Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Food: Eating During a Run

Fueling during a run can be difficult logistically, so I would recommend taking two approaches:

1. Train using food typically found at ultra aid stations, like candy, chips, boiled potatoes, cookies, soda, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or any specific food a goal race advertises. This will allow you to use aid stations for fueling if necessary. I prefer to use my own food, but have run into situations when it wasn't available. Learning to fuel off what is available can solve a lot of potential problems.

2. Find foods that work well for you. This includes foods that are easy to carry, can be stuffed in drop bags, or can be carried by your crew. Since many ultras are run far from civilization, non-perishable foods that require little or no preparation would be ideal. Also, your palate will change throughout a race. What tastes good at mile five probably won't taste good at mile 35 or mile 95. Test different foods at different distances.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Food: Eating Before a Run

Through extensive experimentation, I've managed to find a handful of foods that work well as a pre-run meal. The criteria is straight-forward: The food has to be easy to digest and give me plenty of energy that will last for a relatively long time, yet still be relatively "digestible." 

My preferred foods, in order of preference, are:
  • Pop Tarts (frosted strawberry)
  • Muffins
  • Miniature Donuts
As you can tell, I'm a fan of sweet pastries.

To figure out which foods work best, test a different food before each run. I would recommend giving a food at least two opportunities as results can be influenced by other factors.

Some other popular foods include:
  • Fruit
  • Oatmeal
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Pancakes
  • French toast
  • Anything from the breakfast menu at McDonald's


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Update on progress

Hey all, I'm prepping for my upcoming clinic schedule and haven't had a chance to write the new posts as frequently.  They're still coming, it'll just be a little slower.

Thanks to all those that have commented with additions!


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Food: How Much Do You Need?

Running burns energy... a lot of energy. Most people burn somewhere around 100-130 calories per mile traveled. Over the course of an ultra, that adds up to at least tens of thousands of calories. As I prepare for an ultra, I like to get an idea of how much food I will need to consume. I like to simplify this process as much as possible.

Before starting the process, let's look at a few principles. Our body can use two primary fuel sources- fat and carbohydrates. Carbs burn quickly and efficiently. Fat burns slowly. If you're running fast, our body will burn carbs. The slower we run, the more fat our body uses as fuel. The “crashing” feeling we get is the result of making the switch from carb-burning to fat-burning.

Our bodies have a limited supply of carbs available at any given time, but we have a HUGE supply of fat. If we want to burn carbs, we need to constantly replace them by consuming calories during the run. This will allow us to run faster. We could get by without eating anything and rely on our fat stores, but we would have to keep intensity to a minimum. It's like the difference between throwing a piece of newspaper on a fire versus a giant oak log- the paper burns quickly with a huge flame while the log burns longer with a much less intense flame.

Through training, I know I can run about 18 miles before my carbohydrate supply is exhausted. At that point, my body switches to fat-burning mode and I slow down considerably and experience a crash. I can calculate a ballpark estimate of the carbs I have to consume during the run to avoid that crash by subtracting 18 from the total miles of the race, then multiplying that number by 100.

50 miles - 18 miles = 32
32 * 100 = 3200 calories needed during the run to avoid the crash

In a 50 miler, I know I have to consume approximately 3200 calories. This is where it gets a little tricky. Most people can only digest about 200-300 calories per hour. Let's assume we can process 250 calories per hour. If you're running at a 12 minute/mile pace (for a 10 hour finish), you could consume 2500 calories during that 10 hour race. Since you need 3200, you won't be able to consume enough to avoid a crash.

The problem becomes more pronounced with longer races. How about a 100 miler?

10 miles – 18miles = 82
82 * 100 = 8,200 calories needed during the run to avoid the crash

This is what I do to remedy the situation:

1. Train to eat. I've managed to get to the point where I can comfortably eat up to 500 calories per hour when running, which allows me to keep fueling throughout most races.
2. Train to burn fat. This is the idea behind the Maffetone method discussed earlier. This is also the reason I occasionally do long runs after fasting for 24 hours.
3. Start consuming calories from the beginning of a race. The longer you wait, the less opportunity you have to stay ahead of the carb game.
4. Find foods that are palatable even after running long distances. I have at least four “backup foods' in case the aid station foods aren't cutting it.
5. Know what the 'crash' feels like. When it starts to hit, slow down and consume something sweet.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hydration: Drinking Water from Questionable Sources

You're out on a long run and your bottle goes dry. You start experiencing the early signs of dehydration. You nowhere near a drinking fountain or a store. What do you do?

I've run into this scenario many times over the years... and always choose the same course of action- I scavenge for water anywhere I can. That has included drinking from streams, lakes, a water hose in some random person's yard, and making a funnel out of a leaf during a rain storm.

There's always an inherent danger in drinking water from questionable sources. The water may contain organisms that can make you sick, like giardia or dysentery. The water could also be contaminated with poisons which could kill you. It's always a gamble.

In an emergency situation, I look for water that contains some form of life. If a water does not have any signs of life (fish, plants, etc.), odds are pretty good that it's undrinkable. Next, I make a filter out of a bandana and a water bottle by placing the bandana over the mouth of the bottle and attaching it with rubber bands (I keep a few rubber bands wrapped around all m water bottles). When the bottle is submerged, the bandana acts as a filter.

It's not nearly as effective as boiling the water, using a commercial filter, or chemically purifying the water, but I rarely if ever have the tools required for elaborate purification. The homemade filter will likely trap most of the harmful stuff and is better than drinking straight from the questionable source.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Hydration: Know Where the Drinking Fountains are Located

When it comes to training, hydration can be a bitch. Once the long runs surpass your ability to physically carry enough water (or other drink), your options are limited. You can:
  • Stash drinks along the planned route (though it may get stolen... which has happened on more than one occasion. Seriously, who steals a jug of water?!?).
  • Bring money or a credit card if there will be stores along the way.
  • Plan a route that utilizes public drinking fountains.
Personally, I prefer the last option. If you live in a semi-inhabited area, this is a good option. If you live in the sticks or will be training in desolate mountains, it may be impossible. If you do train in a populated area, drinking fountains can usually be found at:
  • Public parks and playgrounds,
  • Sport fields,
  • Public restrooms,
  • Schools,
  • Trailheads
  • Campgrounds,
  • Large grocery or department stores,
  • Malls.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Hydration: What Are My Options?

When it comes to hydration, there are a ton of usable options. I'll run down the list in order of relative popularity.
  • Sports drink: This includes products like Gatorade, Heed, Nuun, Gu Brew, etc. Most sports drinks provide electrolytes which are lost via sweat. Most also contain varying amounts of calories, which help you stay fueled. In most races, sports drinks are my preferred option, though I sometimes switch to water toward the end. The sweetness of sports drinks sometimes makes me nauseous.
  • Water: Many people prefer good 'ole water during a race. Water doesn't provide electrolytes or calories, but is palatable throughout a race.
  • Soda: Not many people use soda, but it does contain calories and some sodium. The carbonation can make it more palatable. If the soda is caffeinated, it may cause a slight diuretic effect. I'll toss energy drinks into this category, too, though the high caffeine levels make it impractical for a primary hydration strategy. Unless you're a crack addict.
  • Juice: Juice is actually a pretty good option and was more popular before the widespread use of sports drinks. It tends to be relatively high in caloric content, but also has a heavy flavor.
  • Beer/ Wine/ other Alcohol: I've experimented with both beer and wine, and once did an unfortunate “tequila run.” The result of all three was roughly the same: it sucked. The bitterness of beer seemed to be enhanced the longer I ran, which ruled out any good beer. I tried drinking beers like Michelob Ultra, but I had a hard time distinguishing it from water. Wine was okay, but I needed to drink too much to remain relatively well hydrated. Drunkedness inhibits trail running. Go figure.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hydration: How Do You Carry Your Hydrating Agent?

Most people use one of three options for carry water or sports drinks. They use handheld water bottles, hydration packs that are affixed to the back, or complicated fanny packs that carry water bottles. Each one has pros and cons.

Handhelds: Handhelds have three major advantages: Having your drink in your hand helps you remember to drink regularly, they offer some hand protection should you fall, and they are easy to fill at aid stations. The downside to handhelds is weight. It can be difficult to carry a 20-24 ounce water bottle all day. Also, I've had some problems with the strap on the water bottle chafing my knuckles.

Hydration packs: Hydration backs hold far more of your favorite beverage than handhelds, and the weight is equally distributed on your back. The backpacks can bounce around if your running form is too “bouncy” (see the section on good form). Hydration packs are also a pain in the ass to fill at aid stations, though you have to fill them less often.

Fanny packs: In my opinion, these are the worst of both worlds. The water bottles are held around your butt, which requires reaching back to grab. Since the bottles are out of sight, there's no reminder to drink. Finally, the pack itself may cause chafing due to bouncing.

It is possible to run without anything and just rely on the aid stations. I wouldn't advise this as a new ultrarunner, especially if it is hot or the aid stations are farther than five miles apart.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hydration: How Much Do You Consume?

[Edit- this article is going to require more research.  As such, don't follow this advice yet.  :-)  ]

Figuring out how much liquid to consume is a topic of debate among runners. There are quite a few opinions out there, many involving a variety of formulas. I prefer to take a more individual approach- calculate your own needs. This is how I do it:

1. Before a run, strip naked and weigh yourself.
2. Go for a 5 mile run at your anticipated race pace without consuming anything.
3. Immediately after the run, weigh yourself (naked, of course).
4. Multiply your weight loss in pounds by 16, then divide by 5. That indicates the number of ounces you should consume per mile you run.

This is only a rough estimate and is dependent on training, temperature, and exertion level. Ideally you should drink enough to maintain body weight. If you're gaining weight during a run, you're drinking too much and run the risk of hyponatremia. Some weight loss is okay as slight dehydration isn't dangerous.

Other Measures

I do this five mile exercise occasionally to get a rough estimate of my fluid needs in conditions similar to race day. During races, I also use urine frequency and color as an indicator. In humid conditions, I know I typically urinate about once every 90 minutes and it looks like light yellow lemonade. In dry conditions, that time extends to about 120 minutes. In 100 milers, I've also brought a scale along to make sure I'm not gaining weight.

What About Drinking When Thirsty?

Many people use this method, and it usually sucks. Thirst is rarely an accurate indicator of hydration status. In my experience, most people over-drink if drinking when thirsty. Furthermore, the fatigue late in races tends to mess with your sense of thirst.

One last tip- lay off the ibuprofen. It messes with your kidney function. If you need pain medication to get through an ultra, you probably need to do a little more training.



Staying hydrated during an ultra is perhaps the most important consideration. Dehydration can adversely affect performance and even lead to death. Hydration strategies involve quite a few decisions, such as:

  • How will you carry your hydrating agent?
  • What will you use? Water? Sports drink? Red Bull?
  • How much and how often will you drink?
  • Will you rely on aid stations, or pack your own drinks?
  • What about hydrating during training runs?

I'll address these issues in this section.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Running Ultras After Having Babies

[Note- this is one topic I'm obviously not qualified to discuss.  Ladies, especially ladies with ultra experience: How do you handle this?  Feel free to comment about any aspect from physiology, time, logistics, motivation, parental guilt... or anything else you may find relevant.  Leave your advice in the comments section.  I'll attribute the contribution to your name you leave.  ;-)]

Running and Menstruation

[Note- this is one topic I'm obviously not qualified to discuss.  Ladies, especially ladies with ultra experience: How do you handle this?  Feel free to comment about cramping, keeping clean, affects on performance, logistics, etc.  Leave your advice in the comments section.  I'll attribute the contribution to your name you leave.  ;-)]

Losing Weight for Race Day

Should you try to lose weight prior to race day? It depends. Generally-speaking, the less you weigh, the more efficient you become. If you're at a healthy body weight, I would not recommend losing more. If you are overweight, trying to drop a few pounds might help you get to the finish line.

Due to my love of food and beer, I regularly pack on anywhere from 15 to 25 extra pounds. As my goal races approach, I usually try to cut that down a bit. I've found my ideal race weight to be around 175-180 pounds (I'm six feet tall).

I find the natural process of training usually takes care of the added weight. As my weekly running and crosstraining increases, my caloric expenditure surpasses my caloric intake.

If that doesn't work, I fall back on the greatest weight loss secret in the world: I deliberately eat less and move more.  But I don't give up candy.  Or beer.

Should you lose weight? I'd recommend a few simple tests:

For the guys: Strip down naked. Reach your arms above your head. Look down. Can you see your penis? If you can, you're good. If you can't, you might consider losing a few lbs. prior to the race.

For the ladies [from Shelly]: Designate a pair of your “A” pants. You know, the pants that you know make your ass look great. If they fit, you're right where you want to be. If they're tight, lose a few pounds.


Monday, February 6, 2012

How to Handle the Junk: Shave or Rock the 'Fro?

This is probably more of an issue for dudes, and wouldn't even be considered if it weren't for the “metrosexual movement” of the late 1990's and early 2000's.

Here's my “too much information' story. Around the time I started running ultras, I also started experimenting with with various methods of trimming. It was done purely for aesthetics (Shelly liked it). I was surprised to find two effects:
  • Trimming kept the genitals cooler, and
  • Trimming seemed to reduce chafing.
Seeing the positive effects of cutting back the schlong-fro, I decided to try shaving. As expected, the results were even better. Since that time, I've continued a routine of shaving.

A few tips and points to consider before giving your boys the Bruce Willis 'do:

1. When the hair starts to grow back, it's itchy as Hell for a few days. You have to either endure the discomfort or keep shaving at least once a week.
2. If trimming, don't use the closest setting on electric clippers. Loose skin can get caught between the blades. Yes, it hurts. A lot.
3. If shaving, it's much easier to trim first.
4. Not to turn this into a sex manual or anything, but the skin-on-skin clitoral contact may be pleasurable for women.



Chafing is a significant problem in ultras. The longer you run, the more likely you are to chafe. Any place where anything comes in contact with skin, including other skin, is susceptible to chafing. Your long runs will give you ample opportunity to learn what areas chafe, how they chafe, and allow you to experiment with solutions.

Here are my suggestions for various areas:
  • Nipples: Cover with adhesive bandages. I used to use duct tape, but the adhesive irritated the skin after long hours of exposure. For added protection, add a dab of your favorite sports lube to the nipple prior to applying the bandage.
  • Groin/thighs: I've tried quite a few options- various lubes, tape, compression shorts, a kilt (added ventilation), and various states of trimming and/or shaving. I finally found short running shorts (current favorite = Brooks Infinity III) and a liberal dose of SportSlick brand lube work wonders.
  • Armpits: The 'pits are difficult to protect. The only real option I found was good ole' lube.
  • Any area the clothing touches, including sports bras for the ladies: Different articles of clothing will cause different levels of chafing. I prefer cotton shirts to technical shorts for this reason- the cotton is less abrasive. I usually treat trouble areas with a dab of lube or periodically change to a different style of clothing.
  • Hands (due to carrying water bottles): My knuckles usually gets chafed in long races. In cool weather, I've found fingered or fingerless gloves to be effective. In hot weather, I just lube up the knuckles.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Does Body Type Matter?

Does ultrarunning require a rail-thin emaciated body type?

Not at all! If you look at the entire field in a typical ultra, you'll find runners representing every imaginable body type. Most of the elites, both male and female, tend to be on the thinner side. As soon as you get to the next-fastest group, all bets are off. All BMIs are represented.

Losing weight generally makes you more efficient, thus faster, but ultras are run at a slow enough speed to partially negate this effect. I'm not exactly thin myself. The last time I checked, by body fat percentage was somewhere around 15%. My 'ideal” body weight is around 155 pounds. Currently I weigh around 185-190 pounds. In fact, I've gotten quite a few 'if HE can run an ultra, I certainly can!” comments over the years. What can I say? I like food. And beer.

Don't let your body weight dissuade you from running an ultra!


Friday, February 3, 2012

Stretching and Rolling

Should you stretch before a run? How about after? What's the deal with foam rollers and that “stick” thingie?

All of these are legitimate questions. And science doesn't really give conclusive answers.

I personally do not stretch. I occasionally use a rolling pin (in place of the expensive rollers you can buy from running stores) if I have an especially tight muscle. Instead of stretching, I prefer to warm up by doing whatever activity I'm about to do. For example, before running I walk the do a short, slow run. For ultras, I may just start the race with a walk.

I used to do extensive stretching before and after running, but I didn't see a significant benefit. It just took up more time.

I would recommend, like everything else, experimentation. Find a good stretching or rolling routine, do it for a few weeks, and see how you feel. If it improves performance, recovery, or you find it to be enjoyable, keep at it. If it doesn't do anything for you, drop it.


Road Running Gait Versus Trail Running Gait

Road running and trail running are dramatically different skills. Road running requires using the same gait for a long period of time. You're stressing a relatively small number of muscles repeatedly. Trail running requires a much more dynamic gait. Because you have to jump around the trail to avoid obstacles like rocks, roots, and water, you stress a large number of muscles in various combinations.

When road runners run trails for the first time, they're often struck by the difficulty of utilizing different muscle groups. The same phenomenon happens when trail runners run roads for the first time.

If you train in conditions you'll likely experience during a race, this is not an issue. However, I would advise any runner to add at least one run per week on a different surface. Road runners should occasionally hit the trails. Trail runners should occasionally hit the road. It will dramatically enhance your ability to switch between the two.

For my first 50 miler, I trained almost exclusively on roads. The trails killed me. Over the last few years, I've shied away from road running. Whenever I run a road race, it takes much longer to recover.


Running Efficiently

Learning good form will definitely help you become more efficient, which allows you to run faster and longer by expending less energy. This idea can be taken further by thinking of ultrarunning as an exercise in efficiency. Your goal should be to expend as little energy as possible throughout the entire race.

When I race, I try to eliminate as many wasted movements as I can. I only lift my feet high enough to clear the highest obstacle on the trail. When running up and down hills, I try to relax my muscles as much as possible and take short, easy steps. I limit my arm swing to the absolute minimum. Every wasted movement burns more precious calories.

You can incorporate efficiency by actively focusing on running as smoothly as possible. Good form, as discussed earlier, will create a noticeable difference in energy expenditure. Always look for other ways to reduce movement. For example, I tie my shoes in double knots so I won't have to re-tie them during the race. It's a tiny detail, but many of those little details can add up.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Elements of Good Running Form

Good running form is one of the most neglected elements of running. For decades, we've followed a paradigm where we use various shoe designs to correct bad running form. The rise of barefoot and minimalist shoe running has created a surge of research that has progressively shifted the paradigm. We're now moving toward the idea of learning good form, then selecting shoes that don't interfere with good form. It's a subtle but significant difference.

So what is “good form?” This is a tricky issue. What works for some may not work for others. Most people seem to agree on some points, however. Here are the basics that most people agree are the foundation for better running form:

1. Upright posture. Good posture is the foundation of good form. Your posture should be upright, arms should swing freely at your sides, and your knees should remain bent throughout the gait cycle.
2. Feet land under your body. It's common for people to overstride where their foot lands in front of their body. This is less efficient and dramatically increases the impact of running. It also reduces balance which is critically important when trail running.
3. Faster, shorter steps. Your cadence, or number of steps per minute, should increase to at least 180 per minute. Your stride length should also decrease. This helps insure your feet will land under your body.

Making these adjustments will increase your efficiency and likely reduce injuries regardless of the shoes you have on your feet. While I'm a huge proponent of barefoot and minimalist “barefoot” shoes, they may not be appropriate for everyone. Even if you wear motion-control cushioned trainers with a huge raised heel, making these changes to your running form can make a dramatic difference.


Managing Your Spouse, Kids, and Career

Training for ultras, even if you go to great lengths to incorporate training in every element of your daily life, still takes significant time. Managing your family and/or professional life can be a challenge. If you don't have a spouse, kids, or even a job, ride that wave as long as you can. You'll never have this much free time. Well, at least for a number of decades.

Anyway, in the event you do have a spouse, kids, and/or a career, balancing these responsibilities can be a challenge. Here's some practical advice:
  • Set priorities. Mine always went something like this: Time with spouse, time with kids, ultra training, work-related stuff.
  • Develop a training schedule that has a minimal impact on other responsibilities. This may involve training after everyone else goes to bed or before they wake up in the morning.
  • If you have to miss a workout, don't fret. Missing a single workout isn't going to doom your plan.
  • Give your spouse plenty of time to follow their own hobbies. We all need our own “me' time. It may also help to lavish them with gifts.
  • Understand that most opposition to an ultrarunning spouse is rooted in resentment. The non-running spouse feels as if they are shouldering an unfair burden. Having open, honest communication about sharing responsibilities will usually cure this issue.
  • Bring your kids with you using a jogging stroller or, if old enough, have them ride their bike behind you.
  • Get your spouse hooked on running ultras, too.

When I was building my endurance base early in my ultrarunning days, Shelly and I were having lots of babies. When the babies got on a fairly reliable sleep schedule, I'd leave to run after they woke up in the middle of the night. This allowed Shelly to sleep for a few hours undisturbed and allowed me to stick to my training plan. As our kids aged, finding time to train became easier.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Coaching for Ultramarathons

Runners sometimes hire coaches, and the practice is increasing. Years ago, many people assumed running was simple enough to be done without guidance. Personally, I blame this idea for the horrible running form we often see at road races.

A running coach can teach you a litany of useful skills, including good running form. A running coach can also set up a training plan, monitor your progress, and recommend changes to improve your performance. Coaches can also provide necessary encouragement and moral support.

Running coaches are relatively easy to find online. Simply Google “running coach [your municipality].”

If you're looking for a specific ultra coach recommendation, my friend and ultrarunner Jesse Scott is my top pick:


Learn to Fall

Huh? Isn't falling, by definition, something you can't predict?

Yes. But you can develop your ability to fall better.

Falling while trail running is an inevitability. Most people just do their best to avoid falling and hope they don't get hurt too badly if the unfortunate happens. I'm clumsy. I don't like to take those chances.

So how do you go about learning to fall? Find a location with soft ground. Sand is perfect. Grassy fields are another good choice. Run at a slow speed, then purposely fall on the ground. I prefer to use a “slow your fall with your arms, then roll” technique. As you're falling, keep your elbows bent. When you hit the ground with your hands, the bent elbows will act as shock absorbers. As my arms are absorbing the shock, I begin rolling my body to the side away from the most dangerous debris. Depending on the trail, I may roll several times.

This specific technique will not work on all trails. For example, it may be impossible to avoid serious injury if falling on rocky mountain trails. In that case, do what you can to avoid smacking your head on a sharp rock.

I prefer to carry handheld water bottles to help soften the blow of landing hard on my hands. The bottles usually take a beating, but it saves my hands. Wearing gloves can also serve the same purpose, but may be too hot depending on the weather.


Running with Dogs

As I mentioned earlier, dogs ca make an ideal training partner. Here are some tips for those dog-running novices:
  • If you're in the market for a dog and your primary goal is to find a running partner, look for a breed that is adept at running. Sled dog breeds, sporting and hunting breeds, and herding dogs all make decent running partners. Toy breeds... not so much.
  • Dogs have issues with thermoregulation. They cannot run in hot weather like humans. Humans can cool down while moving due to our sweating mechanism. Dogs will pant to cool down, and will need to stop moving if they overheat. If your dog wants to stop and lie down, it's too hot. Don't continue forcing it to run. If you live in a warm or hot climate, you will probably have to run early in the morning, late in the evening, or at night.
  • Dogs need to work up to longer distances, just like we do. If their first run is a 20 miler, odds are good they'll get hurt.
  • Get a good leash. Avoid retractable leashes.
  • Take time training the dog. Before taking your dog out on the trails, it should be able to reliably come when called, sit, stay, and be able to run at your side without excessive pulling.


Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Periodization is a process of preparing for ultras by building specific skills at specific times. It usually begins with an endurance base-building phase, followed by a hill climbing and descending phase (or strength training), followed by a speed-building phase.

The idea works fairly well. By introducing each concept separately, you can develop each skill faster than if you were to do all three simultaneously. You begin with the most general skills (running long distances). As your goal race nears, you hone the specific skills needed for the ultra.

I used a system of periodization for my first ultra. I spent 12 weeks building my endurance base, 6 weeks working on speed, and 6 weeks working on specific trails. Note I didn't do any hill training. It was a huge mistake. The hills on the course absolutely killed me. Live and learn.


Course Specificity Training

If you have the opportunity to practice on the ultra course, take it! Being familiar with the course is a huge advantage. Not only do you learn the useful information like aid station locations and potential trouble spots, but you will be developing the running skills needed to tackle that specific race. You'll learn to run through the specific rocks, roots, mud holes, and hills that litter the course.

In the event you cannot run the same course, try to find a place to train that is as similar to the course as possible. Match up things like altitude, elevation change, surface (hard packed dirt, gravel, sand, rock, etc.)

I rarely had the opportunity to train on the course I was planning on running, but I did go to great lengths to find comparable trails. This usually involved scouring YouTube and Google Images for any visuals I could find. It also involved reading as many race reports as I could find.

Some variables are nearly impossible to experience, like altitude. When I trained for Western States (with a maximum altitude of 11,000 feet), I needed at way to simulate the lack of oxygen I'd experience. I lived in Michigan, which has an altitude of about 500 ft above sea level. The solution- I did several runs while breathing through a drinking straw from McDonald's. While I doubt it did anything physiologically, it did teach me a valuable lesson: there was a definite connection between available oxygen and pace. I quickly learned to be especially conservative and take frequent walk breaks. I also learned our local police department is suspicious of dudes running barefoot at night while breathing through a straw. What's weird about that?

Racing as Training

Running shorter races can be an excellent method of training for ultras. The races act as a quality training run and allow you to go through your pre-race routine. If the race is shorter, like a 5k, it will serve as good speedwork. If it is longer, like a half marathon, it will serve as a good long run.

Another great technique is to do a long run by running a race course prior to the race, then running the race afterward. I learned this technique from my friend Phil Stapert. He uses this idea to train for 100 milers.

This method can be especially useful if the race is run on the same course as your ultra. Check with the race director. They will usually be familiar with other races run on the same trails or roads


Monday, January 30, 2012

Learning When Shit's About To Go Bad

When training in various bodily states, you get to experiment with quite a few different variables. Another significant advantage is learning to recognize the early signs of significant issues that plague ultrarunners. Here are some examples:
  • Glycogen or cabohydrate depletion: As discussed earlier, your body has a finitely number of carbs to fuel your muscles. When the supply runs low, you body has to convert fat as a fuel source, which is significantly slower. This usually results in a crash or hitting “the wall', which is one of the most common causes of runners dropping out (DNF). Learning how this feels is among the most valuable skills you can learn. If you begin experiencing the early signs, consuming something sugary can prevent the crash.
  • Dehydration: For me, recognizing the bodily sensations of early dehydration is difficult. Instead, I rely on other signs. I use urine frequency and color. If I'm peeing at least once every two hours and the urine color is clear or light yellow (like lemonade), I know I'm good. If I'm peeing less frequently or my urine is darker color (like apple juice), I know I'm nearing dehydration and will start drinking more. It's not an exact science, but still pretty effective. What about at night? I just shine a headlamp through the stream to determine color. Practice it a few times. What about women? [This answer comes from Shelly] She recommends learning to pee standing up (as opposed to squatting) and, like my suggestion, use a headlamp through the stream to determine color. Again, practice the technique.
  • Sleep Deprivation: Sleep deprivation is a major issue for me, but usually only in longer races. If I'm excessively sleep deprived, my mood turns negative. I'm far more likely to stop a race due to sleep deprivation than anything else. The problem- sleep deprivation symptoms can be similar to glycogen depletion. Sleep deprivation is somewhat tricky because the best fix is actually sleeping. Loading up on stimulants may be a temporary fix (like pounding a Redbull or taking a few hits off the crack pipe). If that solution doesn't work, it is possible to counteract some of the effects with a 15 minute “power nap.”
  • Hyponatremia: This is a life-threatening condition that is caused by too little sodium in your body. It usually results from consuming too much water and not enough sodium. Some symptoms are weight gain and swelling. The prevention is simple- take supplemental electrolytes during runs, especially if it is hot. I prefer Succeed S-Caps and will take one about every hour or two. Consuming sports drinks instead of straight water can also be useful, too.


Night Running

Running at night is a useful skill to develop. Many ultras have some degree of night running. Checking the start time and cutoff time of your race, then checking the morning and evening civil twilight times, is always a good idea. Civil twilight is the point where the sun is 6° below the horizon. In most cases, this is the time when it is possible to see your surroundings without a flashlight.

Running at night is relatively straight forward, just plan a few runs after dark. If I'm running a race that requires running through the night, I'll plan two types of runs: A very late run and a very early run. The late run usually starts around 10pm and ends around 2am. The early morning run starts around 2am and ends around 6pm. The idea is to acclimate your body to running during the hours you'd normally be sleeping.

If you will be using an artificial light, most people use either a handheld flashlight or a headlamp. I would recommend carrying both. Use the flashlight as the primary light source and the headlamp as a backup. Since the flashlight can be carried near the waist, it will cast longer shadows on the trail. This makes it easier identify and avoid obstacles like rocks, roots, and cobras. The headlamp is useful if you need hands-free light, like eating at aid stations or pooping.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Training in Various Bodily States

Running an ultra is essentially an exercise in problem solving. Your ability to solve the problems that arise will determine your ability to finish the race. The more you train, the less likely you'll experience problems. However, by purposely creating problems in training, you'll learn to recognize the signs of an impending problem and develop the skills to fix the problem before it threatens the race.

I like to think of this training as 'body state training.” I intentionally create a problem. Then I fix the problem. Here are the problems I like to create:
Run on a full stomach: Ultras almost always require eating during the race. Digesting food while running doesn't work well... unless you train your body. This is very simple. Pick one run per week and eat a big meal immediately before running. My favorite method is to down a Quarter Pounder extra value meal from McDonald's, then go out for a run of at least 10 miles. The key is to start running at a very slow pace. As your body acclimates to running on a full stomach, you'll be able to increase the pace without discomfort.

Run on an empty stomach: I touched on this topic earlier when talking about heart rate training. The idea is to purposely deplete your body of carbohydrates, so you hit a wall early in the run. After doing this a few times, you'll recognize the earliest stages of that crash. The crashes you experience will also get less severe. Your body begins t adapt to making that transition to fat burning. I practice this technique about once every two weeks. I'll stop eating by noon the day before a long run. I won't eat again until after the long run. It's not a pleasant type of training, but well worth the effort.

Run while tired: Toward the latter stages of an ultra, you'll be tired. You tend to trip and stumble more. You may have trouble maintaining good form. If you're really sleep-deprived, you may even hallucinate. Training while tired can help you learn to cope with this. It's easy. Go to work. Come home. Do a bunch of chores. Run some errands. Once you're absolutely exhausted, go for a good, long run. Alternatively, wake up a 2am and run. Either one works.

Run while hot: Heat training allows your body to adapt to running in warm to hot temperatures. Many ultras are run in hotter weather, which introduces issues like sweating, electrolyte balance, and thermoregulation. Heat training is simple- just run in hot weather. If hot weather isn't available, dress in several layers retain body heat. The tricky part of heat training is safety. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are significant dangers. Familiarize yourself with the early symptoms: excessive sweating, dizziness, headache, muscle cramps and weakness, and vomiting. The more severe symptoms include a cessation of sweating, seizures, and confusion. It's a life-threatening condition, so stop immediately if you experience any of the early symptoms. I'll discuss specific heat training techniques in a later section.

Run while cold: Cold training serves the opposite purpose, though we're generally more adept at running in the cold. Our bodies usually produce enough heat to remain comfortable in everything but the coldest of temperatures. Still, it's handy to do some training while cold. It will teach you the art of bundling up. Wear too many clothes and you'll end up sweating profusely, which will ultimately make you colder. Wear too little clothing and you'll be exposed to the elements. Unfortunately it's difficult to simulate cold weather if you don't live in a cold environment. I did hear a story of a dude that convinced a local grocery store to let him put a treadmill in a freezer (which is usually kept a 0° F). If you have those kind of connections, go for it. 

Run while wet: It's likely you'll get wet at some point in an ultra. It may rain. There could be water crossings. It could be humid and you sweat like the hands of a boy on his first date. Regardless, learning to deal with moisture is a useful skill. Unchecked wetness can be uncomfortable, cause body temperature to plummet, or cause excessive chafing and blisters. About once per month, I'll do a “wet run” that involves jumping in a lake early in the run. This allows me to play with a few variables that I couldn't test otherwise. Running in the rain will serve the same purpose. Oh, and for those of you that thought 'running while wet" might have another meaning... I like the way you think.  ;-)



We're preparing to run a race. As such, we should run. Right?

Not always. Many new ultrarunners make the mistake of focusing entirely on running and ignoring any other form of exercise.

The problem?

If you do nothing but run, you'll likely develop muscle imbalances, which may lead to injury. It can also increase flexibility, muscle endurance, and recovery. It will also prepare your body for some of the unexpected elements of ultras. For example, the weight training I do helps me carry my water bottle for the duration of races. That 20 ounce bottle of water gets quite heavy after 100 miles.

So what are the options?

Pretty much any non-running exercise will be effective crosstraining. Here are some ideas:
  • Mountain biking
  • Yoga
  • Kickboxing
  • Unicycling (thanks Rob Youngren)
  • Weight training
  • Competing in the Lumberjack Games
  • Testing the entire Kama Sutra
  • Swimming
If you want one specific recommendation, I suggest functional fitness-high intensity interval training. What the Hell is that? It combines exercises that utilize a wide variety of muscle groups with workout formats that make you sweat. A lot.

Crossfit is usually viewed as a form of functional fitness. P90X is another popular program. If I were to give a specific recommendation, I'd suggest Pete Kemme's workouts that can be found at His workouts range from mild to extreme, so they appeal to beginners, experts, and everyone in between. One of his more famous workouts involved doing a burpee then leaping forward... for a mile. He's also fond of using homemade gym equipment like slosh tubes, doing weird “animal walks” up and down stairs, and creating 1,000 ways to do a pushup. Pete's crazy workouts helped me finish all of my 100 milers.

I would recommend doing a crosstraining activity at least twice per week. Don't be afraid to mix it up. Any physical activity other than running will help train you for ultras.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Learn to Walk Fast

Here's a secret about ultras- learning to walk fast usually means the difference between finishing near the front of the mid-pack and the back of the back-of-the-pack.

Most runners run as much as they can in ultras, then walk the rest. The running pace is usually relatively fast. The walking pace is not. Most people, in a state of fatigue, are content to sort of meaner around as if they were perusing futons at IKEA.

With a little practice at walking a little faster, they could shave hours off their finish time. Here's an example:

Let's say we're running a 50 miler. You run 30 miles and walk 20. The running part takes 6 hours (running at a 12 minute/mile pace). If you walk at a 20 minute/mile pace, the walking portion would take 6 hours and 40 minutes for a total finish time of 12 hours 40 minutes.

If you speed up to 15 minutes/mile, you will lower that walking time to 5 hours for a total finish time of 11 hours. You'd save an hour and 40 minutes. Pretty good, huh?

The best part- it's easy to practice walking fast. We walk around a lot in our daily lives. All you have to do is make it a point to start walking faster. The gait feels a little odd at first, but you'll adapt quickly.

You can take this up a notch by increasing the walking you do in your day-to-day life. Try parking at the far end of parking lots. Walk around the house once on the way to the mailbox. Look for opportunities to walk more often.

It is also a good idea to walk one or two of your training runs each month. Don't run at all, just walk. Fast. Try to maintain at least a 13 minute pace, faster if possible. It's tough, but the training pays off.

In my early days of ultra training, I was doing one of the “all walk” runs. I was doing laps around a block on gravel roads around my rural home. On one of the laps, I passed an elderly lady who also happened to be walking. I felt like a badass for out-walking her, but also a little guilty for leaving her in the dust. I pondered this thought for a few minutes, then the guilt got the best of me.

I glanced over my shoulder to see how much distance I put between us. The lady was 20 feet behind me! The look on her face was unmistakable- she was pissed and seeking revenge! My guilt disappeared as I tried speeding up. I glanced back again.

She was gaining on me. Shit. Over the next 100 yards, I battled to keep my lead. As we neared the crossroad and end of the block, she caught up to me then pulled ahead. She reached the end, turned around, smiled, and exclaimed “Son, I think you need to train a little more.”



Using Heart Rate for Training

If you chose the Maffetone Method in the “Training Plans!!!” section, you'll become intimately familiar with heart rate monitors. Even if you didn't, a heart rate monitor could be a valuable tool. Not only is it cool to see your heart rate in real time, it can be used as a great training tool to prepare your body for ultras.

The idea goes something like this if you run slow enough, your body will burn primarily fat instead of carbohydrates. Since most of us have well over 100,000 “fat” calories stored in our body and only a few thousand “carb” calories, it makes sense to burn the fat. Besides that, the “bonk” or “wall” marathoners complain about it caused by your bodily supply of carbohydrates running low.

It's actually really easy to train your body to burn fat. I do two things:

First, run your long runs slow. This is where a heart rate monitor comes into play. If you keep your heart rate low (here's Maffetone's formula: on your long runs, you'll train your body to better utilize fat stores. There are other possible positive benefits, but this is a biggie.

Second, do at least a few of your runs after fasting. Don't eat for 12-24 hours prior to the run. You will reach the “wall” much faster as your body's supply of carbohydrates will be much lower. This isn't nearly as effective as the first technique, but it does familiarize you to the feelings associated with hitting that wall. If you experience the beginnings of those same feelings in a race, eating something sugary will usually reverse the effects. Knowing your body and the signals it's sending is important.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Types of Training Runs: The Long Run

Be honest. You probably thought I skimped on the last few explanations of the other training runs. It's because most ultrarunners don't do them. They spend most of their tie and energy focusing on the centerpiece of every training plan- the log run.

Well, except for Crossfit Endurance. If that was your training run selection, go ahead and skip this part. Just don't bitch to me after your 50 miler when your ass crack gets severely chafed, then the cheeks fuse together as they heal.

Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, the long run. The long run serves two purposes:

First, trains your body to deal with the rigors of running long distances. You accomplish this by increasing your long run distance gradually over time. It strengthens your muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, endocrine system, and any other bodily system that's stressed over long distances.

Second, it allows you to experiment in conditions that are at least somewhat similar to race conditions. How is that water bottle going to feel after 24 miles? Will those packets of spaghetti-flavored Gu still taste good after eight hours of running? Can you bend over to tie your shoes after 32 miles?  How about needing to squat to drop a deuce? You can't test these variables without the long run.

Long runs can take on a few different flavors. You could do one single long, continuous run. You could do two shorter runs over two days. You could do five or six shorter runs over the course of one day. Different plans will use one of the different flavors. Personally I like to do all three, though I use the first more than the last two.

When I design my own plans, I like to schedule a run that is long enough for me to develop an “ultra hurt.” I want to experience the point where the pain starts getting annoying; the point where I have to start actively dealing with it. This usually comes at about the 25-30 mile distance.

The longest training run I've ever done is the infamous Kal-Haven double crossing in SW Michigan. Jesse Scott, Mark Robillard, and I set out on a 68 mile out-and-back on a 34 mile rails-to-trails path. It sucked. We had a friend, Tony Schaub, riding a bike to carry some of our gear, but it did little to dampen the extreme beating our bodies took. It definitely crossed the “this run is too long to produce a positive training effect, and will likely just hurt us” threshold. I ran a 100 miler three weeks later and definitely suffered more than I should have. It set me up for a serious case of overtraining that shelved me for months.

The morale of the story- long training runs are important learning tools. REALLY long training runs are stupid.


Types of Training Runs: Hill Repeats

Hill repeats involve running up and down hills, usually at a high intensity. I love hill repeats. In my experience, it's the single most effective type of ultramarathon training. You develop strength from running up hill and speed from running down hill.

When we lived in Michigan, our hill repeat workouts were done on an old garbage pile-turned ski hill. It was magical. Since we didn't have too many large hills, we would do multiple repeats for each workout. Sand dunes along the pristine shore* of Lake Michigan also made for a good hill repeat workout.

Since we've been traveling around, we've had the opportunity to run up and down a lot of mountain trails. This usually results in a single run up and down without multiple repeats. Either method works.

If you live in an area that has no hills, you could get some of the same effect by running up and down the stairs of skyscrapers. Or you could run up and down parking garages. If you have a treadmill, you can set the incline to simulate uphill running. If the treadmill has a foldable deck, you can prop up the back to simulate downhill running. Just don't fall.

Tip- if you are running a race that features hills, do hill repeats! My first trail marathon was run on a hilly course. I didn't do any hill repeats. By mile 18, I couldn't walk up the hills forward. I had to do a sort of side-stepping shuffle. It sucked. Worse, I was passed by a lady in her late sixties doing her first-ever race.

*Pristine... except the times the garbage Chicago dumped in the lake floated over to our beaches. Bastards.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Types of Training Runs: Fartleks

A Fartlek run is a run where your speed is going to vary for random distances. Sometimes you run fast, sometimes you run slow. The distance is usually relatively short, maybe a few miles.

You should do Fartlek runs for no other reason than the name. It's fun to say “I'm going out to do a Fartlek!”

If you need more justification, you should do them because they train your body to make the adjustment from running fast to running slow to walking and back. In an ultra, you'll probably make this transition several (if not many) times. This training run will help.

You also get some of the benefits of speedwork without as much “vomit” danger. When you begin to reach that threshold, you just slow down.


Types of Training Runs: Speedwork

There are a few types of runs that make up most training plans. The first I'll discuss is speedwork. As the name implies, speedwork involves running really fast. Different people have different ideas of what exactly constitutes speedwork. I'm going with a simple definition:

Any run where talking is extremely difficult.

Speedwork helps make you faster. There aren't too many times you'll need speed in ultras, especially your first. I recommend speedwork to prevent you from getting slower over time. Long-term ultrarunners that only run long, slow distances usually experience a degree of muscle atrophy and loss of speed. Occasionally running fast helps prevent that.

Speedwork can take several forms. Some people like running repeats, or laps around a track. Others like to do tempo runs, which are shorter, faster runs. I prefer running short races, like 5ks or add a sprinting component to my crosstraining. I'm not a huge fan of fast running, so I've used some various “motivational” methods over the years.

My favorite method involved sprinting down sand hills. It was easy, fun, and made me feel really fast.

The worst method involved an evil workout called a Tabata. It involved sprinting for 30 seconds, walking for 20, then repeating that cycle eight times. I'd rest for a few seconds, then do it again. I repeated the eight cycles six times. I threw up twice. It wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for the Taco Bell spicy burrito I ate a few hours before.


Rest Days and Overtraining

Rest days are important. So much so, I'm placing this section ahead of the actually training ideas. When you decide to run an ultra, there's usually some degree of panic that sets in. It's not uncommon to have a “OH MY GOD I'M NOT GOING TO BE READY FOR THIS!” feeling. That sometimes drives us to train again and again without giving our body time to recover.

Most of the plans have build-in rest days. TAKE THEM! Your body needs that time to recover.

If you don't rest, there's a chance you will develop overtraining symptoms, which include:
  • A higher-than-normal heart rate, which can be measured when waking up in the morning (before those eight cups of coffee),
  • Constant muscle soreness,
  • Insomnia,
  • Depression-like symptoms,
  • Loss of appetite,
  • Loss of motivation,
  • Irritability.

The tricky part of diagnosing overtaining is the symptoms are hard to distinguish from other negative life events, like your favorite reality TV show being canceled or your pet gerbil dying.

I've encountered overtraining occasionally. My challenge has been deciphering the symptoms of overtraining from my natural procrastination and laziness. Lack of motivation? Check. Irritability? If I'm trying to kick that eight cup-a-day coffee habit: check. Insomnia? If there's a SpongeBob marathon on Nickelodeon: check.

For me the tell-tale sign is loss of appetite. It never happens. I once ate an entire large pepperoni pizza in the middle of a bout with the stomach flu. It wasn't pretty.

If you start experiencing overtraining symptoms, what's the best solution? Take a one week vacation. No matter where you are in training, take a week off. Do nothing. The effects on training will be minimal and you'll come back stronger than ever.


How to Get Rid of the Annoying Training Partner

I've been lucky- all of my training partners have been great. However, I do occasionally get questions about annoying training partners. Specifically, how do you gracefully get rid of them. Here are some approaches:

Method One: Be direct: Simply tell them “I don't want to run with you anymore. You annoy the shit out of me.” If you want to make it more dramatic, add something like “Remember on our last run when you talked nonstop for six hours about how barefoot running changed your life? I spent the entire time contemplating the pros and cons of murder versus suicide.” This is probably the healthiest approach and the only one I'd recommend. Maybe skip that last part.

Method Two: Be passive aggressive: This rarely works and is totally unhealthy, but some people find it fun. Start by showing up 15 minutes late to every run. Next, escalate it by having them run first on trails thought wooded areas so they hit all the spider webs spanning across the trail. When running side-by-side, most of us like to run on one side or the other. Figure out their preference then always run on the opposite side. If they duck off the trail to relieve themselves, tell them you'll be the lookout. Look the other way when another runner approaches so they're caught in a compromising position. Finally, invite them to a Mexican restaurant the night before a long run. Insist on ordering a bean-heavy dish. The next day, mix up the anti-diarrhea medication with a laxative, tell them you'll bring the toilet paper on the run, then conveniently forget it at home.

Method Three: Out-annoy them: The idea is to escalate every annoying thing they say. For example, if they say “I'm a Republican and I believe we should have guns!” You respond with “Damn right we should have guns! How else are we going to launch the revolution? In fact, we're having a meeting tomorrow night, you're just the kind of person we're looking for! By the way, what's your blood type?”


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Training Run Conversations

Now that you have a training partner, you may need some help with conversation topics. Well, if you have social skills like me, you could use some help. The rest of you socially-competent folks are fine. Go ahead and skip this section.

Those long runs can last forever, so these should help fill the awkward lulls. I'm dividing the topics based on familiarity with the training partner.

Partner you just met:
  • Weather
  • Movies you've recently watched
  • Running history, how and why you started
  • Profession
  • Kids (if you have them... otherwise pets are acceptable)
Someone you've known for a few weeks:
  • Educational history
  • Family history
  • Food preferences/diet
  • Observations about other runners you see on the trail, but stay positive
  • Favorite childhood cartoons and/or toys
Someone you've been running with for months:
  • Political views
  • Religious views
  • Philosophy of life
  • Dreams and aspirations
  • Whether you sleep in the nude or prefer pajamas
  • Annoying co-workers
Someone you've been running with for at least a year:
  • Details of the poop you just took in the woods(color, consistency, etc.)
  • How different sports bras and/or shorts keep your breasts or genitals from bouncing
  • Your real dreams and aspirations that you were too embarrassed to admit earlier
  • Best place to dispose of the bodies of those annoying coworkers*
  • That trip to Cancun, the video on the internet, and your resulting illegitimate child

*Just kidding law enforcement friends.