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Coach's Column with Namrita O'Dea

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |April 21, 2010 6:58 AM
This week our question goes to Namrita O'Dea. A licensed dietitian and member of the Topeak/Ergon racing team. O'Dea helps riders fine tune their bodies for maximum performance through her business 55 Nine Performance Nutrition.

Question: Can you recover from a calorie deficit in the middle of a ultra-endurance race? If you start to feel a bonk with 20 miles left are you just done? If it is possible to recover, how?

Answer: The good news is, yes, it is possible to recover to some degree...as long as you catch it early enough.  If you realize that you haven't been staying on top of your nutrition needs, or you have been going harder than planned, or you find yourself starting to bonk for any other reason, you need to take action before things get worse.  If you don't, you will find yourself in a full-on bonk, hating life, and making even more bad decisions because you can't think clearly enough to make smart, coherent decisions.  

So, if you find yourself in this undesirable situation, here is what you can do to fix it:

Slow your pace.  Sure, you might not have a choice with this one.  Reducing your intensity to ~65-75% of your VO2 max will decrease the reliance on your stored carbohydrate for fuel and, luckily, you have ample fat than can be used for energy at a lower intensity.  Gastric emptying will also happen more quickly at this lower intensity.  That means you'll be able to digest and absorb the calories faster.

You will need to have some calories and fluid with you.  Best is to make sure you pack some calories for emergency/back-up use.  If there is an aid or feed station coming up, make sure to use it.  You will want to take in three very important things: carbohydrates, sodium, and fluid in moderate amounts until you are feeling your energy level bounce back.  For example, drink off a 24 oz bottle with 250-300 calories and approximately 600 mg sodium over the course of 45 minutes to an hour, sipping it every 10 to 15 minutes.  If you come across something with caffeine and sugar, a few sips of that can also help.  Just don't over-do it.  
At this time, skip snacks with protein, fat, and fiber as these will just delay the delivery of nutrients to your exercising muscle.  

If possible, use cold fluid to rehydrate/refuel while trying to recover from your lack of energy.  It will be absorbed faster than a warm drink.  Realize, this is not always possible depending on the course and where you are.  Certainly, any fluid is better than none..even if it isn't cold.  

Once you are feeling better, you can pick up the pace again.  But, don't forget to keep fueling steadily--that is, every 15-20 minutes with your carbohydrates, fluid, and sodium (electrolytes).

It's going to be important to keep a strong mental attitude to work through a bonk.  Even if it doesn't feel like it, you still have some level of reserve glycogen within, and you just need to tap into it.  Adrenaline, or epinephrine, when released stimulates the breakdown of glycogen...that's what gives you that rush and burst of energy in the "fight or flight" response.  Fat is a tremendous source of energy so you always have that to fall back on.  Even though you may not be able to maintain your high pace and intensity while relying on fat for fuel, it can get you through the tough time and that's better than nothing! 
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