Ultra-Sleep

Picture from Trail Runner magazine

How much sleep we need never really lines up with how much sleep we get, at least for most adults in the United States. About 30% of adults in the US sleep less than six hours a night (I’m definitely in this group). Sure, we think we function alright, but do we really? Many of us are so used to being sleep deprived that it has become our new normal and we don’t know what it feels like to be full rested on a regular basis.

Adults who find themselves in this six hours or less situation during the week usually take advantage of the weekend (or days off) to get a full night’s rest. Not so for ultrarunners who tend to get up even earlier on the weekends than they do during the week to get their long run in before the day really gets going.

Going through life in a chronically sleep deprived state has health consequences and performance consequences. It’s associated with higher risk of mortality and increased chronic diseases.

Athletes need more sleep than most, which makes perfect sense. We spend our “leisure” time breaking down our muscles and depleting our bodily systems. If our sleep is interrupted or cut short, our ability to repair muscle, consolidate memory, and release hormones is compromised.

As ultrarunners, we should be getting seven hours a night minimum and up to about ten hours. Our reaction time (important on the technical trails), accuracy (also useful on trails), and speed can increase with additional rest.

Our bodies have a preprogrammed rhythm when it comes to wakefulness throughout the day-Circadian rhythm. Between the hours of 6-9 a.m. cortisol and body temperature increase waking most of us naturally. Between the hours of 1-3 p.m. we have a natural dip in our energy and then it picks back up between 5-9 p.m. This early evening pick-up means taking a nap after work is difficult and so is going to bed early.

From 2- 6 a.m. is a low point and if you’ve ever run through the night you know that those are the most difficult hours and the most crucial. Having a pacer is essential and a good caffeine plan. Once the sun comes up, you’re re-energized at least for a few hours. Countless ultrarunners start their day between this 2-6 a.m. time, especially, when doing long runs.

Another issue, kind of a tangent, with being out during these hours is our core body temperature is at its lowest. I’ve always said the outside temperature always dips at 2 a.m. but it’s not the outside temperature, it’s my inside temperature. This is something to be aware of when you’re packing your drop bags for the night time aid stations.

So, what’s a runner to do? Let’s start with the “easy” stuff. Do everything you can to prevent your sleep from being interrupted. If you have children, this can be impossible. Next get to bed an hour early or stay in bed an hour later. Get in a 20-30 minute nap over lunch when ever possible.

If you have a hard time falling asleep, establish a bedtime routine. Make sure electronics are off an hour before lights out. Keep lights low a half an hour before you go to bed. Turn down the temperature in your house. Listen to relaxing music or a meditation. Read a book rather than watch TV. Before an event, make sure your taper includes more sleep.

Where am I? Proprioception.

Proprioceptors are the sensors in your muscles and tendons, which govern your balance. They tell your brain where your body is in relation to itself and other objects in your environment. Having good proprioception is essential to runners, especially trail runners, who are constantly being asked to shift their weight to adjust for the terrain. It’s also important for winter running.

Proprioception is something runners should be working to improve all the time, but it’s even more important after an injury. Injuries to muscles and tendons damage the proprioceptors. If proprioceptors are not functioning properly, you’re much more likely to get re-injured.

Take an ankle sprain for example. It’s your proprioceptors, which would send a message to your brain to prevent the initial roll of the ankle, but if you rolled it anyway the likelihood of rolling it again increases especially within the next four to six weeks after an injury. Injury prevention isn’t the only thing that improves with these exercises. Your speed will also improve.

Here is an easy test to give you an idea where you’re at proprioceptionwise. Stand up, balance on one leg and close your eyes. If you immediately put your foot to the ground because you lost your balance, you have some work to do.

It’s not difficult or time consuming to include a few proprioception exercises into your routine. You can do them after a run or do them when you’re hanging out watching TV. If you have kids, they’ll find the exercises fun and you can make it into a game (and teach them about their bodies). You don’t need any special equipment, but there are things that you can buy to make things more challenging as you improve. A stability cushion is $16.50 on Amazon. A  wobble balance board is $22.

Even if you choose to purchase either the cushion or the board, you should start on the flat ground. Stand on a flat hard surface. Take off your shoes (you can put them back on if it’s too difficult). Now, stand on one leg for 30 seconds. Then do the other leg. If you can do this easily, increase the time to 60 seconds. From there, you can close your eyes.

Other single leg balance exercises that can help improve your proprioception are:
Air Plane: standing on your right leg, hold your arms out like wings, bend over lifting your left leg up and back, and make a straight line from head to your left foot. Once you’ve mastered this. touch your right toes with your left finger tips and then your right, returning to arms straight out between each touch.

Single leg squats: stand on one leg, roll your hips forward and squat. You can bend the leg your not standing on and touch it down onto a step or stool or you can hold it straight in front of you for a piston squat.

Ball toss: stand on one leg and toss a tennis ball at a wall or to another person and catch it while remaining on the one leg.

Here are some exercises you can try on either the cushion or the balance board once you have achieved that level.

Block It

We all get stuck in a rut, but it can be really easy to do with your workout routine. I know I’m guilty of this on multiple occasions, with both my running and with my strength workouts.  There are a few problems with the rut: first, you don’t make any progress; second, you lose motivation; third, it’s boring!

The first is the most important for runners who want to improve. Not all runners want to improve. They are content running their six miles four days a week at a comfortable pace. That’s not me. I want to get better and I like to see progress. Even if improvement isn’t your think, staying motivated to get out there and not being bored the entire time should be enough for you to want to change things up every few weeks.

Many runners work through their training in blocks. Blocks can be four, six or eight weeks long and during each block you focus on a different aspect of your running. That doesn’t mean you drop other aspects of training, they just aren’t the focus point. Other runners switch things around by every other week. And still others, do a rotation over a ten-day period.

Strength Blocks: Starting a block rotation with strength is great because the number one goal of strength training for runners is to reduce risk of injuries. There are three types of strength training typically used by runners. First is body weight. This uses light weights or no weights with high repetitions. The idea is it builds strength and stability without the mass. Second is plyometrics. Plyometrics are explosive movements, such as jumping and springing. These are great but need to be implemented in small dosages especially at the beginning. Third is heavy lifting. Heavy lifting is low repetitions and max weight which strengths your connective tissue. Lifts should be done very slow and controlled. You’re runs during a strength rotation should be lower in intensity because you’re kicking up the intensity with strength training.

Speed Blocks: during your speed block you’re going to have an intense speed workout once a week and then throw in some fartleks during your long run. For your weekly intense session, choose different types of work outs. Don’t just do 800s. There’s nothing wrong with doing a week of 800s, just don’t make it an every week thing. Use pyramids, tempo runs, ladders, or 400s.

Hill Blocks: during your hill block you will have one run a week dedicated to running hills and then you’ll throw in extra hills for your long run. You can run hill repeats or find a long steady climb to conquer. If you’re doing short repeats, walking the downhill is fine, but you’ll have to find some longer downhills to practice downhill running. Downhills will tear up your legs if you don’t build them into your training.

Build Blocks: As endurance runners, especially at ultra-distances, your long run is going to stay in the weekly rotation. However, if you’re not doing a build phase, you’ll only do one long run a week rather than the back to backs. You can also choose to run one long run and then the next day a ten-mile run. But if you’re not in a build block, you’re not increasing the miles on that second day.

The important part is that you are changing things and challenging your body in new ways. Using the same workouts doesn’t get you more of the same results. It gets you a flatline.

 

Downhill Training

Running downhill is the easy part, right? Wrong. Anyone who has run downhill for more than a few minutes knows it is a sure-fire way to rip up your quads. Most ultramarathons have climbs and descents of various degrees. Everyone thinks about training for those uphill climbs, but training for the downhills is just, if not more, important.

There are some coaches out there who do not advise their runners to train for downhill mountain running because of the inherent risk for injury from the increased impact and the risk of falling. However, if done with the right amount of caution and focus, downhill running can be used to great benefit during training.

I cannot imagine standing at a starting line of a race with more than 25,000 feet of descent without having done significant downhill training. Yes, downhill running does pose a higher injury risk, but not doing downhill running and starting a race with lots of downhill poses a significant DNF risk and places you at an even higher injury risk, in my opinion, because you’re tired, your form is not perfect, and it may be dark.

Learning to run downhill proficiently has major benefits. It improves strength in your legs. It reduces DOMS because your body adapts to the higher impact load. It’s a great way to make up time you’ve lost on the long climbs.

Downhill running improves leg turn-over rate for faster running on flat ground. Because of this, even runners who don’t run a lot of downhill races, training on down hill can improve your performance.

Running downhill is an art. Some people come to it naturally and others have to practice and learn all of the skills of the trade. Start with short lower grade hills and work your way up. Choose hills that are not technical. You can even start on grass hills at a park or on the road. Don’t venture out onto unknown downhills until you’re comfortable doing the ones you do know.

While your working on building the muscle strength and endurance for downhills you can work on your foot work with an agility ladder. Trail running requires quick feet. You can search YouTube for agility training and find a bunch of exercises you can start right away.

Keep your eyes at your feet but move them between 8 feet in front of you to 2 feet in front of you. Your steps should be short. You want to lean forward a bit at the ankles but not to the point that you’ll lose control of your speed. Bend your arms at the elbows and flare them out a bit to maintain balance. Make sure you’re hydrated and fueled before heading down a long descent because You don’t want to have to find things while your navigating rocks and roots.

If you’re running technical downhills, you’ll probably fall at some point, so try not to keep things in your hands and have a small first aid kit in your pack and in your car. If you feel yourself starting to fall, try to counter balance with your arms. If you’re going down, protect your head and face as much as possible with your arms and tucking your chin. Try not to stretch your arms out straight in front of you to brace for the fall because you could break something. You want to be in a pushup position, so your bent arm can absorb the force. If you’re going straight forward or straight back, try to turn onto your side and keep your arms and legs bent.

HIIT

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is something every runner should be adding to their training routine, but especially runners who find themselves short on time for those extra long runs. Interval training is not new to runners. Most think of it as speed training such as 800 or 400 repeats. But HIIT can and should be more than just speed interval training. HIIT that incorporates strength moves helps build total body fitness in a way that just speed interval training doesn’t do.

HIIT is hard. You should be close to maximal effort. If you ever feel nauseous, light headed, or dizzy take a break before getting back to it. Some experts say that fifteen minutes of HIIT provides about the same physiological benefits as three hours of long slow distance. That does not mean you can train using only HIIT.

Adding in HIIT once or twice a week will actually allow you to reduce your total weekly miles by 10-20% without losing any fitness gains you’ve made. Many running coaches recommend that 20% of your training should be HIIT because of the many benefits you will reap. HIIT focuses on the fast twitch muscle fibers and as endurance runners we don’t tap into these all the time, but we do when our slow twitch muscles are fatigued because we begin to recruit anything we think will help. Training those fast twitch muscles will give a boost to your slow twitch as they become fatigued.

Another benefit of HIIT is the psychological training. HIIT makes you push through barrier after barrier when your body is screaming stop. You can tap into those experiences when things get hard out on the trail. Other benefits of HIIT: it’s very effective at burning fat, it boost your metabolism, and builds muscles

How long your HIIT workouts should be will depend on your current fitness level and your fitness goals. You can start with 20-30 minute and build up to 45-60 minute workouts. Here is an example of a HIIT session you can start with.

If you are recovering from an injury do not start HIIT training until you’re fully recovered. The intensity will increase the likelihood of re-injury. Warming up before a HIIT session is essential to reduce the risk of injury.

Workout ONE 30 minutes

3 minute dynamic warmup: Jumping jacks, high knees, lunges, inch worms, and leg swings.

1 minute rest

First set: 1 minute pushups: 20 second rest; 1 minute squat jumps: 20 second rest: 1 minute front plank: 20 second rest: repeat.

Second set: 1 minute burpee: 20 second rest: 1 minute dumbbell row: 20 second rest: 1 minute bicycles: 20 second rest: repeat two times

Third set: 1 minute mountain climbers:  20 second rest: 1 minute dumbbell/kettlebell swing: 20 second rest: 1 minute split squats with a jump: 20 second rest: repeat two times.

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.

Realistic Goal Setting

Alright, you’ve picked your goal race for 2018 now the training begins. There are a million training programs on the internet for every distance you want to run. There are also many different books you can buy that will help you construct your very own training plan.

One thing you have to keep in mind when you’re developing your training schedule is what is your goal finish time? Deciding what a reasonable goal is for you to finish a particular distance in can be challenging. Your goal finish time needs to be realistic based upon your prior finish times, your experience running the distance, and your training (consistency and workouts).

If you want to improve your finish time for a specific distance, you need to first ask yourself are you willing and able to put in the training to achieve it. You may have to train for longer and you will have to train harder. Training harder means getting the extra rest you’ll need and extra attention to your nutrition (before, during, and after race day). Your training will have to jump up a priority for you to remain consistent in completing each session but also completing them at the effort you need to be putting in.

Pull up your prior race times and think about the amount and type of training you put in to hit those times. If you’ve kept good documentation of your race times, you should be able to see where you struggled in a race. Think about the struggles you faced during the races that set you back and ways you can improve in those situations. Did you struggle climbing hills or descending them? Did the heat or the cold suck up all your energy? Is nighttime slowing you down?

All of these things can be addressed in your training along with many others like hydration and nutrition. Once you’ve identified areas where you know you can improve, pick one or two. If you have more than two or three, trying to address them all isn’t reasonable and could lead to over training or just plain burn out.

Here’s the hard part. How much time can you realistically cut off your prior finish times? Figure out what your average finish time has been. So, my last few 100s have been 32:44, 21:33, 28:42, 23:54, and 35:12. That’s quiet the range! But they are very different races and my training was different too. The two sub- 24’s are at flat races. A goal of 20 hours is realistic for a flat 100 for me. It would me taking 55 seconds off per mile. The 32:44 and 28:54 are at the same race a year between them. I trained much harder for that 28:54 and I got lost during the race. The race was very mountainous. A goal time of 26-27 hours at a mountain race would be realistic, but I would have to train hard and stay focused throughout training.

As you come up with a realistic goal, break it down into minutes per mile and then think about the terrain you’ll be traversing, is it still realistic? If you’ve made significant gains in your performance dropping 1-2 minutes per mile may be doable in a 100-mile event. It’s not in a shorter event. The shorter the event the less time you’ll be able to cut off each mile.

Don’t forget about the rest, the harder you train the more important rest becomes. Rest is when you build.  Schedule your rest days and your rest weeks. No rest means no improvements and high risk of injury.