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I Biohacked My Way to Marathon Success

Would cryotherapy, "butter coffee" and "coenzyme Q10" help me in my quest to not feel absolutely terrible after running 26 miles in one go?

by Hayden Vernon
30 January 2020, 12:03pm

Last year, Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge made history when he became the first ever person to run a marathon in under two hours. Aided by lasers projecting his required pace onto the ground, 41 pacesetters and Nike's controversial Vaporfly shoes, technology played a huge role in his achievement – and also means it does not stand as an official record.

But can technology – and in particular biohacking, the growing movement of people using DIY science, self-experimentation and supplements to improve body and mind – help amateur runners get better? The only way to find out is to inflict all of that stuff on myself, while also submitting myself to a month-and-a-half of marathon training.

I've been running weekly for around five years, completing a couple of half-marathons in that time, but never getting close to the full 26.2 miles. I start training in earnest in the middle of November, with my sights set on finishing the Portsmouth Coastal Marathon on the 22nd of December. With only six weeks to get ready, I need to get my distances up quickly using all the help I can get.

I start off with a pretty low-tech hack, but there is some science to back up its performance-boosting properties. Necking beetroot juice because it'll help you run better sounds like the sort of massive lie parents tell their children to convince them to eat anything that isn't beige, but studies have shown that consuming nitrate-rich beets before exercise can improve cardiorespiratory endurance. Nitrates are converted into nitric oxide inside the body, a handy little compound that widens the blood vessels which deliver blood to muscles during a workout, improving endurance by decreasing the oxygen needed to perform exercise.

Like most of this stuff, however, the science is contested. John Brewer, author of Run Smart, tells me that although there is evidence that beetroot can improve performance in high intensity, short bursts, there is less to suggest its usefulness for marathon training. "I'm very dubious about its benefit for longer distances," he says.

I give it a go anyway, with a Beet-It juice shot. The price – £2 for 70ml – is as disgusting as the shot itself, which tastes mostly of sawdust but vaguely of piss. Still, it does seem to have a positive effect: I feel pretty good and rack up ten easy miles. "There is some evidence that some people are respondent and some are non-respondent," Dr Matt Cole, senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Birmingham University, tells me. "That could be down to their own genetics."

marathon tracker

In my next few training sessions I look to reach half-marathon distance and beyond. I get some Bulletproof Coffee, a butter-coffee brand founded by Dave Asprey, a biohacking pioneer who has spent over $1 million hacking his own biology in the hope of living to 180. He follows a ketogenic, high-fat diet – hence the buttery coffee – and reportedly takes hundreds of supplements each day.

I brew up some Bulletproof coffee in the morning before runs. It's a mixture of coffee, that fatty butter Dave is fond of and something called "Brain Octane Oil", which contains a fatty acid found in coconuts, called MCT. The brew comes in around 400 calories, so works well as a breakfast replacement, but I don't notice any benefit when training.

Along with the coffee, Bulletproof send me some of their "Unfair Advantage" energy supplements – another sciencey-sounding mix of compounds, this time PQQ and coenzyme Q10. The orange liquid tastes like concentrated Red Bull and comes in a little plastic ampule that, along with the name, makes it feel somehow illicit. I take it during longer runs and immediately feel more alert, but it's hard to disentangle any real effects from placebo. Do I feel good because it's working, or just because I think it's working?

Both Bulletproof and its founder have faced criticism for being unscientific, and neither of the experts I spoke to think there's much to gain from drinking fatty coffee or taking Unfair Advantage. "With a lot of these quirky supplements, there's a lot of marketing hype behind them, but the science is less than strong," says John. "In the vast majority of cases, people get what they need from their normal diet."

Bulletproof are also proponents of intermittent fasting, which has become popular in the biohacking community and beyond in recent years. Fasting for set periods of the day, or before and during training sessions, has been linked with weight loss, as well as improving focus and boosting metabolism.

I give it a go, but I either do it wrong or I'm not suited to it. On one longer run I hit the wall around 13 miles, suddenly feeling dizzy and weak, and have to stagger into a nearby Tesco Express and down some pineapple chunks and Lucozade to revive myself and make it home.

Hardware developer and self-described biohacker, Mikey Sklar, has had more luck with fasting than I do. He took it to the extreme a couple of years ago by running three marathons back-to-back without consuming any calories. Although he couldn't eat, he had to drink water and find a way to take in electrolytes – potassium, magnesium, sodium – to stave off muscle cramping. Although electrolytes don't contain calories, they usually come in forms that do, such as energy gels or drinks. "I had to take them in raw powder form – and just kind of chew down the electrolytes, because I didn't want to mess up my zero calorie statement," he tells me.

Mikey says he's aware of the criticism biohacking has received, and is himself ambivalent about the unregulated supplement market and weak science behind some popular biohacking techniques. He says his approach is rooted in data – heart rate monitoring, sleep patterns and scanning the PubMed database of science studies for trends and evidence to help him refine his training methods.

"That was critical for getting the three fasted marathons – learning to run at a super low heart rate – because if you're at a higher heart rate, you're burning sugar and your body will run out," he says.

Although I don't get on with intermittent fasting – probably running at a heart rate too high to sustain it – Dr Matt says he's a fan. He compares the way the body adapts to training without calories to altitude training. "The occasional fasted session… one or two a week, particularly with longer runs that are more steady, lower or moderate intensity, there's really good evidence that you regulate enzymes and aspects around fuel and metabolism."

cryotherapy london
The author in the cryotherapy chamber.

As my training distances increase – I hit 16 miles, then 19 – so does the impact on my body. To help recover, I head to Apogii wellness clinic in Notting Hill to try -110C cryotherapy, the practice of exposing the body to freezing temperatures in a medical setting. Three minutes stood in your boxers in a room colder than Antarctica is enough to make you feel your life slowly ebbing away, but I warm back up quickly afterwards and my legs don't hurt anywhere near as much as they had before.

Although I rate cryotherapy, at £80 a session there's not much chance I'll be able to afford it again, so I try creating my own cut-price version by filling up my bath with cold water and a couple of bags of ice from the corner shop. It feels pretty much the same as the chamber: horrible, then great.

While I'm convinced by ice therapy, John is more cautious. "The jury is still out on the science behind cryotherapy," he tells me. Although it is said to reduce inflammation and aid muscle recovery, critics say that any exposure to extreme cold is too short term to have any lasting effect. "When you come out of the cryotherapy chamber, your body temperature will very quickly return to normal, so any benefit from that constriction of blood vessels – that constriction of the muscles – you gain from being in a very cold environment will be lost."

portsmouth marathon route

The 22nd of December rolls around quickly and I suffer a pretty bad case of "maranoia" – pre-race anxiety stemming from the fact that I didn't give myself enough time to train properly, as well as a niggling pain in my knee – but I'm here now, a couple of hours before the race, downing beetroot juice, Lucozade and anything else that might help me finish the 26 miles. I put a couple of Unfair Advantage supplements and as many energy gels as I can fit into my shorts and head out.

In the end, the race goes OK. I start steadily, finish slowly and eat more jelly beans than I have ever consumed in my life, taking big handfuls at every waypoint along the course. I finish in 3:53. I was hoping for a better time, but that knee pain turned into an ACL strain that left me limping for a couple of weeks after the race.

As for the biohacks? Some helped, while others seemed like complete rubbish. I've tried dozens of hobbies in my life, but I stuck with running because it's so simple. No need for clubs with steep membership fees and shit WhatsApp chat, or spending money on pricey equipment. There is something beautiful about running your favourite route with a decent playlist on – the rest is just a distraction.

"If it helps people complement running then that's great," says John, "but if it becomes the main obsession with running, as I've seen happen, then you've got things the wrong way round."

@haydenvernon

Tagged:
marathon
exercise
jogging
biohacking
running biohack