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 http://kemmefitness.com. 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: http://philmaffetone.com/180formula.cfm) 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.


Training Partners

Before we get to the nuts and bolts of experimentation ideas, let's chat about training partners. Some people are attracted to ultras for the solitude when training. Or, as was my case, you're looking for a little peace and quiet from your screaming newborn. If this is you, there's no need for a training partner or partners... enjoy the silence.

For those of you that prefer a more social setting, finding good training partners can be invaluable. I have the benefit of having an ultrarunning spouse. In fact, many of the “dates” Shelly and I go on involve running up and down mountains. We also have a great network of friends collectively known as the “Hobby Joggas.” We routinely go on group runs then hit up a local bar afterward.

Here are some tips to find training partners:

Tip #1: Find other ultrarunners. Social networking is great for this. Facebook is teeming with runners, many probably live near you. Connecting with them is easy, and most are always looking for new training partners. It's also a great way to get advice from those that have more experience.

Tip #2: Convince your friends to join you on this adventure. If your friends are adventurous, they'll probably join with little hesitation. If they are not adventurous, just lie by omission. If you're training for a 50k, tell them you're training for a 5k and just start going through the training plan. At some point they will catch on. At that point, just say “Oh, did I say 5k, I meant 50k! I've always had trouble with zeros.”

Tip #3: Get a dog that likes to run. They make great training partners. I'd suggest some sort of sled dog breed. I used to own a Pomeranian, which is apparently a descendant of sled dogs. Once trained, he could easily run 20+ miles as long as the temperatures were cool. Other active breeds will work, too. Avoid dogs like bulldogs as they aren't well-suited for running. Avoid little dogs like miniature pincers or Chihuahuas, too. That just looks silly.


Listening to Your Body

In the barefoot running world, we CONSTANTLY talk about the idea of listening to your body. This is a more palatable way of saying “If it hurts, stop or do something else.”

The same concept applies to ultrarunning. If you're doing something that causes pain, you're probably doing it wrong. Learn to listen to the signals your body gives, then adjust accordingly.

Of course, there's a serious problem with this advice. Running really long distances hurts. A lot. I'll give you some tips to deal with the pain later on, but it does leave us with the question- how do you know if it's “I'm injured” pain or “This is just normal pain everybody experiences when running ultras”?

The question is difficult to answer. Experience will teach you the difference. But what do you do in the interim? Follow these tips:

Here's my annoying disclaimer: I'm not a medical professional, and I'd recommend consulting one before doing any of this.

1. Generally speaking, muscle soreness is okay. If you've ever lifted weights, it's that feeling you have when you first started. Never felt that? Here's a demo. Do 100 pushups as quickly as possible. Pause to rest if needed, but the quicker the better. That burning you feel? That's usually okay. Stop reading and come back tomorrow.

[one day later]

Feel that soreness in your pecs? That pain is okay, too.

2. Sharp shooting pains are generally bad. If it feels like someone is impaling you with a burning hot fireplace poker. You should stop. Rest until the pain subsides, seek medical attention if needed.

3. If you experience dull aches hours or a day after a workout, that could be bad. Rest until the pain subsides, seek medical attention if needed.

4. If you experience any weird sensations or symptoms like discoloration, pain that isn't muscular, chest pain, light-headedness, abnormal swelling, fever, weight gain, or anything else abnormal, seek immediate medical attention. Always better to be safe than sorry.  and there's always a chance the ambulance driver/nurse/doctor will be hot.


Do I Have to Stick to the Plan Religiously?

Now that you have a plan, the next question revolves around adaptability. Do you have to follow the plan precisely?

It probably depends on who you ask.

Those with a type “A” personality will insist you follow the workout precisely. If you miss a run, the world will come crashing down. It's a moot point, though, because your run should be at the top of your list of the other 498 things you have to do each day.

As you probably guessed, I'm not really a list-making kind of person. I'm more of a realist. I'm also guessing you're not really a type "A" personality, either.  After all, you are reading a book with a ridiculous title written by a mediocre runner.  

If you miss a run, it's not a big deal. In fact, taking a break occasionally gives your body time to heal. If you DO miss a workout, just move on to the next one on the schedule.

Just don't make it a habit. 


Training Plans: How do I Choose?

Okay, let's get down to the nitty-gritty of ultra training- the plan. The training plan in the backbone of your quest to finish your first ultra. If you do a quick Internet search, you'll find dozens of plans dedicated specifically to ultras. On top of that, you'll also find hundreds of marathon training plans that could feasibly be modified for ultras.

You probably want me to recommend one specific plan, huh?

Too bad. I'm going to make YOU choose. I'll give you some guidance, but ultimately the decision has to be yours to make.

I'll present a few of the more popular plans here along with the criteria I recommend to make the choice. You should be able to quickly peruse the details of each plan and get an idea of those that might work well for you.

Let's start with the criteria. These should be your primary considerations:

  • Consideration #1: What distance am I running? Some plans are specifically tailored to a given distance. Others can be modified for any distance. You can start by eliminating those that cannot be modified to fit your given distance.
  • Consideration #2: How does the schedule of training runs (and crosstraining in some cases) fit your life? If you work 80 hours a week, a plan that requires several long, slow runs each week probably won't work. Make sure the plan fits your time allotment.
  • Consideration #3: Does this running plan have a community I can lean on for support? Some plans (like Crossfit Endurance) have an active community of people going through the exact same thing you are. It can be handy to lean on them for support and guidance as you progress toward the race.
In the next section, I'll talk about some of the more popular plans.


Give Me a Training Plan!!!

[I accidentally posted this post out of order.  Read this post first.]

Here are a few popular training plans for the new ultrarunner. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list, just a listing to give you a taste of what's out there. I've used a few and will give my own comments when appropriate.

  • Crossfit/ Crossfit Endurance: Crossfit is a functional fitness-based workout program designed to develop multiple areas of athletic skills. Crossfit Endurance adds an element of high-intensity anaerobic running to the mix. The theory goes something like this: By running long, slow distances, we get slower and weaker. If we do shorter distance high intensity running combined with functional fitness training, we get faster and stronger at running (and any other athletic endeavor). I've used CF/CFE in the past, and still use many elements of the program. It's good. However, the lack of long runs severely dampens the ability to experiment with all of the variables inherent in ultras (like gear, food, chafing, etc.) If you like your workouts to end with you lying in the fetal position in a pool of your own vomit, this is the plan for you.
  • Maffetone Method: The Maffetone Method pretty much takes the opposite approach. It replaces all high-intensity workouts with long, slow runs. The Maffetone method uses a heart rate monitor to keep heart rate below a predetermined point to train your body to utilize fat burning. Higher intensity workouts can be added after an endurance base has been built. I have played around with the Maffetone heart rate monitoring, and it does work as advertised. If you don't like sweating, this is the plan for you.
  • Modified Hal Higdon plan: Hal Higdon's marathon training programs have been guiding marathoners to the finish line for... well, forever. His plans have a balance of different types of runs based on experience. The tricky part- his plans are designed for marathons. They can be modified easily, though. If you like doing what everybody else is doing, this is the plan for you.
  • Jeff Galloway-based plan: Galloway's plans, like Higdon's, are designed for marathons. However, differs by teaching a system of running and walking. This concept is one of the most popular techniques used in ultras. As such, his training plan is quite popular. So popular in fact, ultrarunner Tim Looney refers to ultras as giant Gallo-walking festivals.” If you spend your mornings doing laps at the local mall and watched 'The Golden Girls' because of all the hotties, this is the plan for you.
  • Runner's World plan: Runners World produced an ultra training plan, but it assumes you've already run a marathon. Still, some people like Runner's World. Their forums are pretty cool. And some people like the incredible diversity of their magazine's cover art. You know, a skinny white girl with ash blonde hair one month, then a skinny white girl with strawberry blonde hair the next. Anyway, here's the plan: http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-238-244--7556-0,00.html
  • Santa Clara Runners customizable plan: This plan is really cool- it's an interactive website that produces a customized plan. The plan itself is basic, there are no specifications for different types of runs. Still, it will get you to the finish line. Check it out here: http://www.scrunners.org/ultrasch.php
  • The plan from The Barefoot Running Book: I wrote a plan included in my other book, but it's designed for marathons. Same deal as Higdon and Galloway's plans... it can be modified for ultras. It's really a hybrid that combines Crossfit and Crossfit-style workouts designed in conjunction with my friend Pete Kemme of Kemme Fitness (http://kemmefitness.com) and Maffetone's long, slow runs. It's the best of both worlds.  Now run out and buy the book.  :-)
  • Relentless Forward Progress plan: Bryon Powell's excellent book 'Relentless Forward Progress' includes an excellent plan based on Bryon's own experiences. Bryon is the editor-in-chief of irunfar.com, THE ultramarathon resource on the 'web. If you're looking for a more legitimate, serious book from ultrarunners that are actually good, check out his book. It can be purchased here: Relentless Forward Progress.

Check out each of these. Using the criteria I shared earlier, pick the plan that will be a good fit for you. If you can't decide, pick the plan from The Barefoot Running Book. If you are offended by my shameless cross-promotion, pick Crossfit. Then send me the pics of you lying in that pool of vomit.


Let's Start Training: The Art of Experimentation

If you do a quick search on the Interwebz, you'll find a tremendous number of ultramarathon training tips and advice. You'll find dozens of training plans, philosophies, techniques, and research. You'll also find a ton of information refuting each and every one of those training plans, philosophies, techniques, and research.

What does this mean?

There is no one right answer.

You can follow a lot of different plans and still get to the finish line. You can even make up your own plan out of thin air. It does help to have some guidance, though, so how do you choose? Many are tempted to just do what their favorite elite runner does. This will probably work, but that elite, like every other runner, is a different individual. Their plan probably isn't the best fit for you.

I'll discuss a large number of ideas to consider from training plans to the tiny details of ultrarunning. I would highly recommend developing your own process of experimentation to decide how to deal with each issue. Test out a wide variety of ideas. Keep those that work. Get id of those that do not. By using this process, you will continually improve using the methods that work best for you.

In essence, think of your ultramarathon training as one huge experiment, and you're the subject.

Here's the method:

Step One: Choose the new thing to test. It may be a food, piece of gear, exercise, what lube prevents your junk from chafing... whatever. Only change one variable at a time.

Step Two: Test the new variable. In many cases, this will involve going for a run. Pay close attention to the effects of the variable. If it is a food, how did it make you feel? Was it easy to eat? Is it something that can be carried with you?

Step Three: Decide if the variable helped, hurt, or further experimentation is needed. If it seemed to help, adopt it as part of the training. If it hurt, abandon it. If further testing is needed, try it again.

This simple process can be used to tailor you training to YOU. 


Is There Such Thing As An Ideal "Ultramarathon Career?"

When I talked about the idea of thinking of every moment of your life as an opportunity to train, I bet you started considering your profession. I did the same thing. I used to be a high school teacher. When I started running ultras, I looked for every opportunity to train I could find.

It started with parking as far away from the front doors as possible, which forced me to walk farther. If I had to go anywhere around the school and time wasn't an issue, I took a route that would bring me up and down multiple sets of stairs. Sometimes I would eat a huge lunch, sometimes I would fast (I'll explain later). When teaching, I'd stand on a balance board to build balance and core strength. I would even do some air squats and walking lunges at the beginning and end of every day to help develop leg strength.

There are some careers offer even more opportunity to train. Anyone that spends time on their feet can think of that as a form of training. Lift heavy objects? That builds strength. Work in a skyscraper? What better way to develop hill climbing and descending ability than avoiding the elevator. Exotic dancer? Pole dancing is perhaps the best core-building exercise out there.

If you are interested in ultras and happen to be looking for a career, consider the training prospects. Something like a walking mail delivery route could make for wonderful training. Better yet, how about working as a mountain guide? Working in an office? Look for a place that will allow a stand-up desk. Better yet, how about a treadmill desk?

If you're not fortunate enough to be in the market for a new career, look at your present career. Make a game out of finding training opportunities. This book will give you lots of ideas. It's up to you to retrofit them to your occupation.


Finding the Time to Train for Ultramarathons

Ultramarathons must take a ton of training. Don't they?

That's a question I receive more than any other. Well, aside from “Why do you do it?” People are hesitant to make the plunge into the world of ultras because the training appears so intimidating. It must take a gargantuan weekly time commitment to prepare your body to run 31+ miles at one time.

Yes and no.

It is possible to run an ultra on very little training. Rich Elliott, a good friend, decided to run a 50 miler with no training. His lone training run consisted of a 5k a few weeks prior. That's it. He ran 3.1 miles in two years. On race day, he managed to eek out 27 miles before throwing in the towel.

John DeVries, another good friend, ran a 12 hour timed ultra with a single 8 mile run in the previous two years. He made it to about 22 miles. Off topic, but check out John's adventures as he travels the Americas on his motorcycle: http://motovagabond.net/

What can be learned from their experiences? It's tough to run an ultra with no training. If you have a little bit of a running background, you could probably do it with minimal training. If you have a strong running background, you can probably do it with the training you already have.

The correlation should be obvious- the more you train, the better the results. I would go a step farther and say the more you train, the more enjoyable the race will be.

It does take time. This is a huge undertaking, and you will have work to do. There are no substitute or shortcuts- you have to put in the hours.

However, these hours don't have to be intimidating. You don't have to add a ton of training hours on top of your already busy schedule. The trick is to merge your ultra training with your existing daily life.

Not only is it possible, it's the norm. Ultrarunning is a unique sport. Even the best of the best don't make enough money from sponsorships or race winnings to make a living. In fact, this money rarely pays for the races themselves. Pretty much all ultrarunners have normal jobs. They have to figure out how to fit ultrarunning into their lives. 

The secret is deceptively simple:

Always train. 

No, I don't mean skirt all your responsibilities, sell the kids on eBay, and start running ten hours each day. Look at everything you do on a daily basis and begin asking:

How can I tweak this activity to achieve some training benefit?

Turn everything in your life into an opportunity to train. By simply re-framing the situation, you don't have to worry about carving four hours each day out of your already busy life. Instead you are now free to train 24 hours a day, seven days a week!  Day at the office?  Training.  Picking up toilet bowl cleaner from the grocery store?  Training.  Puttin' the moves on your significant other?  Training.  Yes, you read that right.  Sounds more fun than running around a track, huh?

I know what some of you are thinking: but I don't have a significant other!  Worry not strong-armed friends, I have at least one tip for you, too.

Most of the advice I give in this good revolves around this idea- you can train pretty much everywhere no matter what you're doing.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ultramarathon Research: Learn All You Can About the Race

Now that you've signed up (and nursed that hangover), you can start researching the intricate details of the race. You'll want to know important things like:
  • The race rules,
  • Lodging options in the area,
  • Typical weather conditions, and
  • How other runners approached the race.
All of these items can be found on the race websites or by reading race reports. When some people run a race, they write race reports to document their experience. These can be found in a number of places, including ultrarunning forums, blogs, or ultrarunning websites. Some race directors even post race reports on the race website. An easy way to find them is Googling “[insert race name] race report.”

Don't discount the best possible resource- runners that have first-hand knowledge of the course or race. If the race is local, it should be pretty easy to find runners that have run the race. Check with local running clubs or running stores.


Taking the Leap and Registering For Your First Ultramarathon

Okay, so you found the perfect race. Now what? I bet you're a little hesitant to register. I have a time-tested method to alleviate that uneasy feeling when you're filling out the registration form. Here's what you need:
  • A computer (or mail-in form, envelope, and stamp for those races that are still stuck in the 1900's)
  • Credit card (or check book)
  • A good friend or relative with an antagonistic personality
  • Copious amounts of your favorite alcohol
Step One: Explain the antagonist's role- to get you to sign up for the race.
Step Two: Go to race website registration page.
Step Three: Drink all of the alcohol.
Step Four: Let the antagonist work their magic.

Congratulations! You just signed up for your first ultra!

Now tell everyone you know. The more people you tell, the more social pressure you'll feel to follow through and not back out at the last minute.

Enter social networks.

Nothing makes a better Facebook post than “I just signed up for my first 50 miler!”


Choosing an Ultramarathon: The Difference Between Roads and Trails

The vast majority of ultras are run on trails of some sort. Some are run on roads. Distance races tend to be more trail-oriented, while timed races tend to be more road-oriented (which may include things like running tracks or concrete sidewalks through parks).

Is one better than the other?
Not necessarily, though there are significant differences. Road running requires a lot of repetitive motions. Your running gait remains more or less the same for the duration of the event. Furthermore, road races tend to be rather flat. This puts stress on specific sets of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. People that train primarily on trails usually have difficulty running on roads (like me).

Most trail runs require the runner to avoid obstacles such as roots, rocks, logs (both wooden and the kind left by animals... or lazy humans), and water or mud. Trail races tend to have more elevation change, so you spend more time traversing hills. This requires much more dynamic movement, which distributes the workload to different muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. People that train primarily on roads usually have difficulty running on trails.

My suggestion: Like I discussed in a previous section, it's best to choose a race with similar terrain and elevation as your training routes. If you live in a city surrounded by flat farmland, a mountain trail race would be a bad idea. It's the same deal if you like to train on trails with lots of elevation change. A road race will be more difficult than a trail race.

It is possible to take a “jack of all trades” approach and train on both roads and trails, which gives you MUCH more versatility. This would be the ideal situation if you have enough time to train before your first ultra.


Choosing an Ultramarathon: How Much Do Ultramarathons Cost?

The price of ultras can range from free (the previously-mentioned fatass races) to staggeringly expensive. Badwater, a race run through Death Valley in California, can easily cost around $10,000 for the race entry fee, hotels, gear, and rental vehicles. So what is a more realistic price?

Most races range in price from a low of about $30 to a high of about $200. generally speaking, the longer the race, the more expensive the entry fees. Other variables make a difference, like the level of support offered, need for permits to use the land, and the swag (goodies like t-shirts and finisher awards).

Aside from the entry fee, other costs need to be considered, including:
  • Transportation: If the race is within driving distance, you need to consider the price of gas and parking. If the race requires flying, consider airport parking, the cost of the flight, rental car, and rental car gas.
  • Lodging: Hotels may be needed for the night before and after the race. Hint- always get a room on the first floor. After the race, it will likely be difficult to climb stairs. Some races will offer on-site camping, which can save money. If you camp in a tent, bring plenty of warm blankets. It's not uncommon to feel colder than normal after a race.
  • Food: You will need food before and after the race, and potentially food during the race. Some races offer pre- and post-race meals. One of the best parts of ultrarunning- we tend to burn a lot of calories, which means one thing: guilt-free fast food! I recommend Taco Bell. Lay off the spicy sauces, though... otherwise you'll regret it the next day. Trust me on this one.
  • Gear: I usually prefer to bring as little gear as possible, but it still adds up to a fair amount of crap. I usually bring several clothing options, at least two pair of shoes, sometimes socks (I hate socks), bandana, flashlights and headlamps, lube (prevent chafing), handheld water bottles, and a small foot care kit (I'll discuss that one later). For very long races, I'll also add some more crap to my stockpile. To save money, you can often use non-running specific 'homemade” gear. In my first ultra, I used little travel bottles designed for shampoo ($1 each) instead of gel flasks designed for runners ($12 each). Different sections of this book will help you determine what you need to buy.
There may be other expenses that arise based on individual experiences. For the most part, ultras are pretty cheap compared to other hobbies. The closer you stay to home, the more money you'll likely save on transportation and lodging.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Choosing Your First Ultramarathon: What About Fatass Races?

Is this a race for people with giant butts? Not quite. A fatass race is essentially an organized “unofficial” race set up by one or a few dedicated ultrarunners. There's usually no perks (shorts, medals, etc.), course marshals (people that keep you on the course), aid stations or other forms of support, or even a timing mechanism. It's usually more like a training run than a race.

So why would you want to run a fatass?


And they tend to be super cool. The people that show up for fatass races are running for the pure love of running and the camaraderie of their fellow runners. I would highly encourage any new ultrarunner to hang out at fatass races.

However, I would not recommend a fatass as a first race. The lack of support usually requires runners to carry all their food and water, which adds a fairly difficult obstacle to an already difficult undertaking. Also, the lack of course markings may make the actual course navigation difficult. Again, it's another variable that a brand new ultrarunner shouldn't have to worry about.


Choosing Your First Ultramarathon: Elevation Profiles

In the last section I mentioned elevation. Most race directors publish what is known as an elevation profile. It's essentially a graph representing how many hills the course has. The “spikier” the graph, the more hills. Also, the steeper the graph, the steeper the hill.

Here's an elevation chart of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run:

The Y axis represents altitude starting at sea level. The X axis represents distance. You can count the number of hills or “climbs” by the number of peaks. In the case of Western States, there are nine significant climbs.

Elevation charts can be a little deceptive based on appearance alone. Here's an elevation profile for the Leadville Silver Rush 50 miler. Note the X axis starts at 9,800 feet and you climb to about 12,100 feet. It's a pretty rugged race.

Let's take the exact same profile, but change the numbers a bit. Notice the elevation at the left. Instead of a high-altitude mountain ultra up and down mountains, the course is now near sea level with a few 55 foot gentle hills.

The scale matters, even if the graphic looks intimidating. Many recommend a flat course for beginners. Again, I'd recommend picking a course with similar climbs and altitude than your training trails. People that train in the rough stuff usually have some difficulty going to the flat stuff.

If you train at high altitude, you can run a race at lower altitude without problems. Going from low-altitude training to a high altitude (> 8,000 feet) race can be problematic, though. The lower concentration of oxygen can cause altitude sickness. Unless that's your thing. Sure it can be life-threatening, but some people may be into nosebleeds, hangover symptoms, and cerebral edema. To each their own... I guess.


Choosing a First Ultramarathon: Is There An Ideal First Ultra?

If you ask experienced ultrarunners, they will often recommend a specific race as an “ideal first race.” Here's the problem- it's the race they recommend based on their experiences. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're wrong. Their suggestions certainly deserve consideration, but I'd recommend tailoring the choice a little more based on this criteria:

1. Choose a distance that you can realistically train for given the time frame. If you're choosing a 50k, a few months will probably be sufficient. A 50 miler will take more time, as will a 100k or a 100 miler. You have more latitude with timed races since you can run whatever distance you want.

2. Pick a race that features terrain and elevation similar to your training grounds. If you live in Florida where hills are non-existent, it's probably a bad idea to sign up for a mountain ultra with thousands of feet of climbing and descending. It's the same deal with terrain. Don't sign up for a notoriously rocky ultra if you routinely get passed by soccer moms pushing jogging strollers on your local trails. The Ultrarunning Magazine online calendar has a handy 1-5 rating scale for both terrain and elevation with the higher number represents more elevation and more technical trails.

3. Bring experienced friends. Nothing can be more valuable than the support of friends that have ultra experience. When I ran my first ultra, I was helped by a dude that had run several hundred in his lifetime. He ran with me for about 12 miles and kept me from quitting when I hit some serious lows. Since relying on strangers can be difficult, set the stage by asking a friend to run the race side by side. If you can't find a willing or experienced friend, join some online ultrarunning communities. It's usually pretty easy to make friends, then ask them for the same favor. If it helps, offer to pay their entry fee.

4. Don't bite off more than you can chew.  The longer the distance, the more likely issues will arise that will have to be solved.  For example, 100 milers require you to navigate trails in the dark while both fatihued and sleep deprived.  It's difficult to get the needed experience in training.  The fewer the variables, the greater your chances of success.  You'll have plenty of opportunities to tackle the toughies down the road.

Considering these three issues can go a long way toward finding your “ideal” first ultra. The goal is to put you in a position to succeed, then use that success to conquer greater challenges in the future.