When to Walk in an Ultra

Ultrarunners walk. It’s just one piece of ultrarunning and knowing when and how long is essential to finishing at your best. The easy answer to the question of when to walk, aka power hike, in an ultra is, you walk all the uphills. But if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t be ultrarunners now would we?

Do all ultrarunners power hike? Yes, at the 100 mile distance everyone is going to do some form of power hiking on the uphills. At the 50k distance, it will depend on how steep and long the hills are. At the 50 mile and 100k distances, pretty much everyone is doing some power hiking.

The factors that go into a decision to power hike rather than run are: the length of the race, the steepness of the hill, the length of the hill, your training/conditioning, current weather/trail conditions and your current physical status. None of these factors can be considered without thinking about the others. It’s a multifaceted decision. The only one that takes priority over the others is your current physical status.

Your current physical status is how all of your bodily systems are functioning. Uphills can be a perfect opportunity to rehydrate and refuel. The slower pace may allow your body to absorb water and fuel easier, but don’t count on it. Hiking up a long steep slope can be just as taxing as running hard on level ground. If it is, and your stomach protesting at everything you put into it, you may be better off trying to refuel on the downhill or on a flat. If you’re experiencing pain, hiking an uphill is a good time to assess the situation. You’ll be using different muscle groups to climb, which may help you rule in or out particular muscles as the problem. It will also give sore/cramping muscles a chance to recuperate.

There may be times where hiking flats and downhills is the most appropriate course of action given your physical status and you shouldn’t be ashamed of this, at least you’re still moving forward. If you’re vomiting or have diarrhea walking/hiking is a must. You need to give your body a chance to regulate and it can’t do that if you’re pushing the redline.

The length of the race plays a major roll in when you begin your power hiking. The longer the race the earlier you’re going to begin hiking. Changing to a hike allows you to engage different muscles from those you use for running. This change gives muscles a chance to rest and prepare for the next time they’ll be needed as the primary force. This is true even in a very flat race with little to no uphills.

The grade (steepness) of a hill can demand that you hike rather than run. At some point, a hill becomes so steep it’s just easier and often faster to hike. Whether this is an 8% grade or 15% grade depends on you. Research says a grade of 15% is the point at which it becomes more energy efficient to hike than to run up a slope. However, keep in mind this research was done with individuals who were fresh. In other words, they hadn’t already finished 75 miles and they didn’t have 95 miles to go. The best way for you to figure out where you are, is to practice. Train on all types of grades and hit them at different times in your long training runs.

The length of an uphill is important too. Maybe you’ve come to a hill with a moderate grade and thought, “It’s runnable.” But is it runnable for three miles? It’s okay to start running it and then decide a bit later that it’s no longer runnable. You can even take a run/walk approach to these types of uphills.

Weather and trail conditions can also dictate when you should be running or hiking. Rain and snow can change visibility. Swampy conditions can conceal rocks and other hazards. Heat can change a mild runnable slope into a death march.

What you don’t want to do is walk due to a mental block or because you’ve hit a psychologically dark mood during your run. The only way to avoid this is by having a plan of action. When you get the first inkling of a drop in your mood or mental state, ask yourself if you’ve kept up on hydration, electrolytes and fuel. If you haven’t, start there. If those systems are where they need to be, initiate your positive mood plan. You can use imagery, mantras, recalling when you’ve overcome other challenges, or repeating positive words. For these to be most effective, you need to develop them in your training.

Your training is the key to knowing when you should hike and when you should run. Training on hills is going to give you the strength (mental and physical) to conquer those hills that are within the realm of sensible and the wisdom to know when it’s not sensible. The definition of what is runnable and what’s not is going to change, and you need to be able to evaluate yourself and each hill under the current circumstances.

Running Preggers: When you have to go, go!

Running can have some interesting challenges relating to using the bathroom. If you’re a trail runner, this isn’t so much of a problem, although you should be burying or packing out solid waste. In the woods, you can just duck behind a tree. Looking up and down trail before, of course. As a road runner, depending on the time of day when you run, bathroom access is also pretty simple.

When you’re running for two, it’s not that simple. Why would it be? Every bodily system you can think of is altered when you’re pregnant (although I haven’t heard anything about your perception of sound…). It’s very important that you don’t wait to go to the bathroom, number one or number two.

Holding your urine is not just uncomfortable when you’re running, but it can cause infections, even in non-pregnant people. The real problem is the frequency of needing to go pee. Even in early pregnancy, when the baby is smaller than a pea, women will need to go more often. This is because your body increases the amount of blood it pumps and your blood volume, so you’re drinking more water and your kidneys and bladder are working overtime.

Blood volume increases until the third trimester and making sure you’re hydrated throughout the day will continue this pattern of needing to go all the time. And then there’s the baby. As baby grows he/she puts pressure on your bladder making you feel like you have to go even when you don’t have that much in there.

You can be running along enjoying the beautiful day and then bam, you have to go right now. You think, “but I went 15 minutes ago!” doesn’t matter, you have two choices: stop to pee again, or pee your pants. This can make running frustrating at times because jumping into the bushes to pee in a neighborhood is frowned upon. Getting off the treadmill all the time is also frustrating. So, for the potty problems, trails are your best option, in my opinion.

As for number twos, unfortunately, pregnant women don’t have to worry too much about those while they’re running. In fact, most pregnant women wish they had to worry about that when running. Constipation is another lovely side effect of being pregnant. The hormones in our body slows digestion down to a crawl, so the baby can suck as much nutrients out of the food we eat as possible. And then there’s the baby. As baby grows he/she compresses your intestines and shoves most of your organs up into your ribcage further complicating your ability to digest food and move it through your body. All in the name of love.

A maternity belt can help alleviate some of the pressure on your bladder and hopefully you won’t have to go pee, so much. Don’t restrict your water intake to prevent the frequent bathroom stops as tempting as that may be. You could wear very absorbent panties, but they would likely chafe something awful.

Weekly miles: 30 miles this week!

Training Framework

Training has many different aspects to it, but I think we all have a tendency to focus on the physical running part more than anything else. Running is definitely one of the defining aspects of our training, but our training should include much more than just running.

When anyone asks us what our training looks like, we immediately go to how many miles we’re running and how many days a week. They might as what we’re training for and we’ll throw out the name of our goal race or possibly just the next one on the schedule.

Even if you’ve never really thought of it, our training encompasses more than just running. Training can be broken down into physical, psychological, and nutritional. Making sure you take the time to consider each of these separate from the other, guarantees you’ll be thinking about them and adding them to your training plan in some form.  You can set goals related to each of these different aspects of your training.

Physical training includes your running, strength training and rest days. Running is at the core of our training and it is our goal. We want to run for life not just for the next race and because of that goal all of these other aspects of training get pulled in. Being the best runners, we can be means we need to address speed, endurance, and strength in our training schedule. If you want your training to mean anything, you have to rest. Without rest our body cannot adapt and get stronger.

Psychological training includes strategies for dealing with down times during a race, lack of motivation in training, boredom, going out too fast, and rest. Ultrarunners know finishing a race hinges on pushing past the low points, and there will be low points. Getting through months of training and any injuries takes mental fortitude like you wouldn’t believe. Being prepared for these challenges is critical to getting to the starting line let alone the finish line. Psychological rest is being able to find other things you enjoy that reduce your stress level because if you get injured and have to take time off, you need to have other things you can focus on to get you through and back to running.

Nutritional training includes day to day nutrition and hydration, race day nutrition and hydration, and recovery nutrition and hydration. All runners think about race day nutrition, but not all of them think about their day to day nutrition or their recovery nutrition. The same goes for hydration. Yeah, we all laugh and say we run so we can eat whatever we want, but for most runners eating ice cream, fatty burgers, pizza, and French fries is not going to help you reach your running goals. There may be an argument for recovery though, at least for your postrace meal. Our body gives what it gets. Try different ways of fueling and hydrating your body during training, and you’ll be able to dial it in making your race a success.

Limiting our definition of training to just our weekly running schedule or our next goal race is short sighted and won’t get us what most of us want, which is to run healthy and strong for the rest of our lives.

Winter Racing

From your first winter run, it becomes obvious that the cold weather impacts your performance. Depending on where you live, you’re likely to find holiday themed 5k and 10k races throughout the winter, but there are longer races out there too including a 50k and 100 miler. You can check out the Susitna 100 in Alaska here. 

Not up for an ultra in the winter, that’s alright. Even the 5k and 10k will provide some steep competition, so you’ll need to be training and that means running under the same conditions as what you’ll be racing in.

When you run in the winter, your body relies more heavily on carbohydrates and less on your fat stores. This means you’re going to need to increase your carbs-on-the-go intake while you’re running longer distances. Your muscles don’t contract as powerfully in the cold as they do when it’s warm. This means you have to recruit more muscles to get the job done. You need more oxygen in colder temperatures to produce the needed energy to sustain you through your runs because you need more muscles to help out. This extra oxygen produces more lactate, which means you’re likely to feel like you’re working harder.

Also in the winter, your body has the extra load of making sure you stay warm. Staying warm takes a lot of energy. To help with this, make sure you’re wearing clothing that’s appropriate for the temperatures. Maintaining a constant pace rather than speeding up and slowing down, as you would in intervals, is much easier on your body because it can be really difficult to warm up after you’ve cooled down. Make sure your body is warmed up before you start your run. You don’t want to be sweating, but you want to be warm including your fingers and toes.

Hydration can be especially problematic in the winter because your body doesn’t have as much of a thirst response in the colder temperatures. The problem is you lose a lot of water from not only sweating but breathing. Carrying water during the winter is difficult on long runs. I always recommend a hydration pack because carrying a frozen handheld is just not going to work. To keep your water from freezing add an electrolyte to it and make sure the tube is insulated.

Once you’ve finished your winter race, don’t stand around; get out of your wet clothes and into a warm shower or blanket as soon as you can. Enjoy some hot chocolate by the fire, you’ve earned it.

Hurts to Breath

Diaphragm cramp or side stitches, call it what you like it’s unpleasant. There are only theories as to why you get side stitches when you are running (or doing other sports activities). The most widely held belief is a muscle spasm of the diaphragm and/or its supporting ligaments.

Your diaphragm muscle assists you with breathing while you are running and because your need for oxygen increases when you’re running, your diaphragm works harder. The thought is that it gets tired and/or the surrounding tissues get tired and then the muscle spasms.

The second theory is improper breathing (oh yeah, you can breathe the wrong way). This theory ends the same as the above, a fatigued diaphragm and surrounding muscles which leads to spasms. The difference is breathing too shallow. Shallow breathing means your muscles don’t get enough oxygen and then get tired easier.

So what’s the proper way to breath when you are running? Deep with your belly not shallow into your chest. Breathing deep into your belly opens blood vessels found deep in your lungs and fills your blood with more oxygen. Most people breath with their chest, only filling two thirds of their lungs. To tell if you are belly breathing, lay on your back and lay your hand on your stomach. If your hand rises and falls you’re belly breathing. Most of us have to make a conscious effort to belly breath.

The third theory is we don’t time our breathing with our foot falls properly. When you are running try inhaling for three steps (right, left, right) and then exhale for two steps (left, right). This five-step rhythm will alternate your exhale from your right foot plant to your left. You have to think about it for a while when you’re first learning to do it, but it will reduce your side stitches. Practice it for a few minutes every mile and pretty soon it will become automatic. If you are climbing a hill or doing speed work, change it to a 2:1 ration for inhalation and exhalation.

The fourth theory is poor running posture, aka running with your shoulders rounded and your upper body bent forward. One belief is that hunching over like that compromises nerves in the abdominal area and then they become irritated and trigger the pain you feel and call side stitches. The other belief is that the hunching puts more weight on your diaphragm which causes it to spasm and get tired.

The final theory is dehydration. I’m not going to go into this one. We all know it’s critical to hydrate before, during and after our runs. We know we have to take in electrolytes if we’re running for more than about 60-90 minutes (depending on pace and temperature outside: faster and hotter=more electrolytes).

Bottom line: breath deep with your belly, use rhythmic breathing, pay attention to your posture, and hydrate.

Graduation

’tis the season of graduation. Every May and June, thousands of people graduate from high schools, colleges and universities around the United States. So with graduation on the brain, how do you know you’re ready to graduate to the next race distance?

There are multiple opportunities for graduating in our life times. Each time we achieve a new level in any aspect of our lives we could say we have graduated. When most people think of graduating, they think of transitions in the educational setting to the next level.

Our youngsters graduate from kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, with their associates degree, bachelors degree, masters degree, and doctorate degree. As far as running goes we move up from 5k to 10k; 10k to half marathon; half marathon to full marathon; marathon to 50k; 50k to 50 mile; 50 mile to 100k; and 100k to 100 mile.

Basically, you graduate when you successfully complete a course of training. That’s all fine and good, but when it comes to running how do you know you have “successfully” completed a course of training?

Many runners don’t begin with the shortest distance and work their way up. They just jump in where they want too. Some proceed to longer distances and others stay where they are comfortable. Here we are talking about those runners who want to move up in distance, although there is nothing wrong with staying put. It’s a personal lifestyle choice because as you move to the next level, your running impacts more and more of your lifestyle.

We know the training that goes into each level of achievement is more difficult than the last.  It takes over our lives a little more with each step. It can change our sleep needs and nutritional needs. It changes the way our body functions (usually for the good but there are injuries too). Our time commitment to running increases and we develop friendships with new people.

We learn about new skills and absorb new information by reading books, blogs and magazines. Our vocabulary increases as we throw out the latest terminology such as being chicked, attitude training, Athena class, Clydesdale class, bandit, aquajogging, and PR. We learn a lot about our  bodies including various tendons, ligaments and muscles.

We put into practice the skills we have learned from the prior level such as foam rolling, stretching, tempo running, packing drop bags, how to stay awake and run all night, how to manage stomach problems while running, and hydration.

You’re ready to graduate when you develop the enthusiasm, drive and grit to take on the challenges of the next level even though you don’t know everything about them.

 

 

 

 

 

Gearing UP

gearing-up

It’s time to gear up for spring races in the norther hemisphere. Hopefully, you’ve been following a maintenance program through the winter months. How much you need to increase your miles will depend on where you are at and what your race distance is.

If you have a standard training program you’ve found on the internet (you can find mine above) or in a book, find the week that matches what you have been doing and start from there.

As you increase your miles, don’t forget the two golden rules of running: First, only increase your miles by ten percent each week; and second, every fourth week should be a rest week, reduce your miles by twenty to twenty-five percent.

After deciding where to start and working out the details of your training plan, think back to the things you struggled with last season. It could be loads of things, hydration, fueling during runs, falling a lot, climbing, or descending. Ideally, you worked on these issues while you were doing maintenance, but… Once you have a few things you’d like to work on, brainstorm different ways you can address the problem.

Hydration: this is something you have to stay on top of from the very beginning of a race/run. Find a way to remind yourself to keep drinking. Don’t chew gum because it increases saliva. You’ll drink if your mouth gets dry. Try taking little sips frequently or longer pulls every mile (when your garmin beeps). You could count your steps and sip every one hundred. Keep in mind you need to think about electrolytes too.

Fueling on the go: this is another one you have to stay on top of from the beginning of the race/run. You may want to eat something small before the race starts. Don’t over eat the night before to the point where you can’t eat the next morning. Eating something small every hour is the best way to sustain your energy throughout the race/run. Find different things you can tolerate, in case something makes you sick or is just unappetizing. Try different amounts of food too. It may be easier for you to eat more frequently, even every half hour or twenty minutes, just taking bites of things.

Falling a lot: You might just be clumsy, but I doubt it. Muscle imbalances can cause falling as can not paying enough attention to where you are putting your feet. Maybe your feet are not fast enough to prevent tripping or changing your foot placement once you figure out it’s precarious. Another problem could be your balance and proprioception. Muscle imbalances between your outer thigh and inner cause instability in your lower leg, ankle and foot. Having high arches can also cause some instability. Working on agility training with a speed ladder helps with foot placement and being able to move them quickly. Balance, proprioception, and core exercises will help as well.

Climbing and descending: just do it. A lot. You can also add strength training to your routine; for climbing focus on hamstrings and glutes; for descending, core and quads.

The goal is to go into your spring races stronger than you did your pervious fall races and certainly stronger than last spring’s races.