Breaking Barriers

April 13, 2017

It’s no secret that what a runner consumes before and during a race can have a massive impact on their stamina and speed. Never has this been more true than in Nike’s Breaking2 project in which three athletes, Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese, will challenge themselves to run a marathon in under two hours this May. As something that has never been done before, Nike’s experts are doing all they can to make sure that these athletes stay healthy during the run.

According to an article from Outside Online, to maintain the pace needed to break this time barrier, runners will need to consume far more carbohydrates than normal—60-90 grams per hour to be exact.

“That means their guts need to be trained—just like the rest of their bodies—to be able to take on this workload and prevent any drop-off from their split times,” writes author Heidi Mills. “They’ll have to practice fueling at shorter intervals so their intestines grow accustomed to absorbing and using the energy to keep muscles fed and firing, says [exercise physiologist] Asker Jeukendrup.”

However, with athletes moving at such a fast pace, it can be difficult for them to stop and get the nutrients that they need. Nike has conducted multiple trials to help remedy this issue, as well as to train the runners’ bodies to lessen GI pain, which can occur from consuming such a high amount of carbohydrates.

In the first test, Brett Kirby, a human bioenergetics expert at Nike Sport Research Lab, rode on a moped alongside runners as they participated in a half-marathon. Each runner had a carbohydrate blend drink that was made specifically for their needs, and Kirby’s task was to give them these bottles about every seven minutes. In this trial, two runners finished in under 60 minutes, setting the pace that they will need to maintain for the full marathon.

“Research shows that drinking smaller volumes more frequently can be beneficial, so we are looking at providing hydration and nutrition offerings at smaller intervals throughout the race,” says Kirby.

On the day of the full marathon, these drinks will vary. They could include a mixture of carbohydrates like fructose and glucose, and runners will receive different kinds throughout their run as, according to Jeukendrup, variety makes the drinks easier to digest. Runners are also instructed to eat high-nitrate foods before the race, as they help improve muscle oxygenation, efficiency, and contraction force of the blood vessel wall. They are also asked to avoid high-fiber foods.

Because each athlete’s body is different, Nike will create a fueling plan unique to each one for the marathon—both when it comes to the timing and the makeup of the carbohydrate blend. Posing another issue is the fact that most athletes have never had their own nutrition program to carry out during a race, so it was uncertain how their bodies would react to the various sugars and carbohydrates.

“To fill this data gap, the athletes hit Nike’s environmental simulation chamber,” writes Mills. “There, researchers tracked environmental conditions, core body temperature, skin temperature, body fluid loss, and muscle glycogen levels, with the end goal being a bespoke fuel plan for each athlete. Variations will include delivery method (think: gel versus liquid), temperature, concentration of liquid mix, and type of carb in the mix (think: glucose versus fructose).”

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