There are about as many forms of training for an ultra as there are people who run them. The truth is there seems to be some science in running ultras, but it is a small group that I think has not been studied long term, and no one really knows what works for ultrarunning. If you look online you will see different training plans that contradict eachother, and people ranging from averaging 15 miles per week, with an occasional long run, to people regularly running 120 milers per week. Both groups finish 100 mile races. Here are the common variables that I see in determining successful distance running, and myths that I will dispel, as well as personal observations I have seen in myself.
1. Distance does not equal injury: When I ran shorter distances I had a frequent problems of twisting my ankle. Now that I run trails and run distances, I have not twisted my ankle in 3 years. My ankles have gotten stronger. Even when I fall, my body has learned to fall in a way that protects ankles, and I have suffered nothing more than scrapped elbows and knees. I do not have knee problems because I run with good form, I stretch my legs out after long runs, and my knees and calf muscles in general are just stronger the longer I have built up a base. Running barefoot has helped my form, so even when I wear shoes, I do not run in form that impacts my knees.
2. How long does it take to recover: After my first marathon it took me 3 days to walk normally, and a week to be able to run short distance, and 2 weeks before I was up to normal miles again. I ran my second marathon 2 months later, and was fully recovered 2 days later. Six weeks after my 2nd marathon and 4 1/2 months after my 2nd marathon, I ran my first ultra, the Ogden Valley 50 miler. I had never ran more than 26 miles in one stretch, but I finished, and found that I was less sore than my first marathon. I was severally nauseated at the finish, but I was only a little sore the next day, and within 3 days I was running normal distance again.
Now I only have a tiny bit of soreness after a 50 miler, and can run a normal distance 2 days later. The more you run the faster you recover. I don't know how my first 100 miler will go but since I signed up for 2 back to back within a 2 week period, I aim to plan my training so that I hit several long distance back to back runs (like a Saturday 50 mile training run followed by a 50-60 mile Sunday training run) at lest 2 times before Wasatch. My prediction is that by doing so, I will recover fast enough from Wasatch to run Bear 2 weeks later.
There are several great ultra runners that are able to recover quickly enough to do this Geoff Roes broke two course records, Wasatch and Bear, by over an hour each time, and ran both of the courses in under 20 hours. These races were 2 weeks apart. Davy Crockett, and Marc Collman are a couple of examples of runners running several races back to back, and suffering no injury. The Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, run several miles a day every day, with no injuries, no knee problems, and even 90 year old men walk 20 miles a day. The long distance runner suffers fewer injuries than the recreational runner.
3. To run ultras you must have to run alot! In training for my first marathon, I had to run a lot more, then I do to maintain my ability to finish ultramarathons, after you build up a 2-3 year base, you can get away with running less, and still being able to compete. I believe you build up speed by running more long runs closer together ( I got much faster between Kacina Mosa, Bear, and finishing the Odgen Valley 50). Speed increases with more frequent long runs. Speed work is not as important as getting in the miles. Quality of runs also makes more of a difference then the number of miles. I find the things that help are doing lots and lots of hills, both up and down, training on all kinds of different types of surface. Try groomed trails, rocky trails, steep trails both up and down, dirt roads, and yes occasionally, gulp, pavement. However, pavement puts a lot of impact on your body, so I minimize the amount of pavement as much as possible. In the winter I run on more pavement. Occasionally I have to suffer the treadmill. This is not fun for me, but I find that running with five-finger vibrums to be the best on keeping good form. Five-fingers, are basically a rubber shoe that is like being barefoot with a layer of protection. You build up a lot of heat on a treadmill! I always put the incline at a 2.5 or higher, and run at a faster speed to keep my form in line. Plus, this builds strength and helps your speed to run at an incline.
4. Getting used to running bare-foot: There is a lot of benefit to running barefoot. I have yet to complete a long race barefoot, but I have done a 5k in vibrums, and got my fastest time. I am working up to longer distance, and have gotten up to 8 miles now. You have to be careful when transitioning to barefoot running. It will strengthen your calves, ankles, arches, an other muscles, but you will be using muscles you are not used to. If you start out too fast and too far on barefoot running you can injure yourself by over using the muscles. I found doing 3-4 mile runs frequently over a 2 month period has strengthened my muscles and now I can run pretty far. I am going to try to extend that to a 15-20 mile run soon, and in the spring buy the new trail vibrum to see if I can complete an ultra barefoot. Maybe I will do a test run on the Buffalo 50 miler, and plant shoes at all the drop bag location, in the event that I need to switch out. This will lead to me mostly having a 7 mile stretch option of switching out if I need to!
5. Mental: Yes, I maybe mental as well, but what I am talking about is mental attitude. Running ultras takes mental discipline, and learning to think positively. This translates in to how you think about life in general. You can not give in to negative thoughts during a race. If you do, you will not finish the race!
You have to learn to be uncomfortable, and relax. Most moments of discomfort pass withing 5-6 miles. You may hit more than one wall during the race, but if you push through it will usually get better. This is true of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sore muscles, cramping muscles, pain that is not related to serious injury, etc. If you experience these things look at your nutritional needs, hydration needs, an sodium intake to make sure it is adequate. It is better to avoid some of these things by learning to take in what your body needs at the right intervals during the race, but if you do find that you have something happen. Intake what you need, slow down or stop for a while if you need to, and your body will adjust and generally you will feel better after 4-6 miles.
Learn to recognize the difference between discomfort, and when you really do need to stop because your body is telling you something is wrong that needs medical attention, or will need medical attention if you don't stop. Ending a race early is better then dying, if you really do need to stop, but serious discomfort and mental weariness are usually not a reason, and will pass if you push through it. This is wear having pacers is important.
For the first few ultras you will want a pacer, they can provide the mental encouragement you need during those tough times. After a while you will probably feel like you know how to get through the whole race without a pacer, but on difficult stretches a pacer tends to push your speed, and lift your mind! If you are running during through the night a safety runner is a good idea! I have been told (although I haven't experienced it yet!) That if you run a race that is 24-36 hours your body will shut down a bit during the night. Caffeine pills (200mg or so) or energy drinks are a good performance enhancer during this time, but only if you only use caffeine for performance, and not on a regular bases. Your body metabolized caffeine differently during an endurance event then it would otherwise, and it greatly enhances your performance. To get the maximum benefit avoid using caffeine during your every day life. I take caffeine pills about every 6 hours during an event. The pills are a lot cheaper than the energy shots that some people use! Once it gets light again, your speed will pick up again, and you will be more awake. Expect to slow down during the night.
6. Running and Walking: I often get asked if you run the whole time during an ultra. The answer is no! Most people walk parts of an ultra. Most people walk the uphill stretches, jog the flats, and sprint the downhills. Most people walk uphills, on trails, almost as fast as they can run them. Running uphill can waste a lot of energy for nothing, so it is OK to walk uphills, and recommended by most of the ultra community! Save your energy, be conservative during the first half, if you feel great slow down! You can make up time the second half of the race, but if you give it all at the beginning, you will pay for it in the end!
7. Nutrition: I used to believe nutrition didn't matter, and in fact most ultrarunners do not have a special diet. However, I started working with a sports dietitian because I was having problems during some races last year. I have found that nutrition is making a huge difference in sustained speed and energy throughout the race! I was not eating enough in everyday life to build the nutritional base I need for ultras, and not eating enough during the race to maintain performance! This killed me on two races enough to DNF. This year I believe I will do better and not DNF! Good nutrition helps with mood regulation and mental health over all, and helps to maintain confidence during the race. This is my current nutritional plan.
a. Every day my diet consist of : 6 grains, 4 vegetables, 3 fruits, 3 fats, 4 proteins, 3 dairy or
or equivalent, and plenty of water (about 1 gallon a day). I avoid processed food, and eat a lot
of quinoa. Quinoa is a super food, and I don't crave junk when I am on it! In fact junk food and
processed food turns my stomach now! I just don't crave it on a balanced diet. It takes training
for your body to handle this much nutrition, and the nutrition you will need during the event, so
you have to get used to it during your training. This is my base diet, and everything else list is in
addition to this base!
b. During training: I take in 20-30 grams of carbohydrates before a workout, and I take in 40-60
grams of carbohydrates for every hour I exercise. In any event or training run lasting more than
3 hours I make sure I am getting in about 5-7 grams of protein every hour. Also 300 mg of
sodium every hour is important for electrolyte replacement.
c. Before an event lasting for more than 4 hours- I eat 200-300 grams of carbohydrates 3-4 hours
before the event. This means if the event starts at 5 am I get up at 1 am to eat, and then go back
to sleep. I eat 30-50 grams of carbs within 30-60 minutes of the event, and then I take in 30-50
grams of carbs every hour during the event. I replace 300mg of sodium every hour, and drink
16-24 oz of fluid every hour. Do not over hydrate! Not hydrating is a problem, but over hydration
can cause big problems as well! It is important to determine your bodies hydration needs during
different conditions. To figure this out weigh yourself before a run, keep track of the amount of
fluids you take in during the run, and then weigh yourself after. The difference shows how much
fluid you need per hour of exercise in that condition. So try this in different temperatures, altitude
d. Some food may make you sick during the race. While this will usually pass withing 5-6 miles, it
can be a miserable experience. I like to drink a little coke at each add station, about 2-3 ounces.
However, the first time I tried this I had never consumed coke during a race, and the carbonation
made me sick for about 6 miles. You need to get used to what you are eating and drinking before
an event. If it is something you are not used to eating, you may react badly to it, and it won't be
fun. Always pack items in your drop bag that you know you can eat, so that if you need
something the aid station doesn't have you will be OK. This is includes electrolyte replacement,
energy drinks, gels,bars, etc.
e. In general I do not by low fat items at the grocery store! Fat is not a bad thing, it is good for
your body, and will help your metabolizm. The only time fat is bad is if it is transfat, or you
eat too much! The base diet I have is balanced, and I am not going to get too much fat by
following my dietitians reccomended diet, especially because I don't eat processed foods!
By 2% to whole milk, it will help your metabolism, and even help cut your body fat! Good fats
include avocado, nuts, lean meat (too much saturated fat is not great, but if you are not over
doing meat, even non-lean meat it fine), and regular cheese and yogurt!
f. Meat and grains- Animal protein should be used in small quantities. I eat a lot of fish,
and chicken, and avoid large amounts of red meat. I rarely eat pork. Grains contain a lot of protein and some fat. Your body needs to adjust to grains you are not used to, but a variety of whole grains
is the key! Introduce one new grain at a time, and soak the grain overnight before you cook it. This
releases enzymes to help your body get used to it. Do not introduce more than one new grain more
than every two weeks. Try grains like quinoa, amaranth, millet, and buckwheat.
g. My standbys: Ensure is a perfect balance for me of protein and carbs. During a race 2 ensures
per hour work, even if I can stand anything else. Do not buy the Ensure plus, it contains too
much fat for performance, and may make you sick! Regular ensure is best. You need to try it
before an event, because some people don't utilize ensure as well, but for me, it works! I don't
do a lot of gels, but Accel gel has protein, and unlike other brands that are straight carbs, does not
spike my blood sugar, and make it drop, resulting in me feeling sick for about 45 miles after I
take it. Gu is my nemesis! But different gels work for different people, so if you are going to
use gels try them out before the race! In general I try not to use gel at all, but I keep a couple
with me, in the event that I need something between aid stations, and am out of ensure. I also
carry ensure with me between aid stations.
h. Water: Always carry enough water when you are going to be in a race that has stretches of
longer than 7 miles between aids. Even then, if the course is steep, or it is a hot day, you may
need more water. If it is 6-7 miles between aids and the course is not steep, one 20 hand held is
probably OK, but if it is hot, and a longer stretch I carry 40-80 oz. of water. I also carry salt
tablets all the time.
8. Cross training: I believe core conditioning helps with speed and endurance. You need to
work out your upper body when you are a runner, or you lose strength. I box, and do core
training with my boxing classes. I like the type of core training we do because we are
using muscles in ways that we move in every day life, and build functional strength. I
do not believe traditional weight training is particularly beneficial, and may actually
counter act needed functional strength in the way it pulls differently on muscles. Weight
training can be useful, if you know what exercises help the muscle groups you need to
strengthen, and if you know how to do them so they don't counter act the muscle groups you use
for running! Swimming is also a great core strengthening, and aerobic exercise!
9. Ultrarunners have better lives!: Yes, this is true, you learn to adapt to hard situations during your
runs. You learn to be OK with pain and discomfort, you learn that you are capable of great things
, and you stop setting limits on yourself. You discover that you want to see how far you can push
your limits. Failures are not failures, but instead learning experiences in which you refine your
knowledge of yourself, and how to perform better then next time. You learn to be intuitive with
your body. You have time to be quite with yourself, and discover who you really are. All of this
transfers into other areas of life and you will find that you can obtain better things in your life
just by gaining the mindset of an ultra runner
10. Can I do it? I have tried to run distance and I just can't to it!: Many runners start out with too much to fast with running, and get injured! Allow yourself to build a base if you have not ever run much! I started out with 1/2 a mile. Allow yourself at least 10-12 months to build up to a marathon, and be consistent! Have a year or two of base training before attempting 50 miles, and have 2-3 years of base training before trying 100 miles! Slow build up to speed and miles will allow your body to adapt and prevent injury. If you tend to have knee or lower back problems, try barefoot, and try regular sports massage! You can do what you want to, you are built to be a running animal.
I have many ultra friends that were told they were not built too run, warned by doctors that they would further injuries, and knee problems by continuing, and ran anyway! They were intuitive with their bodies, and figured out the adjustments they needed to make in order to run. Many have been running for years, and experience no problems, improved performance, and no long lasting injuries. I have heard stories of people beating cancer, old knee injuries, knee replacement, and more who start running and finish 100 milers multiple times, and multiple years.
11. I am too old for that!: Grant Holdaway, a legend in the ultraworld is 78 years old. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy one year ago he completed a 50 miler last year, and today is in the last 20 mile loop of the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler! He is running it will two of his children Wendy, 54, Jeff, 51, and grandson Chris 18 years old! I have other friend who started running after being a couch potato during their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s. I remember reading a story of an 80 year old women, who could barely walk, and training on a treadmill until she went on to complete a marathon, and in the article in runners world had completed 8 marathons by the time she was 85! Think about the 90 year old Tarahumara that walk or run over 20 miles per day. No one ever told them they could not or should not! We buy into societies limitations, and we get old because that is what we are told we should do! We need to stop putting limits on ourselves!
12. You have a history of an eating disorder, and you are still being eating disordered by running ultras, it is over exercise! : I am told this often. The truth is my running is not part of my eating disorder. You can over exercise even at 1 hour per day if you are eating disordered. The difference is the mindset it different. When I had an eating disorder exercise was about torture, punishment, and burning calories. I was restricting my nutrition, and purging to lose weight. I would run 11 miles and eat only a few hundred calories in a day (sometimes as little as 200). I would come home ready to pass out, and then go and do it again. Running ultras is actually what saved me and changed me. I learned that I loved running more than ED, and that if I wanted to continue for years, I had to become intuitive and respect my body. I had to start fueling my body, and thinking positively of myself. One thing that I believe needs to change with approaches to eating disorder treatment is that anything related to diet, exercise, and things that sometimes get skewed with ED should not be labeled as part of an ED. Yes, in the past these may have feed my ED, but some of these things have also pushed me to recover.
Today I run because I love to run, and I fuel myself because I love that my body is capable of doing it! Running does not control my life, I am completing a masters degree, looking into a PhD, and have friend and family whom I have good relationships with. Running distance is natural for me, and is not over exercise. My body has adapted, I fuel it properly, and I can stop if my body is saying that it needs a break! I don't panic if I miss a day of running. This is the difference! Running is not an obsession it is a lifestyle, and is part of the big picture of my life, but it is not the center of my life. This is the difference! I am no longer eating disordered, and ultrarunning is a big part of it. I actually weigh more as an ultrarunner than I did with my eating disorder, and I don't let it bother me!
Believe in yourself, stop limiting yourself! I am not super human, I have no special ability, I was born to run, and so were you! If you believe it, you can achieve it!
Best of Luck!