One rainy day in July I sat down with Dr Stacy Sims' book, ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life, and devoured the entire thing (almost in one sitting). Why didn't we learn all this in high school health class?! It was about two months before the 250km ultra marathon in Jordan - a pretty good opportunity to try out what I'd learned.
I took oodles of notes so I'll just share with you here the most significant changes I made, and how they helped me to have an incredible week in the desert. This really is just skimming the surface. For the explanations and actual science behind it all I highly recommend grabbing yourself a copy of ROAR and getting stuck in! Don't be put off by the warrior goddess on the front cover, it's actually full of incredible content.
Wadi Rum desert, Jordan | Photo credit: Benedict Tufnell
The past few years I've experienced tummy issues and/or headaches in almost every endurance event. In the classic Goldilocks scenario I could never get it just right - too much of this, not enough of that. In a multi day event with temperatures cracking 40 degrees Celsius, not getting it right could well mean the end of my adventure.
Additionally, two months out from the ultra I was building into the bigger training weeks and was struggling to eat enough, I never really felt satiated. Not a new problem in endurance training, I know.
What I've Changed - Endurance Training & Competing
CHEW THE CARBS - Dr Sims' mantra for endurance training and racing is "food in your pocket, hydration in your bottle". Off the back of one bad experience several years ago I've gone with liquid carbs ever since - until now. I adopted the mantra for my weekend runs, for the 4 day ultra simulation in the NZ backcountry, and for the ultra itself. Chewed all my carbs and in bottles just had electrolytes - no more upset tummy, no more headaches.
FRUCTOSE - Fructose can contribute to GI issues because of the way it's digested. I steered well clear of anything with fructose in it.
HYDRATION - I used Osmo hydration (electrolytes with a teeny bit of carbs) for the past couple of months, but will look at experimenting with my own solution over the coming summer. Also, I consumed no salt tablets while running, instead made sure I was "well-salted" before and after. No tummy issues!
What I've Changed - General Diet
MORE PROTEIN - I added way more protein to my diet and within 24 hours noticed I felt more vibrant and actually felt full. No, not rocket science! However, I'd thought I was eating a pretty solid, well-rounded diet, but when I did the numbers I was only getting 50-60% of the protein my body needed. Out of everything I changed, the most challenging thing was consuming adequate protein in wholefood, or close to wholefood, form - hallelujah to all kinds of nut butters!
PROTEIN TIMING - More protein at breakfast, and before and after a high intensity training session.
PERIODS - don't be awkward, roughly half the population gets it.
Day 1 of the five day, 250 km ultra in Jordan, I got my period. I had to laugh. As if running a ridiculously long way in the desert heat and energy-sapping soft sand wasn't hard enough. Now I could add the discomfort of cramps, general moodiness, and the logistics of it when you're in a camp with literally zero privacy. However this time, there was something different. I was on my second cycle of trying some new tricks and there was such a stark lack of symptoms that its arrival actually surprised me. I knew it was due sometime that week, but instead of the usual pre-menstruation combo deal of cramps, bloating, and feeling like the devil woman, there was, well, nothing. No I realise this mightn't be the case every month, but the mere fact that I now know it's possible is a gamechanger for me.
What I've Changed:
PRE-PERIOD PROTOCOL - Once a day for the 10 days leading into my period I took magnesium and zinc supplements, and a low dose aspirin.
GET SALTY - I was extra vigilant about getting salts in during the taper, as one should be before an event in hot conditions, however I think this also helps even if you're not competing. Salt with watery fruits and vegetables, miso soup, electrolytes, etc.
CYCLE TRACKING - I've been using an app to track my period for a while, but now have added general emotion and energy level tracking. It takes at least 3 months to get a good baseline of data (according to Dr Sims), and better information gives us the means to make better decisions.
PERFORMANCE - We can generally just feel crappy and not up to performing our best during our period, yet scientifically this is potentially a time for ultimate performance. So I opened my mindset to this possibility, that I could still perform well physically even if I didn't feel that flash. After all, Paula Radcliffe ran her world record marathon while experiencing menstrual cramps.
Big gains with just a few simple adjustments! If you want to know more, as always, don't hesitate to get in touch. 🙂
Disclaimer: These are just the most recent, significant steps I've taken to improve my health. It adds to a pretty hefty base of things I've changed for the sake of my health in the past five years or so. Everyone is different, it does require some time and effort, but it's SO worth it.
Sunrise in the backcountry, New Zealand | Photo credit: Hannah Rae