Endurance athlete goes Paleo, shatters personal record


Are you a runner who's trying to implement a paleo diet, and not sure how to square that with the requirements of endurance events and training? Here's the story of how an experienced ultramarathon competitor gave up grains and other starchy carbs and ran her best 100-mile race.

At 34, Jess Mullen has completed an impressive 41 marathons and 45 ultramarathon-distance races. Her training? CrossFit (since October 2008); running 50 miles or more once a month with occasional 100-milers; and easy recovery runs. Doing CrossFit has increased her running speed, so she no longer does training runs for speed or tempo, decreasing her overall mileage. Jess is a a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist, and has a master's degree in nutrition from Bastyr University.

In September 2009, Jess gave up grains and started eating according to Loren Cordain's "The Paleo Diet" and "The Paleo Diet for Athletes." Twelve days into this new way of eating, she ran a 100-mile trail race, 100 in the Hood, and beat her goal time by more than an hour, finishing in 22:33. I talked with Jess about nutrition and running.

Q: How is a 100-mile run similar to a short run, nutritionally? What are the best rules of thumb for managing nutrition for a run?
Jess: No matter what the event is, eat beforehand, even if it's a 45-minute training run. Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up. Depending on how much you weigh, how much you can tolerate, and how long you have before the run starts, eat. If it's less than an hour until the run, don't eat more than 200 calories, because your body can't digest very much that quickly. Have a little bit of protein, maybe one gram of protein to four grams carbohydrate. (People think that's weird, but I always have a little protein.) If you have more time, have more calories. Just don't be hungry.

Q: Why do people think it's weird to have protein before a run?
Jess: People still have the notion that "I should just eat carbohydrates." But we need protein, especially the branched-chain amino acids. That's the type your body wants to utilize and needs the most during exercise. They're primarily found in whey and in meat. If you eat protein, then as muscle breaks down, you have protein available for repair. You're already saturated with protein. Also, immediately following exercise, it's there, and your muscles can repair and recover quickest.

Q: How do nutritional needs change for longer runs?
Jess: Your needs during the run are what change. You don't need to be concerned with nutrition during a 10k run. You're working at 85 percent of your VO2 max, so your stomach basically shuts down. And it takes such a short span of time that you're not going to be nutritionally compromised. If you go into it well hydrated, the only thing that might happen is a little bit of dehydration. You don't need to carry water unless it's hot outside. There are a lot of variables determining how much fluid you might need. The bottom line is that you should go into a 10k in a state of good hydration and nourishment.

Once you get into the 90-minute range and longer is when you need to consider food and hydration during the event. They're equally important. For runs of up to two hours, for most people the preferred source of fuel during the run is sports drinks. You're getting fluid and calories, and you don't have to chew or digest food. You're still working at a high rate so drinks are easier on your stomach than food.

In events over four hours, you want to implement protein and fat. They become more and more important the longer the event is. Not just for utilizing your fat stores and having protein so you don't get sleepy, but in general because you need more food and it's hard to just eat gels all the time. You also have to start to really pay attention to your salt intake, starting around four hours, or marathon length. For every two cups of water you drink, you need about 500 milligrams of sodium. If you drink only water in a long event, you could get low blood sodium, and that could kill you.

Gels and Shot Bloks have some salt in them, but not enough. You can take salt tablets. Aid stations have broth or chips that are salty. It's not about your sweat rate or how much you're peeing; it's about what you're drinking. What you put into you needs to match the sodium concentration in your body fluids. If you only drink water, you'll dilute that. So, if you drink a sixteen-ounce bottle of water an hour, take a salt tablet an hour. People get sick because they forget to account for sodium needs based on what they're taking in.

In a long event like 100 in the Hood, it's critical to stay on top of your eating. You can get through a marathon without doing the best job of eating and drinking, but you can't get away with a twelve, eighteen-hour event without keeping up your eating. It depends on how big you are, but most people can't digest more than 250 to 350 calories an hour. That means you should try to eat 100 calories every 30 minutes throughout the whole race. On the other hand, you burn about 100 calories every mile you run. Because you're running more than three miles an hour, you're burning more than you're eating. You fall behind, even while eating every 30 minutes. It's easy to stay on top of that for a while, but it gets so old--eating while you're running--and you get tired of chewing. But if you fall behind on your eating, you just get screwed! I think that's why people get severely sick. Low sodium, dehydration, and being low on calories can all cause you to feel nauseous, dizzy, and weak.

Q: What did you eat before the 100 in the Hood run started, and how was this different than pre-race nutrition in years past?
Jess: This was the first time I had almost no grains before and during the race. Beforehand, I always used to have oatmeal, a muffin with yogurt, or cereal with a banana, always grains and some protein. This time I switched to primarily having fruit (bananas), turkey, and just part of a muffin before the race. I got up at 3:30 AM for this race, knowing I had 24 hours to keep eating, so I didn't feel I needed to eat a lot right beforehand. I'd just start eating earlier during the race.

The major difference between this and past races was that, in this race, I didn't have any grains while I was on the course, and no peanuts, either.

Q: What did you eat during the race? How did you do on your eating during such a successful run?
Jess: I focused on having one set of 100 calories being mainly carbohydrates, which was dried fruit (raisins, mango, dried bananas with coconut oil on them) or else Shot Bloks and gels. The next set of 100 calories would be a combination of carb, fat, and protein, or just fat and protein (turkey and avocado, or beef jerky sticks). I had trail mix and almonds. I tried to go back and forth, protein and fat versus carb. Too much fat and protein at once slows down your digestion so you can't have too much of those at once. I used to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I've given them up because the grain and legumes aren't paleo, but also because I've always known peanut butter upset my stomach. I like the taste, but it doesn't make me feel good.

In some ways, I blew it during this race. I pretty much stopped eating at mile 85, and I got sick afterward with exercise-induced asthma and nausea. Usually every five hours I'll eat something substantial even though I know I need to slow down my pace and let my stomach digest it. What happens is I know I'm getting farther behind on eating, and so I need more than just a few bites of boiled salted potatoes. (These are a great starch, potassium, and salt source, and are easy on the stomach.)

But all I had on me after 85 miles was dried fruit and Shot Bloks, and my stomach couldn't take any more dried fruit. Some raw nuts, or maybe crackers, would have been okay. Instead I would choke down some Shot Bloks, so I was getting maybe 50 calories an hour for the last four hours of the race. Not enough. So when the race was over, my lungs fell apart, from about 30 minutes after until about four hours after the race. I always have breathing issues from exercise-induced asthma, and this time my body had no extra energy to draw from because I'd stopped eating enough near the end. For several hours I could only eat about one Sun Chip at a time. (Sun Chips were the most compatible food my friends could find at the convenience store in the middle of the night.) I finished the race around 3:30 in the morning, so the rest of that day, I knew I was just pulling it back together.

I know better than not to eat enough, but it's so easy to say, "I'll just skip this hour and eat the next hour." You may think you feel okay, but it's dark, you're using a headlamp and stumbling on the trail, and you can be really dizzy and not even realize it! When I'd stop to pee I'd realize I was dizzy and in bad shape. I had a pacer with me and I was lying to her and telling her I was eating. She'd ask if I was eating and I'd fumble with a wrapper and say yes.

Q: But the race was a success despite being sick afterward?
Jess: I had the least amount of swelling I've ever had; my feet barely even hurt--usually you can't even touch my feet after a race. I had great recovery. I usually have plantar fasciitis and achilles tendinitis flare-ups, and I had none of that. None. It was crazy! Always, my feet just kill me. I think its not happening this time was due to having less acid in my body overall, from eating more fruits and vegetables, having more of a basic pH hitting my kidneys. I've read that by eating a less acid diet, you get less muscle soreness.

Also in this race, I didn't slow down much in the second half. The first 55 miles took me 11 hours, and the remainder only took about 11:30. Everyone who carried a GPS said this race was really 103.7 miles, not 100. In a recent, similar 100 miles in San Diego, the first 50 miles took me 10:53 and the remainder took me 14:41. The 100 in the Hood was my fastest second half.

Q: Were you anxious about giving up, for such a major event, the foods you had always relied on?
Jess: I was. I had all the old foods with me. Gels are one of those. The first few times I ate, I had raisins or trail mix. The next time I ate, I thought, don't go crazy with this--go back to what you know! So I had a gel, and it upset my stomach. I only had one other gel throughout the race. Instead I used Shot Bloks. I had also brought fig newtons, peanut butter crackers, animal crackers, Payday and Snickers bars. I didn't touch any of those. I'd say I ate 60 percent paleo style (fruit, nuts, turkey, avocado, beef jerky) and 40 percent Shot Bloks.

I doubt I'll ever eat another Shot Blok! I think I developed an aversion. But I can't just use dried fruit as my only carb source, because the fructose can affect the stomach and can cause you to need to go to the bathroom more. Maybe I'll be able to use gels again.

Q: Will you continue to adjust your diet for your next races?
Jess: This weekend I'm running a 50k. Pre-race, I'll have bananas, turkey, and nuts. During the race, I'm going to do the usual banana chips, dried mangoes and raisins, nuts, and beef jerky. I'll eat every 30 minutes. I know how I normally feel after a 50k. It will be interesting to see if I feel different after eating totally differently--no grains this time at all. One problem is that when I get nauseous, I can't eat anything sweet. It's revolting. I need to figure out a carb source besides dried fruit, other than gels and Shot Bloks.

Immediately after the next race, I might eat Lara bars or Nectar bars, made from dried fruit and nuts. And later that day as I recover, instead of eating Sun Chips (made from grain), I plan to have on hand delicata squash, pecan butter, meat, and lots of fruit.

Q: Has night-before-event "carbo loading" gone away among endurance athletes, and should it?
Jess: Most people eat enough carbohydrates already in a "normal" diet. They're already carbo loading. Don't avoid carbohydrates altogether the night before, but you don't need to "load."

Q: As a dietitian, do you feel you're out on a limb or doing something radical by adopting and advocating the Paleo Diet?
Jess: Most dietitians have learned that we need grains. The Paleo Diet has been a good experience because I started to read and ask myself why grains are so good. I was never getting a good answer to that. If you compare them to vegetables, they're nowhere near as nutritious no matter how you look at it, except for being higher in calories. They're not a good source of protein. Beans? All they are is filling. You can get everything you need from fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and meat.