Friday, 3 November 2017

H2 No

Health Warning: This advice is a response to numerous questions received regarding improved mountain running performance.  If you attempt to follow it, do so with care and proper planning.

'Hydrate or Die'

So said the original Camelbak tagline, and at a fundamental level that statement is absolutely right.  Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, dry mouth and lips, headaches, stomach problems, loss of concentration, muscle weakness, low blood pressure and then at the serious end of the scale, death; none of which are conducive to peak performance, especially the last one.

However, I'm about to share an approach that has definitely increased race speed, particularly on the climbs, extremely simple in concept but more complex in actuality, carry less water.
Very hilly 13km, hot day, definitely no need for water
Many people ask me about improving their mountain running performance, somehow under the impression that I may have a clue, based on my own efforts and results.  Having given it endless consideration over the years, the answer doesn't have to be overly-complicated, just lose weight.  That's right, it's that simple and if you drop the bulk through upping training mileages, intensities and gradients then your progression will be more rapid.  

If, like myself, you're a stats geek who pores over ancient race results then likely you've noticed certain runners rise through the ranks, incrementally or sometimes briskly heading north on the results sheets.  If you match the performances to photos or memories then you'll pick up the almost direct correlation between skinnier frames and faster times, but it's not only what's in the body that weighs, it's what's on the body too.

Readers of the recent 'timely reminder' blog will know that when it comes to safety equipment, I don't ever take the mountains for granted, happily lugging all the necessary clothing required to stave off hypothermia throughout the year.  However, technology as it is, I'm in possession of some superb equipment that packs small and is notably lightweight.  Over the years, advances in materials have slashed the grams from our gear, but unfortunately it's impossible to do the same for fluids.

Water is heavy at 1kg per litre.  Imagine the positive effect on uphill motion of dropping a kilo, or even more if you're a serial slurper.  Noticing this, a few years back I began to experiment with drinking less, breaking that reliance whilst maintaining peak performance and hoping not to die in the process.  Initially it was daunting, uncomfortable and at times devastating on energy levels, body almost grinding to a halt, cells screaming for liquid sustenance.  Yet gradually the needs abated, legs no longer fading after an hour, mouth not perpetually dry, and importantly the mental cravings entirely disappeared.  Within a couple of years I was able, and entirely comfortable to complete hard 2-3 hour mountain sessions on 250ml of water or less, even on warm days.  Pre-hydration is obviously important but not ridiculous amounts, usually a glass of water and a cup of peppermint tea as soon as I get out of bed and then straight to the hills.
Hydrate well before and after the race, but don't carry litres during!
The human body is an incredibly capable instrument, ceaselessly adaptable to endless alternate environments and situations.  Maintaining performance on limited fluids seems to be a trainable trait, just like all other aspects of training, the more you do it, the better you adapt.  Buoyed by results, the next aim was ditching the food.

I've never been a huge eater whilst running, possibly because my stomach reacts badly to anything solid being bounced around inside for hours on end.  Gels provide the required energy boosts on occasion but the sugar laden, gummed-up, post-exercise lows were enough to seek limited usage.  As with the water, cutbacks were slow, but over time the same results were forthcoming, a breaking of necessity and fully-functioning muscles regardless of calorific intake.

Do you ever finish a run with water or food to spare?  If so, then you're already set to cut down.  Do you always finish your water as a matter of principle?  Then you're probably also ready to make gradual limitations.  I set off for the recent Mourne Skyline race carrying just 200ml, and even that was for emergencies only.  Forcing down 500ml at the Fofanny Dam feed station was more about getting the caffeine injection required to up the pace over the much more mountainous second half, and I ended up jettisoning about half of the 400ml also carried from the Dam to see me home.  Nearly four hours of boggy running, 22 miles and 3370m of ascent on less than a litre, and I finished feeling comfortably hydrated.  I consumed four gels and finished feeling full, not eating again until some soup at the prize-giving nearly five hours after race finish.  

Even carrying that 200ml for the first half of the race was the same weight as my jacket.  I know runners who agonise over kit weight and shoe weight and who would never carry any more than the bare bones of compulsory lists and yet they'll set off on a two-hour run armed with heavy liquids and food.  The way I see it, even with the most thoughtless cock-ups I'll never die of dehydration in the mountains of Ireland, chances of succumbing to exposure are infinitely higher, and so to keep overall weight down, the jacket will always stay but the food and drink will often stay in the van.

And now time for a BIG disclaimer....

1) This is obviously only relevant if you're already at or near your perfect race weight.  Saving a kilo on pack weight is insignificant if carrying 30kg excess on your body.  Nevertheless, if you're serious about improving then don't be afraid to work on ALL aspects of performance and this could be another useful string to the bow.

2) Even having experimented extensively with this approach over the last four years or so I still make massive and costly mistakes.  Most notably this season when taking on the very hilly 33 mile Wicklow Way Maurice Mullins Ultra on just half a litre.  To compound this foolishness it was a beautiful sunny day, extremely sweaty for Ireland in March.  31 miles in, I was comfortably inside record pace but ended up crawling over the line nearly fifteen minutes outside it.  Needless to say that last two miles was a chastening experience that I thought might cost me the win!
50 hilly km, warm day, 500ml of fluids, almost, but crucially not quite enough.
3) If you're going to try this then do it gradually and don't expose yourself to unnecessary danger.  You can always carry the required sustenance but try not to use it, before ditching it for good and benefiting from the weight saving later on.  Best of luck!

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