Last updated: 22-Aug-18
Written by Sports Dietician Rin Cobb
Rin Cobb has been working with one of our top British Ultra runners, Danny Kendall, who finished 8th at the Marathon des Sables on his nutrition plan. Here she shares his daily food intake and the advice she gave him to reach his goals.
I could count on one hand the common issues runners come to me with and pro runners are no different in this respect. Of course we presume that when a runner is at the top of their game they have the support of something resembling Team Sky. In truth they quite often have to figure things out themselves, just like the rest of us, whilst juggling full-time work, family, a gruelling training schedule not to mention all that travel to and from races. Danny Kendall is one of these pros and after a good start to the year finishing 8th at the Marathon des Sables, followed by a 2:34 marathon PB at London, his results started to deteriorate leading him to question why this might be.
Cue a trip to the doc. A few vials of blood later, and with the all clear, Danny started to look at his diet in more detail. He got in touch to try and make sense of it all. Unlike the couch potatoes of this world, Danny’s cholesterol levels came back low according to Dr Google (we’ve all done it). He had some concerns about whether these low blood lipids might pose a problem for an ultra runner who needs fat for fuel. UK guidelines for blood lipids generally support levels below 5mmol/L for total cholesterol, 3mmol/L for LDL, 2 mmol/L for triglycerides and above 1mmol/L (men) and 1.2mmol/L (women) for HDL. There is no low level cut off but unfortunately these unreliable sources describe levels as severely and extremely low, implying there is a problem when there isn’t. With regards to the fuel query, blood lipids and body fat stores that can be used for fuel are two separate entities so blood results don’t give us any useful information as to how our body might use fat for fuel which we could then use to our advantage.
As any good ultra runner should, Danny also had his ferritin checked to measure his iron stores. Whilst this was in the healthy range it was at the lower end, despite taking a daily multivitamin that included iron and exceeded his dietary iron requirements. In view of these results, Danny decided to start taking an additional iron supplement. This I felt was appropriate and advised on an athlete-friendly version called Spatone. Very effective although according to Danny, it tastes like rust. They do an apple flavour too for future reference.
Danny very kindly kept a detailed food and training diary for me for the week so I was able to feedback based on his individual needs. In addition, Danny was also aiming to decrease his body weight down to a tried and tested racing weight for UTMB, which works well for him. Overall Danny has a very nutritious diet and it was refreshing to see such a well thought out plan. It was quite clear that his recent results were not down to his training diet but like Danny commented himself perhaps more from overtraining.
Like many runners, Danny wasn’t quite meeting his daily carbohydrate needs to support his volume of training despite eating regular starchy carbs and in sizeable volumes. His protein intake at 2g/kg body mass was at the upper limit of what would usually be recommended for an ultra runner although still only made up 18% of his total calorie intake. A higher protein intake can help to maintain muscle mass when trying to reduce body weight or more specifically body fat so I didn’t feel Danny should try to eat less protein with this in mind. Danny’s fat intake was on the higher end of healthy (20-35% total calorie intake) but he is obviously quite mindful when it comes to his dietary fat with the main sources being meat (even lean cuts), nuts, olive oil and oats. He also has a very good fish intake of both white and oily with three healthy portions that week. This actually meant he was easily meeting his omega 3 requirements so could stop taking his various fish oil supplements if he so wished.
If Danny had been aiming to maintain weight then other than trying to increase his carb intake on training days, I wouldn’t have suggested he change anything to his current diet however his aim was in fact to reduce weight. With this in mind the obvious area to try and change was his fat consumption to help create a realistic calorie deficit without compromising his health or training.
My final point is about supplements. Danny was taking a leading high street brand multivitamin, krill oil and an omega 3 + glucosamine supplement. He’s not alone in this and many of you will be taking supplements of some sort or another. However a word of caution regarding supplements, they are not regulated like medicines so ultimately you can’t guarantee what’s in them. For someone competing at Danny’s level, its not just the potential health risks to consider but if you are eligible for race drugs tests although unlikely in ultra running, some athletes have failed a test after unknowingly taking a banned substance hidden within their seemingly harmless supplement.
My bottom line is I would always urge you to really consider whether you need to take a supplement in the first place and not just use it as a back up. I have written about this here. If you do decide to take a supplement, the Informed Sport program is a good place to start from a risk management point of view. From Danny’s analysis, it was clear he was meeting his vitamins and minerals from his diet. This is usually the case when having a good variety and eating in the volume he needs to fuel his runs. So, other than his iron supplement, he could stop all the others with confidence.
So to sum up my advice to Danny:
- Continue his current diet as both balanced and nutritious
- To help aid weight loss, reduce fat intake
- On longer training runs, aim to increase carb intake i.e. take on a sports drink (commercial or home-made)
- Consider stopping multivitamin and fish oil supplements as meeting requirements through diet
- Continue to take iron supplement and aim to have ferritin checked every few months as able
Danny wasn’t able to reach his target race weight. However, this was more to do with being unable to increase his training and mileage due to an on-going injury than anything else. Unfortunately for Danny, this same injury flared up during the UTMB resulting in his withdrawal but hopefully with some well-needed rest and recuperation, he’ll be back on form in no time.
Nutrition doesn’t need to be tricky. I generally find where people become unstuck, it is when they try to overcomplicate it and get bogged down by the details. Just remember no two people are the same so what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. I suppose this is the same for any aspect of your running whether it be training or kit. Make sure your diet fits your own needs and lifestyle, get the basics right and quite often a few simple tweaks is all that’s required to get you on the right path.
A food day in the life of Danny:
Porridge made with milk, dried fruit, honey, nuts, chia seeds & udo’s oil + Yakult light
Apple + plum, snack
Sandwich made with home-made wholemeal + chia seed bread, ham, low-fat cheese, rocket & olive oil
Apple + plum + orange, snack
Szechuan cod made with olive oil sesame oil, coconut oil + fried rice with carrot, peas + stir-fry broccoli
Green & Blacks 85% cocoa chocolate (couple of squares)
3-4 coffees per day + 2.5L water (mix of still/sparkling)
If you enjoyed this article, there is more from Rin here.