Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Nutrition and Hydration, or Just Plain Eating and Drinking

It's probably fair to say that ultra runners have a bit of an obsession with nutrition and hydration, to the extent that many of us have forgotten how we used to just call it eating and drinking. I needed Steve Brydon to remind me of those old-fashioned terms, even though I'm not all that fussy about my food.

When prompted to think about it, I realised that I tend to eat very wholesome foods when hiking and running. My favourites are mixed nuts, liquorice, oat-based slices, beef jerky and dairy foods. That last category is a bit of a contentious issue, but milk, custard and cheese seem to settle my stomach and boost my energy levels. I'm don't think I'll ever get enthused about Bill Thompson's staple, though: a tub of cream. I also like a good Snickers bar and a few chocolate coated coffee beans.

A universal rule for me has been to consume solid foods in longer events. The exception has been in very cold conditions, where my need for calories seems to take priority and I get sudden cravings for energy gels. I have recently discovered that drinking a hot herbal tea aimed at improving circulation seems to help me overcome the cold and give me a kick, despite its negligible calorie count. My favourite is Circulation Spice from tlicious, but similar blends also work.

I also enjoy a hot cup of freshly plunged coffee with sweetened condensed milk—loaded with calories and caffeine. Of course, the majority of my running is not done in the middle of the night, and I like the odd Coca Cola as well. But I've come to the conclusion that most of the time, sugar is a far more effective way for me to combat the sleep monsters than caffeine, so long as I am careful to keep consuming it so I don't come down from the high. For this reason, I've replaced most of my event Coke consumption with lemonade or red Fanta and I honestly can't tell the difference.

I don't drink much electrolyte drink, because most of them are horrendous, disgusting, evil beverages. However, I find the Peach Tea GU Electrolyte Brew Tablets delicious and will happily down a few bottles of it during an ultra event, just for variety. Aside from that, it's plain water for me, with an occasional salt tablet if I really need it—and the only salt tablets I use are Succeed S! Caps.

Now, you may have noticed that I implied I don't use many salt tablets. This is true: at the Glasshouse Trail 100 mile last month, I only took about five tablets. I didn't need any more than that, and I wasn't eating excessively salty food. I put this down to my heat training, which numerous studies have shown reduces the amount of salt lost through sweating. (Here's one example, but if you want more, just search for them.)

And, of course, I drink water. (When it's exceptionally hot, I also pour it over myself, which seems to work more quickly than sweating. More on that here.) I have never consumed large volumes of water nor have I forced it in when I'm not thirsty; I refuse to believe that human beings could 'evolve' to a state where our thirst mechanism works too late to be effective. That makes no sense.

But these days I drink more water than I used to, because I have a better strategy: I guzzle. For years, I drank in small sips. Then I started copying my boyfriend in his morning habit of drinking a pint of water. It gave me a great kickstart, so I started drinking larger volumes but less frequently when running, with great success.

I tested this out at spring camp and ran 15 km of trails with no water, and then another 15 km straight after on only three slurps of about 300 – 250 mL each. It seems to clear my stomach far more rapidly and I feel better hydrated. So why was I sipping for so many years? I suspect I was trying to relieve my dry mouth, so now I've taken to rinsing and spitting when I'm not actually thirsty. I also cover my face when conditions are dry, which helps prevent my mouth drying out and reduces the fluid lost through breathing. (It also seems to help control my asthma, by giving me moist air to breathe and preventing so much dust and pollen from getting in.)

Of course, this is all anecdotal—one woman's personal experience. It may not work for others. It may not actually work for me, even though it seems to. If you've seen any research on the matters I've mentioned above, please do share them in the comments, and enjoy your food and drink…or is that nutrition and hydration?