I’ve had this post written in my drafts for nearly a year now; building on it, adjusting it, finally finding the right time to post it. We’re now in the middle of the second month of the year, which means many runners will be knee deep in training for their first ultramarathon and perhaps wondering what on earth they’ve got themselves into. The sheen of starting training has worn off, you’ve got months still to go, and you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Welcome to ultra. I promise it’s worth it in the end, but it’s a hell of a journey to get there.
So, I present to you: Check yourself before you wreck yourself – a very average ultrarunner’s guide to staying happily in the middle of the pack. There are umpteen books and training guides out there which cover everything you might need to become the best ultra runner you can be – but what if you’d just like to finish happily and healthily, and with enough enthusiasm to sign up for another? I can’t tell you how to race tactically to win, to go from a tortoise to a hare, or issue you with plant-based diet plans which will turn you into Scott Jurek v.2.0, but I can offer you some experience on being a normal person trying to happily juggle life and ultra training in a hectic world.
Last year I made some definite mistakes and learned a lot about how to not train for a 50 miler. The same could be applied to training for a 50k ultra or anywhere in-between or beyond those distances. Allow me to share these lessons with you.
[disclaimer: I am not a medical or sports professional, and have no formal training or qualifications to back these thoughts up. This is what works for me, but it may not work for you. I learned the following the hard way, and chances are you're going to have to do the same; but maybe this might help guide you a bit. Don't be a dumbass, don't put yourself in danger and always remember Mike Raffan's rule #1- don't be a dick.]
1) The biggest challenge is finding the right balance of dedicating yourself to your training, whilst still being able to maintain a shred of a life so that you can let your hair down every now and then and still retain your identity. There is no point in doing this if you don’t want to, or you are not enjoying it. Whilst you will benefit from considering yourself to be an athlete who has to prioritise training above anything else, the crux of the matter is that you aren’t. You are not a professional, no-one is paying you to do this and you’re accountable to no-one but yourself. Ultra marathons and their associated training aren’t for everyone and you really need to want to do it and also know why you want to do it. Why did you sign up? What is your motivation? Beware of ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) as described in the book ‘Relentless Forward Progress'; ultras are becoming so popular these days and so many people are doing them that it’s natural to want to do the same amazing events as what your friends are doing – but are you ready? You’ll soon find out.
2) Pick your training plan extremely wisely. This is a no-brainer, but I managed to mess this one up a bit last year. I used Relentless Forward Progress’ 50k plan to do my first D33 and it worked perfectly, so I didn’t think twice when filling in my calendar with the mileage for their 50 mile plan last year. That plan was far too much for me – I realised when I had scheduled doing bigger back-to-backs than my friends who were training for the West Highland Way race for no good reason other than it was in the plan. Take advice from other runners who have trained for your race before, ask to see their training, consider whether you are similar runners – are they consistently faster and stronger than you? Maybe their plan will be too much for you and could use a tweak or two. Ask questions and soak up the answers – there is no right answer on how to train for an ultra, you have to figure out what works for you. Some of my club train 6 days a week, others only 3; but everyone has always finished their races.
3) Sleep is your BIGGEST weapon. When your mileage gets high and you’re training more than you ever have, your body is going to freak out a bit. The best way you can cope with this is sleep and rest; take your recovery after your long runs seriously and try and schedule yourself some proper time resting up if you can. Coming home from 28 miles and eating on the hoof whilst trying to shower and change to go out to meet friends is not the best way to do it. Also, get yourself to bed early as many nights a week as you can – I have a self-imposed curfew of 10.30pm on week nights or else I would just sit and blog/watch TV/read until I fell asleep. I get up at 05.30am and get home at 6.00pm Monday to Friday so I absolutely need to get as much sleep as possible, or else I just can’t function. You have to make rest and recovery as much as a priority as running, and unfortunately that means saying no to some cool stuff sometimes.
4) Food. Food = fuel. Fuel = food. One of the first things people always ask is ‘What should I eat to fuel myself on runs?’ and no-one can answer that for you. The short answer is take different things that appeal to you and try them on training runs. Some will work, some won’t. Pay attention to what you crave when you come home from a long run and take that with you on your next run.
That isn’t what this section is about though – of equal importance is what you eat when you’re not running. Last year when I started to get really worn down I examined what I was eating very closely. I kept a detailed food and exercise diary for two weeks using dailyplate.com and was pretty surprised by what it revealed – I wasn’t eating anywhere near enough food to support myself. I’m not one to shy away from carbs and big dinners, but without paying attention to what I was eating I was effectively starving myself. I was easily burning a minimum of 800 kcal a day through exercise, although some days it would be near 2500. With my base metabolic rate being around 1500kcal a day I needed to be eating a lot more than what I was consuming to keep my energy levels high. I visited a nutritionist at Aberdeen Sports Village to get some guidance and soon was back on track. Many gyms have these facilities available to members, or if not they can put you in touch with someone qualified to help you. Don’t try and figure it out yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.
5) Physical Maintenance: Book a sports massage now. Don’t wait until something starts hurting! If you’re training for your first ultra, you’re probably working your body harder than you ever have and you need to take care of it. I book a sports massage every month towards the end of my ‘cut back’ week regardless if I’m broken or not – the flush out is wonderful for the legs and you can get back in to training hard the next week with a brand new set of legs. Most runners will find that to a certain extent, they are never 100% right whilst training anyway. There’s always something; a niggle, an ache, never-ending DOMS. You just have to learn what’s normal for you and recognise when something isn’t right.
Also, be prepared for your feet to potentially do nasty things that you could never even imagine. You can do everything possible to wear the right shoes and socks to prevent blisters and damaged toenails, but the reality of it is that some people are just more susceptible than others. I’ve lost all my toenails several times and it’s just something I’ve learned to deal with. In the last year they’ve stopped being quite so flimsy though, apart from this time after the 2013 D33…
Blisters on blisters on blisters which took weeks to heal. I had nothing of the sort after the Fling though…
That’s all I’ve got for now. I didn’t want to write a book on this – there are already plenty out there, and as you all know I’m no particular expert. But these are things which I wish I had been told (or that I had listened to…) when I first started ultrarunning. Why did I start this nonsense anyway? Partly to move on and distract myself from a break up, partly because the races were there and they weren’t going to run themselves. I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zones to find out the kind of person I could be. Turns out, I like that version of myself best of all.
Ultramarathon training is HARD, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If you’re not finding it hard then maybe you’re the next Kilian Jornet or Rory Bosio and you ought to be pushing yourself harder? For the rest of you though – embrace it. Surrender your life to it for a few months and it will give you a lot more in return than you might imagine. Starting with moments like this….
…and then you’ll wonder why you ever doubted yourself. It’s all a mental game anyway – forget the physical prowess; the biggest trick you’ll ever learn is to fool yourself that you’re feeling great when you’re really not, closely followed by having the courage to believe that you WILL finish regardless of how you feel. You can go from feeling brilliant to terrible to brilliant in the space of 10 minutes in an ultra, so never lose hope that things could pick up and just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the finish. It really is that simple.
Are you training for your 1st ultra this Spring, or your 50th?
How is your training going?
What do you wish you’d been told when you first ventured into ultras? Leave your tips for other readers in the comments!