Competing in ultra-marathon events can be simultaneously soul destroying and character building. These feelings become even more prevalent and intense the longer or more difficult an event. This is a prime reason that endurance events of this type are so captivating and alluring to those seeking something more challenging. So what are the secrets to getting yourself in the best condition (both physically and mentally) to be able to complete “any” ultra-marathon event successfully?
1. Sweat more in practice, bleed less in war” – the Spartan warrior creed.
Train heavy …… race light. For at least a number of shorter training sessions each week, regularly carrying extra weight will help to condition the body to carrying heavier weight than it expects to carry during an event. Consider adding a bag of rice into your pack, the weight of which will depend on individual circumstances and current fitness levels. Using rice allows the weight to sit well on the back and easily conforms to the back’s contours and the pack itself. This also avoids bruising which may occur when putting more solid objects in your pack. Consider carrying a child (if you have one) on regular hikes in a back pack. This can add another dimension to strength training as well as combining some family bonding time into your training program.
Train long …… race easy. Make sure you have one long outing each week. The length and type of outing will depend on the specific event you are targeting. It will also depend on your current level of fitness and what your body can physically handle. Steadily build this long outing up over time and listen to your body’s feedback.
Train on more difficult terrain than your target event …… take every opportunity to challenge yourself. Spend at least one session a week on more difficult terrain than your target event. This will help to condition your body and mind to pushing hard even when tired. Also, if you are conditioned to working harder, the event itself should appear more comfortable which may also enable you to perform at a higher level and “enjoy” the event more. This also allows you to be more prepared to overcome any unexpected obstacles you may encounter during an event. Look for steep terrain, technical terrain, muddy trails, stairs and overgrown trails to add a new dimension and challenge to training.
Train under more severe environmental conditions than you prefer …… embrace the adversity. Keep to your training schedule irrespective of the weather conditions. Don’t use the weather as an excuse (unless it compromises your safety) not to train. If it’s raining, hot or windy, use this as both physical and mental preparation for your event. You can’t control the weather during your event so you should not attempt to modify your training schedule to suit the weather conditions. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You could extend this to wearing more clothes than necessary to simulate hotter conditions for example. Look forward to getting out in torrential rain, heat waves, cold snaps or windy conditions to add another dimension and element of challenge to your training. Of course, covering up to avoid sunburn and carrying enough fluids / salt for hydration, bringing rain jackets, etc. still needs to be a priority.
2. “Take the road less travelled.”
Train alone ……. become your own best friend. If you need motivation from others to train, then you are going to find it difficult to successfully complete ultra-marathon events when you don’t have the company of others. The longer an event becomes, the less likely you are going to be in the company of others for a significant portion of the event. Get used to motivating yourself without the influence of others. This also builds your mental strength. The advantages are that training schedules do not need to be aligned with your friends or training partners. Therefore, you are less likely to miss training sessions as you can get out the door on your own time based on your own personal circumstances.
Train at night …… don’t be afraid of the dark. A significant portion of longer ultra-marathons are conducted at night. Get used to being away from the city lights (if possible) and conduct regular night sessions. This teaches you what to expect when you are active at night and also gets you used to moving through less than ideal conditions with minimal lighting. As depth perception is impacted in low light conditions, there is a need to focus more (particularly on trails) to avoid accidents. This is counterintuitive to the way your mind works as it starts to approach sleep mode. Anyone who works shift work will know the difficultly the body has in maintaining focus when their body clock is telling them they need to be sleeping.
Train when tired …… rest is your enemy. Conduct regular training sessions whilst physically and mentally tired. A key aspect of competing successfully in ultra-marathons is being able to keep going when your body says you should rest. So by training when you are already tired this conditions your body and mind to the feelings you experience in this state. So instead of training early in the morning with a fresh body and mind, try leaving your training session until after work, after dinner and after the children have gone to bed. Do this for a few days in a row and you will start to appreciate what you will feel like as an ultra-marathon progresses. Training for an ultra-marathon is hard. Training when tired is harder! There are no easy routes to ultra-marathon success.
3. “Victory Loves Preparation – Amat Victoria Curam”
“We are each an experiment of one” —- George Sheehan …… identity your own unique formula for success. What works for one person may not work for the next. The tips listed in this article are deliberately broad and un-prescriptive for this very reason. “Trial and error” is required to determine what works for you and what doesn’t. How many times to train each week. How long your training should last. What type of training you should undertake …… and when. What to eat. How long to sleep. All these variables (and more) blend together to create your own unique formula for personal ultra-marathon success. There is not one common recipe for success. Test, modify and test again.
Mix it up …… cross training. Take every opportunity to get out the door. Whether it be a walk around the block during a work break. Commuting by foot to (and or) from your workplace (or at least some of the way). Getting up to change the channel on the TV. Take the stairs instead of the escalator or lift. Look for every opportunity to be active in all ways outside of any formal training plan you may have.
You are what you eat …… burn fat, not sugar.
You may think you are fit …… but are you healthy? Health and fitness are not mutually exclusive. The fuel you put in your body determines your performance. If you try to run your body on fuels for which it has not been designed, then performance will be less than ideal and health will also be impacted. However, as the impacts are gradual and eating habits may be long term these negative effects may not be immediately apparent. The more attention you pay to the quality of fuel you put into your body, the more effectively your body will function. This will create a foundation to be able to perform at your peak. There are many different aspects to eating healthy foods but here are a few simple tips to set you on the right path.
- Avoid ALL processed foods and “almost” anything that comes in a can or plastic bag and lasts for more than a few days on the supermarket shelf (e.g. white rice, bread, pasta, cereal, sugar, cured meats, junk food, etc.)
- Eat real food. Stick to the fresh food area of your supermarket and you’ll find it hard to go wrong. Include plenty of fresh vegetables (particularly leafy green varieties) and fruit, a moderate amount of lean meat and eggs (organic, free-range varieties where possible) healthy fats (such as virgin coconut oil, nuts, avocados, etc.).
A natural consequence of eating more healthily and reducing the quantities of processed foods (particularly high sugar and carbohydrate options) is that, over time your body will start to burn a higher percentage of fat vs. sugar for energy. This will reduce the need for large amounts of calories during training and racing as the body will rely primarily on stored fat for it’s long-term energy requirements in preference to sugar (of which the body can only store a couple of hours supply).
Rest and recovery …… a key ingredient to performance enhancement
Although some of the points listed above recommend pushing the limits in training there is an old saying that we should heed …… everything in moderation. And hence the importance of regular periods of rest and recovery to allow the body time to repair and strengthen itself to enhance further long-term performance improvements. This includes getting adequate sleep (you should wake up feeling refreshed and energised) and a day (or two, if needed) where you do no training, a milder version of your usual workout or some other cross training activity.
Have a plan …… failure to plan is planning to fail. Without a plan to reach your goals it’s going to make it very difficult to progress and to reach those goals. When we set out on a journey we should always have our destination in mind and a plan to get there. Otherwise we are far more likely to get lost along the way. If you have trouble creating and / or executing on your plan, have an experienced ultra-marathon runner assist you, recruit a family member to motivate you to stick to your training plan or engage a coach to assist you to create your plan and to motivate you to execute on that plan. Also be prepared to alter the plan when it’s not working. It’s better to develop your plan on a week-by-week basis with loose longer-term goals rather than developing an unrealistic long-range plan without any weekly feedback mechanism. Set your goals and do not waver. The path to your goals may change over time but keep your eye on the prize.
Last but not least …… never say die.
I’ve left this until last in order for it to leave a lasting memory that the most important foundational element of success in ultra-marathon events is mental strength. Without it you can “never” be successful in ultra-marathon competition. As well as following through on your training approach and plan you also need to have a pre-event ritual that develops an iron-clad mindset that “whatever happens” you’ll stick it out until the end.
Romans 5:3-5 … but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us ……
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