Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/
Some thoughts on ‘going the distance’ in training for the ultra-marathon
‘Throwing around this question with a friend and coach of mine we compared notes on our own experience and the people we have worked with and came up with the following:
Key Reasons Why People DNF At Ultras
Feet fall apart
Loss of motivation
Failure of fuelling strategy
Timed out at checkpoints
There are others – and we kept coming back to these four.
Which begs this question:
Which of these factors is a function of ‘not doing the distance’ in training?
Maybe some of (1) bits of (3) and perhaps (4) – if failure to make a cut off is not due to a navigation error.
Which begs another question:
If it’s rarely the big distance on it’s own which stops people finishing – why do big distances in training?
Here’s what we came up with:
Spending Time On Feet (TOF) for extended periods - whether walking or running - is important for:
Developing the body’s ability to take in and use oxygen efficiently
Developing the body’s ability to become fuel-efficient
Testing shoe and sock combinations
Toughening the feet
Testing the other body part contact areas (underarm, groin, and contact points with a bumbag or rucksack) prone to friction and chafing
Testing fuelling strategies
Learning how to Manage Mood
Learning how to be self-sufficient
It’s just the Big Distance which makes bigger those factors which would be insignificant and / or we would just put up with or get away with over shorter distances.
Big Distance = Bigger Cumulative Effect (and bigger consequences if we get it wrong).
A Bottom Line
We get really good at what we do most of.
This is The Training Effect.
So perhaps it follows that to get really good at ultrarunning we should just run. Lots.
Exactly How Much seems to us to be governed by:
What we want to do (the race, the goals)
Where we are starting from (our background)
What we can realistically commit to (how big a stretch it is)
What we can practically do (the real life bit)
What state – physically, mentally, emotionally - we are prepared to finish in (and how long we are prepared to spend recovering)
Studies of top endurance athletes compiled by Noakes in The Lore Of Running (2001) lead him to conclude that one of the key factors for success in running is indeed to do just that: Run. Lots. Consistently.
For us mere mortals I think that translates into as often and as consistently as possible given the factors above.
So Exactly How Long Should You Go when training for your first ultra?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that there are huge benefits to going long in training – and there are also other ways in which we can prepare that will also get us across that finish line.
The right combination for you?
Is the right combination for you.
Who Is Andy Mouncey?
Andy signed off on a 17 year triathlon career in 2003 by completing the Enduroman Arch To Arc Challenge: A 300 mile solo triathlon linking London and Paris via an English Channel swim. Andy still holds the record for the fastest stage times.
From 2004 he has concentrated on ultra-marathon running, competing in this country and abroad in single and multi-day races.
He still competes and lives with his family just outside Lancaster where he runs his own training and coaching practice www.bigandscaryrunning.com
Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/
I want to declare my position on this from the outset: I am an accredited strength-conditioning coach, I do curiosity quite well and I also run ultras. This means I start from the position that my professional training and personal experience has given me: Strength is good.
For the last few years I’ve observed, read and experimented. What you don’t have in this piece are detailed conditioning plans you can just blindly follow – it ain’t that simple and you’re not that simple either.
What you do have is the result of all that experimentation as clear as I can make it, and a framework you can take to a conditioning specialist who can fill in the gaps for you.
To get better at the chosen activity – so exercises are used which strengthen the prime working muscles used during that activity
To prevent injury from doing that chosen activity – so exercises are used which strengthen the opposite muscles to those working during that activity in order to promote balance. Remember: You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe
…and because all things being equal The Strong Will Survive (Longer)
It’s about resilience: As ultrarunners we are required to operate in an upright position over an extended period of time on our feet at changing speeds over varied and challenging terrain usually carrying something on our back; to bounce back from a fall and then recover quickly so we can do it all again next week.
So hands up if you can’t see the strength requirement in that lot?
What Strength Training Wont Do
According to Laursen et al (2005) it wont improve your VO2 max or your lactate threshold – in other words how fast you can run and how easy that feels the closer to your maximum you are. The good news is that for most of us ordinary mortals these are not limiting factors to a good ultra performance anyway – ‘cos we just don’t get anywhere near those limits.
What Strength Training Will Do
Tidy You Up
It will improve your mechanical running economy by holding everything firm and upright so you are not wasting energy trying to control a jelly-like torso. If you’re upright then your lungs will have more space to work in and that’s just gonna make it all feel easier - never mind all the other benefits.Think ‘…Cannon From A Canoe’ and remember the posture-backpack link.
Laursen’s study reaches this conclusion and my own experience backs this up. The more energy you have to use for the moving forward bit, all things being equal the easier and faster you will be. Once again, you can probably get away with jelly characteristics over the shorter distances but cumulatively over the big stuff..?
Power You Up
Strength and power training – the difference between the two terms is the speed with which you can move a load – will help you get up and down the hilly stuff. No doubt. There’s a bunch of research out there, (I’ve listed some at the back of this book) and once again my own experience chimes.
Lean & Mean
You will increase the proportion of your lean tissue – that’s more muscles in your body. This is not the same as bulking up. You will lean down because muscles are fuel-hungry cells that need calories and this means your metabolic rate will ramp up – in other words you will use more calories just to sit still. There is a point beyond which I think that becomes a problem – ultras in extreme environments, for instance – and I still stand by the benefit: If you want to firm things up and lean ‘em down then the right strength training will do it for you.
What’s Wrong With Being Strong?
Nothing – except I see a lot of weak runners.
Even without testing them I know they are weak because:
Posture and running mechanics are awful especially in the latter stages
They suffer from considerable muscle soreness
They are predisposed to soft tissue injuries
Recovery takes longer than it really should
They are single-speed and one direction
They are slow on big climbs and descents
Stop Press: Getting stronger is at least a significant ingredient in fixing all this.
Weak runners abound because most runners train by running ‘cos they like to run, (Hoffman MD, Krishnan E, 2013) and most ultrarunners train by running more ‘cos they like to run even more than everyone else. And while Hoffman and Krishnan did find that among their study group the most popoular ‘other’ activity was cycling, they also found that more than half the sample did not do consistent resistance training.
Other reasons/excuses I’ve come across for this strength-neglect are:
I don’t like it so I don’t do it
I don’t understand it so I don’t it
I don’t have a gym so I don’t do it
I don’t want to bulk up so I don’t do it
I don’t have the time so I don’t do it
I don’t know what to do so I don’t do it
I don’t know how to do it so I don’t do it
Let’s deal these excuses straightaway:
I don’t like it…In my experience this is a smokescreen for ‘don’t understand the value of it’ or ‘can’t do it well/easily so feel like an idiot’ or ‘had a bad previous experience.’ So it’s not really about like per se
I don’t understand it…Fair enough. While there is a ton of information available on strength-training for sport there is very little on strength-training for ultrarunners – and again, what there is is hardly cast-iron conclusive. ‘Good job you’re reading this then…
I don’t have a gym…You don’t need one. You might need some things that gyms are good for - like a coach or friends to workout with or a reason to do it – but these things are not confined to an indoor facility
I don’t want to bulk up…Have you ever tried bulking up? It’s really hard work to achieve. Really! It’s also perfectly possible to get super strong without the size: You just need to train for that outcome*
I don’t have the time…usually linked to ‘I don’t like it…’ Well, you don’t need to find the time for another 40 minute session – I’ll show you the time-saving bit later – and the rest is just choices about how we do spend the time we have
I don’t know what to do…Fair enough. Convinced of the value? Get curious or just keep reading
I don’t know how…Learn how (and what) from an accredited strength coach
*E.g. the svelt-like former champion track cyclist Victoria Pendleton would in her prime be able to squat twice her bodyweight and then some. At least.
Now this just running lark is all fine because it’s perfectly possible to be weak and fast and still get the results you want.
For a while and upto a point.
It’s also perfectly natural to concentrate on the primary activity – the running – till you hit a plateau or something breaks, and then change your approach: Doing something different and/or working with a coach, for example.
So if you’re at that point and/or I’ve got you curious…Part 2 of this piece really will be worth waiting for.
Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/
It became increasingly apparent as I picked through the wreckage in the aftermath of my DNF at The Spine Race www.thespinerace.com in January 2014 that while mine is most of the time, there have also been regular occasions when it just isn’t. This realization has been humbling as I thought I’d got this thing nailed – and hey, aren’t I supposed to be some expert here?
Four other things have happened since then to shake this cozily constructed belief:
I created and applied a new reviewing template that caused me to see my Spine Race attempt differently
The final content for my new book ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’ was the food-fuel section and that research gave me pause for thought
I was poked and prodded on this subject by my audience at Keswick Mountain Festival recently and that forced me to check my answers in a very public way
As I’ve written about previously the short version on my Spine Race fun and games was that I simply did not eat and drink enough to do the relentless forward motion bit and keep warm. The solution is to eat more pies and wear a thicker cardigan. But it’s the bit before that that’s the key:
How on earth did I - an experienced and informed participant who had a clear and compelling goal to finish the damn thing – allow myself to get into that state?
The key to arriving at any valuable answer is to ask the right question in the first place – and that means rising above the usual What Went Well? What Went Wrong?
So I came up with something else* that revealed the real culprit for the first time:
SHORT TERM THINKING CAUSED BY UNCHECKED COMPETITIVE TENDENCIES
Something that apparently I’ve been honing all my life:
‘Andrew’ noted a junior school report from the 1970’s ‘likes a challenge.’
So much so that on occasion everything else goes out the window. I can become consumed in the thrill of the chase, the tactical micro-battles, and the joy of moving as well as I can through the landscape. Even when I’m well into a downward spiral I know can do bloody-minded and get to an interim check – though the cost can be great and sometimes terminal. There were two significant occasions – that’s right only two - in my Spine Race where short term thinking became the basis for my decisions – and I paid for them both in the end.
Reading other race reports from The Spine it quickly became clear that one thing I wasn’t doing that many other folks were – race winner Pavel probably another exception – was stopping to eat at pubs and cafes along the route. Even the kids in the schools part of the project thought that was daft. Except to me it’s a race – and I don’t stop at pubs when I’m racing – ‘cos it’s a race! If that stays the same then I only have one alternative: Carry more – and accept all the implications that brings with it.
The book writing forced me to see this trend going back years:
2003 Arch To Arc (London-Paris) triathlon and getting carried away on a section on the road run during a lovely calm night between 20-35 miles with lots of downhill accelerated the trashing of my quads that eventually forced me to walk the final 17 miles to Dover
2010 and my first outing over 62 miles in the Yorkshire Dales. I wrestled with Competitive Bloke all day repeatedly stuffing him back into my pack when he emerged to try sabotage my ‘complete not compete’ goal. I won – but he took me the full 12 rounds
2011 UTMB in grim conditions. 30km in and I’m already very cold. I recover but the spiral has started. Throw in some less than total motivation and I will DNF at halfway
Then there’s the flip side of being conditioned enough for this ultra game so that you’re running a diesel engine that gives you miles for very little intake: The early warning signals are hidden and you are well practiced at being frugal.
‘So how much fluid are you all taking in an hour?’ asks Sarah recently.
There’s a pause as adventure racing Joe Faulkner, Jill and Sharon and I look searchingly at , do the and come up with very little. Sarah fills in the gap:
, no Sarah. That would do each of us for at least half a day on the hill actually…
Herein lies another part of the problem: Focusing on becoming more fuel-efficient by steadily reducing the amount we eat and drink in certain training sessions has meant that when the energy requirements go up (e.g. when racing / in cold/changeable weather and if we are solo for long periods) our habits lag behind. That’s right: We have become less used to eating and drinking frequently – which is what we were doing when we first started this ultra game! Remember those first races? A glorified picnic punctuated by bits of running and walking.
Let Competitive Bloke have his head and finely balanced equilibrium can quickly become marginal – and after marginal comes pain and suffering and that, as all disciples of Yoda will tell you, will lead you downwards to The Dark Side.
Once the slide begins is it possible to completely recover it? Well, that depends…As Paul Fowler www.onehundredpercentswimming.co.uk put it to me as we were comparing cold experiences after my Keswick gig:
‘I was well prepared, highly motivated and it really did matter, and yet there still came a point where I could not fight the physiology.’
* Get To The Bottom Of It
Are you ready to reflect with certainty and get the to real reasons behind your race under-performances and DNFs?
Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/
All roads from a state of energy depletion can ultimately lead to a DNF, and even if this is not the primary cause it is likely to be up there as a major contributing factor.
I Know This Because
I’m still on single figure DNFs which I figure ain’t bad in 30 years racing. My two biggest were at UTMB 2011 and the 268 mile Spine Race in 2014. Both took place in big landscapes and both in bad weather. While I’ve already mentioned my UTMB in the context of Making It Matter, a contributing factor was that I also did not eat enough to stay warm and make good progress. It was this that was also my undoing at The Spine Race and here’s an extract from my race report which picks up my progress at around the 55 mile point during the first night:
‘There is, however, one thing in my world that is starting to puzzle me: Every time I drink I want to pee a few minutes later. Every time. I can’t believe I’m over-hydrated – I’m not exactly Sweat City here and I didn’t drink all my 1.5 litres during the first 45 miles – but what else can it be?
(It’s only when I’m at the second checkpoint at 105 miles and quizzing the race doctor that understanding comes. When the body is cold the brain will trigger urination to get rid of as much fluid as possible so the blood can concentrate on warming the vital organs. My frequent peeing for no apparent (thirst) reason is a BIG sign that I’m cold – and probably have been since well into the first day. Except I don’t feel that cold – OK, I’m not toasty – but I’m not shivering either. It’s another reason I don’t register there might be a problem. Meanwhile dehydration is working it’s own stealth attack…
The fixes are one or all of these three: Eat more, wear more, or work harder. Anyway, realization is for later – for now I don’t have the knowledge to make the connection so I simply continue to drink, (cold water – and I’ll find out later this is another factor in my decline) pee and add/remove layers as I feel – all the while continuing to dig myself into a hole that two days later I will be unable to climb out of).’
I will eventually grind to a halt at 160 miles after three and a half days of English winter travel.
I have been suffering from the affects of creeping hypothermia since the first day that has twice put me into a big hole. On reflection the lessons were these:
I was probably too lean on the start line
I did not eat enough carbohydrate
I did not drink enough
I was marginal with my clothing layers
My ability to operate in a depleted state masked the early signs of trouble
I was well prepared, highly motivated and it really did matter, and yet there still came a point where I could not fight the physiology
Energy Depletion: The Consequences
Slow Down Cool Down
When we slow down we cool down and when we cool down we slow down some more which means it’s very easy to get into a downward spiral. Breaking out of that spiral is tough and part of the reason for that is the associated degradation of our cognative abilities – in other words it gets harder to think straight and even register the decline as our focus narrows into survival mode. Those people with high levels of mental toughness can hang on in there for quite astonishing amounts of time, but ultimately the body will shut down unless this pattern is broken.
Arresting the decline takes decisive action and high levels of motivation at a time when we’d really just like to sit down and have a hug and a nice cup of hot sweet tea. However, if we have clocked the warning signs then decisive action should include some or all of the following: Eat, drink, add clothes, and up the workrate. Give it time but the good news is that it is entirely possible to recover and finish after such a collapse. Believe me, I know.
Disfunctional & Inefficient
Put simply, movement skills go to pot as we transition seemlessly from gracefull gazelle to stomping glowering ogre. Posture deteriorates, stride shortens, cadence and rhythm take a holiday and suddenly we have the weight of the word on our shoulders drilling our feet into the ground. The increase in impact forces alone mean that foot damage is more likely and the quad muscles in the thighs – biggest muscle in the body – take a disproportionate battering which further degrades our ability to move fluidly. Somewhere down this line as the deterioration accelerates is a trip and a potentially catastrophic fall: Game over.
The Ultrarunner Shuffle
We’ve all seen it; it’s not confined to the end of races, and it’s not only in events beyond marathon distance: Eyes glassy, feet barely leaving the ground, and posture almost doubled up. No wonder it’s hard because one of the consequences of the doubled up posture is it’s just damn difficult getting air into the lungs and allowing the heart to pump the oxygenated blood around the body if that body is adopting the position of constriction. Try breathing when you’ve got your head between your knees if you’re still not convinced. Our systems are designed to operate best in alignment, but while inefficient posture may be what we see or experience it may still only be a symptom of the ultimate enemy: Running out of juice.
Decision-making Takes A Dive
The deterioration in cognitive ability has already been mentioned and one specific aspect of this that potentially speeds us towards DNF is the switch from proactivity to reactivity: We are no longer thinking ahead and planning a response – we are, at best, simply reacting to events within a bubble of interest that is steadily shrinking. If mental toughness is still the glue that is holding a rapidly deteriorating body together then unless a stimulus is linked to the action of putting one foot intfront of the other without falling over, it’s likely that we just plain don’t care.
Tactics & Strategy
At worse, these go completely out of the window. At best it’s reduced down to tactcis in the now and those revolve exclusivly around Just. Getting. To. The. End/Checkpoint. It’s yet another symptom of a shrinking attention span where if it ain’t essential, it ain’t worth it.
Self-Preservation & Navigation
The simplest of navigational tasks can become a challenge of monsterous proportions when the tank is running dry. Add darkness, isolation and bad weather to it and you are potentially into a life-threatening situation somwhere down the line. The upshot of this is that you are more likely to make mistakes and that will mean you will be delayed or even lost and this will be accompanied by an even more accute sense of humour failure. This in turn focuses your attention on the fact that you really now are in the s*** as a result of your complete and utter failure to get the basics right.
At this point your self-esteem curls up in a corner and throws in the towel.
Now you are firmly into a compound and cummulative downward spiral as more time out on the trail means more time for your physical condition and mindset to deteriorate – which in turn feeds your negative emotions – and those negative emotions then work through to poison your thoughts and your actions. You become locked into an emotional-mental-behavioural downward spiral and the longer you’re in the harder it is to break out.
Your inability to see the big picture means you are likely be spending time repeating the same behaviour that got you into this mess in the first place in the vain hope that this will break the pattern. And if you always do what you’ve always done…
Once again it is possible to stage a rescue but only if you fix the cause once you’ve done managing the symptoms and that - because Performance Is Emotional - means changing how you feel first. The hard part is recognising through the self-generated fog that you need to do something different to get to that point – and then being motivated enough to see that through.
This can be summed up in two words: Mood Management
Moderation is one of the first casualties: You’ll be all over the place and switching from deep despair to blissful happiness at the slightest stimulus. Small things become big things as your sense of proportionality takes a hit and that means you start paying attention to things you shouldn’t. This then feeds your decision-making which becomes irrational and premature, stimulating behaviour that is less than helpful at best and guarenteed to further feed the downward spiral at worse.
Now that I’ve painted a truly black picture for you, the good news through all of this is that there are few things that eating and drinking wont fix – especially for the blokes.
If the wheels are coming off then you can do far worse than having a default position as follows: Veered off track? Time for a snack…
Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/
Coffee. It would appear we are increasingly addicted to the stuff and all it’s mutant variations. Sometimes I yearn for the days when your instant Nescafe was available either black – or white: But that clearly puts me on the slide to Grumpy Old Man status and while I know I can do world-class grumpiness I absolutely refuse to accept any evidence that I am heading towards 50.
My very good (and not grumpy at all) ultra friend Hard As Nails has had a problem for a while that completely baffled us all for ages: Serious cramp attacks in the thighs. This would happen in the early stages of races and/or on the first climbs of big training outings and usually in the company of others. Serious enough to make her stop and do hint-of-grumpiness – and this is Hard As Nails we’re talking about…
This pattern had been going on for more than a year and finally came to a head recently when she ground to a halt in my company – no link there, promise - about 10 hours into a 12 hour effort. Both legs locked solid and going nowhere fast. Investigative efforts were redoubled in the following days, patterns emerged and eventually the culprit was revealed: CAFFINE. Here’s why:
Attacks would happen when the stakes were high and the pressure was on. In other words her nervous system was ramped up. Popping -laced sugar-based gels (more stimulants) made it worse. Managing the pain by popping pain-killers with put her further into the pit. Now Hard As Nails is 5’tall and a very little bit. That means even one cup of real coffee only has a small unit to be circulated around. Contrast that with someone over 6’ and you can see that one cup of coffee would be relatively diluted by comparison.Hard As…is a 1-2 cups a day person which by my reckoning seems pretty low compared to a bunch of people I know. That’s still 7-14 a week, 60-120 a month…
So the suspect was put on trial: One week -free with a race at the end. Result? Completely symptom-free. Another week and same result. And again.And again. And while the test protocol probably wont stand rigorous scientific scrutiny the results speak for themselves. ‘Makes you think, huh?
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