Feel the Burn

burning runner

No I’m not promoting Burnie Sanders for president, but I do have to admit I like his ideas. Anyway, that’s about as political as this blog should ever get!

You know the burning in your legs when you run, especially, when you do speed work or hill/mountain climbs? Yeah, it’s a good feeling. It reminds you, that you are working hard and working on getting stronger.

The burn is caused by lactic acid buildup in your muscles. More accurately it’s the breakdown process that causes the burn. Your fast twitch muscles become more engaged when you run harder or your workout is more strenuous (hills or mountains). These muscles break down things into fuel more slowly because they don’t have enough mitochondria to do it at the same rate as you produce it. Read on to find out how to improve the breakdown.

What is lactic acid? It is a byproduct created when we burn glycogen (sugar) without oxygen as we run. The harder you run the more your body produces. The more you push past your limits the more your body produces. Your body breaks the lactic acid down into lactate and hydrogen. Then, your body uses the lactate as fuel. So, the culprit is the hydrogen ions. The hydrogen makes it hard for your muscles to contract, which causes the muscles to burn and running to feel more difficult.

Lactic acid does not cause soreness in your muscles the day following a work out. It is absorbed by your body fairly quickly. The soreness is the result of microtrauma caused to your muscles when you push them hard (this is not a bad thing because they heal stronger).

You can teach your body to process the hydrogen more quickly and delay the onset of the burn. This is done by training beyond your lactate threshold. The lactate threshold is the point where your body has accumulated more hydrogen than it can process. The more frequently you push past your lactic threshold, the more you can delay that burn. You need to train at 120-140 percent of your lactic threshold (80-90% of max heart rate) three days a week for five weeks to increase your tolerance by 25%.

There are physiological and psychological benefits of increase your lactic acid tolerance. The physiological benefits include strengthening connective tissue, improving recovery times, reduced injury, raise the rate of protein synthesis due to increased muscle and blood oxygen levels, reduced muscle and nerve damage due to faster removal and recycling of the hydrogen ions.

The psychological benefit is mental toughness and confidence. The more you are able to push against the burn the more confident you will become at your ability to push back. This confidence increases your mental toughness or fortitude, which allows you to continue to push against the threshold.

The take away: the burn is good. Learn to love it.

Making the Leap into the Ultra-World: Gear

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There are so many neat running toys out there and more come out every month. Not all of it is necessary, but it’s nice to have during an ultra.

Necessary items:

Good shoes and socks: this is pretty self-explanatory. You’re on your feet for a really long time and you train a lot. Make your feet happy or they will ruin your race. I’ve written a post on choosing trail shoes as well click here.

Appropriate clothing: Have you heard the saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad gear”? Clothing should be number one in this area. You don’t need to buy the most expensive stuff. I get a lot of my running clothes from Target. Layers are important because weather changes. My bottom layer is what I expect to be wearing the whole race (unless I have to completely change for some reason). It could be shorts and a T or long pants. From there I add depending on weather at the time. Hats and/or visors and gloves also go down on my necessary list.

Headlamp and extra batteries: You’re going to running in the dark and trails can be tricky. There are different ways to wear a headlamp if you don’t like it on your head. I wear mine on my hips. You can also wear it around your chest. A flashlight or knuckle lights are good options if you can deal with the movement of the light and having something in your hands. If you fall, your flashlight could break or go missing, so have a back-up option. I carry a small flashlight with me because I’ve had my batteries die, and even with a headlamp you could fall and break it. Find something lightweight and throw it in your pack.

Hydration system: I use the word system because there are various options: handheld, vests with bottles, vests with small bladders, belts, and hydration packs. Different strokes for different folks. Aid stations in ultras are far apart either by distance or time, sometimes both. It’s not unusual to have ten miles between aid stations. Even if it is only five miles, there could be a lot of climbing which could take hours. I like packs because I need my hands free to get food and such. I like the storage space. And they typically hold more water. The drawback to a full pack is weight, but if you train with it, you get use to it. In fact, you should train with any system you choose.

Blister kit and medical kit: I’ve already talked about the need for these in my last post, so I’m not going to go through it again.

RoadID: You should have identifying information on your person when running regardless it being during a race or not. Even if you have your phone, the battery could die, it could get damaged, or password protected. A race number will help people who are a part of the race, but not someone else. RoadID is a Velcro band that goes around your wrist or ankle. It allows you to put emergency contact information and medical information on it.

Nice to have:

Garmin: Or any devise that tracks your distance, pace, and whatever else is nice to have while you are out there (or maybe you don’t really want to know). I like to know how far off I am from the next aid station and if I am hitting my goal times. My ability to estimate distance travelled diminishes the longer I am out there.

Stash jacket and arm sleeves: Clothes you can “easily” take off and put on while running or at least without the need to stop and remove your hydration pack and other things is a special treat. The stash jacket is an Altra product. I think this is a great jacket because it comes with its own belt and pocket. It also has a cut out for your hydration pack, which means you don’t have to take anything off to put it on. Sleeves are also an item I like. You can pull them up and push them down as needed when it’s cold.

Flip belt: this is a belt that is essentially a pocket all the way around. It has slits where you can put your keys, phone, gu, or whatever in and then flip the belt so nothing falls out. It’s a little added storage space.

Gaiters: Gaiters keep debris out of your shoes. I’m sure some runners would move these to the necessary list. They are great to have because it sucks to stop and take tiny rocks out of your shoes. They can be a hindrance if you need to take your shoes off for any reason.

Sun glasses: I don’t use them because they bounce. I’ve found my hat does just as well. Sun glasses would be nice in the wind to keep debris out of your eyes. You do need to spend a little money on these. They need to be scratch resistant, have UV protection, and be lightweight.

Compression clothing: Compression clothing is meant to assist blood flow and increase efficiency by decreasing unnecessary muscle movement. Increased blood flow makes sure the muscles stay filled with nutrients and oxygen which they need to continue to work. They can also help speed recovery time because of the increased blood flow. Many people who have shin splints use calf sleeves or the knee-high socks.

Enjoyment purposes: Camera, Go-pro, and Ipod or other music

 

Making the Leap into the Ultra-World: Body Functioning

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Your body can throw all kinds of kinks in an ultra. During your preparation for your race, consider everything that could go wrong while you are out there. Think about all the body functioning issues you or your friends have had during training or races. You need to think of things that have been issues in the past as well because things have a way of revisiting you at the worst times. Even things that have never been a problem for you in the past, but have for your friends can spring up.

Some experienced ultra-runners go out with minimal gear, not me. I have it all because it allows me to focus on the race and not worry about the what ifs or the oh shits.

Preparation is about expecting the unexpected. You’re already dealing with a lot when you are out on the course—managing your mood swings, food, hydration, and pain management. Dealing with something unexpected without the proper solution only adds to your load.

Body issues to plan for:

Blisters—have tape, band-aids, alcohol, mole skin, Neosporin and other such things. All of this can be used for cuts and scrapes if you fall as well.

Diarrhea—have anti-diarrhea medication or preventative measures.  If you don’t like medication while running a table spoon of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 oz of water can help. I’ve also heard Turmeric can help as well. Have extra shorts and undies available. Carry wet wipes with you.

Indigestion, nausea, and vomitting—have ginger in some form: chews, crystalized, or ale. Peppermint is another one you can use. There are of course medications as well. Keep in mind stomach issues can be caused by electrolytes being out of balance which is an easy fix. Just ingest more electrolytes and wait (don’t stop moving). Your stomach cannot absorb water without electrolytes, which means both water and food just sit there and make you uncomfortable. Another, more extreme/distasteful, solution is to make yourself vomit and start over.

Heat exhaustion/stroke and sunburns—keep your skin covered and sun block on. Ziploc bags of ice under your hat, in your sports bra, and shoved down sleeves will help you stay cool. Ice rolled up in a bandana around your neck is a good option. Dunk your hat and shirt in rivers or ice water. Move side to side along the trail to remain in the shade when possible. Hydrate and watch your electrolytes. You may have to slow your pace. The faster you run the higher you drive your body temperature. Add temperatures of 90-100 degrees and it could be a very dangerous situation.

Hypothermia—Make sure you have what you need to stay warm and don’t assume you can’t get hypothermia when the temperatures aren’t “that low.” Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops too low. If you are running in temperatures close to 100 during the day and then temperatures drop to low 50s or 60s at night, you could get into trouble. Keep extra clothes on hand so you can add layers and change wet clothes. If your base layer gets wet from sweat, you should change clothes before the temperatures drop at night.

Sore knotted muscles—this is just par for the course, but there are some things you can do about it or at least try. Massage relieves things for short time, which can get you moving again. Your crew can use their hands or a massage tool like the stick. You can pack along a foam roller in your crew vehicle too. Tiger balm and icy hot can be helpful. I never recommend medication. There have been studies done that say it’s not helpful. If it is helpful, masking pain can prevent you from feeling a serious injury that could lay you up for months if you continue to run on it. Plus, it can cause stomach upset and worse heart rate increases, blood pressure changes, and kidney damage.

Twisted ankle or knee—braces and athletic and/or kensio tape. Over the years I’ve collected various braces for knees and ankles. I put these in my crew vehicle, just in case. If you catch an old/new injury early enough a brace may get you through the race without causing major damage to the tissues requiring tons of time off. This is always a balance between finishing and harm.

Your crew and pacers should know what symptoms to watch for with these ailments and how to treat various things. There is a chart with this information on my Ultra Crew page above.

For lists of items I carry in my medical and blister kits, see my page on gear lists above.

 

Making the Leap into the Ultra-World: Crew and Pacers

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Crew and pacers are unique to the ultra-world and not everyone uses them even for the one hundred mile distance. I recommend that first time 50 and 100 mile runners have a crew. First time 100 mile runners should have pacers as well. Once you have some experience figuring out how you run your races best, you can do whatever. So what do they do? Your crew and pacers can make or break your race.

Crew: Your crew is your support team. They wait for you at each aid station and help you with anything you need as you come in. Wait, isn’t that what the aid station is there for? Yes, but they have all the other runners to attend to as well, and you may need more than just a refill on water. Some aid stations will have volunteers who do more than just fill your hydration pack and guide you toward the food, but you can’t count on it.

You have to plan for the “unexpected” in a 100 mile race. Your crew is there to handle those issues and the planned issues beyond the refill. Your crew will help you change clothes, restock your supplies of food, salt tablets, and anything you carry in your hydration pack. They make sure your headlamp is working and that you have extra batteries. They take care of blisters and massage your muscles as needed during the race. They wait at the aid station for hot food and broth to be prepared while you take care of other things.

Your crew provides you with information and updates. Since they are hanging out at aid stations they hear about trail conditions and weather patterns. They also hear about placement, if you’re interested in where you are in the race or another particular runner.

An essential thing your crew provides is encouragement and tough love. It is so refreshing to come in from a difficult, physically or mentally, section of the course and see friendly faces waiting to help you in every way. They tell you things like, “You look strong,” “You’re doing great,” “Your on target for your goal finish time,” and other beautiful things. They also get tough. If you are whining and complaining they tell you to suck it up. If you feel like dropping out, they push your ass back out there. One runner recounted a story to me about a time where he wanted to drop at mile 80 of a 100. His wife was his crew. He told her he was quitting and he headed to the car. She beat him to the car and drove off calling, “See you at the next aid station.” Now that’s love.

Finally, your crew makes decisions when you cannot. They constantly evaluate your physical and mental status when you come in and go out of aid stations. When you are exhausted physically and mentally you don’t always make the best decisions about what you need. But as a prepared ultra-runner, you’ve had this conversation with your crew about important decisions such as when to drop and what to do with body functioning issues. So, even when you are falling asleep on your feet and hallucinating, they have your back. If you can’t think straight because your electrolytes are out of balance, they are there to recognize that and balance you out.

Pacers do many of the same things as crew, only they do it on the run. They are going to make decisions for you and evaluate how you are doing physically and mentally as you shuffle/crawl along down the trail. It’s important that you choose pacers who run under the conditions of the race. Their training should mimic your own in most way other than distance (unless they are training for the own 100). They need to be able to deal with crazy weather and technical trails during the day and night. They need to have their own gear to do this. They need to be able to keep pace with you.

Most 100 mile races allow pacers after mile 50. Some of the more difficult ones allow them at 40. Pacers make sure you stay on the right trail as you become more tired. They provide you company during the night. They are also added safety from larger animals that see lone runners as dinner.

Choosing: Take care who you ask to crew or pace for you. Many runners immediately pull in loved ones and close friends, but these are not always the best choices. It can get ugly out there and your crew has to be able to send you back out when you are not in the best condition and when you are hurting (a lot). Parents, siblings, and children cannot always do that and asking them to do it, is not very nice. Having experienced crew is ideal, but not always possible. You may have to learn/teach as you go. You need people who will stay positive even when you are grumpy, short, and negative.

What they can’t do: Crew cannot provide aid outside of aid stations. Pacers cannot carry (mule) things for you. They can hold your gloves or pack while you use the bathroom, but that’s about it.

Important: your crew or pacers violation of rules or unruly behavior can get YOU disqualified.

For more information on crew and pacers see my page titled Ultra Crew.

Making the Leap to the Ultra-World: Food

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Fueling your body during a run is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a really big deal. Many runners use gu during events of a half marathon, and close to 90% use some form of sports energy during the marathon.

For an ultra, mishandling your food can destroy your event. Trial and error is the only way to figure out what is going to work for you. The one factor that is the same regardless of how you fuel is using small amounts frequently rather than eating a larger amount. A quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is going to be easier than the whole sandwich. The other rule, which cuts across all aspects of running, is train with it before you race with it. After that, there are four approaches to maintaining your energy during an ultra.

First, is to use sports energy options, such as gu, stinger, or hammer gel, throughout the run. There are a few ultrarunners who do this. Sports energy delivers a fast supply of sugar, which is what your muscles are burning. Personally, I’ve never been able to do it this way and none of my runners have been able to do this. The gels and such become torture to get down. Even if you like them, by mile 75, you won’t. Your body needs a little more than just sugar when you are moving for more than 24 hours.  That’s where the other approaches come in.

Second, is to use a mix of sports energy and regular food. A lot of the runners I work with, even marathoners, choose this option because it gives them quick energy and a more sustained slow burn energy. To implement this strategy, find some foods you think are easy to digest such as fruits, potato chips, candy, cookies. These still give you the carbs you need, but they take a bit longer to get to the muscles. You can throw in small amounts of protein as well, which slows the breakdown of the muscles in the later part of the run.  Be cautious and chose easy to digest proteins such as nut butters and protein bars or drinks.

Third, is all regular food. I use solid regular food throughout my runs. You want a mix, again, of slower and faster digesting items. With solid foods, you need to keep in mind it takes longer to digest so you will need to eat before you need the energy, rather than when you are starving. The other problem with waiting until you are hungry to eat, is you over eat. Over eating can cause stomach irritation.

Fourth, is low carbohydrate. Low carb is a life style not merely used during an event. It requires the runner to stay below a certain amount of grams of carbs everyday, which allows them to burn fat rather than the glycogen in their muscles. Fat is an excellent source of energy. However, being low carb also requires the consumption of a lot of fats as well. Consuming a lot of fats is not necessarily bad. The research is a mixed. The type of fats a person consumes does make a difference. Anyway, low carb runners have to bring their own food (same as vegan runners). In theory, they don’t have to consume many calories because they are burning the fat. That was not my experience. I was low carb for 18 months and found I was not able to consume enough fats to maintain the energy I needed to run ultra-distances. Some low carb runners use a product called Vespa which enhances the body’s ability to burn fat. Others supplement with high doses of sugar at strenuous times (big climbs) during the event to give them the extra boost. The sugar hits their system fast and furious because it doesn’t get it very often.

Regardless of the approach you use, practice during training runs is the key. You have to train your body to digest at the same time it sends energy to muscles. Use trial and error to find what works for you. Keep in mind that it is best to try one thing at a time and to give your body a couple of weeks to decide if it is alright with it. When you introduce a new thing, it may cause some issues at first, but those may go away with continued use.

Making the Leap to the Ultra-World: Training

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The same two golden rules of training for marathons and shorter races apply to training for an ultra. First, never increase your miles by more than ten percent. Second, reduce your miles by 20-25% (or however much you need to make an active recovery) every fourth week.

The training programs you find on the internet for ultras usually have you running five days a week. I haven’t found this to be necessary. And I believe the extra day is “junk miles.” What I mean by junk miles is, they don’t help you improve. It’s typically on Wednesday and fairly short compared to the other distances.

Your energy is better spent doing functional strength training than throwing in miles you don’t need. Functional strength training uses body weight and light weights, such as kettle bells and dumbbells. It’s focus is on balance and your core (knees to nipple line).

Balance and core strength are critical when running trails. Rocks, roots, and the shape/angle of the trail can put you off balance. You need to train your body to adjust on the go—quickly. Core strength also helps with balancing. However, the more important reason for core strength is maintaining your form for the entire event.

Form failure causes injuries due to compensation. Injuries cause more damage/strain due to compensation. The longer you can maintain your proper running form, upright, slight lean forward, shoulders back, head up, 90 degree angle-loose hand arm swing, and landing on a bent knee, the less likely you are to cause an injury during the event. The other piece of this equation is, poor forms decreases energy efficiency. Your body has to work harder to put one foot in front of another if you are hunched over, heel striking, landing on a straight leg, or have tense shoulders/arms you’re burning through energy you should be using to run.

Speed work is controversial among ultrarunners. I have mixed feelings about it as well. I know it can be helpful, but you have to balance the increased risk of injury when doing speed work, such as pulled hamstrings or shin splints. The benefit is increased leg turn over, which translates into more speed and less impact per step. These are good things, but I wouldn’t have a beginning ultrarunner do speed work. I would have more experienced ultrarunners include some speed in their Tuesday or Thursday runs, either as fartleks or 800 meter intervals.

The back to back long runs are the keystone to ultrarunning. Your back to backs should be long enough to keep you running on tired legs on the second day, but short enough to allow you to recover for the training week to come. This comes with time. When you first start back to backs, you’re going to be tired. Your legs will feel heavy until your body adjusts. Remember the two golden rules and you’ll be fine.

My athletes train six days a week. They run Tuesdays (10-12 miles), Thursdays (10-12 miles), Saturdays (long run), and Sundays (long run). On Monday and Friday they do functional strength training. Wednesday is a total rest day.

Environmental condition training includes the terrain, weather, and time of day. To be prepared for a mountain race, you have to run mountains. To be prepared for a flat race, you have to run flats. It’s that simple. Try, as best you can, to mimic the terrain of your hundred. During an ultra you can get snow and heat in the same race. There may be torrential rains and hurricane force winds. Because of this, don’t save your training for a sunny day. Get out there and deal with the crappy weather.

One hundred mile races take most people 24 hours or more to complete. This means you will be running during the night. You need to be comfortable with a headlight and negotiating trails with the limited light. If you’re not, they will significantly slow your pace throughout the night. That’s a long time to be slow. The night time hours can be the perfect time to increase your pace and make up some time because of the lower temperatures at night (most of the time). Don’t lose this chance. Train in the dark.

Mental exhaustion is another thing you can mimic in your training. You’re going to have it during a 100 and maybe even a 50. How are you going to deal with it? Caffeine is a possibility or energy drinks of some sort. Just be careful because these increase your heart rate and your core temperature. You obviously don’t want your heart rate or temperature up any higher than running 100 miles causes.

Finally, be consistent. You’re going to be tired. Don’t let it be an excuse to not get your training done.

Making the Leap to the Ultra-World: Introduction

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What do you do when you hit the marathon distance and you run marathons for a few years and it just no longer satisfies the need? Go longer.

Ultrarunning is challenging and not everyone wants to be an ultrarunner. It takes a pretty big commitment in order to finish races and not be injured. The internet is packed with information about how to make the transition from “regular” runner to ultrarunner. I’m going to try to simplify things and make it not so daunting.

I love running and I want everyone to love running, so I try to make this crazy thing I do easier for others to digest. If you run less than a marathon, I encourage you to get to the marathon distance before jumping into an ultra.

An ultra is anything over a marathon. Most people think about the 50 or 100 when ultras are mentioned, but there are also the less known 50k (31 miles) and 100k (62 miles). I’m going to give you an overview of the differences in this post and then give you more detail on each section over the next few weeks by comparing the marathon, fifty miler, and 100 miler when it comes to training, food, crew, pacers, gear, and what I’ll call body functioning issues.

Here is a snapshot of what I’ll be covering:

Training: there are definitely differences here. First, the back to back long runs. Second, speed work. However, the rules of ten percent a week increase and taking a rest week every fourth week still applies. This gives your body time to adapt to the increase in miles. Speed work is more controversial some ultrarunners do it and some don’t. There are costs and benefits both ways, which will be in my next post so stay tuned.

Food: You’re going to need to increase your calories obviously, but what I want to tell you about is eating while running. There are few ultrarunners who get all their fuel from gu, or similar product, while running. Solid food is the norm or a mix of solid and energy gels. Bottom line is you need to find things you can eat while you run that won’t make you sick and you need to train your body to digest while you are running.

Crew/Pacer: Once you move into the ultra-arena it becomes harder to organize your events and get through them without a little help from people who love you and like watching you torture yourself (or achieve greatness. It’s really the same thing here). Who you have out there with you and what they do can make or break your race. The more you know about ultrarunning the better prepared your crew and pacer will be to help you.

Body functioning issues: The possibility of injury is always there for runners, but just because you run farther doesn’t mean you will get injured more. And injury is not the only body functioning issue you can encounter. Runners of all distances can have problems with vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and other pleasant things. The longer you’re out there the more chances there are for body functioning problems to arise. You need to know what causes them and how to fix or minimize the problem and keep going.

Gear: There is always lots of new fun gear out there for runners. As an ultrarunner, it’s easier to justify buying fun new things because well…you’re out there for a really long time and you need things, Right? Of course you do. There are some things that can be helpful for ultrarunners to have like blister kits, hydration packs, and drop bags.

Like in anything new, there is a learning curve, but I hope this makes breaking into the world of ultrarunning easier. If nothing else it gives you enough knowledge to begin asking questions or enough to deepen your belief that we’re all crazy. Either way, I’ve done what I set out to do.

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