Cameron Cook, like many long-distance runners, consumes multiple gel packets to provide the nutrition that creates energy for his body during the 26.2 miles of a marathon. But Cook—a 2021 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, PhD graduate in mathematics—has taken the guesswork out of knowing how many he needs to consume while running: exactly five 100-calorie packets.
Cook, of Charlotte, North Carolina, finished his 10th official marathon last November with a time of two hours, 37 minutes, and 14 seconds—just a minute slower than his optimal model had predicted.
As part of his doctoral dissertation research, he developed the first model that includes the effects of nutritional supplements on long-distance running. Where earlier models considered the runners speed and energy evolution during a race, Cook’s dives deeper into the factors that contribute to a runner’s pace and energy.
To ensure the accuracy of his model, he took the parameters and known nutrition plan of world-record-breaking marathon runner Eulid Kipchoge and simulated his race.
“Eulid ran his race in 1:59:40, and our simulated runner’s time was 1:59:09,” said Cook. “This was only a 0.4 percent difference, which equated to being off by one second per mile. We know that there was a team of experts working to make that race of his an optimal race, so it is the best comparator we have.”
With the information, he hopes to one day build an interface that runners could use like a calculator to establish their optimal time.
The Start Line
With the knowledge of Cook’s participation in marathons, his advisor, Chancellor’s Professor and James R. Cox Professor of Mathematics Suzanne Lenhart, had suggested that he read a handful of papers on races and optimal control.
“We started talking about marathons in particular, and there was no nutrition in any of these models because none of the models were built for marathon runners,” said Cook. “You don’t run out of energy when you run one lap around the track, right? Everybody gets tired from running depending on how fast you did it, but it’s not that your body is depleted of energy.”
Cook considered two important features in training for a marathon as opposed to a 5k or 10k race: how much sugar the average well-trained runner needs to consume during the race and and how the runner’s speed should vary throughout the race based on factors such as their ability to clear lactate.
Although he understood the balance of needing nutrition for his runs, Cook didn’t quite know the science behind how much nutrition could improve his running. He collaborated with Guoxun Chen, an associate professor of nutrition in UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, to understand the body’s response to glucose—the main source of fuel for our cells.
In his initial model, Cook didn’t penalize a runner for taking too much nutrition. The results showed that taking in as much energy as possible would improve performance, but that approach wasn’t realistic.
“What happens when you take too much sugar?” he asked. “You think about Halloween, right? When kids eat too much candy, they get a stomachache. And so that happens to runners—when they take in too much nutrition, the body shuts down and it won’t process it anymore. So that’s one of the reasons why all these gel packs instruct you to consume it with water, because they’re very concentrated sources of sugar and that needs to be balanced in the body.”
Cook learned that if a runner is not training their body outside of the race to handle the amount of nutrition they take in during the race, their optimal level will not be achievable.
His model recommends five 100-calorie gel packets for himself, whereas Kipchoge is able to take an equivalent average of eight packets in a race, because he has trained his body appropriately.
The initial model took into consideration a runner’s weight, nutrition, fat and energy levels, and vVO2max—velocity at maximal oxygen uptake. Although vVO2max is a main determining factor in a runner’s performance, an important difference between professional runners is the rate at which they are able to clear lactate, a byproduct produced in the body during both normal metabolism and exercise.
Cook consulted Kevin Sprouse, a sports and emergency medicine physician who works with high-performance professional athletes, who pointed out the missing variable in his initial model—VLamax, a runner’s maximum lactate production rate.
For a short-term effort such as a 500-meter sprint, a runner needs high energy production in a small amount of time. They want a high VLamax because their body will quickly burn their carbohydrates, like a speedy sugar rush. But a marathoner with a high VLamax will burn their carbohydrates off quickly and have to use their body’s fat, a less energizing fuel source that results in a slower pace, or build lactate and fatigue early on in a race.
With these two pieces of information, Cook changed from saying ‘You should be able to run X distance in X time’ to ‘This is how you run the race.’
A Constant: Pacing
“We know if you’re going to run a long distance, you have to pace it correctly. If you look at all my mile splits from the Indianapolis marathon, I was only one to two seconds different per mile. So I executed the strategies that our work showed, and then I ran the model and it was like ‘Yep, you could have been a minute faster,’” Cook said.
He said his post-thesis marathon was the best, and fastest race, he’s run in his career—including a Boston Marathon finish in 2018 when the qualifying time for his age group was under three hours.
Cook, who now works as a health economist, has been able to put his research findings into practice, professionally and personally.
When Cook and his wife moved to Knoxville, they were unaware of the large running community. He quickly began working with Knoxville Endurance, which in turn connected him with UT’s Tennessee Running Club. When he was two years into his PhD program, the club needed a coach. A former high school teacher, Cook quickly took the position as it aligned with his passions for running and working with students.
“I’m a runner nerd and I love being part of this world,” he said. “It was always my dream to be a cross-country coach and be able to positively impact students through running.”
The opportunity coincided with his research into marathons and nutrition. When he wasn’t researching running, he was either coaching athletes who could validate his model or carrying out his own training. As a test subject for his own model, Cook is working to achieve his biggest challenge yet—shaving minutes off his best marathon time.
“I have hopes of eventually qualifying for the Olympic trials. I think of running as a big thing of people who are kind of disciplined and like to fight to set goals and challenges for themselves.”
Cook’s next optimal race time goal? Two hours, 30 minutes—seven minutes and 14 seconds faster than his last race, and a step closer to his Olympic trials dream.