolytes and calories, stretch, get off my feet, and get comfortable.
When I switch from the walking back to running, it takes a few minutes for my leg muscles to adjust to the rhythm again, but after a short time I feel refreshed and running is so much easier.
There are so many factors in a long race, like eating, drinking, electrolyte intake, efficient crew, efficient use of rest stops, staying warm enough, and putting a little thought into what you'll need before you reach the aid station so you don't waste time. If your brain isn't working because you've neglected to take care of your caloric needs or you're getting hypothermic, you're not going to be able to think clearly and you'll waste time.
If it's cold outside or you've been running all day and are depleted, and going into the night, getting out of your wet clothes and dressing adequately are equally important. You burn a lot more calories if you're trying to stay warm. People who don't understand might say, "Well isn't that the point of all this, to burn calories?"
No it's not the point. A successful finish means you minimize your energy output to keep all your momentum going in a forward direction.
It's a complete change in your thought process if you've been indoctrinated like most runners who start by running 5Ks and 10Ks, move up to marathons, then venture into ultras. The marathon mentality is a tough one to break, that idea of running as fast as you can, as lightweight as you can, with little to no intake of calories and a minimum of fluids. The "speed is everything" paradigm.
That strategy works if you're an elite runner in the shorter distances, but it doesn't apply to ultras, at least not once you get into the 100 mile length races and longer.
The other thing I hear runners say is,"I'm afraid if I start walking I won't be able to start running again." You can do it. It takes practice in training runs to get used to the awkward feeling of making the transition from walking to running, but it is all mental. Some people don't believe it so they won't take a chance to try it.
They are too afraid, because they don't have enough confidence in their ability, or they still view walking with that old school mentality, that it's not really running, or that they've somehow failed if they don't run every step of the distance.
It takes some faith to know that a slower pace will allow you to run faster in the end, but it only takes a few marathons of going out too hard and then bonking and dragging yourself the last 10 miles or so to the finish line to figure out that you're doing something wrong. Unfortunately I've seen a lot of runners who never quite get it, too afraid to try something new.
Try something new this year. Break out of your old habits, find the things that aren't working, and make that leap of faith. You never know how far it might take you.