Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nutrition and High-Altitude Racing: My Plan for the Leadville 100

I'm hard at work planning for my nutritional needs at the Leadville Trail 100. Going into last year's race, my nutritional plan was really no different than what I'd done in previous 100s--"real food," along with bananas, gels, sports drink, soup and, of course, Coke. When I won the Mohican 100 in 2009, bananas, gels, Ramen and caffeinated beverages such as Red Bull and Coke were my fuel for the last 60 miles and I got through without any stomach ailments. It was the same at the USA 24-Hour National Championship in 2009.

But those were sea level events. At the time, we lived in Ohio. When I lined up for the Leadville 100 last August, we'd lived in Colorado for only four months. And while I knew high-altitude racing was super hard, never did I realize that eating at 10,000+ feet could be, well, challenging, to say the least.

Last year, basically nothing looked good at the aid stations except a few oranges here and there and maybe some soup. By the time I got to the Mayqueen tent at mile 86.5, I was pale, nauseous and on the verge of vomiting, which I did. This, in turn, degenerated into serious chills and about 45 minutes in a cot with blankets wrapped around me from head to toe and medical personnel checking my vitals. I was in bad shape. Finally, after eating a little, my strength returned and I was able to finish the race.

The whole experience has forced me to carefully craft a nutrition plan for this year's Leadville that hopefully will fuel me from start to finish without any issues.

First off, it's really hard to eat while running at 10,000+ feet. At that altitude, your body is in overdrive and burning calories takes a lot of energy and oxygen. Blood is diverted to critical organs, which can leave the stomach in not so good shape (which begs the question of whether it's even a good idea to run at high altitutde...). So the most important thing for me, I think, is for my fuel to be readily absorbed. I'm looking at a variety of endurance drinks along with gels and other fuel sources. I probably should have done this months ago. Anyway, here's what one highly accomplished endurance athlete and Leadville top-10 finisher advised:
You need to front load your nutrition and aim for ~75-100g of CHO per hour in the first 2-3 hours while your GI tract is still functioning. Once you start to really build fatigue then blood is shunted away from less important organs to most important organs like your brain, heart, lungs, kidneys. After ~3:00 you need to try and avoid fat for sure and also (I believe) protein particularly at high altitude where fat and protein require up to 20% more oxygen to metabolize. Gravitate towards liquids calories (not gels) with a mix of long chain (maltodextrin) and short chain (sucrose) glycogen. The maltodextrin and sucrose work very well together in a ~3:1 ration which promotes gastric emptying much better than anything out there. I used Carbo-Pro which is pure maltodextrin and mixed in powdered Gatorade. Or Ultra Fuel makes a pre mixed sports drink that works very well too. Fructose and sucrose are both good.
In the next few days, I'm probably going to test Carbo-Pro. I like the sounds of this product since I can mix it with a sports drink such as Gatorade or even with water. I may also try Ultra Fuel. While I like Perpetuem, it does contain fat, which requires precious energy and oxygen to break down, so I'm hesitant to use it at Leadville. Later in the race, chicken broth and noodles will provide critical energy, too.

If you have any ideas on nutrition for high-altitude racing, put them out there!


  1. One thing to note is that Carbo-pro is almost completely tasteless. You can mix in ~75g of CHO (you should be aiming for .5g of CHO per pound of body weight to start and then expect that to drop as fatigue sets in) and it tastes like water. I think this is a good thing because often times strong flavors can be overwhelming and also over the course of ~19 hours can get old. You stop wanting to taste the same thing over and over or you might not want a sugary sweet taste. You can mix in the powdered Gatorade both for taste and for the complimentary gastric emptying.

  2. Lucho:

    You've been a huge help to me and I thank you. I am in awe of your knowledge and expertise!