If you’re planning on taking on our first ultra in 2017, I’m guessing you’ve probably spend a little bit of time looking at the different races available, read a few articles on how to prepare for these events, and probably joined the Ultrarunning Community Facebook group.
Without going into too much detail, here are a few things you should have on your radar as you prepare for your first ultra. Take these as a lead into the literature:
1) Race nutrition. In ultra running, it’s vital to replace calories you burn during the race. This is different to a half marathon, and even a marathon, where you can get through without eating much at all(ie you have enough energy stored in your body as glycogen & fat).
How much should I eat?
A general rule of thumb that I've been recommended by a physiologist who specialises in supporting endurance athletes is to take in 250 calories per hour – I’m no nutritionist and this will depend on your body type, but this is a good starting point and seems to work for a lot of people. A lot of people I've spoken to about this will have less, or eat when they're hungry...it's a case of see what works for you.
What should I eat?
Without trying to be boring, this comes down to what works for you. Some people will have a Peanut Butter Clif bar every hour and can go for 12 hours on just those, others will eat rice cakes with dark chocolate, others will eat baby food (yes, Ella’s Kitchen is genuinely the food of choice for many ultra runners), and others will mix it up and have a mix of ShotBloks, Clif Bars, Rice Cakes, Baby Food, other energy bars….others will take in calories in liquid form – coca cola (don’t make the mistake of going for Coke Zero), or TailWind Nutrition (this will draw a smirk from any experienced ultra runners, but it can do a job for some people, mayben including you). The long and short of it is…above are some ideas for what you might want to eat, go out a try them & see how you perform.
2) Equipment. The easiest way to find out what you need for the race you want to enter is to head over to their mandatory kit list. These will include headtorches, basic first aid kits, space blankets, minimum water capacity & a map…and may include waterproofs, a compass and other things depending on the time of year, terrain, and level of support provided by the race organisers.
Things you will (almost) certainly need are a race pack, trail shoes & socks. These three things can make a big difference to your race – not just because of the performance gains you get from good quality, and well-fitted, kit, but mainly because any issue with these three things can cause race-ending problems like blisters & chafing.
For race packs, Salomon are smashing it at the moment – their race packs fit snugly on most people’s backs, are lightweight and have accessible pockets. A good alternative brand is Raidlight.
For shoes, there are a lot of brands out there doing good things, and your choice of shoe will largely depend on your feet & running gait. I would suggest getting yourself down to a coach or good running shop to have your gait & feet analysed. Having a shoe that doesn’t fit well and is uncomfortable will be mentally draining on race day. The other mistake people make is they’ll buy a shoe that isn’t appropriate for the terrain they’re racing on – for some summer ultras, road shoes are absolutely fine, for some winter ultras, you will need specialist shoes like the Salomon Speedcross 4.
For socks, injiinji make toe socks that are designed to reduce blisters, Hilly make some good twinskin socks that prevent rubbing…from experience, a thin Nike sock will degrade pretty quickly when you get into your longer training runs so I would avoid these.
3) Training. Any good training programme will vary running intensities, and incorporate a level of strength work. A bad training programme will involve doing the same workouts time after time, training at a moderate intensity (where you’re just a little of breath for the entirety of the workout), and neglecting your strength work.
If you’re doing a hilly ultra, I’d recommend doing some hill work – e.g. run around a hilly park for an hour, work to 90-95% of max effort when going uphill and then 50-65% when on the flats or going downhill – if you’re new to running generally, don’t do these for a few months as they put a lot of stress on your body and can cause injuries. The Kenyans do this in sand dunes…if you’re coastal this could be a good shout to really make things hard.
I would fit back to back long runs into your training programme (ie. Two long days of 2-5hrs on two consecutive days). In the week, cross-training options are often more beneficial than running – particularly if you live in the city and can only run on pavements – as you’re less likely to injure yourself but can still reap the benefits in terms of cardiovascular fitness improvements.
Strength training. This is so often neglected. Though it’s difficult to programme without assessing an individual, from experience the most common areas of weakness for runners are in glutes, hip flexors, abdominals (to help you recruit your big muscle groups in your posterior chain when you run - glutes, hamstrings),and quadriceps (to prevent your quads burning (and knees collapsing) on downhills 8 hrs into your ultra). Single leg squats, side planks, glut bridges, split squats and lunge complexes are just a few things to check out on Google. James Dunne from kinetic revolution has an awesome collection of videos & tutorials on different strength exercises to add in to your programme. Try and fit 2 x 30-45min sessions into your week.
Guys, more than happy to answer any specific questions in the comments. Fire away!!!!