Whether you’re getting into distance running, thinking about attempting your first ultra marathon or perhaps embarking on a new challenge, it can be daunting to figure out what to do and how to do it. Last week, I was asked to speak at Columbia Sportswear in honor of National Trails Day on this very subject and this week, I am honored to be sharing many of those same tips with you as part of an interview series I was honored to participate in with NordicTrack.
NordicTrack gathered together an excellent group of ultramarathon runners (seriously, they are all amazing athletes!) to lend you their hard-earned wisdom. This advice has been broken into a 3-article series with interviews from ultrarunning bloggers (including yours truly) offering insights for future ultramarathon runners.
In this first segment, you’ll find thoughts and personal experiences what ultrarunners find to be most difficult when it comes to ultramarathon running. Here’s the full interview for your enjoyment!
Whether you’re a veteran of many races or just few, these runners may surprise you. Having already made the leap to ultrarunning, they are in the position to help you over the hurdles they have already cleared.
The Most Difficult Parts Of First-Time Ultramarathon Running
The first time racing a new distance is always a challenge. However, ultramarathon running adds to that difficulty as anything above 26.2 miles is classified as an ultramarathon. So how do you prepare if you don’t know if the ultramarathon advice is for a 30, 40, or 100+ mile race?
Well, these top ultra bloggers understand the challenge of preparing for ultramarathons of various distances. When it comes to the first ultramarathon, the most difficult aspects (no matter the distance) tend to be the same. Overall, mental training and solid nutrition were deemed some of the hardest things to conquer for any ultra runner.
Runners Train Their Brains
No one claims that the physical aspect of running an ultramarathon is easy, but the hardest part of the race is actually in your head. While not discounting the need to be in peak physical condition, these ultra runners agreed on how critical it was to be on top of your emotional and mental game both before the start line as well as when you are racing:
“The physical side of training for an ultramarathon can be tough, but the mental side is what gets you across the finish line. Not just on race day, but also throughout training. The day in and day out of building up to your first ultra can leave you questioning why, or if you can even do this.”
“I find that the most challenging part of an ultra is the mental aspect, which applies to newbies and veterans, alike. It’s important to show up to the start line feeling positive, confident, and determined to finish. I’ve found that starting a race with negativity and self-doubt is like going out with 40 lb weights strapped to your back.
In fact, my worst races are always the ones that I am the most stressed about. I’ve found myself toeing the start line with negative thoughts or even comparing myself to other runners and find myself feeling weighed down. And when I start out negative, when things get tough (and they always do), it’s harder to pull yourself back out again.”
“Rousseau once said ‘patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.’ If you are considering moving from marathons to ultra marathons, training your mind and developing a strong sense of patience may well be your greatest challenge. To me, the term mental training is really a euphemism for teaching yourself to embrace a mindset. When I switched from marathons to running ultras, I had to teach myself how to think differently. To abandon the mental shackles that controlled my perceptions and expectations about running and being a runner.”
How To Clear Mental Obstacles
If you are concerned about your own mindset when it comes to running, these running experts have some tips for you. Their advice is pulled from personal trial and error and their methods have helped shape them into the ultra runners they are today. As no one approach is perfect, feel free to mix and match the advice they give to suit you.
“I recommend runners take it one day at a time, focusing only on that day’s scheduled run. Check that one off the list and move to the next. The same theory applies on race day. Instead of looking at all the miles ahead, focus on just getting through the next mile, or the next ten minutes. Then the ten minutes after that.”
“How do you prepare mentally for an ultra marathon? First step – don’t obsess over pace, especially those coming from a marathon background. You need to throw away the GPS because, as Rousseau said, patience is bitter. Your ego will be threatened to learn that your mile pace, especially during 100 mile distances, will often not be much faster than a brisk walk. Second step, understand that your pace and energy levels will vary wildly depending on the terrain, altitude, vertical gain, descent, heat, daylight, distance covered, and nutrition/hydration. You have to be prepared to roll with this, and don’t try to control it. The mindset that you control your pace and use a GPS to monitor is like thinking you can fly a rocket to the moon with a compass. Think of it this way – when you’re running 100 miles, especially in the mountains, you are entering the stratosphere. What worked at ground level won’t help you up there.
Rather than monitoring your pace, focus inward, on maintaining a steady energy output. This is critical in training because to do this well you need to teach your mind patience and your body how to move efficiently for long periods. Finally, when running ultra’s there will inevitably be highs and lows. Understanding and believing that both will pass is part of the mental training you have to practice. If you can embrace these concepts, you will indeed taste the fruit, and it will be sweeter than ever.”
Your mental state can make or break your race, so do your best to keep positive thoughts flowing.. Even if you have to tell yourself that you will only be positive for another 10 minutes, you may find that is all you needed to get to the next segment of your race.
Much like the challenge of building a strong mental approach to racing, ultramarathon nutrition beings before the race. Not only that but poor nutrition during the race can wreck a good run too. Making sure you’re taking in adequate fluids and food is a delicate balance that even these talented runners are still perfecting:
“As I often discuss with coaching clients, physical fitness, diet, and mindset are the pillars of ultramarathon preparation. I grew up around ultrarunning and came from a strong background of adventure racing, mountain biking, and collegiate running; the mindset and physical training came a little bit more naturally for me (which isn’t to say they weren’t hard then or aren’t still tough now). However, diet has been my challenge and evolution over the years. I went from a college kid who shoved down dorm food to a 20-something who ate whatever was cheapest to, now, a mid-30’s athlete, coach, and family guy who’s highly focused on nutrition.”
“The hardest part was to figure out the proper nutrition. Even so, you can practice food and fluids intake during training, but it is very different in a race situation. There is for sure a time needed for working out the details – learning what works for you and what doesn’t. This becomes even more crucial if you work up to real long distances like the 100 miles or longer.”
“Nutrition is by far the hardest. I have a sensitive stomach and finding food that I can eat during a run is extremely hard. I tried things like peanut and nut butters, which just get stuck in your throat and you can’t swallow. I can’t eat anything greasy the day before a long run like pizza. I have found food items such as a plain bagel and black coffee an hour or so before work best for breakfast, but that won’t hold you over very long. Fig Bars work well for me to digest slowly without being harsh on my stomach. Pickle juice – it’s amazing to prevent cramps. I learned the hard way to use it in very small doses…
My favorite gels are Huma Chia Energy Gels. I can take these for hours and hours during a run and they won’t mess with my stomach at all. However, I wouldn’t suggest this, even though they are really tasty (kind of like your favorite jam) it does still get old after a while and your body needs protein as well on those extra long runs.
Some people however, can eat pizza, drink coke, and be totally fine during a run! That is so amazing to me!”
“Second to the mental aspect, nutrition has always been the most challenging aspect of my training and racing. While I believe that nutrition matters for most races, in an ultra, I feel as though it’s almost more important than the training itself.”
Your Race Day Nutrition
As you’ve likely learned by now, there is no hard-fast rule on racing nutrition. However, as ultramarathons are more demanding on your body than shorter races, we knew some insight from the blogging ultra runners might help. Based on their own testing and nutritional needs, the bloggers had some ideas on how you can find your nutritional nirvana:
“I follow an “optimized fat metabolism” nutrition style that teaches the body to burn fat as a primary fuel source at relatively high effort levels. This diet has become a key factor in my ultra preparation and general health – and an exercise metabolism test showed that it’s working. I took over 50% of my fuel from fat when maxed out on a treadmill, never reaching the so-called “crossover point”.”
“I learned the hard way, and on more than one occasion, that eating early and often isn’t just a fun thing to say. In an ultra, you truly need to eat early and eat often to make sure you’re fueling the body properly from start to finish. You’re running a deficit all day and it can be easy to forget just how much energy you actually need to get your body to perform the way you’re asking it to.”
“It is all about trial and error and finding what works best for your body. Every ultra runner is going to tell you something different when it comes to what they eat during runs, but they will all say the same thing in the end about testing food out on your long runs. Good luck! Get creative!”
You are demanding your body to perform an intense feat, so the least you can do is fuel it properly. What works best for you may seem strange, but follow your gut (literally) and find what will get you through your first ultramarathon.
Race Training Struggles
Difficulties surrounding nutrition and mentality training are only a couple of the challenges ultramarathoners deal with. Even experienced runners find training for ultramarathons challenging. Jen Segger weighed in with her perspective on the hardships of getting ready for a first ultramarathon:
“The most difficult and challenging area of preparing for my first and early stages of ultra running was the physical training aspect.
Training: It’s a daunting task when you are inspired and motivated to tackle an ultra for the first time, but have ZERO clue on how to prepare. While many assume that you “just need to run lots,” this is simply not the case. Too much running can easily lead to overuse injuries, compromised long term health, and the inability to run with any kind of speed or power. For example, “just running lots” will not necessarily make you good at hill climbing, fast, and efficient on the flats or be able to conserve energy and run effortlessly down hills. When I was preparing for my first ultra race, it appeared like training smart was one big puzzle. Knowing how to increase mileage safely, how to incorporate speed training into things, and how to become better on hills was at first a mystery. Pair that with availability to train, life commitments, work, and actually having quality workouts was something that I had to address right away upon entering the sport if I was to have any kind of longevity. And recovery….how much do you need?”
While Jen’s perspective on training may be a bit intimidating, don’t worry, she has some follow up tips:
“What I discovered in learning how to train was that there was a lot of one size fits all (ie – cookie cutter) training programs out there, which made me question how and why should everyone train the same when all runners are starting at different fitness levels, with different goals, and with different strengths and weaknesses. It seemed like a sure way to get injured super fast. I also realized quickly that there were not actually a whole lot of coaches who understood the sport of ultrarunning as it was so new and, therefore, there were not a lot of people coaching it with great expertise. However, I knew that I wanted a coach to guide me for the following reasons:
- Master Plan – someone who could see the end goal and work backwards in how to actually get me ready.
- Someone to tell me when to push and when to recover.
- To have a daily plan to follow so that I knew what to do for training each day of the week. No more guessing.
- Guidance on how to train smart and make the most out of time allowance.
So with those reasons, I did hire a great coach and mentor to guide me in pursuit of my ultra running goals. While I didn’t lack motivation, I actually needed someone to tell me to rest and relax; the other important side to training!
In fact, my involvement in ultra running over 12 years ago and having a coach is one of the main reasons that I pursued a career in the endurance coaching realm. I was inspired to guide others through this training journey and to share my experiences. To this day, I remain committed to always staying on top of the latest in endurance research and how to work effectively with a wide scope of my athletes in my coaching practice.”
In The End
Mental state, nutritional balance, as well as training difficulties are all parts of the ultramarathon experience. As you conquer the different aspects, you will find you gain flexibility, positivity, and greater self mastery.
For more great advice from these great ultrarunning bloggers, another installment is coming where common myths and misconceptions about ultra running will be debunked.
Meet The Bloggers
NordicTrack was excited to facilitate this interview series, and is grateful to the bloggers who shared their insights and knowledge on the subject of ultrarunning. Should you be interested in learning more about the contributors to this series, feel free to drop by their sites!
Josh Arthur – http://www.runjosharthur.com/
Katie Bassett – http://sunkissedredhead.blogspot.com/
Will Cooper – http://www.willrunlonger.com/
Doug Hay – http://www.rockcreekrunner.com/
Travis Macy – http://www.travismacy.com/
Thomas Reiss – http://thomasreiss.com/
Jen Segger – http://jensegger.com/
Stay sweaty friends !