- Mark Twain
A sad paradox really, but in order to gain sufficient experience to inform our choices wisely, we must
sometimes make mistakes. How many times do you hear quotes from high achievers in sport that
state they only truly learn from their failures. This is a lesson I hold close to my heart in all my endeavours in life, not just running. For to fail, is to learn and sometimes what hurts instructs. The pain of failure is only the symptom, it's the learning that is inherently the cure.
To say I’ve made some mistakes in my fairly short running career would be an understatement. I’ve
committed a catalogue of errors, but through each painful setback I’ve taken a step back in the right
direction. Even now I look forward to embracing future faux pars in my quest for improvement.
This article serves as a brief precis of some lessons I’ve picked up in ultra-running that I hope could
help others along the way…
Good form is ever more important in ultras
Several years ago I went on a running form class with Accelerate running store in Sheffield. It seemed a strange idea at the time, after all I already knew I could run a bit. What could they possibly tell me that I wasn't already doing? It turned out, quite a lot! What resulted was a higher pace at the same heart rate, thus proving to myself that improved running form could speed me up, while maintaining the same effort. Speed for free! Who in their right mind would turn that down?
From my experience cadence was the first easy fix. I believe most people could improve by merely picking up their cadence a little. It's oft touted that 180 steps per minute is the sweet spot, but research shows it's more complex than that with regards to pace and individual running styles. Suffice to say, at least once a week I'll use a training run, be it fast or slow and aim for the magic 180spm. It will probably feel too fast and awkward the first time you try it, but as you dial it in the effort levels drop and muscle memory takes over. I believe the science behind this is in harnessing the elasticity of our muscles and tendons. As a product of higher cadence we also have less ground contact time, meaning reduced injury risk.
Posture was another important part of our form that often needs addressing. We need to stay tall, hips stable and forward (not sat back). The forward lean that allows us to move efficiently forward comes from the ankles not the hips or back! For this I try to feel I'm standing tall, almost stretching myself and I imagine a rope tied around my waist pulling me forward. This prevents me from folding slightly back at the hips, a product of too much sitting in modern society. Of course our posture would always benefit from some core work.
You can do too much
Part of the allure of ultra-running is our shared fascination with the seemingly impossible. Of course
running these huge distances is more than achievable by the average healthy human being. The huge
uptake in the sport in recent years shows how accessible it can be. However this comes with it an inherent danger. Belief and positivity will get you so far, possibly further than you'd ever imagine. Eventually though our bodies can and will retaliate. Stress in whatever form is accumulative and when our individual breaking point is found, that's where things start to unravel. This could lead to burnout and issues with our hormonal system. It's becoming ever more documented in our sport, particularly at the elite end of the spectrum, where bright shining stars are fading after only a couple of years at the pinnacle of the sport.
In order to combat this issue it's best to consider building slowly in this sport. And by slow I mean years of incremental increases in distances and stresses. The now well known line of no more than 10% increase in weekly distance is only the tip of the iceberg. Consider the type of training in this equation too. Your slow runs need to be exactly that, and speed sessions or long runs need to be married up with quality recovery days.
I offer this advice from personal and painful experience. Without retreading my already well discussed backstory (see Balance), consider I've been trying to bounce back to where I was nearly 2 years ago. It's well worth avoiding this hole in the first place, but if you feel you're already there somewhat, write off your racing schedule and get serious about recovery. Fitness and health aren't necessarily the same thing, health being our main priority.
Get a coach
Leading on from the last topic, my recovery is finally coming together with the assistance of a coach - love to run coaching. It pays dividends to have someone overseeing your training that isn't emotionally attached to the outcomes. From personal experience when the first stages of burnout begin, the natural reaction of a passionate runner is to train harder, fearing we are lacking fitness rather than having done too much.
Equally using some science in our training allows us to get to the next level in our performances. I for one spent my initial years aiming for quantity rather than quality. My reasoning was twofold; firstly I thought ultra running must be specifically about accumulating excessive mileage to toughen the body for the challenges of racing ridiculous miles. And secondly I was committed to enjoying the miles of trails on my doorstep, choosing not to run intervals or tempo runs on boring stretches of flat surfaces. It transpires I was wrong, improvement means training all the bodies systems not just the aerobic base. And this needs to be periodised into specific focussed phases so we can peak for our goal races. I can only thank Dave for assisting me with identifying that recovery is a must and pain is 'painful'.
Nutrition wins the day
This is the oldest one in the book but it amazes me how many people choose to ignore this most basic of rules. We're happy to bleed in training out on the trails, yet we often fail to fuel the body correctly. This can encompass several different traps, one I'm guilty of at times can be too little calories to sufficiently refuel my body. I tend to eat pretty clean with vegetables and fruit making up the majority of my intake where possible, but I'm prone to skipping meals. To avoid this pitfall I try the little and often rule. My primary occupation makes eating in the manner sometimes difficult with me out of the 'office' for hours on end. To counter this I pack healthy snacks I can easily transport with me such as a piece of fruit or nuts, this also serves to stave off cravings for the dreaded fast/convenience food, which my colleagues continuously tempt me with!
Another mindset some people tend to drop into is in respect of over eating poor foods. After all we've just burnt say 1000 calories on a long run - why not gorge on calorie dense, but sugary foods. There is a place for some treats, but everything must be in moderation. I tend to enjoy a tasty Mountain Fuel recovery drink after long runs, before eating a healthy meal to quickly replace lost electrolytes and calories.
Of all the experiential lessons I've learnt, this has to be one of the most important. Yet how easy it is to stray from a healthy day to day habit... Stay the path and the rewards in recovery and performance will certainly follow.
Don't skimp on your kit
In ultra-marathons, the need for quality kit is amplified as you’re going to be out on the course much longer. Problem solving on the fly is part and parcel of this sport, which is why you’ll want to equip yourself with the finest solutions. I've been caught out in the mountains early in my running career with substandard protection and it's a hard lesson learnt. Suffice to say I wouldn't skimp on purchasing the right products for the job.
Footwear is likely the single most individual and important purchase you’ll make and as a premium product the Salomon S/Lab Sense 6 ticks the boxes. Designed in collaboration with mountain running legend, Killian Jornet, the Sense Ultra is a super lightweight race shoe, yet with adequate protection to deal with the most formidable trails. Also remember to stay safe from the elements, it’s not like toughing out a short 10k, where in contrast in an ultra you may be on the hills dealing with inclement weather for many hours. The Salomon S/Lab Hybrid Jacket will keep you warm and protected from the elements, but won’t compromise performance being lightweight with motion fit.
A little strength and conditioning goes a long way
A passion for running can be as rewarding as it can be destructive at times. We accumulate miles over many joyous hours on the trails, yet this needs balance. One way of providing this is to do some strength and core work. That's where taking a little time to work on the parts of our bodies that miles in the legs don't always work. Not least the parts that do get worked thousands of times repetitively on the run need extra strengthening.
There are hundreds of specific core and strengthening sessions available on the net that are easily accessible. Trust me even a 10-15minute session 3 times a week will give big returns in injury prevention and being able to hold good form late in a race.
Train your weaknesses but play to your strengths
I would imagine we're all guilty of this at some points in all and every walk of life. It's almost become human nature due to our culture to stick to what comes easy to us. We spend much time avoiding pain and discomfort, yet procrastination often leads to more pain and stress.
In a running forum, I'm a pretty good ascender (I normally gain places late in races on long climbs) and I'm fairly metronomic on the flat at an ultra pace. Where I'm weaker is on working my top end speed and descents. I've learnt over time that committing some time to these weaknesses is where I'll get the biggest gains on races. That doesn't mean they necessarily become my strengths, rather the margins to the other competitors shortens. Then I can still capitalise on my strengths when the time comes.
Experience is the sum of our lives, hard lessons learnt but to be embraced. These are a few examples of what I've learnt in running so far. The learning never stops though and I embrace all the experience it gives me.
Feel free to disagree with some or even all of what I've said, after all thats how we learn right - by getting stuff wrong...