"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Post-graduate course in carboloading

First, one should only consider carbohydrate loading if one has problems with "hitting the wall" and "fried quads." You rarely hear about the dreaded wall any more, as it only happens to those who go out way too fast in a marathon and people tend to run them conservatively now; one involuntarily slows because one's muscles have run out of stored glycogen (involuntary slowing in shorter races doesn't lead to it, as people average enough glycogen to last 17 miles). If one keeps running hard after the wall, one's body starts breaking down muscle tissue and that leads to fried quads - if you've ever had to walk down steps backwards the day after a race, you know all too well what this is like. Fried quads also happen to ultrarunners who aren't used to running long steep downhills; with practice, one's muscles adapt to a degree and one learns how to run them without slamming on the brakes.

I go out too fast. I suck on downhills. I carboload.

Carboloading now has degenerated to a pasta dinner the night before a race, but I've created what I think is the ultimate procedure for storing as much as possible. The basic facts are: 1) The body stores glycogen most effectively when the least is present. 2) Muscle glycogen is difficult to replace, liver glycogen is not; one can convert them only in the direction of liver to muscle. 3) Different muscle fibers deplete in different ways.

The classic procedure, developed by Astrand in the 1960's, involves a long run to deplete, three days of low-carb meals to further deplete and three days of high-carb meals to supercompensate. A later study found that with trained runners, the low-carb phase was unnecessary, but this I think had a flaw; I've read the literature repeatedly and it's impossible to say (yet another study is needed). Interestingly - to me, at least - those who live on a low-carb diet for six weeks have enzymatic changes which make this supercompensation impossible.

In the past decade, research at Western Australia University found a very different way to achieve similar results. The day before competition, one runs 3 minutes all-out, then, after a short rest, a sprint. Then one downs a huge amount of carbs at once - 12 grams per kilogram of lean muscle mass in two hours. The reasoning is that the fast twitch muscle fibers deplete quickly under this stress and the extreme loading hits them with as much sugar as possible at the best time.

My method combines the two. It's rigorous, complicated and probably dangerous.

First, one runs until one is involuntarily forced to slow; for a true ultrarunner, this may take as much as 5-6 hours. Then one tries to run marathon pace for a mile to ensure depletion.

Second, one eats a diet somewhat low in carbohydrates for three days. One's body does not convert fructose to glycogen unless there's 30 times as much fructose as glucose in the liver, so eating fruit will not seriously affect storage, but one should be eating a diet higher in protein than usual (and increasing fluid intake because of it). One does fairly heavy distance training these three days to ensure that whatever glycogen is being formed is removed from slow-twitch muscle fibers.

Then one runs a half mile up a steep hill as hard as possible, reaching one's heart rate maximum and holding it there as long as possible. This stresses the fast-twitch "a" fibers to the maximum in the muscles most likely to fatigue uphill in a race.

Then one does a downhill sprint. This should be on a slope with good footing and should be at an angle where one runs just faster than one could on flat ground and where one is just about to go out of control. This forces the body to use the "braking" muscles in the quads to their fullest, fully depleting the fast twitch "b" fibers. [If one wanted, one could then add plyometrics, isometrics or weight lifting for further stress, but this is too non-specific for me.]

Then one gorges. Half of one's calories should be liquid and, for palatability, this requires using maltodextrin. In my case, I use 1000 calories in one gallon of water. This much fluid risks hyponatremia, so one needs to add salt to the fluid; this in turn disrupts electrolye balance between sodium and potassium, requiring potassium from solid food. To the fluid, I add caffeine, which causes the liver to release glucose and muscle to further increase uptake. The solid carbs should contain at least 20 grams of protein, which caffeine also promotes muscles to take up. This is very difficult on one's body. If one feels nauseous, one's heart palpitates, one's respiration increases or one's vision blurs - STOP!!!

The next three days, one eats a diet with slightly elevated amounts of carbs, to further glycogen uptake and maintain the highest levels. This allows one to fully recover from the hard running. If one trains at all during this phase, there is still one more trick to employ: while the body uses primarily carbs for the first 30 minutes of a run, it uses mostly fat for the first five, so one should run gently for five minutes, then walk until one's heart rate drops to that which is normal when standing before a run, then repeat these intervals until one's finished.

Then, when one falls apart in a race, blame it on something other than food.


Wayne said...

I think I'll stick to the pasta dinner. See you at Zumbro Bottoms.

Matthew Patten said...

Or..... you could wean yourself off carbs and rely on fat as your primary fuel source.

I will not be carboloading

Beth said...

Good luck with your Carbo Plan. Sounds like you have it all figured out! I'm still working on the putting one foot in front of the other a little faster portion of the sport. Good luck!

Jean said...

Very interesting post!

Good luck to you at Zumbro this weekend, Steve. I wish you great success!

Joel said...

All right. It sounds as if you complete an ultra just getting yourself to the ultra.

sea legs girl said...

Very interesting post. I had always wondered what the details of true carb loading were.

The only thing I would add from a medical standpoint would be that one doesn't get hypokalemic just from drinking lots of non potassium containing fluid. But sweating and caffeine and stress can all lower potassium, so in the end, it probably is good to add it to your diet.

Good luck at Zumbro!

Hey and we are also excited to see you at Voyageur. Thanks for the warning about the hills.

Finally, is the movie you were trying to think of Rebecca? Probably not. But since it's a personal fave of mine, I just thought I'd wager a guess.

SteveQ said...

Matt: I've been trying to get myself to pace more reasonably and am definitely better on the hills than last year, but I'm loading for insurance. I don't want to repeat Ice Age.

Tracy: Rebecca, great as it is, came out in 1944. I was thinking of a creakier, pre- Hays code film.