You’re crushing it in a race or a long run, and then all of a sudden - BAM - you hit a wall. Your legs feel heavy, you’re all out of kick, your will to go on seems weak; even your brain feels foggy...you’ve bonked!
This is one issue almost every runner comes up against at some point - the dreaded BONK! It can happen during a race or even bring your entire training to a halt.
Whether we’re talking about a bonk in a single run, or the complete meltdown of your training effort, most runners will face a point at which they’re not sure they can continue. Either scenario can be very distressing to someone who is putting all the time and effort into training and all of a sudden seeing their hard work seemingly wasted.
Before you get too frustrated and throw in the towel, let’s talk about what you can do to battle the bonk. There is hope!
Bonking is often a result of not managing the calorie balance of performance adequately. Making sure that you have a clear plan for both your training and for race day is critical!
Above all else, the number one thing a runner should think about the most is running (Just enjoy it!). Number two? Fueling that running.
Fueling Your Running
Running takes a fair amount of calories for both training and recovery. Making sure that you're dialing in the calories for your training at each phase of the game is vital to staying healthy and on the road. Knowing how much to eat to keep your energy balance up for both running and rebuilding can be difficult. Good news is, there is a solution.
At Body Smart we recommend having both a Resting and an Exercise Metabolic Test. These two measures of your health are used to get exact figures of how your body burns calories so you can get precision information to fuel your body well.
Resting Metabolic Test
With the resting metabolic rate (RMR) test you'll see how many calories your body needs to sustain baseline body functions. Essentially, you find out how many calories you burn if you were to just sit and rest all day – what you need to stay alive. Knowing this empowers you to have a basement level of calories you should never eat less than...even if you’re trying to lose weight.
Eating fewer calories than your RMR simply leads to poor outcomes: fatigue, diminished performance, slower metabolism, increased risk of injury, hard plateaus during weight loss and eventual re-gain with interest, And to top it off, you become HANGRY so no-one likes you!
Once you're empowered with the right information, you can build a foundation to fuel your body adequately. Getting the right baseline data lets you take the information from the exercise test and build a nutrition plan for your body and your training that will help you stay healthy and have the energy you need for both performance and recovery.
Exercise Metabolism Test
Why Does What I Burn Matter?
Well, to build endurance best, you have to tell your body you want to build endurance. How do we do that? We run and then we keep running. The problem is, where most of us like to run is at a pace that doesn’t build endurance. We run at a pace that simply burns calories, but predominantly the wrong type.
See, most of us think, “If I’m going to run for 45 minutes, I should run at a comfortably uncomfortable pace for 45 minutes.” I call this pace or this zone the ‘no improvement’ zone! Unfortunately, for nearly all runners, at this pace you tend to burn almost all carbohydrates.
What’s wrong with burning carbohydrates?
Nothing, except you have a really small reserve of them that runs out relatively quickly. Also, your body needs carbs for recovery, repair, maintaining blood sugar, keeping the brain functioning, and key survival systems like fight or flight. By burning them off we’re depleting our resources and limiting our ability to recover.
The average runner has between 1600-2000 calories of carbs stored on their body distributed through their liver and all of their muscles. This means you may have only a few hundred in your quads, calf muscles, hamstrings, glutes and other running muscles. Because of that, you can run out within just a few hours of running on race day, or become severely depleted on a normal training run.
What’s our body’s response? Well, it becomes a little bit better at managing carbs up to a point, but it struggles to keep up and we get really hungry most of the time, feel tired a lot, and tend to get injured more. This is what leads to a total training bonk!
The worst part is working so hard, but staying in the ‘no improvement’ zone and PLATEAUing in our training. We are simply running at a pace that we can already run at, so we’re not pushing the top end of our speed to get faster; we’re also running too fast to keep up with the recovery needed to go at that pace for our current conditioning.
If that sounds familiar...keep reading!
How to Build Endurance
Now, let’s talk about how to build endurance. Just like the average runner has a reserve of carbs (albeit small), we also have a reserve of fat stored on our body. The difference is, the fat supply is HUGE! A healthy person of about 150 lbs and 20% body fat has around 105,000 calories of fat stored on their body. Now that is an energy reserve!!
Training your body to tap into the relatively unending reserve of fat calories is the key to building endurance and avoiding the bonk! We do this by training slowly!
,I know that slow sounds boring, but hold on a minute. Your slow is relative and doesn’t have to stay slow forever. What’s slow for an elite runner may be your fast, but they EARNED that through years and miles of relative slow training. The key is you have to put in the investment first, and then eventually your slow gets faster and faster.
With slow running we tend to burn more fat. By training your body to burn fat, you improve your endurance. The more you build your endurance, the more you’re able to run longer distances and the more your body responds to making adaptations, making running easier. Over time, and with the right amount of high-intensity training (which pushes the mechanics of improving your speed), you get faster.
Becoming A Body Smart Athlete
Becoming a Body Smart athlete involves taking time to learn and adapt these zones into your training. After a metabolic test you're empowered with the right information, but you still have to DO IT.
It can be hard to slow down and stay consistent, but the process pays huge dividends. By following a balance of 80% Zone 2 and 20% zones 4 and 5, you'll be doing the most to build both speed and endurance.
It'll take some getting used to, but you’ll find you feel better on a day-to-day basis. You’ll also have a lot more in reserve to run faster on those speed workouts and on race day because you aren’t playing catch-up on the carbs so much.
Avoiding the Bonk
Now, back to avoiding the bonk. No runner burns pure fat the whole time, even in Zone 2. There is always some depletion of carbohydrate reserves with any training or racing. So, we still have to account for the carb calories we’ve burned and make sure we’re aware and replacing them before they get too low. With a metabolic test you’ll know exactly how many carb calories you burn and how many to replace.
When our body senses carb calories are getting low, the brain starts to pump the brakes and slow us down. We start noticing our legs feeling heavy and our will to go on fades. This is the race day bonk!
What do we need to combat this? Carbs. Simply timing when you get those carbs can make a huge difference in your performance. Making sure you take the carbohydrate well before you start to bonk allows your brain to get the message that more carbs are on the way and it can release the stored carbs in your liver so your brain and muscles have the fuel to keep on going to the finish line!
Let’s summarize the key steps to avoiding the bonk.
Start off with making sure your nutrition is dialed in - in training, pre-race and on race day! Get metabolic testing to get your custom information. If you feel you need a more detailed custom nutrition plan, we recommend taking your testing results to a sports dietician. (It’s important to remember that a dietitian and nutritionist may be very different in their qualifications. We recommend an RDN to stay on the safe side of knowing they’re qualified.)
Next, utilize your testing results to optimize your training. As long as you’re putting in the hard work, you might as well be getting the most ‘bang for your buck’ out of every run. If you’re looking to improve and avoid injury, stop wasting time in the ‘no improvement’ zone. Swallow your pride for about 6 weeks and slow down on the slow runs. Enjoy feeling less beat up having more energy in your day. Then, speed up to the max on your fast runs. Really go for it!
Once you’re ready for race day by training in a way that maximizes your metabolism, make sure your pre-race prep is on point.
Start off with a breakfast that you know sits well with you, hydrate well, and try to include both quick and longer-lasting sources of energy - one of our favorites is whole wheat toast with bananas and peanut butter or avocado toast. Both are delicious!
Once you’re in race, utilize nutrition well before you start getting symptoms of “the bonk”. Once you know how many calories of carbohydrate you’re burning per hour from your metabolic test, you’ll know exactly how much to onboard throughout a race.
One of my favorite things is to have runners report back after their first race (where they’ve actually been training according to their metabolism). It’s fun to hear them tell us about how good they felt, how easy their recovery was afterward, and most importantly, how they hit a new PR after years of plateau, injury, and frustration.
One of our amazing athletes, Josh, said training this way, “...has helped me understand how I can train by heart rate (VO2 testing). Following my Body Smart training plan, I was able to achieve my goal of running a marathon in under 3 hours. I felt good throughout training, during the race and after the race.”
That’s the kind of response we love to hear back from our athletes and the results every runner wants to achieve. It’s what we try to help every runner at Body Smart accomplish. We love helping keep you healthy and on the road!
If you want to learn more about how to discover what you’re burning on race day click HERE. You can also contact Body Smart by calling 801-479-4471 - we'd be happy to answer any questions you might have about your training and how you can avoid the bonk!