At the 2017 Comrades Marathon, Mark Wolff, was on hand to help some of the elite runners with their feeding on route. On this episode of 32Gi Sports Nutrition, hear more about how the pros do it, from a feeding perspective, and what went right, and wrong for some of them.
Welcome to the latest edition of 32Gi Sports Nutrition, I’m Mr Active, David Katz, fantastic to catch up with the 2017 Comrades Marathon champion Bongmusa Mthembu last week, he was of course fuelled by 32Gi. We’ve got Mark Wolff back, he was at Comrades as well. He was out on the road assisting the elites, of course a lot of advice to the ladies as well, but he was up with the men’s race. Mark, that was exciting.
Mark Wolff: Very exciting and extremely happy for Bongmusa. I remember him telling me once, he battles with the Up run, but he certainly stamped his authority on the race at Comrades.
DK: Mark, talk me through a day like that. I saw you ahead of the race, we were both in the elite seconding area and already there you were to advise athletes. You did the same thing at the expo. Yes, they practice and they know nutrition but like anyone, they need a bit of a reminder and a giddy-up close to the time.
How a seconding plan can take the stress off race day
MW: I think my main focus on the day is to try and take all the stress off the athletes, especially the elite athletes that we work with. We know what they fuel with during training. Obviously we keep in contact with them during the year. We know what flavours they use, we know which products they enjoy and what they like. On the day we try to make sure that we just, we are able to fuel them consistently through the event in order to make sure that that stress is completely removed. Obviously also that they’re getting the right fuelling as well.
We don’t want them to take stuff on course because obviously they’re not used to that, they’re used to what they actually consume during training. So they need to stick to the race day, if they’re going to try and perform at their best.
DK: Mark tell me, it was an Up-run this year, they’re very different races, but it’s always hot and it was hot this year. But the guys start, they start fast. Yes, they’ve got pacing but it’s almost impossible not to get swept up with going up very quickly. When are these guys starting to fuel and need assistance?
MW: I think in the beginning, for us outsiders, or most people on the outside, they think that that pace is very fast. But these guys are really good at pacing themselves. If we look at when Charles Tijani went through halfway, he was the first guy to go through halfway.
To compare that to previous Up-run you’ll notice that there’s quite a big difference in the speeds between those two Up-runs. That’s a fact, his time was quite a few minutes slower than the previous Up-run. I think they pace themselves very well and I suppose one of the reasons that it points to because there weren’t any hot spots as well.
So although there were some, call them virtual rabbits, they just go out and run, but to be quite honest, there was no money up for grabs and no hot spots. I think it really was just a main pack race and a strategic race for most of those guys.
We’re only allowed to start feeding them around the 17-18km into the race, so we go there and we set up. Obviously our preparation starts the night before the race. Myself and Dana who manages the KPMG Elite Running Club, we were up until about 2:00 in the morning.
Making sure that the bottles were properly prepped, the right amount of carbohydrates and proteins in specific bottles as well. We had caffeine obviously on route. We also made sure we had cooler boxes, we had ice in there, we had sponges for the guys to cool themselves down.
If needed we had heat sprays if they were cramping, we obviously had salt tablets just in case there were problems with fluid absorption. We needed to utilise salt tablets to try and assist with that. We go in with a complete one-stop-shop to make sure that that athlete is looked after on race day.
Then if anything goes wrong en route, they can actually tell us what they’re battling with and we can try resolve it while they are still running. We do experience that every year. Every year there’s something different.
Getting the right advice when things go wrong
DK: Mark, I know KPMG specifically had a few athletes battle with nausea and it comes with running that pace with the conditions. I know Devon Yanko who ran 10th in the ladies race, getting the last Gold was one of them and you were able to assist there a little bit.
MW: I got a call from Pierre to say that she was feeling very dizzy while she was en route. I just advised them to take, we call it sort of a nutritional shake. It’s a protein and carbohydrate shake that I made up, but what I did was I actually put 95mg of caffeine in there, utilising our TrueStart coffee as well, which we distribute in South Africa. It’s sort of a Mochaccino, but the thing is that I think together with the protein, it’s a very simple sugar that we put in there. I think it helps stabilise a little bit and she started to feel a lot better from that, I was told. I didn’t get a chance to really speak to her much after the event.
If we look at Renier Grobler, you know something happens on race day. Because Renier felt very, he started with a little bit of cramping and that wasn’t, it’s not like him. He was in excellent shape for Comrades, he was really in top condition. But for some reason when he came around, I think it was after Inchanga, he came around and he actually said that he was feeling a little bit nauseous and I just said to him: When you say you’re feeling nauseous what’s happening?
Basically the fluid wasn’t getting absorbed through his stomach, it was just sitting there. The problem is that that can happen, obviously, if you over-hydrate, but there was no ways he was over-hydrating. I gave him two salt tablets at that time to try and pull the fluid out of his gut but it didn’t work.
The theory goes that what’s happening within the stomach and my suspicion is that there’s actually, there’s a bacterial compromise, actually gut bacteria which could be compromised. The reason for that could be contamination.
It could be food, it could be water, it’s very difficult to say. But there were a lot of people that battled from it and on the day I just got this slight suspicion that somebody consumes something or so many people consume something which caused an impact.
As I started to analyse more and more, I noticed that athletes that actually landed up taking a little bit of water on the actual route and not just relying on what was in the vehicles. Those are the guys that tended to complain a bit of nausea.
The other guys, they only took the sachets, for example water sachets, poured it over their heads for cooling, but every single other thing that they consumed came straight out of the car. We don’t take chances. If you speak to a lot of the coaches you’ll know that they bring their water to Comrades. They don’t rely on anything en route, they don’t trust it. It’s just a very difficult thing,
I suppose, from a mind-set that you just don’t want anything to go wrong on the day, which is nutrition related. It doesn’t matter how fit you get to race day, the problem is, if something happens to the nutrition, it can ultimately ruin the entire event.
DK: It really can and I was able to catch up with Renier after the race and he said he didn’t drink for nearly 20km, that’s how he had to combat it, which is just crazy. You talk about that seconding, I was able to, elite second Born2Run and also using 32Gi and it’s very specific. They’ve got to practice, the seconding teams fill the waters to the right markers, so it really a pure science. Mark, for a guy like Bongmusa, from a nutritional point of view, it was just his day, he timed it right, didn’t have those issues and look, it’s nothing he did different nutritionally, it’s just that he had the right plan.
Why elite athletes go protein crazy at races
MW: Look, I think they all had the right plan. I think they all suffer from a little bit of muscle fatigue and they did all suffer from a little bit of cramping, even the front runners do. They tell you while they’re going en route, I had to spray, I think two athletes en route. You have to make them stop, you’re not allowed to go with them. According to seconding rules, you make them stop and you need to use a heat spray. Some people use a cold spray but unfortunately that doesn’t work.
Interestingly enough people ask me: What do these elites have en route and to be quite honest, you’ll be quite amazed at the amount of protein that they consume, with carbohydrates, along the route. We do know that there have been studies showing that protein ingestion before and during exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis during exercise, so it’s sort of known.
There’s for and against, but I’m a big believer that protein ingestion during prolonged exercise actually inhibits muscle protein breakdown and obviously it delays the onset of muscle fatigue. That’s why we feed the guys that. We did do something a little bit new and that’s that the guys do use caffeine.
But what we did was we, either in the form of our G-Shots, but because they consume a lot from the bottle, we decided how we’re going to get the caffeine, if they’re not carrying a caffeine gel, what are we going to do. The TrueStart coffee that we bring in from the UK and we’ve just started distribution in South Africa, interestingly enough, it’s got 95mg of caffeine per serving, but it releases for about 5.6 hours.
It’s an anhydrous caffeine, so we know that endurance events are very much mental events. You’ve got to have a really strong mind to run a 5:35 pace Comrades, you’re talking about 3:48 pace for five hours thirty five, it’s a very fast pace.
Interestingly enough, if you look at Bongmusa’s splits, he started off, I think at around 4:02, 4:03 pace and he progressively increased his pace to have his fastest pace actually in the last 10km of the race, which is very impressive, which shows you that he paced himself extremely well.
A lot of guys might slow down or fatigue towards the end, but he just kept on getting stronger and that’s quite an impressive run.
DK: Very impressive run indeed and some really interesting stuff there. If you want to find out more information, if you did Comrades, if you want to look at how you can improve in the future, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or log onto the website, 32gi.com, lots of information on their past podcasts. Of course the 32Gi classroom, but from Mark Wolff and myself, Mr Active, David Katz, we’ll speak to you again soon.