Endurance-sport junkies like to train, but they love to race – and the addiction is going viral.  At the 2016 Ultra-Endurance Sports Science Congress, data showed that ultra-marathon finishers grew from 50,000 in 2000,  to almost 300,000 in 2016 – with France, US and Japan being the biggest countries.

Ultra-endurance races last typically 5 hours to multiple days, and can be by the ocean, the Alps, the mountains and the highways. These are the stadiums in which ultra-endurance athletes thrive.  Athletes are literally hooked, by the solitude of racing, the extremeness of these feats, the spiritual-emotional states entered into, the companionship between fellow ultra-junkies and the exotic panoramic environments these races are run in.

These races are logistical feats in their own right, run by amazing race directors managing the major challenges of keeping athletes safe, fueling them to go the distance and putting on incredible experiences.  Races are commercially funded out of race entry fees and sponsorships, with the latter being a mix, predominantly,  of sports drink companies and sports clothing brands.

With sponsorship, these companies can brand the race, and supply the checkpoint/aid-stations with their drinks and fueling products – and here’s where the ‘Shackles begin’.

In an industry ground-breaking move, Ultra-Race of Champions (UROC), the annual US 100km-50km ultra trail run-race,  to be held on May 12 2018, have decided to ‘drop the sugar-shackles’, and bring back ‘choices’ for athletes beyond hyper-sugar options in aid-stations.  More insight into this further below.

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This is the beginning of the ‘ultra-FREEDOM Project’ a community movement for 20% of all ultra-marathons and Long distance triathlons to give athletes FREEdom of low-carb fuel choices, by 2020. 

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The rise of distance running, marathons in the 70s and the US triathlon race series in the ’80s was largely bankrolled by the beverage industry.  In the case of triathlon, the leading sports drink of the time ‘Gatorade’ and Bud-Light Beer were major players.  At that time, products like Gatorade were the go-to drink for athletes in racing and training, and for many sports. Within a short time, there came many emulators, producing similar sugar-laden drink products under various ‘…ade’ brands.  By 2014, the leading producers were selling more than 20 billion liters of sports-drinks globally and in the US alone, almost 1 billion liters.

Well, it probably goes without saying but hyper-sugar consumption triggers higher risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic inflammatory diseases.  However, how hyper-sugar consumption is affecting endurance athletes (in racing and training) is only now – becoming more widely acknowledged and reported on.

We’ll explore the implications of sugar on endurance athletes soon – but I do want to highlight that while it’s hard-enough for sedentary consumers to avoid sugar in their diet and lifestyle, its almost impossible for endurance athletes to avoid hyper-sugar consumption during their races. In 2016, the leading US sports drink brand earned a cool $3.3 billion dollars revenue (Statistica). Now obviously these revenues weren’t reached from product sales at races, but by these sponsored drinks-foods in races becoming the ‘foundation’ on which endurance athletes train with (and in many cases, live on). And it’s here where the shackles tighten and the sugar-grip is made – where athletes knowingly or unknowingly,  frame their training and lifestyles around these ‘race available hyper-sugar products and foods.’  Typical aid-stations, in the ultra-running community offer simple-sugar sports drinks bars and gels, candies, cookies, sodas, juices, potato-crisps, white rice a few fruits and water (and salts), where as in long-distance triathlons its more typically sports drinks, gels, candies, some fruits, water etc.

Before diving into the health and safety implications for the athlete, we want to call out that we support intelligent marketing, product ramp-sampling and commercial enterprise by industry collaborating with sporting-recreational events. This is the foundation of new innovation, athletic performance, behavioral insight and product development.  However, where big money and big industry is involved ethical decisions can be lost, consumer-rights can be taken away – and this seems to be the case in ultra-endurance sports, where so many athletes in training and racing are being funneled into hyper-sugar consumption from concentrated simple-sugar drinks, gels, and bars. It’s time to give ultra-endurance athletes the freedom to choose lower-sugar, more balanced fat-protein-carb fuels and foods in training-racing lifestyle. They should be given alternatives which will allow them to weigh up their choices and to fuel the longevity of the sport and lifestyle they love.

Reach and implications of the ‘Sugar Shackle’

On the surface, the issue at hand may be thought of as a ‘nuance’ or ‘niche’.  Not only is this a misconception, but with the rise-growth of endurance and adventure sport – the health implications are pervasively growing and virally spreading. In 2005, there were an estimated 700 races, and by 2015 this had reached over 3500 races.

This widespread issue of ‘hyper-sugar consumption’ in endurance sport that has been well researched. Since the early 1990s, researchers began noticing the higher prevalence of gastrointestinal distress during endurance events like triathlons, Ironman races, and ultra-marathons. The effects were not simply slower race times and DNFs – but even more serious conditions like bleeding in the gastrointestinal system, endotoxemia, and hospitalizations.  So began a wave of studies during these races, to look at the prevalence and cause of these race-stopping threats to athletes.

Here’s some research summaries.

  1. Competitors in two premier 100mile ultra-marathons, the Western States and Vermont 100, were invited to complete a post-race questionnaire. 500 athletes responded and provided data on reasons for their DNF (did not finish).  Of all the reasons for not finishing these ultras, vomiting, and nausea, was the highest factor at 23% of all respondents.
  2. In 2012, two Ironman races, a half-Ironman, 1 marathon and a 150km cycling race, were used to evaluate 221 athletes, to examine the relationship of diet and gastrointestinal issues during an endurance competition. Ironman athletes reported a higher intake of carbohydrate (~65g/Hr.), versus the cycling and marathon events.  Higher carbohydrate intake was positively correlated with increased scores of nausea and flatulence.
  3. One year later a team studied a group of ultra-runners competing in the Javelina Hundred desert ultra-endurance race where 89% of the group experienced nausea. Interestingly, fluid consumption and the percentage of fat consumed was higher in runners without gastrointestinal distress.
  4. Actually, in 2015, the 161-km Western States Endurance Run was used to examine the incidence of gastrointestinal symptoms for finishers and non-finishers. Of the non-finishers surveyed 35% reported gastro-issues, with nausea being the number one reason for over 90% of these athletes.
  5. In a recent study, pre-race dietary factors were evaluated in giving rise to gastrointestinal (gut) distress during the cycle-run legs of triathlons. It was found the morning (of the race) calorie and carbohydrate intakes were modestly associated with upper gastrointestinal distress (vomiting, nausea), whereas caffeine intake had a correlation to lower gastrointestinal distress (abdominal cramp, flatulence).

It may be thought that this issue is only affecting the ‘poorly informed’, but that’s also a misconception. For decades now, we have examples left on record of professional athletes stalled and stopped in races from high-sugar fueling triggered nausea and GI distress.   At last years (2017) Western States 100 Endurance Run, an impressive and courageous run by professional ultra-runner Jim Walmsley was unfortunately cut short (DNF – Did Not Finish) by gut-issues, then in last years UTMB Jim was in a tremendous lead till the ~120km mark – where he was forced to rest-recover his gut and body, only to have several athletes pass and finish before him.  Without a doubt, Jim’s time will come to win these major races – he is way too smart and fast not to resolve this soon.  You can read the whole blog here on the the Ultra: Gut Impact.

Now, this is just what’s happening “during the race”, but what about the spill-over effect of hyper-sugar consumption after racing and in day-to-day training, for the athlete?

Winning age-group Ironman triathlete, Doctor of Performance Physiology and low-carb/higher-fat practitioner, Dr. Daniel Plews began daily measurement of fasted blood-glucose levels measured (VIDEO HERE)  before and after a recent Ironman race.  2

When Dan races he takes a planned and measured ‘higher-carb’ intake during the race. However, Dan recently showed how his body took multiple weeks to return to pre-race blood-glucose readings, even though he returned to his standard low-carb/higher-fat pre-race training diet, immediately following the race.  A larger article on implications over ‘hyper-sugar consumption’ for athletes was written last year and can be found here.

In reviewing published scientific papers and continuing to see amateur and professional athletes affected,  a consistent theme is emerging on the causes – that being the amount/rate (intensity) of carbohydrate consumption, and the type of carbohydrate (simple sugar forms) being consumed. The nutritional profile of high-volume drinks, sports bars, gels used in endurance-sports, are exceedingly high in simple-sugars (cheap to manufacture) with low to no fat, fiber or protein.  What stands out in these formulations is this very high simple-sugar ratio that is sourced from cane sugar syrups, fructose, maltodextrins, glycerin, rice syrups, honey and glucose syrups. Additionally, many of these products use sugar alcohols, which is a well-known trigger of further Gut/GI distress.

Eating one of the leading (simple sugar) bars/gels is the equivalent to taking over 6 teaspoons of sugar.  Add to that drinking 500ml/15-20 ounces of sports drink –  another 6 teaspoons of sugar.  Now you are at 12 teaspoons.  Maybe an athlete could get away with this in a three-hour race, but consuming these for 6 to 40 hours, and you realize it’s no surprise to see athletes having their finishing dreams ripped to shreds from crashing blood sugars and race-stopping Gut/Gastrointestinal distress.  Not to mention the health and safety risks to athletes and the extra logistical and management risks on race directors and volunteers.

It is this increasing incidence of sugar-related race stalling/stopping by athletes that has both athletes and coaches increasingly shifting training to lower-carb/ higher-fat fuels and lifestyles.  The problem they encounter is that when they get to the races – they have no option, no choice, no freedom – but to become a hyper-sugar consuming athlete.

Now some would say – just train your gut to better handle high-sugars, and some research suggests this is possible to some degree. However, with respect to the tidal wave of evidence around chronic-disease risks associated with high-consumption of refined sugars, I find such research not only repugnant but frankly borderline ‘malpractice’ for any science, healthcare, medical or coaching staff who promote it.

Maybe you’re thinking, just eat nothing and stick to water!  Reality is, we can store around 2500 calories of glycogen in the body, and this can last for 2-3hours for most athletes. Now while we do have around 40,000 calories of fat in the body, and yes the body absolutely oxidizes this to keep going, even the most fat-adapted athletes, including professionals, consume fuel and foods during ultra-endurance racing, just a lot, lot less.

Recommendation:  Grass-roots advocacy – Athletes, Race directors.

In being pragmatic and providing a balanced perspective – this isn’t at all about advocating for a ‘zero-carb tolerance’ position, or ‘zero-carb aid-station policies’ at endurance races. Whole food carbohydrates are fundamental to health, plentiful in nature and needed by so many aspects of the human body.

This is more about endurance athletes, race directors, volunteers and coaches rallying behind endurance athletes to have the freedom to choose – and enabling them, to count on having the option of low-no sugar calorie-rich food and hydration in races.

Athletes need carbs, fat, and protein to support their choice and to give them the ability to fluctuate in speed and intensity during ultra-endurance racing – while at the same time keeping the gut, energy-levels, mental-focus and hydration in check.  Forcing athletes into hyper-sugar consumption, raising gut-distress, creating energy-crashing fatigue results in higher risk of non-finish/slow times – plus in extreme cases, athlete safety risks for race directors/volunteers to manage.

When more races provide the freedom of choice for low-sugar fuel-food choices at aid-stations, then athletes will have the confidence to choose and use lower-sugar fueling-food in their day to day training and lifestyle.

This won’t change overnight – but there’s a broad interest in forming a movement, to go after this.  Race Director, CEO of Bad to the Bone sports (ultra-endurance race management company) and winning ultra-marathon runner, Dr. Francesca Conte doesn’t see this as a maybe, but in her words, “this is a must-do for not only our industry – but for both the longevity of the athletes for which our industry runs, and in being ethically responsible for their health and wellbeing in these extreme feats of endurance”.

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Conte, herself of European decent highlighted that, “if you look back in time, you would find cured meats, cheeses as the go to foods, that alpine mountaineers fed on when on the trek. These people were really the traditional fore-fathers of extreme ultra-endurance sport.”  An 11-time winner of 100mile races, her experience, and a doctorate in biological sciences, makes her convinced, “this isn’t an issue for 2-3 hours races or sports.  This is an issue for races beyond 4hours and multi-day races – where the body nutritionally expects and needs so much more than simple sugars. This dependency is further compounded in endurance training where day-to-day, week-to-week training blocks of thousands of miles need more complete foods that provide the nutrition, hydration and minimized inflammation load.”

So for the first time in the history of the Ultra-endurance racing Industry, Dr. Conte’s company ‘Bad to the Bone Sports’ has teamed up with low-no sugar carb endurance-fuels company Spike-FREE to announce that a major ultra-endurance race (UROC, Ultra Race of Champions, 12 May 2018) will be the first ever – to provide both carbohydrate-based foods, and low-carb/high-fat foods fuels and drinks at every aid station. Conte highlights, “We’ve run UROC for many years now, but this year’s race, will be the first race worldwide to ever offer a mix of carb-fat-protein foods and fuels in our aid-stations like Peanut butter low-carb wraps, Almond butter low-carb wraps, Cream cheese low-carb wraps, nuts, Peanut butter energy balls, cucumber sticks with salt and Spike-FREE’s SFuels ultra-endurance drinks and bars.”

“UROC 2018 is a leadership race, and a great start, but we want to send a message to all athletes, race directors, and coaches – that you should ask for choices at Ultra-endurance race aid-stations,” says Nicole Phillips, Marketing and Operations Director, at Spike-FREE.  “We want to help athletes and race directors, band together to drive this change – so we’re launching the start of a movement we call, Ultra-FREEdom Project”

Beyond UROC – a global movement,  enter the Ultra-FREEdom project

Spike-FREE is now engaging race directors to find out who’s stepping up to become the first 100mile race-director, or Ironman triathlon race director, to offer low-carb/higher-fat food-fueling choices at aid stations.

To enable the community of athletes, race directors and coaches to come together and get behind the “ultra-FREEdom project” movement, a community Facebook group has been launched to facilitate athlete education, industry communication, and ultra-athlete-crowd-sourcing to drive change and choice through endurance-races across the world.

hope you can join the cause,  Like/follow us at Ultra-FREEdom Project 

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CONTACT

Ultra-FREEdom Project: Community Facilitator Email.  support@spike-free.com

References

Gastrointestinal distress is common during a 161-km ultramarathon.  Stuempfle KJ, et al.  J Sports Science. 2015

Nutritional intake and gastrointestinal problems during competitive endurance events.  Pfeiffer B et al. Med Sci Sports Exercise. Feb 2012.

Dietary and non-dietary correlates of gastrointestinal distress during the cycle and run of a triathlon.  Wilson PB et al.  Eur J of Sports Science. June 2016.

Association of gastrointestinal distress in ultramarathoners with race diet. Stuempfle KJ et al.  Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metabolism. Apr 2013.