My marathon career started off like many others. I ran strong through 20 miles, then the wheels came off. It was the 2006 NYC marathon and I was making my debut at the distance at the age of just 23. Looking back now, I knew so little about the event or the metabolic demands of the marathon. Until you run out of glycogen, you really can’t know the feeling of “hitting the wall”.

I recall going out strong and running 2:10 pace through 20 miles just off the leaders. Suddenly, it was like my legs were being squeezed and I didn’t have the ability to lift them. I remember the agonizing feeling of not breathing all that hard but not being able to do anything about. You start to get tunnel vision and that strange tingling feeling in your fingers. I struggled home the last few miles going slower than my easy run training paces. I got back to the hotel and after eating half a pizza, I was back to my self again. I had completely emptied the tank.

Ritzenhein 07 Marathon Trials
photo: 101 Degrees West

My next marathon was a bit improved but only because we went out so slow. A big negative split helped me close well and make my second Olympic team at the US Olympic trials marathon. I followed that up with a decent showing at the Beijing Olympics where I was 9th place.

After those three marathons, I felt like I was primed for a big breakthrough on a fast course. I went to the 2009 London marathon with the sole goal of running 2:07. I went out fast, hitting half way right on pace. Through 20 miles I was doing great. Then that sudden familiar feeling. My fingers started to tingle and I knew I was running on fumes. I held it together a little better but faded hard and only managed a 2:10:00.

Looking Beyond Training

I was really frustrated as my training had been great. I had a few hiccups but my long hard sessions had gone so well that I thought there was no way I would have that same feeling. Shortly after the race I began consulting with Krista Austin, a sports physiologist. She was working with a new start up company called UCAN. She had been working with them to refine a product and help introduce it to endurance athletes.

It was designed for a boy with a rare glycogen disorder to allow him to sleep through the night. Krista told me she was working with Meb Keflezgi and he was getting big benefits from the product. I tried it and thought it tasted too starchy and I was so use to sweet sugary sports drinks.

At this time I was still doing track so I kept my focus on that and had a great season. The next in the fall of 2010 when I came back to the marathon I again I had the same problems in in NYC Marathon. I ran strong through the first 75% of the race then just struggled home. I was really frustrated now so I went back to Krista and we set out trying to see what was going on. I went and had a fat max test done at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.

Dathan Ritzenhein fat max test
photo: courtesy Dathan Ritzenhein

The results showed that I was a “high carbohydrate burner.” Everyone is different and that had been an advantage for me on the track and distances up to half marathon. I was able to tap into a very quick energy source that was great fuel for high intensity events. The problem is that we all have a limited amount of that carbohydrate stored in our blood as glucose and as glycogen in our muscles and liver. When those stores are gone, the body turns to using fatty acids as a source to keep our muscles moving. The good thing is that we have practically an endless supple of fatty acids, the problem though is they aren’t as efficient as a quick source of energy when we need them right away for high intensity, like in the middle of a marathon.

Adapting to Fat Burning

So with this knowledge we started making some changes in my training to try and get my body to adapt to using fuel differently. Our goal was to get my body to start using fatty acids earlier in my races to make sure the stored carbohydrate would last the full 26.2 miles. We would do runs that were depletion runs (little or no carbohydrate before or during). The were as awful as they sound.

We also tried taking in high quantities of carbohydrate during the actual race to see if we could replace more of the fuel I was losing in the competition. Both those strategies helped and I did run three very good marathons. At this time I was still running track as well. I made another Olympic and world championship team on the track so it was a fine line of changing my body’s ability to tap into the carbohydrate for the shorter races but also use fatty acids earlier more in my marathons.

In 2014 I was coming off a serious injury and I again started working with sports scientist Dr. Krista Austin. I had decided to hang up my spikes from the track and focus solely on the marathon. Over that fall and winter of 2014 and early 2015 she had convinced me to give UCAN another try. I was cross-training three hours a day and I needed to make sure I was still getting in plenty of fuel, but I wanted to avoid the traditional blood glucose spikes and insulin response you get from sugary drinks.

SuperStarch steady energy

The UCAN Difference

That response is one of the mechanisms that tells your body to use the glycogen in your muscles as the first source of energy. I was told that the UCAN drinks worked differently compared to other carbohydrate drinks with sugars or simple carbs that cause a big spike because UCAN features a unique, complex carbohydrate called SuperStarch. With UCAN, the energy is steady and long-lasting instead of a quick surge.

I would use it as my drink in the training leading up the 2015 Boston Marathon. Going into the race I was very concerned with running out of fuel because I had trained so much less than I had before my other marathons due to the injury. I had cross trained a lot but I averaged only 80 miles a weeks running for the months before instead of my usual 110.

2015 Boston Marathon Ritz, Meb
photo: Andrew McClanahan@PhotoRun courtesy UCAN

I was amazed though when I was in the race a felt so strong and effortless. I was leading the race through 21 miles and at a pretty fast pace for a strong headwind year in Boston. I finished in 7th place in 2:11:20. It was not my fastest race but I felt the strongest I ever have and full of energy the whole way and after, even on limited training.

After that race, I became a believer in UCAN and have been sponsored by them ever since. I saw that timing and/limiting of sugary carbohydrates can have a huge impact on your metabolism. As endurance athletes, low carbohydrate diets are almost never a good idea, but finding sources that work to deliver steady carbohydrate energy during training is key to being able to train and race well.

Dathan Ritzenhein UCAN
photo: courtesy UCAN

For me, that meant incorporating UCAN into my daily life and training. I use the UCAN bars and recovery shake in my daily training and the UCAN drink in my early training phase. As the training intensifies or on race day, I’ll still utilize drinks and gels during my run to give me quick energy but they are used like any other training tool, with moderation and purpose.

Most of what we accomplish in competition is a result of the months of training leading up that point. Training steady and consistent is the most important part of being ready for your best race. Try adopting an approach to your fueling that gives you the energy to train your best each day and for the entire training segment. For me, that has been a balanced diet and a partnership with UCAN to get the best out of myself so I can give it 100% on race day.