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.