Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Three Week – Three Days – Three minutes

By Frank Horwill

Surprisingly, we can go three weeks without food and live. (Ghandi went longer, but he cheated: he drank orange juice.) However, don't try it! You have a good chance of dropping dead with a heart attack. In that time the body loses 10 pounds every five days. That's a total of around 40 pounds, nearly 3 stone.

In a temperate climate we can go 3 days without water, less in hot weather. Don't try it.

We can go 3-minutes submerged under water without air. After that time you drown and if you happen to survive you may wish you had drowned - brain damage may occur.

So, in order of importance to existing it is:- 1) Oxygen. 2) Water. 3) Food.

Now, the first is of particular importance to the runner. When we breathe in oxygen it goes into the lungs and thence into air sacs where it's diffused into the bloodstream. When it arrives there it has to be carried around the body by special transporters made of iron called haemoglobin (Hb). One gramme of Hb conveys 1.34mls of oxygen per 100 mls of blood. Females on average possess 13g/100 mls and males 15g/100 mls.

If you go to altitude, within 7 days there is a 15 per cent increase in Hb. This increase lasts for six weeks on returning to sea level. This is one of the benefits of altitude training. If you are born and bred at altitude, the high Hb level stays with you for life. If you are one gramme below the stated average, you are in trouble as a runner and if you are two grammes down you can be classed as anaemic. A decline of 33 per cent Hb will lead to total exhaustion.

The World Health Organisation has set minimal levels of iron intake in our food at 10mg for males and 18mg for females. Now, a very strange thing happens to this intake every 24 hours. Only 10 per cent of it is used - that's 1mg for males and 1.8mg for females. The rest is discarded. But, if you were to take double the WHO figure, the body will take 10 per cent of that ie 2mg and 3.6mg respectively. These figures assume that all of the 10 per cent iron is absorbed. There is a snag here - iron on its own is practically useless. It requires five parts of vitamin C to one part of iron for starters. It also requires the presence of vitamins B6, B12, E, folic acid and the mineral zinc. A shortage of any one of these will mean poor iron absorption. But, we aren't out of the woods yet. If you are a strict vegetarian there are plenty of vegetables that contain iron but, the iron in them is not bio-available (not readily released). However, the opposite is the case with meats. To add to this tale of woe, every time your foot hits the ground when you run, the muscular pressure destroys red cells. This is not too serious because we get a complete renewal of red cells every few weeks, and if we have a diet high in vitamin E it protects red-cells from destruction.

Let's see how what little iron we absorb is used if we run for one hour a day.

Bodily function 1.0 mg 1.5 mg
Sweat 0.5 mg
0.5 mg
Bleeding 0.3 mg
0.3 mg
Totals 1.8 mg
2.3 mg

We do not need to be a mathematician to realise that in order to get our 10 per cent for the above - males need an intake of 18mg of iron daily and females require 23mg. Both figures way above WHO minimums.

There are still more snags. You feel tired, you have headaches, suffer from insomnia, possibly have pins-and-needles in your feet and hands, but, above all, racing isn't going well. You are sure you're anaemic. You ask your doctor for a blood test and when the result comes back you are amazed to find that your Hb count is normal! The Hb test is only a measure of the oxygen-carrying power of your blood, it's not a true measure of your body's iron reserves. To his cost, this is what Alberto Salazar, the marathoner, discovered just before the 1984 Olympics. At that time he held the world record (2:08:13). He began to lose form, and blood tests - serum iron and haemoglobin - were normal. An accurate measure of your iron stores comes from testing serum ferritin levels. If the serum ferritin level falls too low, the bone stem cells that grow into blood cells may be permanently damaged. Always emphasize to your doctor when you want a blood test that you must have particular attention paid to your serum ferritin levels. These should be:- males: 30-160ng / 100mls, and females: 25-100ng / 100mls. Ng stands for nammogrammes. Figures of 20 and 12 respectively are serious. Some research on an American High School cross-country team who were monitored throughout the season suggested that girls who had low serum ferritin levels were three times more prone to injury because their muscles tired more easily and gave less support to tendons and ligaments.

What's the bottom line? All runners are recommended to take synergistic iron capsules made by QUEST. These contain all the pro-absorbing vitamins and minerals as well as 15mg of iron. That, plus iron in your diet should keep you well topped up. The highest concentration of iron is found in curry powder and oysters. Only cereals which are fortified with iron should be consumed.

We are conditioned to drinking water when we feel thirsty. Too late! When you do this, you are well on your way to dehydrating. Make no mistake about it, this affects performance. At a BMC training day at Aldershot in the winter, two females had a lactate threshold test (4 minutes of sub-maximal running repeated with blood tests to ascertain what running speed produced an upsurge in lactic acid.). The tests revealed a malformation of red cells caused by dehydration. And, this was after sub-maximal running efforts lasting 4 minutes only. Run the tap a few seconds in the morning in case water has been in lead or copper pipes overnight, then, knock back a pint. By the way, avoid drinking soft-water. It may be good for washing-up but it's not good for your heart. Heart troubles have now been linked with areas of soft water. Drink bottled water if you have a water-softener in the house, better still, chuck it out.

Once the temperature climbs above 70 degrees F. (20 degrees C.), make a point of drinking half-a-pint of water every hour. Assuming you are awake 16 hours, that's 8 pints of water daily. Signs of dehydration are dark-coloured urine and daily loss of weight even if minute. Some revealing research has been done with WATER BOOSTING before a marathon. Twenty-three marathoners were asked to run the marathon with and without water-loading. ALL of them ran 20-seconds a mile faster with water-boosting.

The procedure was:-

1. Four hours before the race drink 8oz glass of water every 15 minutes.

2. Stop one hour before the event but drink another two glasses between 30 and 20 minutes before you start. You will pass urine in the last minutes up to the gun.

3. Take on water at all feeding stations.

Don't worry about urgent loo visits. You will pass 50 oz of urine during the four hours, but you will be pre-hydrated by some 40ozs and if you have carbo-loaded you will have another 46ozs. That's a total of 86ozs to combat sweat loss which can cause a 5 per cent drop in bodyweight. This method restricts weight loss to 2 per cent. Try it out in training before your long run several times before the big day.

If you like running, you will like it more if you get better at it. This requires leaving no stone unturned. Be able to say 20 years hence, "You know, I gave running my best shots. I surprised myself. I achieved what I thought I would never achieve - I felt I had done something special."