Setting goals and burning fat

March 11, 2014

In February I wrote about my new goal for this year – an 80 km trail race (Trailman 50 miles) in October. For many years my running goals were always about getting faster at a specific distance and it has been a long process for me to accept that that’s no longer realistic. At the same time, though, it has been incredibly liberating and opened the door for much more interesting goals!

My “decision” to attempt my first ultra-run was based purely on a gut feeling: when I heard about the race I just knew that I wanted to do it. Likewise, my decision to tackle an Ironman last year could hardly be described as entirely rational! So I’ve been reflecting recently on what it actually is that attracts me to a particular goal and I’ve come up with a couple of things.

  • It needs to be ambitious. While there will also be a 50km route at Trailman in October, which would be a more logical choice for my first ultra, it just didn’t turn me on to “only” run 8 km more than a marathon. Also, I never actually finished a half-Ironman before doing the whole Ironman, let alone before making the decision!
  • It needs to require an element of experimentation and learning new things and the Ironman was kind of extreme in that regard since I was a newbie both to swimming and cycling! Trailman less so, but there are still plenty aspects that appeal to the nerd in me.

The first “new” thing I’ve been experimenting with this time is training my fat burning capacity. Despite the fact that I have run marathons and done an Ironman, I have never specifically focused on training my fat burning capacity before. I don’t want to dwell too much on nerdy details here (but I’ve included a link at the bottom for the nerds among you) but the general idea is this.

Usually when you run your body uses mainly carbs as fuel. However, your body can only store enough carbs to fuel a couple of hours or so. Therefore, if you’re planning to run for longer than that you ideally need to be stocked beforehand by eating properly in the hours before and then taking in more carbs during the race in in the form of gels or energy drink.

The problem is that there is a limit to the speed that the body can absorb carbs so during an ultra-race it can be a problem to consume enough to provide the necessary fuel. Apparently digestive problems are one of the main reasons that people drop out of ultra-races.

The good news is that the body can also use fat for fuel and even skinny people have more than enough fat to provide fuel for a long time. The body uses fat for fuel when exercising at a lower intensity, but by training the body to be more effective at burning fat you can gradually increase the intensity (i.e. speed) where you are using fat for fuel.

The bad news is that the best way to do this is to go out for a long slow run with the carb-tanks empty and without taking on extra fuel during the run. The most practical way to do this is to run in the morning before breakfast. As someone who gets up half an hour earlier to eat breakfast before leaving for a 5am flight and who has steadfastly avoided morning runs because I hate running on an empty stomach, I was not entirely thrilled by the prospect.

Nonetheless, last week I got up on Sunday morning and headed out on a longish run before breakfast. I was worried that I was going to feel terrible and bonk long before I made it home. I toyed with the idea of carrying an emergency gel in my pocket “just in case” (though I didn’t). In reality it was absolutely fine. While my tummy felt very empty for the first 10 minutes, I quickly forgot about it and I didn’t bonk at all. And it was lovely running in the woods in the early(ish) morning. This weekend I did it again – a bit longer this time – and I had a great run! And was home again before the time I normally would be heading out for my run. Even better was the “aha” feeling I got. I’ve been running for years, but by being open to trying new things I still learn new things about myself and my body and have new variations in my training and for me that is very motivating.

And of course the best part of all is that when I get home from these runs I can eat a delicious breakfast with a totally clear conscience!

PS. If you want to read more about fat-burning training I found this blog post really interesting. It’s in Danish, but he links to other sources in English at the bottom of the page.

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3 Responses to “Setting goals and burning fat”


  1. First of all, you are do brave for going for the 80, and for having done a full Ironman. Wow.
    Very interesting about the fat burning, I’ve read a bit about the subject and have been running with no fuel during my long runs. I don’t want to run with no breakfast at this point, but I can see how if would serve the purpose.

    • Kirsten Says:

      Thanks! Though to be honest, I’m not sure bravery is a factor – more stubborness and a capacity to enjoy training a lot. As I mention I’ve been running for many years without having experimented with this before and I reckon there are a lot of things worth trying first, unless you plan to go really long… Run strong! Kirsten

  2. Along A Path Says:

    Digestion issues are so often the key complaint of distance runners and it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out a balance that works for you. Speed makes your body burn in a completely different way than distance does. And when your body does ‘bonk’, having patience and a recovery plan are essential factors. Enjoy the training and good luck!
    Happy trails!

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