Embrace the Pain

We’ve all been to the darkest part of the pain cave in an ultra. The question is what did you do when you reached it? You don’t have to tell anyone if you crumbled into a pile of rubble or if you curled into a ball and closed your eyes. Honestly, there is no  shame in having taken one of those two approaches, at least the first time you enter the pain cave. After that, you really have to get your head in the game and come up with strategies to embrace the pain and use it to push you through to the other side.

When most people (non ultrarunners) think about the tough part of running, they of pushing your speed up a notch to stay fractions of a second ahead of the runner on your heels. This usually results in vomiting shortly after crossing the finish line or other unpleasantness. In the ultrarunning world, the pain cave is much darker. It’s continuing to move forward as fast as you can while combating hours of nausea, dehydration, blisters, sore muscles, exposure to the elements and possibly a rolled ankle or scrapped up hands and knees. As if that were not enough, you’re exhausted.

How do you prepare yourself for entering the pain cave, walking all the way through it, and reaching the other side? You build your mental endurance. You become familiar with the pain cave by training inside of it. Schedule workouts that are hard and run with people who challenge you to push past what you think are your limits. Here are some runs that you can use to get you into the pain cave:

Back to back long runs. Hill repeats. Carbohydrate depleting runs. Heat runs or cold runs. Intervals.

When you have a few of these under your belt, you can draw on these during races by telling yourself you’ve done hard things before.

Another strategy is to stay mindful of what is actually going on in your body. Some people check out of their body when things get hard. They go to their “special place.” Other runners become more focused on what is going on inside. They observe what is happening and without jumping on the pitty wagon (where we tell ourselves it hurts, it’s hard, or I can’t). These runners simply acknowledge that there is a pain/ache/unpleasant sensation and they watch it.

The damage comes when your thoughts start stacking negative and self defeating thoughts on top of the pain/ache/unpleasantness. Keep things simple in the pain cave. Recognize there is an issue and observe it. This takes practice. That’s why we train hard.

Nature vs. Nurture

We’ve all heard that the Kenyans are built for running-it’s in their genes. Statements like that raise more questions for me, such as: do genes(nature) limit my ability to improve my running? do my genes determine what type of training(nurture) or races I should do? How much of my improvement is from my pure stubbornness to succeed (is that genetic too?)?

I think it’s obvious that both genes and training play a role in our progress and ability in our sports. And I’m not sure if knowing which one is dominant is helpful because if it’s genes, the brain of many runners could get in the way of them making improvements through training hard due to a belief that they are limited.

There are more than 100 genes that have an impact on physical capacity. The belief that our genes determine our running performance seems reasonable, after all, our genes determine our body size and shape. Both of these influence our running performance. Those with smaller bone structures are going to be lighter on their feet. They are less likely to have non-propulsive muscle mass weighing them down.

Two measures scientists use for unraveling the nature vs. nurture questions are VO2 max and Lactate threshold. What they’ve discovered is that the degree to which VO2 max increases in response to exercise has a 47% genetic component. That leaves 53% friends-more than half. The degree to which Lactate threshold increases in response to exercise is a 55-80% genetic component. That’s a pretty big spread if you ask me.

How important is VO2 Max for ultrarunning? VO2 max is the highest rate at which your body can transport oxygen to your muscles, through blood, to provide your muscles with the energy they need. Most people can only sustain this level of effort for 8 minutes. Not helpful in an ultra that lasts up to 36 hours. Your VO2 max becomes less important as the distance of your run increases. This is not to say doing VO2 max training isn’t worth while. See my post on that here.

What about Lactate Threshold (LT)? LT is the point at which the level of lactate accumulating in your blood is higher than what your body can get rid of. During lower intensity exercise (ultrarunning by nature), lactate levels remain at or near resting levels- a steady state. Training your LT is still important. See my post referenced at the end of the last paragraph.

Other factors that determine running performance are diet, attitude toward running, daily activity pattern, amount of sleep, injuries, running efficiency, determination, and much more. What the science has concluded so far is there are just too many genes that impact sport performance to be able to predict who will be a good athlete and who will not.

So what can our genes tell us? no more than our personal experience which is the better route to go. Yes, there are companies out there who will test your DNA and tell you if you have a low, medium, or high aerobic potential, but I ask again does that really help you to know? I think this is a situation where ignorance is bliss. If we believe we have an insurmountable genetic limit, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I look out there at my fellow ultrarunners and I see the “impossible” accomplished at every race. Grit is a better predictor of our ability to succeed than any genetic test.

 

 

Carbohydrate Intake and Uptake

Carbohydrates are the energy source most runners use to fuel their training and their racing. Wait? most runners. That’s right there are some runners out there who use fats, protein, and even nothing. But this blog is about the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is what our bodies burn to fuel our muscles, nerves, and brains. Our bodies can store glucose as glycogen in our muscles, but it’s limited. When we run out, we hit the infamous WALL, if we haven’t properly fueled. Our blood also has glucose floating around. Maintaining our blood sugar level is how we prevent hitting, or reduce the impact of, the wall.

Ultrarunners and even some marathon runners struggle with GI issues and are constantly on the look out for ways to optimize their fueling strategy and minimize GI distress. It seems like a never ending cycle, and I’m not here to tell you there’s a way to end it, but there are different things to experiment with and thereby, possibly minimize your discomfort. In our efforts to maintain our blood sugar level and avoid the wall, we may overload on the carbs which causes sloshing, cramps, bloating, and other nasty things in our stomachs.

So the trick to minimizing GI issues, is knowing how much to intake to maximize uptake, but not overload the system. This blog is also for those who don’t suffer from GI issues, since we’re going to look at how much carbohydrate a body can uptake.

Depending on the intensity you’re running at, you’re going to run out of glycogen stores withing about 90 minutes to three hours as an average endurance runner. To maintain your blood sugar levels you need to start taking carbs in right before you begin your race or a long training run. Then, you’ll need to take more at regular intervals to meet that 60-90 grams per hour.

What we know is that regardless of how many grams of carbohydrates you intake, your body can only uptake between 60-90 grams an hour. What determines whether it’s 60 or 90 is the type of carbohydrate your taking in. Your body can process about 60 grams of glucose an hour. So if all you’re getting is glucose, don’t try to put more than 60 grams an hour in.

To get to the 90 grams an hour, you have to combine the 60 grams of glucose with 30 grams of fructose (although sucrose is a combination of fructose and glucose it’s not processed the same so avoid sucrose as a source of fuel). The reason your body can handle the 90 grams of carb processing is because glucose and fructose take different paths to be absorbed by your body.

Sixty grams of glucose produces about 232 calories. Thirty grams of fructose produces about 120 calories. For a grand total of 352 calories replaced during every hour if you play your cards right.

Dextrose and Maltodextrin are made from starches, but are absorbed like glucose. This is nice to know because fructose is very sweet and sometimes sweet things become intolerable during a race. Maltodextrin and Dextrose are not as sweet as glucose and so they can be combined with fructose to get the same benefit of the 90 grams of carbs.

Water intake with the carbs is important. Your digestive system needs water to break things down and get it into your blood stream to be used. Without water, it just sits in your stomach (which is why dehydration causes GI issues). If you put more than the 60-90 grams in an hour, your body is not going to be able to absorb them and they will just sit in your stomach causing problems.

What if you’re feeling depleted, but can’t stomach more food/gels/chews? You can rinse your mouth with a carbohydrate rich drink and spit it out. This will make your brain think that carbs are on the way and give you a little boost for a little bit, but unless your close to the finish line, you still need to figure out your GI issue.

 

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.

HURT 100 Finisher

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The HURT 100 was an incredible event. The entire HURT ohana (family) was welcoming, supportive, and showered every runner with the aloha spirit. I would absolutely go and run this race again. It was a mentally and physically challenging course but in the most beautiful 100 mile way. hurt-100-5

The HURT 100 is run in on the island of O’ahu near Honolulu. It’s a 20 mile loop through the rain forests including the tangled surface root systems of the Banyan trees, the clacking of bamboo, and multiple river crossings. Runners complete the loop five times. The total cumulative elevation gain is 24,500 ft and the same amount of loss for a grand total of 49,000 feet of cumulative elevation change. There are three aid stations on each loop with 5-7 miles between each aid station.

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Less than 50% of runners who start the HURT finish the HURT. This year 125 runners started and 54 finished. You have 36 hours to finish the race. There are a lot of things that contribute to a DNF (did not finish). It would be interesting if races started tracking reasons for dropping from a race. HURT is a extremely technical race and I would guess many runners drop because they have twisted, sprained, torn, and broken various body parts. The heat and humidity is also a big factor in the DNF rate because it contributes to dehydration, stomach problems, and blisters/chafing.

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I finished HURT in 35 hours and 12 minutes. Not my fastest finish by any means, but a finish. I had two amazing men jump in and pace for me last minute. They live on O’ahu and run the HURT loop about once a week. It was great to get to know them as we made our way through the jungle.

So what did I learn from HURT? 1. train for the race you are going to run. I added hot yoga to my training to prepare for the heat and humidity. It helped immensely. I ran up and down a lot of stairs (the mountains are snowed in here). This helped keep my climbing and descending muscles strong and made sure I focused on foot placement. I also included agility training (thanks Dennis). If you are going to spend a day and a half running through roots and rocks while going up and down mountains, you  best be able to move your feet quickly.

2. Don’t chew gum while you are running because it keeps your mouth wet and you drink less.

3. if it hurts to walk and it hurts to run, run.

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There is a documentary being produced about the HURT 100. Here is a link to the trailer (which I’m in :0) That’s me in the white hat purple shirt kissing Cody at the finish line). HURT does have an amazing story and a beautiful soul. Every ultra course has it’s own personality and soul. I’t’s comprised of the passion and love of the sport through the race director, staff, volunteers and runners, but then there is this piece that you cannot know unless you run the race. It’s the soul of the course itself. Every race I’ve run has a different personality and soul and they draw different types of runners.

 

Mahalo to my HURT ohana and all my readers.

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.