Training not Where You Wanted it to Be?

Life can get in the way of the best laid plans. Even when running is LIFE, the other pieces can interfere and put us a week out from race day with inadequate training and a mindset lacking in enthusiasm for the event ahead of us.

What do you do when your training just hasn’t been what you wanted it to be? Maybe it has been a lot less than you wanted it to be, to the point where you’re questioning your ability to finish the race? You have three options to choose from.

First, you can DNS (did not start) and cut your losses with that (most races won’t let you transfer your registration to another runner or carry it over to the next year). Second, you can go out hard pretending that your training was amazing and nothing can stop you. Third, you can show up to the start and see what the day brings with only an expectation to enjoy yourself.

The second option is likely to get you injured, which will only compound any frustration you feel about the situation. The first, I can understand if you’re coming back from an injury, which has killed your training and you really don’t want to risk causing more injury or compromising the healing process.

The third is the option I encourage most runners to take. You paid for the race after all and I think you will surprise yourself if you hold to a few suggestions and trust in your running foundation.

It’s important that you stay positive about the event and situation as much as possible-Hey at least you’re able to be out there. Make sure you are encouraging other runners as you come in contact with them along the course. Not only will your encouraging words impact them, they will impact you because, you hear them as well.

Summon your inner confidence. You’re a strong runner who has done hard things before. You finished races before. You know where to slow down and where to pick up the pace. You know how to fuel and hydrate. You know how to utilize your crew and pacers to help you reach the finish line. You’ve dealt with the “pain and suffering” of running before and can do it again.

Don’t discount consistency. If you’ve been able to maintain consistency in your training schedule but not the miles remember that consistency goes a long long way when it comes to running. Yeah, sure you wish you could have gotten in more long runs and more time on the trails, but at least you ran every day you had scheduled to be a run day even if it was only for an hour. Consistency keeps your muscles and tendons strong. It also keeps your mental game strong.

Trust your foundation. If you’ve been running for years and this is just one of many races you’ve done trust your body. You have the running foundation to push through a race even on less than the best training.

Get out to the starting line and assess your body’s condition as you go. You don’t want to get injured, but don’t miss a chance to play on the trails and show yourself you can do things even when they don’t turn out just the way you had planned.

Self-Supported Long Run

Why would you do a self supported long run? why not? Planning out a route and setting everything up is great practice for running any ultra. It’s also good training if there isn’t a local “shorter” ultra race you can throw in your schedule before your big event.

Let me first clarify what I mean by self supported. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to carry all the stuff you’ll need for the entire distance you are running. It just means you’re the one setting everything up. You can have drop bags or meet up with a supportive friend/loved one to get additional items or trade out gear.

There are two main goals for doing this type of run. First, to get a good taste of where you are at in your training and what you  need to work on. Second, to get a good idea of how to pack drop bags and what you’ll need at particular places during a run.

The distance of the run depends on the distance of you’re main event. If you’re running a 100, consider putting together something between 40-50 miles. Yes, you’ll have to take a few days off afterward to recover, but you’ll be doing this two months before race day so you’ve got some time. If you’re running a 50 miler, shoot for 30 miles.

If you’ll be running at night during your race, setting this up as a night time run or an early evening (finish in the middle of the night) run is going to help you get more comfortable with the night portion. It’s also helpful if you don’t just sit around or sleep all day before you do this run. If you work, go to work. If you need to do grocery shopping, do it. This will give you a good sense of running tired.

If you’re running during the night, I would encourage you to find someone to go with you to keep you company and for safety reasons. Also make sure you are familiar with the route you’re taking since it wont be marked like it would be in a race.

Figure out your route

Try to find something that is similar to what you’ll be running in your race. Maybe not as difficult, but similar terrain wise. Don’t choose a road route, if you’re gearing up for a single track trail race, unless you don’t have any other choices. Find a route where you can meet someone once or twice to refill your supplies. Even if you’re not meeting up with anyone, make sure someone knows when you’re leaving, the route your taking, and the time you expect to be finished (just in case).

You might be able to place drop bags along the route or just pack them and give them to your support crew to bring with them and then only use the supplies out of the bag for that stop (unless its injury related, of course). This will help you know what to pack for a real event.

Get creative and have fun with your very own ultra event.

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.