It's that wonderful time of year: fall...marathon season! This is the time of year when the air cools, the leaves fall, and we get to see the fruits of our summer labor -- the scores of miles, tempo runs, intervals, and long Sundays -- by throwing down at our favorite fall 26.2.
The 26.2 can be a crap-shoot: or, as I used to call it, a spin of the rolette wheel: you put all your money on one number - a singular road marathon - and you spin the wheel, hoping that fitness, health and rest, and race-day conditions all come together to produce a PR.
So it's a bummer that, when all those things come together, that the wheels come flying off, almost predictably, 30K into the race: cramping, dead-legs, slow-down. The Bonk.
Fellow EC alum Chad Austin mentioned this "phenomenon" in his article on Ultra running in the July / August issue of Run Minnesota, where he said:
"...Once a bonk arrives, it can be a miserable shuffle the rest of the way. The only thing we can do is watch the mile splits get slower and slower."There's only one problem with statement: it's wrong! "You're wrong, sir!"
It's common to hear the following exchange:
Friend: "How did your race go?"
Runner: "I was doing great until mile 20, then I totally fell apart - cramps, dead legs - so I really slowed in the last 10K"
Friend: "Oh, that's too bad. Maybe next time."
My reaction? It's like I'm hearing:
Runner: "I was doing great until mile 20, then my shorts fell down to my ankles - so I really slowed in the last 10K"
And to that, my reaction is the same: "Really?? Why didn't you do anything about it??"
Bonks are not random. Cramps are not random. Neither is a precipitous slow-down only minutes after "feeling fine". This is your body telling you something is wrong! And when they come, you're not powerless - you need to do something about it.
Marathoners can bonk and still survive. You run fast...then the bonk comes, and you slow down and suffer for a few miles. Ultra runners? If you bonk, you're dead meat. You don't finish, and/or you put yourself in physical danger. You might be stuck on the top of an 11,000' mountain in a snowstorm, staring at a 3000' descent on scree to the next point of aid.
Ultra runners have learned the lessons as a matter of survival. But these same lessons can - and should! - be applied to the road guys to ensure a consistent performance.
The Bonk can come from four different issues:
Problem #1: Burning up Glyogen. We train -- both easy and hard -- in a physiological sense to make our bodies more efficient at energy use -- to use fat as much as possible, and to build up glycogen stores (in both muscle and liver tissue). The key is to budget said glycogen for the duration of a 26.2. Going out too hard can blow through it prematurely.
Solution: Supplement early and often with additional sugars. For glycogen, you can't truly restore it: once it's gone, it's gone. Supplemental energy sources can help - especially starting early with a regiment of gels that the body can use concurrently with glycogen.
A true glycogen bonk is far more rare than people would have you believe: you train for fitness, you train for pace. If you blow glycogen, you'll blow it big and stupid -- hard early, and unsustainable paces. A true glyogen bonk is exceedingly rare for the smart, well-prepared road guy.
Problem #2: Dehydration. You lose a ton of water in a marathon, no matter the temperature. Moreover, for the fall marathon, you tend to lose even more and notice it less -- the lower humidity saps the moisture (from body and mouth) and, as you're no longer drenched in August humidity, you tend to notice it less.
The body requires water for muscle function and sugar breakdown. No water, no fuel, no muscle contraction. Game over.
Solution: Drink up! Fast guys (the 2:20s and faster crowd) have the luxury of "bottle service"; for the sub 3-hr marathoners (or aspiring), you should "take a nip" at every aid station. At hot ultras, runners take in a bottle an hour -- that's 16-24 oz of fluid, for a purely aerobic effort! How much are you road guys getting in your 2:30 marathon? Three or four water stops, at 1-2 oz out of the little cup? There's a reason the fast guys having several bottles available at the elite aid station. They know they need 'em!
Problem #3: Electrolyte deficiency. This is, in my opinion, the number one reason for the nasty bonk: cramping, nausea, and The Shuffle. Your body requires sodium and potassium (primarly, with others) for muscle contraction. Nerves and muscles fire via cascading movement of sodium in and and out. These firings are recharged with potassium.
However, the body must also cool itself. With perspiration goes the salt.
Unlike glyogen, the body does not have supplemental salt storage: no "magical salt lick" to turn to during hard efforts. As such, you need to supplement, period!
Just how much remains to be seen, but we're learning more. Research conducted in conjunction with the Western States Endurance Run is helping cement the widely-known anecdotal/experiential evidence that supplemental salt = survival = optimal performance.
Cramping is not normal in endurance events. Again: you train for duration, you train for pace. Do you cramp in workouts? Not normal! Precipitious drop-offs in pace (exceeding 10-15s/mile) at the end of a marathon is not normal!
Solution: Supplemental salt. This is anecdotal from ultra runners and from me, but I believe every marathoner would benefit from 500 - 1000mg of supplemental sodium during a 26.2 - above and beyond what is provided in conventional sports drink and fuels.
Again, it is widely-accepted that during ultra races that the ideal supplementation of electrolytes is in the 100 - 400 mg of sodium (or broad-spectrum electrolyes) per hour. For the ultra runner, this can come from a variety of sources: fluid mixtures, salt capsules, or "real food" at aid stations laden with salt (chips, potatoes, broth, etc).
For marathoners, you could carry something as simple as a couple salt tablets in a baggie. Pop one in your mouth (with or without water) and The Bonk - the slow-down, the cramps, the dead-legs - could be gone within seconds.
So...there it is. And now, The Questions:
1. I can't handle eating or drinking anything in a race! / How am I gonna take that stuff?
My answer: "Tough ___!" You train for the distance, the pace, the flats, the short-shorts. Train to fuel. Train to carry the least amount of supplies necessary to maximize performance.
Train to take fuel - whether its gels or block or "real food" - and train how to carry it. Most USATF-sanctioned races prohibit mid-race aid. Bummer. That means you're yarding gels with you. Carry salt tabs in tiny ziplock bags. Put 'em in your pocket, or staple them to your singlet. Whatever it takes.
During the 2010 Eugene Marathon (my 2:31:18 PR), I carried six gels -- two in my tiny back pocket and four stapled to the front/inside of my shorts. Dathan Ritzenheim took eight gels during the 2008 Trials. How many do you think you need? Probably more than zero. Or 1 or 2.
Train to drink. Sorry that you suck at it, but you probably sucked at running 7:30 or 6:30 or 5:30 pace, too, til you trained for it. Learn how to gulp from a cup while moving -- or from a bottle. Train!
Carry supplemental salt. Period! Do it! The following are some terrific options for supplemental salt:
Succeed! S-caps. These are the gold standard for ultra runners. Packed with >300mg of sodium, they're the quick fix salt boost that every ultra runner carries, or obtains at aid stations. Just one of these tabs has the potential to reverse the nastiest bonk within seconds. Seriously.
Hammer Endurolytes ("E"-caps) capsules. This capsule is a more conservative, broad spectrum supplement -- only 40mg of sodium, but also containing potassium, magnesium and calcium -- also essential (though admittedly less-impacting) electrolytes for performance.
I like these better, because my stomach can better tolerate this "lighter supplement", compared to the "S-Cap".
Clif-Blok Margarita gels. These tend to be the best of both worlds -- a fuel+salt multi-tasker. They're useful because you don't have to worry about carrying extra supplies. However, if you want fuel or salt only, you're out of luck with these. I like to carry one sleeve of these for a 26.2.
All of these contain salt above and beyond conventional gels. They're to be used sparingly -- perhaps 2-3 times over the course of a race, OR when you get into trouble
2. How do I know what / how much to take?
Trial. Practice. Train. Try everything in training before you race with it. It's easy: go out on a long run, bring one of the above products (or, as I've used in the past, a salt packet from McDonalds!). Bonk...or start to feel like s___. Wait a few miles. Then take one -- ideally with little or no stopping. Keep running...
Your stomach may react in a variety of ways, but what about your legs? For most, just the slightest bit of salt can have this sort of reaction (1:01 in), "like I got a B12 shot!" And within seconds..."I'm back, baby!". I am not exaggerating.
Ultimately, the only way to know how much is "enough" until you've done too much. My body tells me, in the form of "gut rot". Experiment. Learn. Train!
*****As for me, I've had issues with heat and electrolytes dating back to college. I dropped from a hot and humid Twin Cities Marathon in 2005 due to cramps; when I stopped, I had piles of salt in my collar bones. That was the first clue I had an electrolyte issue.
I first learned about electrolytes while doing long-distance cycling -- in 125-mile "Graduation Ride" from River Falls to La Crosse, WI in May of 2009, I went from "OK" to mega-bonk just before the little town of Trempeleau, WI. We stopped for ten minutes, where I drank a half liter of Mountain Dew - sugar, salt and caffeine - and back on the bike, it was like a new day: blasting 25mph the last 20 miles into La Crosse.
I took two S-Caps along with me for Eugene Marathon in 2010; I lost one somehow and nearly spat out the other. It's a good thing I got one down, because I still struggled with cramps the last 3-4 miles, costing me a minute or so.
By Twin Cities Marathon 2010, I had it down: I knew what I needed. I ate a salt-laden meal pre-race, then packed a sleeve of Clif Blok Margaritas, as well as other supplemental salt. S-caps disturb my stomach, so I literally packed a piece of bread buttered and salted with an S-cap and an E-cap. I ate this (while running 5:45 pace) at mile 18. I was a bit high on salt early (almost taking a "potty break" under a tree at Lake Nokomis), but that salted bread at 18 sustained me to the finish. That was a rough day -- the stride was off, my legs felt like garbage -- but proper fueling and electrolytes allowed me to "gut out" a 2:32 and a top-50 finish at the US Championships. If it weren't for all that salt, I might still be on the course, crumpled under a tree on Summit Avenue.
Now, as an ultra runner, I've learned even more, yet part of the challenge (and fun) of ultras is to continue to learn -- and to ultimately listen and respond to your body's nutritional needs.
*****You guys train extremely hard for many months - if not years - to get that big PR - whether it's a BQ, a sub-3, a sub 2:30, or even a Trial Q. Don't blow all that work, when all it may take is a mere half-gram of salt.
We have a saying amongst our ultra group: "Solve your problems!". When the Bonk comes, be prepared to do something about it. Or at least die trying. Because you're going to die either way.
- Joe (aka TRAN, aka OOJ) :)