Bonking: the good, the bad and the really really UGLY!

Bonking, hitting the wall, running out of steam, and running out of juice-whatever you decide to call it, it sucks and you get defeated thinking about how you “failed” on your run. There are a few types of bonking ranging from the glycogen depletion bonk where your muscles fatigue to the glucose depletion bonk where your brain gets all fuzzy around the corners…and then there is the kind of bonk I was facing: the EVERYTHING bonk where it ranges from glucose and glycogen depletion, dehydration and not getting my mileage in the past few weeks. First let me give a little back story to my beloved bonking that happened today…none of us, even those that have been training for years are impervious to bonking, sometimes it just happens and you have to go with the flow..

As I sit here sipping my honey ginseng green tea (good for soothing upset stomachs) I reflect on what I posted previously about, I had my race today 9/11/2011-it was a half marathon (no big deal really by now i can do that in my sleep). I felt good at the start but after 8 miles in my stomach was going crazy on me, usually this is the point of my race where I take down some Gu to give me some energy and have sustenance because I can’t eat before I run…but today my stomach was saying “no! no! i won’t keep down anything you give me except liquids”…I didn’t want to listen to my stomach because I wanted to race well but for sake of not throwing up on the course I heeded what my head was saying and decided to listen to my stomach. I took water at every water stop past mile 4 to conserve mine as reserves just in case I needed it…even though i hate stopping at water stops because people around you never know how to work a waterstop correctly and you end up dodging people who stop dead in their tracks to drink their water instead of moving off to the side… I also drank some powerade to replace salts I was losing and get in a few sugars. 

I’m not going to do a whole play by-play of this race but I didn’t do so bad, I passed tons of people on the “hills” and had negative splits the last 3 miles, mainly because I just wanted to be done and get home.  I sprinted the finish which proved to be a horrible idea as I ended up dry heaving  as I was taking off my race chip…I ran straight into a nearby restaurant bathroom and proceeded to get sick…then i started to get sick on the way home and busted through my door leaping over my cats sprinting to my bathroom & threw up as soon as I got in bathroom door…then I showered and fell asleep on my couch for 4hours, woke up and went in search of food I could keep down. Technically I didn’t completely bonk but it felt just the same…

So what the heck happened? I ate right all week, then I thought I did eat something different the day before for lunch than what I usually eat (bad practice! you shouldn’t really do this, I thought I was impervious to this for such a “short distance”). I had sushi but it was a cucumber/avocado roll…wait I had a california roll with crab…maybe the crab was bad and it was what caused my stomach to completely flip itself upside down mid run.  Regardless of what it was, I knew I had hydrated, maybe not optimally but enough. I still got a decent race time but I felt so defeated afterwards, this was the second long run I’ve gotten sick. 

What else can contribute to bonking? Not getting adequate sleep, well I also haven’t gotten that lately.  Not hydrating enough, I was but I probably should have hydrated a bit more.  Eating different foods than what you eat on a night before a training run.  Sometimes it’s just “luck” or not your day.  I guess my bonking was multi-factorial. 

When you seriously bonk you can start to hallucinate that’s when you know you’re in trouble, this is most likely due to dehydration which can be serious. The science of avoid bonking breaks down into a few different categories.

1)Food Intake: protein vs carb ratio, maximizing glycogen intake: Proteins what wonderful little compounds they are, they make up our muscles and they control a lot of different functions in the body even down at the cellular level. There is a magic combo of protein/carb that you should try to maintain while running or actually any training that you do. Usually it’s a 2:1 ratio, many energy supplements such as Gu, powergels, chomps, shot blocks try to keep this ratio-the rest is up to you to make sure you take them at the right times to optimize your performance and this is specific to each person you just have to try it out. Typically you want to take a Gu or some sort of protein/carb replacement after the first hour of exercise and every hour after that.  You want to watch though because some of these replacements can contain extra caffeine which can do all sorts of crazy things to people’s stomachs having you literally running for the nearest port-o-potty or bush.

For me I can’t take any energy supplement until I’m at least and hour or a little over ( ~6 miles) in my  run otherwise my stomach goes crazy. Others can take something such as a Gu right from the start and be fine. If you can eat breakfast before your morning run try getting some protein such as peanut/almond butter on your toast or even and egg white on toast or if you’re vegetarian tofu on wheat bread. The idea of a “carb load” the days before a race is to allow your body time to break down the carbs into glycogen that it stores in the muscles, you want to maximize this so in case those days where you can’t eat anything on your run you have some reserves to go off of. 

 Glycogen, or sugar depletion can result in loss of brain function, basically as you lose sugars you’re losing your mental capacity to really care about your race even if your muscles are fine you are mentally worn out…this can be dangerous (i’ve actually seen this firsthand when I was course marshaling a trail marathon/ultra, many people were stumbling the last few miles and just saying the craziest things-i had one guy tell me he wanted to run back to his car instead of take the shuttle then almost fall down as he went through a ditch that lead to the road. Another guy in the same race looked so haggard it was awful, I offered him some gatorade but he refused, he looked like a zombie so pale and was just asking for a medic at the finish. I ended up calling the medics and telling them to be ready for some zombie runners that would be finishing in about 20 minutes.

2) Banking Sleep: I think this is one of the things we really take for granted minus #3 below. A lot of times I can’t sleep before a long run or even a race because my mind goes into hyperdrive thinking about my race tactics or what if I don’t wake up in the morning and miss it! So that leads to typically waking up a zillion times throughout the night or just not really getting a deep sleep.  The way to combat this is to just assume you won’t sleep the night before and try to bank your sleep during the week. Even going to bed an hour earlier each night can be beneficial.  If you have kids this can be a challenge…if you have fuzzy kids this can be a one cat screams in the middle of the night when she drags a her toy bunny around my condo and sometimes it wakes me up.  If all else fails there are drugs for that! Sometimes when I know I won’t be able to sleep but I need to get it in I’ll take 1-2 tablets of melatonin; melatonin is a naturally secreted chemical that induces sleep-thus giving yourself an extra boost can help. Usually it takes about 30minutes to become effective, and unlike benedryl (at least for me) it’s easy to wake up not feeling groggy.

3) Staying hydrated: This is one of the most important things you can do as a runner or for any type of exercise.  Hydration is key for making your muscles work efficiently. Maintaining your water/fluid intake during a workout is important for many factors, it keeps the blood moving and keeps your bowels moving around so your stomach doesn’t get sick/cramp. It helps with muscle cramping, many times a side stitch or cramp is due to improper hydration.  If you’re a heavy sweater it is incredibly important to keep your fluids up to replace what you’ve lost, but sometimes water isn’t enough. Depending on how long you’re running or how much you sweat you’ll also need to replace the various salts you lose while you workout. For long distance runners having salt tabs such as succeed are good to take while running. You can also eat a banana, it’ll give you much-needed potassium but also some sugars. The main reason you need to replace salts boils down to basic science: muscle fibers need salts to contract. All cells have ionic pumps that pump sodium/potassium/calcium in and out of the cell in a very specific balance, if that balance is thrown off then our muscle fibers don’t fire like they should which will cause cramping and fatigue.

4) Getting adequate mileage in before your race/ tapering correctly: Oh making sure to get your mileage in the week of a long run or race, this can be tricky as life gets in the way.  Typically you want to have you weekly mileage (mon-fri) equal or slightly more mileage than what you’ll be running during the weekend. So I’m doing 20 miles this coming sunday; I want to make sure that during 2-3 runs throughout the week I’m getting in at least 20 miles so that my legs are less fatigued come the weekend.  When it’s a race week you want to taper the weeks before, which mainly means slowly decreasing your mileage so that you give your muscles enough rest to optimally perform during your race. If you go into a race where you worked your muscles really hard throughout the week you haven’t given them adequate time for microtears in the muscle fibers to be repaired.  I can be bad at getting in adequate mileage some weeks, especially now with class…and you don’t want to cram all that mileage into one day of the week, you need to break it up into at least 2 days, 3 would be optimal that you can spread out the mileage so it’s less burden on your body.

How to recover from bonking or close encounter with bonking such as I had?

First you have to diagnose why you bonked.

  1. If it was from food there isn’t much you can do other than replace your energy depletion with easy to digest foods at first such as a banana or a protein smoothie, once your stomach is a little bit more settled try some complex carbohydrates such as a bagel or some wheat toast, it is also good to get some protein so putting some peanut butter on your toast would be a great option.  Anything with extra fiber would be a bad option as it’ll get your bowels moving and if you’re already having overactive bowel issues you really don’t need to keep those guys a flowin’.  If your stomach is still upset take a pepto tablet or drink some ginseng or chamomile tea to soothe your stomach. I usually carry pepto tablets in my running bag with me just in case I need them but I ran out after last week’s stomach issues and didn’t replace them.

     2. If it was from dehydration, you need to keep drinking water/electrolytes right after you finish the race and for the next few days until your urine is a pale yellow color, which is an indication of proper hydration (unless you take a multi-vitamin or B vitamin supplement in which your urine will still be a dark yellow).  If you don’t start rehydrating after your run you can run into headaches or migraines, and leg cramping. 

    3. Glycogen depletion: lack of sugars- this will display as having low blood sugar where you’ll be shaky and weak.  The best way to jumpstart your sugars is a sports drink, but you could take in something sugary but make sure if you do that you are also ingesting a complex carbohydrate which will slowly break down into sugars.  A good post race/run drink is chocolate milk or soy milk, it has the proteins needed to repair the microtears in your muscles but will also give you some of those sugars you need to replace & well it just tastes yummy! Drink it down until your straw makes that really annoying slurpy sound and you can pretend your 5 years old again.  I typically try to pack one of those horizon chocolate milk boxes in a cooler for after my race, and I always have a spare powerade.

    4. Heat- sometimes it’s just too hot and humid and our bodies just can’t overcome that and they wave a white flag and scream “STOP!! YOU’RE HURTING ME!!!”  this can be scary: your legs can give out on can become short of breath.  If you feel yourself getting cold find some water and dump it on yourself as soon as you can, making sure to dump water on your head and down your chest, if you can put some ice in your hat or down your bra to cool your core.  I don’t sweat so I know the signs of over-heating.  Once in a race I was over-heating so bad that I had to literally take ice from the water stop people and shove it in my sports bra to cool my core temperature.   The heat bonk is one you can’t really control and honestly I think about every runner has experienced the heat bonk at some point. Just know how to handle it and when it happens stop running, walk around a bit to cool yourself down.

The best thing you can do is trying to avoid bonking in the first place but sometimes it just happens, so the second best thing you can do is to have a bag at bag check or close at hand after your run that contains the essentials: chocolate milk, powerade, pretzels, bagel/peanut butter & jelly sandwich.  PB& J is fantastic mid run sometimes, I didn’t know this until I did a trail race, the PB&J seemed to carry these mystical powers that brought me back from the depths of a very dark place…so use a funky cookie cutter to make it more fun to eat…”yummy i just bit off your head t-rex!! take that!!”  (the simple things in life can help you deal with tough situations…personally i like to keep running fun & pretend i’m 5 so yes i’ll make my pb&j look like t-rex then bite it’s head off giggling & making noises…and yes i’ll drink my chocolate milk swinging my legs and dancing in my chair going ‘mmmm’…life is better when you aren’t so serious all the time you need time to let your inner kiddo shine! and running is perfect for that…i even skip when i run sometimes…)

All in all the hard part is knowing when to quit and when you can push through the physical pain/exhaustion/waves of nausea. Sometimes you can just walk it off other times you have to throw in the towel and just bail on your run all together. Don’t push yourself past the point where you pass out on the trail and someone needs to call an ambulance, if you’re feeling that bad stop at the closest aid station and seek help. Even if you don’t get taken to the finish you can at least sit there for a bit until you start to feel a little better. If you aren’t racing have your phone with you or some road id that people can use in case you happen to pass out…and the most important thing is to let people know when you’re going out, where you’re running and when you should be back. Please don’t be like some of those people who I see hooked up to saline IVs at the finishline, with some of these steps you can avoid bonking…but when it happens you can be prepared.

For a bit more info Runner’s World has an article about bonking, you can also find more information about nutrition.,7120,s6-242-301–6263-1-2X3X5X7X8X10-6,00.html

Regardless of how or why you’ve bonked, or will bonk in the future as nobody is impervious to it…the take home message is trust your body and listen to it. Take each bonk as a learning experience of what not to do the next time so you’re more prepared.  Running is just as much a learning experience as many other things in life, some days we’re really on and others we’re just off but we learn a lesson all the same.  So next time I won’t eat sushi the day before a race and I know to take more water even if it’s just a “small” race. Just make sure to diagnose the problem and find a way to alleviate the after effects. Oh, and don’t do it again 🙂

Happy Running,

Coach Gwynne


September 12, 2011. Training Tips.

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