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 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.

Benefits of Running Alone

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Do you get lonely when you run alone? I don’t. Sure, it’s nice to have someone along for a run once in a while maybe even a few days a week, but there are benefits to running alone too. Running is a great way to clear your head of all the stresses of everyday life. Talking with others about stresses is helpful, but breathing fresh air and just letting go of it, can be even better.

Running alone gives your brain the space to wander and create. I do some of my most creative thinking when I’m running alone. If you have someone there talking with you, you spend your energy processing what they are telling you and responding to them. This is probably my favorite thing about running alone. During the first twenty minutes to an hour, I think about a lot of things. Thoughts just jump in and out of my head, but then it goes quiet and the magic begins.

As an ultrarunner, you can potentially spend a significant amount of time alone during races and if you don’t train alone and become accustomed to being inside your own head, it can get scary. The critic inside your head is rarely a nice guy. Your mood goes up and down during a 100 mile race and if the race is the first time you are having to deal with that without another person to distract you, it’s going to get ugly.

There is an old saying among runners, never try anything new during a race. That means no new types of clothing, gear, or food. It applies equally well in this situation too.  You want to be able to mimic your race conditions as much as possible during training including elevation, gear, food, terrain, shoes, clothing, drink mixes, and yes the people in your head.

Running one hundred miles takes both physical and mental training. You have to learn to deal with whatever is inside your head or it could get the better of you during your event. The sooner you can learn different strategies for dealing with any self-defeating thoughts and negativity the better all of your runs will be.

One of the most effective ways I’ve learned to deal with this is through awareness. I know the tough times are coming and I know they will pass, so I stay focused on what’s around me. I stay present feeling the ground beneath my feet and taking in any other information my senses are picking up on. Your brain has a hard time criticizing you if you it’s filled with sensory information.

I try not to linger on any negative thoughts. If they just won’t go away, I begin challenging them by coming up with as many experiences I’ve had which contradict whatever the negative thought is.

What do you do to counter act negative thoughts during a race?