Fueling for ultras, staying positive, and defeating “race brain.”

By Hannah Otto

Photo Credit: Voler Apparel


Hannah Otto is gearing up to defend her Leadville crown, and we were able to connect with her about the challenges of fueling for ultra-distance events and the art of staying positive in a sport that’s mostly aspirational and – even for athletes as accomplished as Hannah – provides very few literal “wins.”

Here is the second part of our conversation with her, lightly edited and arranged for clarity and length. Click here for the first part, or head over to Hannah’s athlete profile for more general info about her life and career.

Fueling to go the Distance

Fueling for an ultra is much different than for XCO races. XCO races last an hour and a half. Theoretically, your body can store enough fuel for that entire effort, so fueling during an XCO is really only about optimizing performance, constantly topping off those stores so your body is able to pull from it constantly. It’s high octane.

In ultras like Leadville, you don't have enough fuel, and so not only are you trying to fuel enough to optimize performance, you're also trying to fuel enough to survive, because you will never be able to replenish what you're using. it's simply impossible.

I think what a lot of us elite athletes are doing for ultras is we're trying to prepare to get that replenish volume as high as possible. Because when it comes to fueling, more is more. And so If you can take on more, you're gonna go faster. So a big focus of mine is being able to up the grams of carbohydrates I can take on during these longer events.

Race Brain

Staying on top of fueling is even more important at altitude, because your body isn’t giving you typical signals that you need to eat, so I think it’s advisable to go a little bit deeper on the nutrition for Leadville. I think eating at altitude really catches people out, because altitude mutes your hunger response. At Leadville, I go into the race knowing eating isn't gonna be natural and it likely won't even be a comfortable experience, it's going to be an intellectual decision, and that's how I think of my fueling.

That also means fueling is a decision that has to be planned ahead of time, because when you get that “race brain,” everything goes out the window. Race brain is just the voice inside your head that gives you not-so-good advice, and I think that affects me in a lot of different ways.

Sometimes it can be overconfidence at the start of the race. Like starting out hard and knowing that I shouldn't hold this power, but thinking, “I feel really good today. So maybe I'll set a massive PR.” Yeah, probably not. We all know where that leads. Race brain can also be under-confidence, like telling yourself that you're really struggling, this is never going to get better, and you're not going to be able to finish.

It could also just be over-fixating on something and forgetting everything else or just being so tired that you start making mistakes. Crashes, not managing equipment, not taking nutrition on board – regardless of which type of race brain you’re suffering from, I think those are kind of the typical mistakes that you see, you just start losing focus and things go sideways.

Stick to the Plan

Fueling is a great example of this as it relates to race brain, so that’s why I make it an intellectual decision that I plan out ahead of time. I write my fueling plan out before the race, because the second you get into that race, you’ll get caught up in the competition. You can’t rely on your body to tell you to eat, or you may just be feeling race brain. You're gonna start wondering, “Did I eat 20 minutes ago or 40 minutes ago? How long was that last climb? Did I take something on the last climb?” And the second you get behind, it's already too late.

Usually, I just write it out in a spreadsheet before the race. It’s simple enough that I can map it out and remember it – I basically know I'm eating every 20 minutes and maybe I'm drinking every 10. So I'm just following that, and then I'll have mile markers written on my stem to remind myself that I need to be through X amount of hydration mix or carbs by this mile marker.

I stay static on tempo for consuming fuel, because I find the second you get off tempo, it's really hard to find your fueling rhythm again. I always leave myself open to take more, but I'll never take more in lieu of taking one that I already had planned. So if I ever start to feel any sort of lack, I'll just take another one – gel, chew, whatever – and I'm gonna have tons of extra out there, so taking an extra at mile 30 won’t mean I’m missing one at mile 70.

One issue to keep in mind for Leadville is that, if you don't take a pack and you're doing bottles, when you hit the feed zones, you lose what you haven’t finished. I have two bottle cages. It's not like I can just take two more bottles and then have four bottles if I haven't finished the ones I’ve got. Once I get to that feed zone, I swap out the bottles, and anything I haven't drank is gone. Those are literally lost calories that I will not have access to anymore. So that's why at Leadville especially, it's really important that when you get to those feed zones, you have actually emptied your bottles. Otherwise they're just gone.

Finding Your Winning Moments

I think that in order to survive in this sport, it helps to have relentless positivity. I also think that's something people assume a lot of racers of the highest level lack, because there's this misconception that in order to strive to be better, you can never be happy with where you are. That leads to a sort of constant level of dissatisfaction.

I don't think that those things are mutually exclusive – drive and positivity. You can be happy and proud of something while still striving and wanting more, and I think the sooner that people realize that and can experience those emotions in tandem, the better off the entire sport will be.

You simply can't win all the races. But we are so lucky with what we do, and you can always have a winning attitude. I think that trickles all the way down to the amateurs as well.

There are a lot of people out on that course, and far more people starting Leadville have absolutely no chance of winning. What I always tell people, and tell myself, is that the beautiful thing about cycling in general is the fact that everybody out there can have winning moments, regardless of race results.

It's really, really important – especially in a race like Leadville – to find your winning moments and celebrate them. Whether that's not walking on a climb, whether that's getting your own target time, whether it's holding to your nutrition plan – those are all hard things and they're all something you can celebrate and be proud of.

August 03, 2023 — First Endurance
Tags: inspiration

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