We all do things that we know are bad for us simply because they are fun. Drinking a few too many beers on New Year's Eve, for example. Watching The Notebook when single, eating cookie dough for dinner, or ultra-distance racing.
That's right, I said it. Distance racing.
I'm placing running 26.2, 50k, 50mile, or ONE HUNDRED FREAKING MILES in the "excessive" category. (I'm looking at you, Beth Meadows, you silly beast.) While I'm at it, I'm going to take the liberty of stamping swimming+biking+running a total of 140.6 miles with the same label.
Before your Iron-people, ultra runners, or Beth Meadows fans burn me at the stake...hear me out! I love excess. When I eat cookie dough for dinner (yes, that was a personal reference) I eat a whole bowl of it. I don't stop and a nibble and a taste. When I race, I like to follow in the same style. I don't race to "run with friends" or "for a good workout" or "just to see where my fitness is at". No. When I race I like to race as hard as possible with what I have on that day. I like the sick, masochistic feeling of crossing the finish line wondering if I have the bodily control to a) keep my breakfast down b) stay vertical and c) not pee on myself just a little. I'd love to do an Ironman and a 50k one day. In fact, I plan on it. What I don't plan on doing is pretending that that amount of training and racing is good for my body. It's not, and I know it. It's just that I don't care. Like I said, sometimes we do things that are bad for us just because we want to. Just because we can.
So what actually happens to our bodies before, during, and after these ultra distance efforts? Have you ever stopped to think what is going on in your muscles, your blood, and your immune system on a cellular level? Perhaps you should. Not because I am going to attempt to dissuade you from doing whatever crazy thing you have your sights set on. I think you should do it. I'm not that friend who is going to talk sense into you. I'm that friend who will encourage you to do something potentially shit-brained but also potentially awesome. I just think you should know what to expect physiologically so that you can better plan for whatever asinine goal you are reaching for. Knowledge is power, right folks? That's the saying. No one ever said "knowledge is reason" or "knowledge is common sense". That's the lamest, most uninspiring quotation ever.
Let's start by assuming that you have actually trained for the distance you are about to cover. Your plans may have not gone perfectly, but in general you have been working hard for months to get to the start line. You have stressed your body diligently and progressively, and as a result it has adapted in some important ways.
1. You now have an increase in blood volume. Literally, you have more blood circulating in your heart, arteries, capillaries, veins, etc than you did when you thought "hey, training for Stump Jump is a good idea" and started googling entry fees.
2. This increase in blood volume results in an increased stroke volume, or the amount of blood that your heart pumps with each and every beat. As your heart pumps more blood with each contraction, it is able to pump less frequently while still supplying your body with the same overall amount of blood per minute. So you now have a lower heart rate at any given effort. What a fun, objective thing to brag about! Consistent endurance training can also change the thickness and structure of the chambers in your heart. This is not always a good thing. More on this later...
3. You will not have a substantially larger number of red blood cells (the carrier of oxygen) despite an increase in blood volume. Bummer. However, you will have a drastic increase in the concentration of oxidative enzymes. What the heck does that mean? It just means that your body is now able to transport and use oxygen at a higher and more efficient rate than before. Yippie.
4. You are generally more resistant to fatigue. Sure, you can attribute this to your stellar mental resolve and hardcore attitude. You can also thank your new and improved ability to breakdown fat, glycogen (sugar), and even protein to fuel yourself. Or your drastic increase in the number of mitochondria, the microscopic processing stations which produce usable fuel. OR the increase in capillary density which allows you to dissipate heat and exchange gases (like oxygen and carbon dioxide) more efficiently.
Basically, don't be such a narcissist. It's not all about you.
OK, so now that you are such a finely oiled machine, race day should be just a really long walk in the park, right? You can expect to look like this at the finish line?
Sure, whatever you want to tell yourself. Let's also touch on some realistic things that will go on in your body during the next few hours.
No matter how calm and collected you appear on the morning of your big day, chances are you will be a bit nervous. At minimum, you will be super excited. Either way, in the minutes leading up to Go-Time your body and your mind are working together in anticipation of a big effort.
1. Your heart rate rises, causing you to breath a little faster and even sweat a little more in order to maintain a normal body temperature.
2. Your kidneys and digestive system start to work overtime and you have to poop for like the fifth time (let's say it like it is folks, if you don't know what I'm talking about you have either never ever raced in your life or you are the Dalai Lama of racing) The good news is that your hyperactive GI system has produced an extra supply of readily usable fuel for your muscles.
3. Your circulation is high, your reflexes are cat-like, and your muscles are primed and ready to go. You may even enjoy the benefits of a sharpened memory in those pre-race moments.
The pre-race jitters can be extremely helpful when kept within a certain range. Your body is prepping itself to DO WORK. Just don't let things get out of hand, as you will waste energy, become dehydrated, and generally fatigue yourself before you even embark on your journey.
And then...the gun goes off. I'm always so thankful for the moment when I get to start racing. Ironically, those last few pre-race moments seem to be the most painful. I'd prefer the death march of the last mile over the anticipation of the gun any day. Just set me in motion and I'll be fine.
Speaking of motion, imagine that you are now racing steadily. You have been smart with your pacing and everything is going according to plan. Your body is pumping away efficiently using a steady stream of glucose, the form of currency that all muscles require in order to do work. Your muscles spend glucose and only glucose; they cannot contract using any other form of money. However, each muscle only keeps a certain amount of glucose in it's figurative wallet. While that amount of glucose is being spent, your muscles must exchange other forms of skrilla (glycogen, fat, protein, etc.) to refill their wallets with usable cash. Ideally, this exchange happens at a predictable and sustainable rate. When muscles become nutritionally bankrupt during a race it's called BONKING. If you've been there, you know that there is no emergency fund that can save you post-bonk.
Muscles can work very hard for a very low hourly rate (called anaerobic glycolysis) or they can work efficiently and intelligently for an impressive rate of return (called oxidative phosphorylation). A fitting analogy would be exchanging a dollar for less than one euro verse exchanging a dollar for multiple pescos. It's all usable money in the grand scheme of things, you just get a lot more value in one scenario verse another.
The key to getting a good exchange versus a crappy one is OXYGEN, and the ability to get oxygen into our cells depends on a few key things.
1. Being in shape. The more you train, and the more specifically you train, the more efficiently your body will be able to use oxygen for the task ahead. Refer to the training adaptations mentioned above.
2. Running your race. If you have trained at an 8 minute-per-mile pace and start out with a few 7 minute miles, you're asking for it. It doesn't matter how mentally tough you are, you're setting your muscles up for eventual bankruptcy. You should know how fast you can run on average, how fast you can run or walk up a certain incline, and how long you can sustain various efforts. Know what you are capable of, roughly, so that you don't go into debt at mile 18 of a 31 mile race.
3. Breathe!!! I used to think that practicing diaphragmatic breathing and postural stretching was for smelly hippies. And it is. But you know what? Those smelly hippies can really run! Our modern day society has created a real problem- most of us cannot fill our lungs fully and deeply. We spend our time slumped over computers and cell phones, stressed, breathing with just our upper chest. Our bodies adapt to this position, shortening certain muscle groups and lengthening others inappropriately. Our gas exchange is compromised and we never fill our lungs to their full depth or capacity, even when we are out of our car seats and office chairs. Learning what exercises and stretches are necessary in order to allow yourself to breath optimally is a must if you take your athletic performance seriously.
What happens in the last hour of your multi-hour race? Why do you inevitably get tired even if you have stuck to your pace and consumed your nutrition properly? What changes occur if you decide to kick it in, and how long can you expect to scientifically sustain your kick? What goes on in your body 1hr, 5hrs, 24hrs after you cross the finish line? What the heck is DOMS and why are stairs the worst thing on earth after a distance race?
Stay tuned for part 2 of our epic journey into What happens to your body during a marathon, ultramarthon, Ironman, or other race distance of silly proportions.
Until then...stay curious, stay passionate, and stay informed. Happy 2016!!!