How To Fuel for The Dragon’s Back Race (part 2)

From electrolytes to hydration, clinical nutritionist Renne McGregor unpacks essential advice for anyone taking on a multi-stage mountain race.

Missed part 1 of how to fuel for the Dragon’s Back Race? Take a look at Renee’s pre-race nutrition advice and learn why carbohydrates are king when it comes to fuelling for a long distance race like this. Keep reading to learn about other essential fuel to consider.

Electrolytes and hydration: what you need to know…

Hydration. This is one a lot of people neglect when in reality it is crucial to your running and event success. It is well documented in scientific literature that fluid intake and adequate hydration during exercise are essential and, more importantly, critical during prolonged training sessions and challenges. This is definitely something to be aware of and prepare for when thinking about the Dragon’s Back due to the seasonal timing of the event and possibility of warm conditions.

The key role of fluid intake during endurance running is that it maintains:

- Hydration
- Thermoregulation (body temperature)
- Adequate plasma (blood) volume
- Avoids dehydration.

Ensuring that plasma volume and thermoregulation stay within an optimal range has a direct impact on performance. When core body temperature rises due to dehydration, plasma volume decreases, resulting in an increased heart rate which accelerates fatigue.

Hydration on the go at the Dragon's Back

Just a 1% reduction in body weight through fluid losses can contribute to these negative physiological effects. In addition, dehydration has a marked effect on cognitive function, resulting in your inability to make decisions.

What about salts? Most runners will sweat between 400-2400 ml per hour of exercise, with the average value being around 1200 ml per hour; although this will vary with age, sex, weight, the intensity of training and also the environmental temperature. These sweat losses are predominantly water but the main electrolyte lost is sodium.

The sodium content of sweat varies substantially from 115 to greater than 2000 mg per 1000 ml of sweat; a runner who is a “salty sweater” (i.e. has a high amount of sodium in their sweat) may lose well in excess of the recommended intakes.

Most electrolyte tablets, salt capsules or sports drinks will only provide around 250-300mg of sodium. If you are diluting your electrolytes into 750ml, this will mean having to consume in the region of 2250ml of fluid per hour during longer runs to meet your sodium requirements, which is practically very difficult both from a consumption and transportation point of view.

Is it any wonder then why so many runners complain of the common symptoms associated with low sodium intakes and dehydration? These include:

- Gastro-intestinal distress
- Nausea
- Bloating
- Fatigue
- Impaired concentration
- Dizziness
- Heat stress

Indeed, the biggest cause for stomach issues during runs is related to sodium imbalance and not the sports nutrition gel or bar that most runners allude to. If your body is dehydrated and you are consuming glucose, this will become highly concentrated within the gut. As blood flow is being directed away from the stomach to the working muscles, it cannot absorb this quick enough, resulting in stomach upsets. 

As a rule of thumb, I generally suggest runners need to take around 700-900mg of sodium an hour during longer training and challenges. This can be a mix of salt tablets, electrolytes, energy drinks and even food but, again, the exact amount will vary from individual to individual.

Some good food suggestions include:

- Salted peanuts
- Mashed potato with cheese or marmite
- Cheese straws
- Cured meat

Sodium balance and staying hydrated is not just confined to during running; it is equally important to think about it leading into an event. During a multi-stage event like the Dragon’s Back, I would recommend using electrolytes throughout the course of the event, in addition to water, to maintain good hydration and replace sodium losses.

R Is for Recovery

After each run, training or run day during the event, runners need to be mindful about their recovery, ensuring that they take this on within 30 minutes of finishing. The recommendations are 1.2g of carbohydrate per Kg/BW and up to 0.4g/Kg BW protein. If this is not a timed meal, then a recovery snack needs to be consumed which could be something like:

- Whey or plant protein shake made with cows/oat milk
- Carton of flavoured milk and cereal bar or piece of cake or sandwich
- Protein porridge pot with banana

These ensure a good intake of carbohydrate and protein to start the replenishment process. This should then be followed up with a balanced meal within 2 hours. We hear a lot about protein within the sports and fitness industry with many of us believing it is the most important macro-nutrient for active individuals. In reality, runners need protein primarily as a response to exercise, rather than as a fuel source.

Protein has been a huge area of research for many years, with the most recent findings demonstrating how important protein is in the recovery phase. During all exercise, an increase in the breakdown of protein in the muscle has been shown. That said, while there is a preference to include a large amount of protein in the immediate recovery phase, the recommendations for protein foods are that they should be distributed throughout the day, to help counteract a negative protein balance. The suggested amount is 0.4g/Kg BW protein 4-6 times a day depending on training load.

During your training block, this is much easier to achieve. For a 65kg runner, this will be 26g protein at each serving, which looks like:

- 4 medium eggs
- 100g chicken
- 100g red meat
- 300g tofu
- 250g Greek yoghurt
- 150g chickpeas 

However, during a race like the Dragon’s Back, this may be a little more challenging, although not impossible.

In your kit bag, I would ensure that you pack some additional supplies of protein so that you can consume some of these during your run time in the day – protein bars, mixed nuts and, for those who consume meat, jerky or biltong are also good options. I would also recommend a further recovery drink before bed.

Hail to Caffeine

Some people can’t even think about stringing a sentence together before they have had their first shot of caffeine, while others will be reduced to a nervous wreck simply from inhaling coffee fumes. So, what is the deal with caffeine? 

For years we were told to be wary of how many caffeinated drinks we consumed daily as they had diuretic properties resulting in dehydration. As science evolves, messages change and the truth is that moderate consumption (1-3 strong cups of coffee a day, 3–6 cups of tea or a can of Coke) will have no negative effect on your health. When it comes to sports nutrition, caffeine has its own part to play. 

It has been used by many elite athletes as a performance-enhancing substance, but as with everything, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Individuals are either caffeine responders or non-responders. If you are someone who can drink a cup of coffee late at night and still sleep like a baby, you are a non-responder. In other words, caffeine doesn't affect you at all. 

If, however, the opposite is true and you will be up all night, tossing and turning, you are a responder. Caffeine works best as a performance enhancer in those who are responders, and the suggested dose is 1-3mg/kg BW about an hour before training/competing. Similarly in longer events, you may want to consider a fuelling aid with caffeine 40-60 minutes from the finish as this has been shown to help with reducing perceived exertion.

For non-responders, there is some evidence to suggest that cutting caffeine out completely for 10 days and then reintroducing it before a competition can have more enhanced effects. That said, you have to weigh up if the withdrawal symptoms are worth it or not. My advice to athletes is that if you habitually drink caffeine then it is best not to change anything immediately before a competition.

Final Word

It is clear that when doing an event like this, your nutritional intake is going to be hugely different to your normal day to day. Changes to your consumption of food are likely to change from the word go as soon as you start your training.

 So, over the weeks leading into the event, you will have a pretty good idea of how much fuel you need to ensure you not only have the energy to complete your weekly training but also can recover optimally between runs. This is going to vary significantly from your sedentary peers so it’s a good idea not to get involved in comparisons. One of the biggest mistakes I see in my line of work are individuals not appreciating the cost of training. It really is an expensive business. 

Remember that the human body prioritizes energy for movement, so everything you consume will be used for your daily movement first, including training and it is the energy left over, known as energy availability, that needs to be sufficient in order to continue to support biological function, that is energy to keep you alive. If energy availability is chronically low, the body will switch on compensatory behaviours in an attempt to preserve energy. Thus, it is really important to ensure that you do increase your energy intake appropriately.

Typically, this may look like 3 meals a day with 3-4 snacks, where meals are made of 1/3 plate complex carbohydrates, 1/3 plate protein, 1/3 plate fruit or vegetables and a portion of essential fatty acids. Snacks should be based on carbohydrate so good options include toast, cereal, yoghurt and granola, dried fruit, and malt loaf.

During the event, a typical day may look something like this:

- Breakfast – porridge with fruit, nuts and honey, toast, and glass of juice
- On the run – start fuelling within 30 minutes. This might be drinks, gels, bars, sandwiches etc – aim to hit somewhere between 60-90g per hour, but find your optimal.
- After finishing each day, I would recommend having a recovery shake with both carbohydrate and protein, or 500ml flavoured milk with a sandwich as a good recovery option. Followed by a main meal, dessert and, if possible, a bedtime snack and drink too.

While this may seem excessive, in reality, it is going to be very difficult for you to meet your actual requirements on such an event and it is likely you will be in a constant deficit. This is definitely not the time to be worried about weight or restricting, as this will do more harm than good.

Finally, make it individual. Take on board the fundamental practices and then work out what you like. There is nothing worse than trying to consume something you can’t stand the taste of just because it has been written somewhere that it is good for you or your training buddy swears by it. If you don’t like the taste of something, you are unlikely to consume it, especially under race day conditions when pressure can be high. The key objective is to work out what is practical and easy to source, and you know you can tolerate it.

 Feeling inspired to take on the Dragon’s Back Race?

For more expert nutrition advice, don’t miss part 1 of Renee’s ‘How to fuel for the Dragon’s Back Race’. For those eager to find out more about the Dragon’s Back Race, take a look at our event hub to find out more.