Tired Body or Tired Mind

Have you heard the expression, “An ultra is 50% physical and 90% mental,”? No, well then, you’re probably not an ultrarunner or haven’t been one very long. A critical aspect of training that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the psychological side of getting your body to keep putting one foot in front of the other for 100 miles as quickly as possible.

We all know it’s important, but we don’t spend much of our training time on it. I’m guilty of this myself. Sure, I have strategies I use when I get into that dark place, but I have never taken the time to actually make psychological strategies a part of my training to the point where I actively think about and practice them during my training runs. There are two types of psychological strategies you must have for an ultra. First, is dealing with the negative moods and thoughts. Second, is dealing with being so freaking tired.

The problem with not actively including psychological strategies as a core aspect of your training plans is that it’s mental fatigue that will stop you before physical fatigue in a race. Might want to read that again. Mental fatigue is more likely to put a stop to your race than physical fatigue.

That’s right, it’s your brain being tired that is going to slow you down and stop you before your muscles and nerves will. It actually takes an enormous amount of energy to fight off the persistent urge to sleep. I’ve fallen asleep while running and my pacers have had to persuade me not to crawl into small caves to take a nap while out on the course. I’ve seen runners curled up on the side of the trial sleeping while their pacer waits. When 100-mile events can take up to 36 hours it’s no wonder that those who run at the mid or back of the pack are exhausted, in every way, by the time they cross the finish line.

There are a few things we can do to be prepared for this level of extreme mental fatigue. Use caffeine strategically. Most ultrarunners are using caffeine in some form for a race, and caffeine is very effective at keeping you awake. However, if you drink a lot all the time, it’s not going to be as effective. You should taper off caffeine about 30 days before a race for it to be most effective during a race. Caffeine comes in all forms. You can get gels with caffeine, tablets, or drink it.

Another option is to take a nap. What!? I know, I know. I will admit I’m one of the last people who would suggest this. I’ve never napped during a 100-mile race, but if you’re out of options and falling asleep on your feet, sleeping for 30 minutes might be your best bet for picking up your pace. It goes back to the amount of energy it takes to force yourself to stay awake. I’ve run many relay events where my team runs through a day, a night, and a day. I know that if I sleep for two hours, I’ll be as good as new for the last leg of my race on day two. My muscles haven’t had time to recover, but I’m able to sustain the same pace as my first leg if I get those two hours. If I don’t, I’m going to be slower.

Another strategy is to train your mind to deal with being tired and running anyway. There are a couple of ways to do this. First, do something mentally challenging throughout the day (this is easy if you have a job that is mentally challenging) and then go for a long night run without sleeping between the two activities. Another way is to perform challenging mental tasks while you run. A research study used cyclists and the Stroop Test. The Stroop test is like the picture above. You have to read off colors when the word is written in a color other than what the word says.

The cyclists who did this training had a significant increase in their ability to stay mentally focused beyond the point where they previously became mentally fatigued to the point where it impaired their performance. The Stroop test is a little difficult to do while running, unless you’re on a treadmill (yuck!), but it maybe worth your suffering. You can use anything that is going to cause your brain to really work while you run (complex math anyone?).

Ultras challenge us in more than one way and we have to prepare for each. Psychological training is not an area you want to let slip by.

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.

Hate Hills?

Hate Hills?

When I first started running, I didn’t like running uphill. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone because running hills is hard. It makes your legs and lungs burn. You want to stop before the hill begins or find another route without a hill. As I’ve continued to run, becoming stronger in the process, I’ve also learned to love running hills, both up and down.

They have become a welcome challenge. When I learned the value of hill training, my perspective on running hills shifted. If you’ve been running long enough, you know running down hill can be just as hard as going up. Training schedules should include a run focused on hill running (up and down) at least every other week.

Unless you only run on a treadmill or a track you’re going to come upon a hill. It’s best if you can foster a good relationship with hills. Even if you’re the kind of runner who only chooses to run routes and races where there are the least number of hills and the smallest of hills, you should find some hills to run.

Uphill running improves your form by increasing your knee lift, joint mobility and neuromuscular communication. Hills also improve your leg strength and your cardiovascular fitness. When you’re running uphill, keep your head held high and looking forward. This will help keep your hips, knees and ankles aligned. Your stride length should automatically shorten because the ground comes up to meet your foot sooner than on a level surface. Running uphill is a good time to really become aware of your body and where it is in relationship to your surroundings.

As you climb, don’t lean forward at the waist into the hill because it engages the quads and calves more than necessary and leaves the glutes and hamstrings out of the work. This may not sound too bad in a short race, but in a longer race with lots of downhill running you’re going to wish you had relied on your glutes and hamstrings for more of the climbs. A runner’s forward lean on any grade comes from the ankles not the waist.

Downhill running improves your foot speed/cadence, your range of motion and reduces your risk of injuries. Running downhill efficiently requires mindfulness and a little bravery. It’s important to maintain control as you’re speed increases. You want to keep your stride length short and your leg turnover (foot cadence) fast. Try not to dump your hips forward or lean back, which causes a breaking action. On a mild to moderate hill, try to maintain your form as if you were on flat ground. As the descent becomes more intense, you’re going to have to find a happy balance between leaning forward and breaking based on your own experience.

Hills are not only physically challenging, but psychologically challenging too. In fact, I think it’s the psychological component that really messes with us. When you’re out for your next easy run, take some time and think of a mantra you can use as you approach a hill. You can also imagine yourself conquering hills and then use that while you’re pushing up your next hill. If that’s all to new age or complicated, just think of a word you can say to yourself as you climb such as “Powerful,” or “Strong.” You can use the same word or come up with something different for your downhills.

As an ultrarunner, uphills usually translate into power hiking during races and even longer runs because it is more energy efficient to hike than try to power up at a run. However, don’t think that means you get to skip hill training. All the benefits above apply to you as well. There is a lot that goes into deciding which hills to run and which to power hike. It’s going to depend on the distance of the race/run, grade of the hill, and the length of the hill. Your physical condition will also play a role. The longer the race, the more power hiking you’re going to be doing. The steeper or longer the hill, the more likely it is you will be hiking (more on this in the next post).

A few quick exercises you can add to the end of your easy runs to help you up the hills. Do four sets each:

Foot slaps: stand with your feet hip-width apart, rock onto your heels to lift your forefoot high and then slam them to the ground. Do repetitions of twenty and increase to fifty.

Quadruped Hip Circles: Get down on all fours, extend your left leg behind you, bend it to circle to the side and forward, then straighten it back out. Do 4 reps and then change directions then do your right leg.

Reverse Sliding Lunge:With a towel beneath your left foot and your weight on your right leg, slide your left foot back into a lunge. Push through your right heel to stand. Do 10-12 reps per side.

High Step: Plant your right foot on a tall bench, so your right knee is higher than your hip. Press through your right heel until your right leg is straight. Lower back down and repeat 5-10 reps per side.

Remember: Every hill you conquer makes the next one easier, both physically and mentally.

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.

Inhale-Exhale

Breathing is something we all do without really thinking about it, unless it’s not going well. We become very aware of our breathing when it is a struggle regardless of the thing that is making it a struggle. The athletes who, I believe, are the most aware of their breath is swimmers.

A swimmer has to have a rhythm for their breathing. All other athletes we can just go and not think about it too much until we’re huffing and puffing and even then, we merely recognize it and adjust a bit or push through. Not swimmers. A swimmer has to coordinate every movement to make sure they are able to breath when needed.

Being aware of your breathing has benefits to many aspects of your life not just running (which is what we really care about, if we’re being honest). It can reduce stress, improve physical health, and increase self-confidence.

Deep breathing releases endorphins and those make us feel good and are a natural pain killer. It promotes better blood flow and increased energy through the extra oxygen. The increase in oxygen gives your body the tools to rebuild injured muscles and build muscle.

Breathing properly can reduce anxiety. When you’re feeling anxious about something take a few deep breaths and see what happens to how you feel. Deep breathing has a relaxing effect on our body and our mind, which helps relieve you of anger, sadness, and other uneasy emotions. It reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and helps with better sleep.

Deep breathing helps with posture. An upright posture has positive effects on many aspects of your physical health. Your internal organs function better when they are not all squished as you hunch over at a desk or table. Your spine stays healthy preventing lower and upper back pain. It massages your organs such as the heart, stomach, small intestine, liver and pancreas.

Deep breathing strengthens your immune system. Oxygen attaches to hemoglobin in your red blood cells allowing your body to metabolize nutrients and vitamins. It also removes toxins from your blood like carbon dioxide.

Deep breathing makes sure oxygen gets to all the important parts of your brain. You’re able to think more clearly and more creatively. Nerves run throughout your body sending messages from your brain to every body system and muscle. Oxygen is one of the nutrients the brain, spinal cord and nerves need to make communication quick and effective.

How do you do this deep breathing?

Ideally you would spend a few minutes each day and complete the following for two sets of ten. Sit with your back straight and tall or lay on your back. Exhale all the air from your lungs. When you think you can’t get anymore out, try a bit more. Pause for one second and then begin to fill your lungs slowly until you can’t take any more in.

Another option is to send a few minutes throughout the day being aware of your breath and make sure you’re sitting straight and breathing into your belly and not your chest. Make the breaths deep.

Losing it?

One of the most frustrating things that happens when you take time off running is you lose your hard earned fitness and have to work your ass off to get it back. We all know the longer you have to take off of running the more you lose. This is definitely something I have struggled with as I’ve been coming back from two rolled ankles and a strained hamstring. Anyone who has been forced to take time off running due to an injury knows you go through the whole grief cycle, which I’ve written about and you can find it here.
There are two aspects of losing it: the mental side and the physical side. Let’s start with the easier of the two: the physical side. There’s been lots of research about how quickly fitness is lost when an athlete has to take time off after an injury or just because they are burnt out. We lose the most fitness right up front 20% in the first three weeks. Ouch. after that things level off and up to three months you retain 80% of your fitness. For those athletes who have trained for a long time the impact over time is less because you have a stronger base of fitness. What the experienced athletes lose is what they have most recently gained. You go back to your baseline. As much as this steep drop in fitness loss sucks, it is easier to get back to where you were than it was to get there in the first place.
You can slow the loss and maintain fitness by cross training that makes sure your aerobic system keeps working at the level you had it and doing strength training to minimize the amount of muscle strength you lose. Sport specific fitness is definitely going to take a  hit though so don’t get discouraged when you go back and are sore after a run that would have been a walk in the park pre-injury.
The mental side of it, in my opinion, is the harder of the two that you work through. Depending on how long you are injured, you may have developed a maladaptive coping skill telling yourself it doesn’t matter and maybe you do something other than running. Sometimes it can go as far as, I just don’t want to run anymore. Telling ourselves these things when there is no end in sight or we when we are catastrophizing is a way that we cope with the loss of running, which has becomes a indispensable part our life and who we see ourselves as.  The problem with this, is it makes reviving the motivation to get back out there more difficult. The best way to regain motivation is by remembering the things you love about running, which can trigger those feelings of loss all over again that you were trying to avoid in the first place. See my article on working through the cycle of grief link above.
Once you are back out there, you have to get over the fear of another injury. This takes time and building trust in your ability and self confidence. The only way to build these is to get out there. Give yourself permission to go at your own pace by taking it slow and run easier routes for a bit. It helps if you come up with a plan of action. A plan will help you come to terms with the fact that you can get back to where you were.
A critical element to maintaining motivation and avoiding a lot of self recrimination is to not compare yourself to where you were and where you are. This is a particularly difficult one for me. Try to remain positive and every time this thinking pattern pops into your head, counter act it by reminding yourself that you had to work hard to get to where you were and it’s possible to do it again because you know how and you know you are strong enough mentally and physically to get there. The other half of working through this is accepting where you are. Berating yourself and dwelling on the fitness you’ve lost is not going to help you move forward. It doesn’t change where your current level of fitness is at.
It is not easy to come back from an extended voluntary or involuntary break from running, but runners are a tenacious bunch who like challenges and this is just one more hill to climb.
I’ve also blogged about the safe way to return to running after an injury. You can find it here.
Here is a post about how to run in the swimming pool. Boo!
There is also something called forced rest depression which I talk about here.

Run-It’s who I am.

What does it mean to be a runner? Do you have to run a certain number of days a week? Do I have to run a certain number of miles or time? Do I have to have been running for a certain amount of time? Do I have to race? What if I take a break from running of a month, two months, three months? What if I’m injured and have to take six months or more off of running?

These are all questions I’ve contemplated while out on the trails, especially over the last four months. These questions and other similar ones, have jogged around my head because my ability to maintain a consistent running schedule over the last six months has been seriously compromised by a hamstring injury.

I began to ask myself what it really means to be a runner. I’ve written blogs about being a jogger or a runner.  The defining feature addressed in that blog was speed, but I’m talking about something different here.

I’ve been running for awhile and I’ve run in races from the 5k to the 100 mile. Being a runner is a big part of who I am, it’s more than what I do. It’s not I run, it’s I am a runner. Losing running is like losing a part of myself. Some may think I’m being overly dramatic, but many of you will understand.

Running has made me a better person; more patient, understanding, compassionate, and mindful. It’s given me appreciation and gratitude for what I have; opportunity, health, material objects, freedom, and dreams.

You do not have to run for a specific number of days each week or a specific number of miles, or a specific amount of time. You do have to run on a regular basis though. You’re not a runner if you jog across the street to get lunch every day. I’m comfortable saying you are a runner if you run two days a week for twenty minutes, even if you run walk those twenty minutes. As to distance, it’s whatever you cover in those twenty minutes. Many runners don’t measure by miles. They measure by time.

You can call yourself a runner after you’ve run consistently for a month. It’ takes 21 days to form a habit, and if running has become a part of your weekly routine, you’re a runner.

Now the big question for this post—taking time off. Runners have to rest for a lot of different reasons and runners get injured and have to heal. Sometimes this takes a long time. If you’re still a runner in your heart and mind, if your intent is to get out there as soon as you can, if the reasons for your time off is to make you a better stronger runner, You’re a runner.

As long as being a runner is woven into who you are, you are a runner.