Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A possible solution to gastrointestinal distress in ultrarunning

I have recently immersed myself in Jason Koop’s Training Essentials for Ultrarunning and am quite thrilled. I’m not usually one for training manuals – then again, I wasn’t one for coaching for 16 years :-) – rather more partial to race reviews and personal experiences, but last summer bought Bryan Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress and The Sage Running Secret by Sage Canaday. I didn’t find anything actually groundbreaking nor, ultimately, very useful, apart form Powell’s chart on different hydration ailments – extremely helpful in determining where you are at with sodium/water in-take and balance based on body reactions) – but Koop’s book almost makes them irrelevant. He debunks several training notions (implicitly poking fun at Powell's pizza analogy for layered training) and takes the confusion out of apparent conundrums like “drink early” vs “drink when thirsty” and “speed work” vs “no speed work” and “what kind of speedwork”. He does so because he explains the mechanics, backing everything up with research and convincing illustrative arguments.

I particularly like how he makes fitness the key training factor, with everything else coming after (an extreme illustration would be: you can’t compensate lack of training by buying the best gear). He really just makes it sound like plain commonsense, and drives this home very effectively by highlighting how the major reasons invoked for DNFs – hydration, , gastrointestinal distress, blisters, muscle pain – can all be linked back to lack of training (which means lack of adequate fitness), even though that is rarely the reason highlighted by the person  him/herself. (I would add the time barriers, which highlights a lack of speed – but that might just be my personal experience!)


He addresses these ‘failures’ really well, again drawing on scientific evidence, and providing solutions. There is one instance, however, where that solution is unsatisfactory since it boils down exclusively to: “train more, be in better shape” – and yet I think there is a possible solution out there that is founded on the very scientific evidence that Koop provides. And that is gastrointestinal distress.

Let me first quote him at length:

In addition to competition for blood flow, damage to the gut occurs during any endurance running activity as a by-product of digestion, blood flow reduction, and constant jostling up and down. Recently, researchers at Monash University studied the naturally present bacteria (endotoxins) that leak into the bloodstream as a result of this damage. They found that most individuals participating in an ultramarathon had markers in their bloodstream equivalent to those found in hospital patients with sepsis.


Although the researchers concluded that the damage was significant and that the gut was impaired, little evidence was presented as to how to alleviate or avoid the condition. The one correlating factor suggested by the research team was that the individuals who had simply trained more exhibited less damage.

Ok, so there are two reasons for GI distress, the first being “competition for blood flow” and here I have nothing to add to all of Koop’s recommendations (read the book for those).

However, regarding the endotoxins damaging the gut (sepsis?! ow!), there is definitely something I would suggest all endurance athletes try (in addition to better training) – it has certainly worked for me, and the solution is based on the cause. For seven years now I have had almost no GI issues while ultrarunning; so much so that I’ve almost forgotten that I used to be plagued by them. I thought it went with the territory, until a friend of mine who is a pharmacist and naturopath said exactly what Jason Koop said: running for extensive periods of time damages the stomach lining – and this includes training! Basically, not only are you damaging the gut during an ultramarathon but even the training required to compete in one exposes the stomach to bad bacteria.

So what’s the solution? Pro-biotics and L-Glutamine: Give the stomach good bacteria and strengthen the stomach lining.

Here’s what my health practioner friend prescribed and what worked for me:

  • A 2-3 month cure
  • Probiotics: must take one with a high concentration of active ingredients (CFU) – at least 10 billion, in the morning on an empty stomach.
  • L-Glutamine: google it for more info, but it is definitely indicated to fix the stomach lining (which, when it wears down, is the primary cause of ulcers); 1g, again every morning on an empty stomach.
  • (I took the L-Glutamine first ,about 30mn before eating, and the probiotics about 10mn later – and have a green tea in the mean time…)

I do this every spring. Try it: I bet your race this summer will go a lot better. I used to be a heavy drinker, and even alcohol consumption did not get the way of its efficiency.

Of course, no-one can guarantee anything when it comes to ultrarunning. But if you’ve been plagued with GI issues, it’s worth the try. Of course ask your doctor/pharmacist first, usual disclaimer, but I really see no down-side and a lot of potential upside.

Friday, February 3, 2017

GUCR training: month one

I wouldn’t usually blog about training ahead of a race since it’s rather useless if I fail to finish the said race, particularly as my DNFs at my last two (respectively the longest road run and longest mountain trail run I’ve ever attempted) were primarily due not to lack of training but misguided training. Hence calling on a professional to draft a training plan for the GUCR, hence the blogging about it since presumably it should get me to the start in proper shape and then it’s just up to me... But I want to be able to read back whatever the result and see what my thoughts and impressions were at the time, untainted by hindsight, since I think it can help me in the future.

So these past four weeks have been a gradual build-up of mileage, but still well within reasonable amounts even for me (from 52km/32.5 miles first week to 64km/40 miles 4th week), primarily focused on intensity and running efficiency. Five runs a week; two at medium comfortable pace, one of which includes 5mn up to 20mn tempo at just over marathon pace; short intervals at 5k pace of increasing time; a longish run that includes longer intervals at 10k pace (I think, at least that’s how it feels – apparently on paper it’s supposed to be close to marathon pace, but ha!), and a not-yet-very-long run a slow-poke race.

All in all I’m feeling pleasantly and manageably fatigued, which I think is the perfect state to be in. The training is specifically targeted to my weaknesses, which is the ability to sustain a higher speed for a longer (increase endurance fitness) and lock into a slow race pace that I should presumably be able ultimately to sustain for hours on end (running efficiency). And it’s working: the tempo runs have become quite pleasant; the longer intervals which I dread have become easier (especially when there’s no ice and snow to watch out for!); and the slow race pace run (approx 8km/h, 5mph) feels weird, which means it's good to be working at it now! And the niggles that always appear when I start on a new training regimen have disappeared without any type of injury (stretching and foam rolling have helped!). I haven’t kept up with the strength and core training that I’d been doing in November-December (but it wasn’t mentioned in the training plan and I’m lazy…)

So I’m not exhausted but am looking forward to the 5th week which is for recovery – I think I’m looking at about 40km/25 miles approximately, and only short intervals and long intervals for intensity. I’ve been wondering a bit about the low mileage but how I feel physically and the improvements I have seen already are, to me, a better indication of the training’s effect on me, and it will certainly avoid burning out too fast mentally with over-strenuous miles to fit in a busy lifestyle.

Besides, as Stuart Mills says in his excellent article on training for ultras, what's important is expectations - and this is why I turned to a professional: to remove any negative thoughts related to my training. I didn't want to find myself suffering at the GUCR and doubting my training and therefore using that as an excuse to quit. I fully expect to be properly prepared for this, so when the time comes there will be no doubts in my mind and I'll just have to buckle down and get the job done. 

For that, of course, I have to trust the professional, and in this case I do: French ultra marathoner Bruno Heubi, who boasts a 6h 51'25" finishing time for 100km, 242.3km at a 24h timed race, and 2nd place at the 2008 Transe Gaule race across France (1,156km in 99h, or 11.67km/h, 7.3mph average!). Training plan and weekly feedback for a very reasonable price. And even in four weeks I can feel that I am being "race focus" trained.

In any case, it’s going to ramp up in the next four weeks, both in mileage and intensity, with longer short intervals, faster long intervals, and a long Sunday run extending to over 2h. Also, I’m quite amused by the fact that the next 5th recovery week will include my first race of the season, the Marseilles marathon – which of course must be run at GUCR race pace (starting race pace), which means about a 5h15-5h30 finish. Thankfully I’m doing it with an undertrained friend, so I won’t risk going too fast and compromising the following week of training.