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.

Falling on Your Face…Literally

falling down

I have had some epic falls out on the trail, just ask my running partner who wishes we had a go pro to capture some of these. I wish we had one too because I’d like to see what happens when I fall. Not just the fall itself (I know how that felt), but where my feet were and how my body was positioned right before I careened into the ground.

As a trail runner you expect to fall every once in a while. You are, after all, running down trails with rocks, roots, fallen trees, overgrown vegetation and other obstacles. Some runners fall more often than others. And then there is me.

Over the last month, I have fallen during nearly every run. I currently have a scraped knee, hand, and forearms. I have bruises on both hips and other places on my thighs. Typically, I catch my toe on a rock or root and down I go. During one long run, I counted how many times I almost fell, fifteen. The trail was rather tricky and overgrown.

I fell once hard on my knee and had to stop running for a week. From then on, I’ve tried to fall to one or the other side, and thus the bruising on my hips. This is probably not the best strategy.

My latest fall (today)… was the most interesting yet. I caught my left toe while skipping through rocks going downhill. Because of my momentum, I flew through the air, rotated, landed on my butt and back, and slid two or three feet. So you can add a large bruise on my right butt cheek and scrapes up my spin and across my right shoulder.

As I was researching this topic, I found articles saying work on your core strength and stability. I have an hour and a half core, proprioception, and stability workout I do two to three times a week. I’m pretty stable and my core is strong which is why I can catch 90% of my tumbles before I hit the ground.

I’ve ruled out other causes of falling such as untied shoes, not paying attention, listening to music, proper running form, and making sure my feet aren’t too close together. I have been able to increase my speed on climbs and descents, which I’m sure is contributing to the problem, but…

Since I am catching my toe, I’ve decided I need to focus on picking my feet up higher and doing some high knees. I’m not blaming my shoes but I think it may help to get shoes that fit more snug along the sides of my feet and are only one size to big rather than a size and a half. I am also getting shoes that allow me to feel the ground more (minimalist) to see if that helps my proprioception.

I was reading through an online forum and found kindred falling runners. It was nice to know other runners are falling just as much as I do.  Some of the most helpful and funny advice I found was written by Lisa Butler. This is what she had to say:

“The best way to not get hurt by falling is to not fall. I know, it’s more stupidity from that ‘Lisa’ and someday she’ll probably be the kind of Doc who says “if it hurts to blink your eyes, don’t blink.”

Seriously though, think prevention first.

First, look where you WANT to go, not where you don’t want to go. Like driving or mountain biking, you tend to go where you look. So if you look straight down at the root you are stepping over, you may get a closer look than you want. Scan ahead, know it’s there, and step up.

Second, ‘think yourself upright.’ Thinking “Don’t fall” over and over, especially when you are tired, programs you to fall. Instead think, “stay up, stay light on my feet.”

Third, if you do fall anyway, resist the urge to catch yourself on your outstretched arm. Your shoulder can handle the hit much better than your wrist. Handheld water bottles may afford some protection here, but not always.

Heroic torqueing maneuvers to ‘make the save’ are as likely to injure you as the impact. It is beautiful when it works and you don’t twist a knee or hip.

Lastly, remember that the injury only truly counts as an injury if the blood hits your sock. Otherwise it’s inconsequential and you don’t get to whine. Yes, THAT part is a joke.”

My hope, is other falling runners, will read this and know they are not alone as they eat dirt over and over again on the trail.

 

Eat To Run

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How much does what we eat impact how we perform? There is a group of runners who subscribe to the belief, “I run, therefore I eat what I want,” which is a pretty unhealthy diet.

There is a mistaken belief that the higher mileage you run, the unhealthier you can eat since you’ll just run it off on the weekend with your twenty mile or longer run. There is lots of research out there about what is the healthiest diet for runners and athletes in general.

If you look, you can find support for many diets including low-carbohydrate, paleo, fruititarian, vegetarian, and vegan. There is not support for the eat whatever I want diet and still perform well as an athlete.

Food supplies the body with energy and nutrients. It provides you with immediate energy and long lasting energy. High sugar foods lead to crashes and cravings for more high sugar foods. Food with high calories can lead to weight gain and an increase in fat mass because you get more calories than you are burning off.

Running requires a large supply of oxygen to be transported through your blood to your working muscles. Foods rich in trans or hydrogenated fats cause buildup in veins and slow the blood flow, which means your heart, lungs, and muscles don’t get the oxygen they need and you slow down.

The insulin gait connection is something new research has uncovered. Consumption of a high carbohydrate diet causes your body to increase production of insulin. Too  much insulin in our bodies means we are not able to maintain a healthy balance of blood sugar levels. Imbalances in blood sugar can cause irritability, cravings for sugar, excessive appetite, afternoon drowsiness or headaches, getting the shakes, and trouble sleeping.

People with blood sugar imbalances have irregular gait patterns and thus some chronic ache, pain or injury. How does this happen? High levels of insulin affect the brain directly and not just mental functioning but physical functioning too. The more the brain is lacking proper nutrition the more impaired the more physical movement will suffer. An impaired gait leads to other muscles compensating and then to injury.

Foods that are going to benefit your running are nutrient dense whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, brown rice and protein from lean meats or plant based. Healthy fats are also important to decreased inflammation and build strong cell membranes that are resistant to damage during exercise. Good sources of fat are avocados, olive oil, nuts, and coconut.

Finally, getting enough calories to fuel your body is just as important (perhaps more) as what you are eating. Without enough calories, your body begins to consume your own muscles when you are underweight. Muscle loss is not the goal of any athlete. The recommendation currently is 2800 calories a day for middle aged active men and 2200 calories a day for middle aged active women. Here is a chart to find your age group.

Eating healthy gives your body the building blocks it needs to recover quickly and repair damage done through training.

On Your Left!

trail runners

I became focused as I reached the top of the pass. I knew the narrow rocky descent was going to require much of my attention. I had to move my feet and stay on my toes. Missteps resulted in falls onto unmerciful rock and sticks. I loved these descents because it became a game to me about how fast I could really move my feet.

I glanced down the trail right as I dropped over the saddle. There was two hikers about half way to the bottom. The first few meters of the trail weren’t bad, but the farther you got down the slope the rockier it got, not to mention the steepness increased as well. My pace quickened. My feet balanced on the edge of certain injury with the catch of a toe or a roll of an ankle. My eyes moved back and forth between my next step and ten to fifteen feet in front of me.

“On your left,” I call out as I near a hiker picking through the rock carefully.

_____

What do you think this hiker did?

Yeah, he moved to the left and I ended up dancing around him. Luckily I didn’t eat dirt.

“On your left,” must be the most confusing statement any cyclist or runner can make. It is intended to warn those in front of you that you are going to pass them on their left side. What the person in the front hears is, “Move to your left.”

I’ve spent some time thinking about this problem because it’s happened many times. I liken it to showing someone a picture of the word Blue written in red and asking them to tell you what color the word is.

I would like to experiment with this by calling out, “move left” instead of, “on your left.” My hang up is I don’t want to sound rude and have people develop animosity toward trail runners or cyclists.

I’ve also considered calling out “on your right” and then passing on their left, but sometimes you get that one person who is probably a trail runner or cyclist themselves and they move in the proper direction.

Ideally, hikers and slower runners would listen for others coming down the trail behind them and just move over. This doesn’t happen, partially, because people have their ear buds in. The other part, I think, is they are lost in their own thoughts.

At this point, trail runners and cyclist have to call out early and be ready to move to the opposite side to pass.

Do any of you call out something different and get better results?

Don’t Become Stagnant

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Do you run the same routes and distances every week? I hope not, especially, if your goal is to improve your running. It’s important to change things up and challenge your body in new ways. The body learns to run the same old stuff very efficiently. Once it does this, you stop getting gains in your running.

Most training programs include a couple of easy runs, one speed work, and then a long run on the weekend. This is pretty much true regardless of distance.

Having a couple of easy days is important for your body to recover and I don’t think you need to mess with these. Easy days should be at conversation pace. The distance depends on the distance of the race you’re training for and if you’re not training for an event, it would be based upon the distance you like to run on the weekends.

Speed work is a wonderful way to work on your leg turnover even if your focus is not speed but endurance. Being able to move your feet quickly is helpful for steep descents and technical terrain. There are many different types of speed work including intervals, ladders, and tempo runs.

Interval runs consist of a specific distance of a mile or less run at a 90% effort and then either a 200 meter or 400 meter cool down. Then you repeat them. The number of repeats again is tied to the distance of your long run on the weekend.

Ladders are when you increase the distance with each interval. You still have the 200 or 400 meter rest, but the first interval would be 400, the second would be 800, the third one mile, and the fourth a mile and a half. You can create a pyramid by coming back down, one mile, 800 and 400 with the mile and half being the apex.

Tempo runs are when you run a 800 to one mile warm up (actually you should be running a warm up with all speed work) and then run 4 or 5 miles at about 80% effort or race pace.

Of course these are just a few examples, and if you google you will find a ton more. When doing speed work make sure you are not putting it back to back with another hard workout such as a long run. Speed work is hard on your body and it needs an easy run or rest day to follow.

Another way to mix up speed work is not to run speed at all, but hills. You can find a long gradual climb of a few miles or you can do hill repeats (gag). With hill repeats, your rest is on the downhill. So run hard up and then slow down, repeat.

Long runs are another essential part of training, but there are options here as well. You can add in Fartleks. Fartlek means, “speed play.” What you do is pick a point in front of you during a long run. It doesn’t have to be very far out. And then run it hard. You can do this as many times as you’d like and change up the distance each time. This is also good for those who get bored during long runs.

Change up your route for your long runs too. Add some hills, some trails, or run through a park or two. If you run through a park with a playground you can stop and do some pull ups or go down the slide (why not?).

My final suggestion to mix it up and prevent that stagnation is to throw in some other exercises every mile or so during a long run. Stop and do some pushups, burpees, or jumping jacks. Run with high knees or butt kicks.

Changing things up forces your body to adapt in new ways. This means it gets stronger, which is what you want.

Run Your Own Race

running hills

I’m writing this blog post to talk about an issue my running partner and I have had to discuss recently. I’m pretty sure other running partners and groups have had to address this same struggle. So I thought I would share my experience.

Carbo (as he likes to be called) just finished his first 100 mile run. I ran the same race, but it was my sixth 100. I’ve been training at the 100 mile level for three years and running consistently for 10. He has been training at the 100 mile level for one year and training as a runner consistently for a year and a half.

Given just this information, you’d expect some differences in our ability and knowledge of running. So here is the struggle when running with a training partner or group. What do you do when one or more of your runners are not able to keep pace for whatever reason?

As the runner who is not able to keep pace you feel like your group is leaving you behind and you feel like you are not as good as the others. You begin to question yourself, your running ability, and your training. You feel bad you can’t keep up and you also feel angry or hurt because they are not waiting for you.

As the runner who is pulling ahead you feel bad because your group is not able to keep up. You wonder if you should slow down. You hope they are not sick or injured. You know they are struggling and you want to help.

I think these feelings are rational and understandable by anyone who has run with others on a consistent basis and formed the bonds of friendship.

So what do you do? You run your own race.

Think about your goals and your groups goals, are they different? If your goal is to complete a specific distance in a specific time, you need to stick to your training and let your friend know why you are not waiting. If your goal is just to run with your friend, by all means slow down and let them set the pace. It’s the same for the other side. If you can’t keep pace, ask yourself what your friend’s goals are. If they are different let them go and do what you need to do to meet your goals or get stronger to keep pace.

Is your runner who is falling behind, injured or anything else that may be holding them back? Obviously you want to know if your friend is hurt, tired, over training or anything else that may be slowing them down. You might be able to help them resolve the issue and if they are hurt encourage them to stop and take care of themselves. On the flip side, know your body and listen to it. There is no shame in taking time off to take care of yourself. Continuing to push to keep up, will only make you fall farther behind and could result in serious injury.

How long do you think the struggle will continue? Short term differences in pace are going to happen. If you are recovering from a race or illness you can fall behind. Don’t stress about it. Let your body recover and then get after it. If there are differences in strength or ability, do what you need to do to get stronger and faster within your own limits. As the faster runner, help your friend become a better runner pass along information or strategies you’ve used to get to where you are. If you believe this will be an ongoing struggle you will have to think about going your separate ways at least as far as running is considered. This is a hard decision to make, but with communication and understanding you can still remain friends and run together on easy days.

Is there value to both runners to work through this struggle to become stronger runners? Every situation offers a lesson if you are open to hearing it. Usually, the longer you ignore it the worse it gets. There are a number of lessons in this situation: listen to your body and take care of it, learn new training strategies, push yourself beyond what you think you can do (so long as you are not injured or over training), communication goes a long way, and whether or not your new training is working.

Realizing your limits and accepting them is hard. We are all different. Running with others is a great way to push yourself and to make gains in your training. You have to run your own race. You have to make decisions which put you in the best spot to accomplish your goals. Maybe this is a little selfish. I’m sure some people think so. And I would tell them, their goals are just different and that’s okay.

Even if you train individually at times and together at others, when you both reach the finish line, you can always celebrate together.

Don’t worry Carbo, I think this is a short term struggle.