The beauty in the arbitrary.
The first ultra-marathon I ever ran was a home-town 50k that started in Stinson Beach and ended at Rodeo Beach. I had read a popular book at the time recounting the story of a man who on a whim one night ran 30 miles in an effort to change his life, and did so by ordering pizza and cheesecake to be delivered to him while running. My interest was sparked. I wasn’t necessarily in need of a life-changing makeover, but I felt like I had a few demons that needed a talking too, and what better way to fend them off than to run them off?
Failing to plan, is planning to fail.
My first 50k was horrendous. I sprinted off the starting line eager to be competing. On my back, I sported a pack meant for mountain biking filled with water and a low-calorie electrolyte supplement and eating bites of banana every couple of miles. Thinking it would be wise to skip a few aid stations in an effort to save time, I jogged right through without even thinking about the next place I could fill up my water. At mile 20, everything started to go fuzzy and all of a sudden I found myself laying on the side of the trail, throwing up the little content I had in my stomach. Somehow I finished the race and ever since that day I have vowed to never to make the same mistakes. The moral of that story? I wasn’t prepared.
What you put in your body is essential to a healthy performance. You know the “common carbo-load”? I encourage you to move away from this idea and instead focus on maintaining your normal diet. When you decrease the amount of energy you’re putting out i.e., during a taper, and continue to eat the way you were during training, your body will adapt and mimic what you’re trying to do with a natural “carbo-load.” Eating too much the evening before a race can make you feel sluggish and bloated in the morning. A helpful hint is to eat your biggest meal the day before your race at lunch. Focus on incorporating whole grains and complex carbohydrates, and eating a light snack before bed. The day before your race, try to shy away from too much fiber as it causes your body to expend extra energy digesting and can leave you scurrying off to the bathroom too many times before (and during!) your race.
My favorite pre-race or workout breakfast is oatmeal with a dash of sea salt and a drizzle of warm honey. I like to soak my oats overnight so that in the morning the enzymes become easier to break down and digest. Once the oats are cooked, I’ll slice half a banana and drizzle some warm honey on top and try and eat my breakfast at least 90 minutes before gun time. Like everything, practice nutrition during training. If you didn’t eat pop-tarts before your long runs, don’t start the morning of your race!
For a long time, I’m embarrassed to admit, I thought eating while running meant that the running you were doing didn’t actually count. Why did I think this? My mindset was locked into that of running as a means of burning calories, thus it would be counterproductive to put calories in your body. As you may have already guessed, this logic does not work, nor does it apply when running an ultra-marathon. When exerting high levels of energy the quickest and most readily available source of energy comes from fructose and maltodextrin, otherwise known as sugar. As I have gained experience in my running career, one theme I have learned has immense benefits to race day is: Practice eating just as you practice running. Take the same nutrition you plan to use on race day with you during your training sessions. If you plan to use sports nutrition, practice it! Your body performs best at an intake of 200-300 calories an hour, and 16-18 oz of water depending on heat and sun exposure. My strategy on race day is to use two scoops of GU Roctane Energy Drink in one 16 oz bottle per hour. I find this works tremendously well; it’s 250 calories loaded up with BCAA’s to combat muscle fatigue and keep my energy levels high and consistent. Advice I give to my athletes is “sip and nibble.” Consume your calories consistently throughout the race as to avoid extra energy expenditure from trying to shovel down too many calories at once.
Other things that I find that work well are:
- watermelon at aid stations
Looking good is half the fun.
The barrier to entry with running is a pair of socks and shoes. This makes the sport accessible to the vast majority of people. Though it may feel expensive, I highly recommend investing in a great pair of shoes and a comfortable hydration pack (or belt). Like nutrition, knowing your gear and being able to test it during your training is critical. You should never buy a new outfit for race day, try new shoes or think at the last minute that you need a new hydration belt if you haven’t used one before. Practice, makes perfect.
A hydration vest works wonders for me. For someone who doesn’t like having anything in their hands on a run, I find the Nathan VaporHowe vest to be comfortable, light-weight and holds everything I need for a race or adventure. I can comfortably fit two bottles of water, extra layers in the back, my phone, pepper spray, a few extra gels and even a water bladder without feeling like a mule. Hydration packs are miracle workers.
Half the battle of running is being able to get to the starting line healthy. To all the athletes I coach, I stress one thing in their training plans, CORE AND STRETCHING. Sometimes, I put it in all caps like in the sentence preceding this one. Stretching is critical to staying injury free. A tight IT band, achy knees and locked up hips are the bane of nearly every runner’s existence. To a runner of any background or preference (road or trails) stretching before and after a run can be the difference between making running a one-time thing or a life-long love affair. In order to stretch, and reap the benefits, you need not get into warrior one for hours on an end, even intervals of five minutes divided among the day will pay dividends by the end of the week. Try making it a priority to stretch five minutes before and after every run; making the stretch before your run more dynamic like rolling out your quad, glute muscles and IT band, and the five minutes after your run more static, like hamstring and calf stretches. Here is an awesome yoga video I like to pull stretches from and incorporate into my exercise routine every day.
Hike the hills!
A big part of ultra running is knowing how to partition your energy. Like fueling, I had this crazy idea that if you stopped to walk during a race it was somehow, “less prestigious.” A good friend once told me that during an ultra there is no such thing as walking, instead, it’s, “hiking with a purpose.” When it comes to a steep incline, it takes more energy for you to shuffle run than it is to slow your heart rate down and hike, with intention, up the ascent. During the Mt. Diablo 50k, which featured more than 10,000 ft of vertical gain, I hiked up all of the steep hills and managed to snag a course record because of it. It’s easy to get caught up in the racing frenzy of going out too hard and fast, especially at the beginning when it feels effortless. So save your energy for the parts of the course where speed matters!
A few extra tips:
- Find a good crew + support system! Even if the race is short(er), having people out there to support you will make it feel even more special.
- Pick your races wisely. Sign up for races that you truly want to do. The feeling of burnout will manifest much quicker if you’re signing up for a race simply because of the other entrants or level of prestige.
- Download a good playlist. I’ll admit that for me there is nothing better than jamming out to my favorite tunes, especially when I’ve hit a low patch. Music can be a huge motivator, but be careful to not keep your earbuds too loud; listening to music can also be distracting!
- Start slow and slow down. No one wins the race in the first three miles. Relax for the first hour of your race, let your heart rate settle, and as the miles click off, pick up your pace according to your energy levels.
- Don’t forget a change of clothes and a snack! The post-race party is always a blast…but not if you have to sit in your sweaty clothes. Make sure to bring a comfortable change of clothes, shoes and a yummy (and nutritious) snack for after the race.
- Don’t forget to smile. Thank the volunteers, thank the race director, thank your body for being healthy enough to toe the line. When times get tough, remember why you signed up and try to sneak a smile, chances are it’ll lift your mood and make you feel better.
Whichever race or distance you embark on, just try and run happy.