Racing at Ultradistance
Planning your programme
How often do you want to race? If you are an ultraperson, you will find yourself largely dependant on races for your regular fix. People who like 10kms can do it any time; they may race but they don’t have to, just to go the distance. If your love is the big stuff, competition is vital. Most of us don’t have lifestyles which lend themselves to families or friends -
So we need races, for all sorts of reasons. In our house, we look forward to the arrival around Christmas time of the race schedules and fixture lists for the coming year. These are produced by organisations like the International Association of Ultrarunners, the Road Runners Club, and the French National Walking Commission which coordinates the programme of Paris-
How often you race will partly depend on your goals. If one of your goals for the season is to set a pb or break a record, try to identify a couple of races which will give you a good chance of achieving this. Do you want track or road, prefer warm or cool conditions, racing at home or abroad, will you have help or be reliant on good organisational support? By identifying two or three potential key events, you maximise your chances of a good build up and a successful outcome. At some distances, such as 1000 miles upwards, there may be one shot a year. At 24 hours, it is possible physically to aim for several races in a season, and to go from strength to strength in each one provided you allow time for recovery and make a conscious effort to keep well. If you plan to race at 24 hours in March, May, July and September (the months may need shifting for different locations,) you may set new pbs in each one. You might intersperse shorter ultras or non-
If you are seriously addicted to distance, and your idea of a family fun weekend is another 100 miles on the clock, you may want to identify several races in the calendar, and aim to do as many as your fitness, time and budget will allow. Be ready to be flexible, especially if you are not fully fit or well at some stage. Don’t become a slave to the schedule in a way that puts at risk your racing goals, your health, or other life priorities.
In some years, there may be a particular race which means a lot to you (eg a Centurion qualifying race,) or perhaps the possibility of selection for a club or national team for particular competition. In this case, it’s especially important to make your plans around key races, and where selection is concerned, important to give some thought to races which will give you a chance of showing good form, and then to plan carefully the run up period to stay at your best.
You’ve decided your schedule, perhaps at a mix of distances, some domestic, perhaps a couple further a-
The first part of this series considered training for ultras. There is no substitute for year round, maintenance training for ultradistance athletes, enough to keep you fit and strong without tipping you over into illness or injury. Within this general approach, there is plenty of scope for variety, cross-
If you didn’t race, your training programme would probably still have variations from day to day and week to week. Factoring planned ultraraces into your training schedule means easing off the training volume and intensity in the days before a race. From midweek before a weekend 24 hour race, train lightly (no muscle -
taxing speedwork,) relax, then ease off altogether for the last couple of days. We do not like doing nothing, and there is no need for this body -
The second part of this series looked at nutrition and supplements for athletes. Aim for year round health to maximise training and racing opportunities and minimise illness and injury. As you taper your training before a race, maintain your usual diet. Don’t cut down your meals a lot because you’re not training; you could end up weak, unwell, and poorly prepared for the race. Don’t eat more either; carbo-
Setting yourself up for a race in this way can make all the difference -
Just thinking about your race programme is part of motivating yourself to train and race effectively. Enjoy the atmosphere which surrounds a race and let it work for you. But try to keep it all in balance. Not everyone thrives on excitement. Before a race, you can be outgoing but still be inwardly calm, relaxed and centred. Sometimes, especially if you are abroad, you may need to create and hold on to your inner calm and space, while participating in civil functions and formalities! If your race plans have to change, because of injury, illness, work or family reasons, take it in your stride and look forward to the next time. Don’t race if you are injured or ill; you risk knocking yourself up big time and putting in jeopardy your future plans.
Make the whole experience of racing, including before and after, part of your life, and this will help you cope well with even extraordinary pressures, in sport and elsewhere. Get used to how it feels, including the physical and emotional ups and downs around races which follow a familiar cycle -
Some people think that doing too much LSD (long slow distance)-
If you race often, some races will probably be more important than others. Use the less important to experiment a little. People who race 10kms can experiment with pace, drinks, etc in training. It’s much more difficult to simulate race conditions at ultradistance. Don’t be afraid to vary your race routine; if there is some aspect of your routine you’re not satisfied with, think about possible problems and solutions, and choose a race to try something different – you might make an important discovery about yourself and what works for you. Never just accept as gospel what other athletes or coaches say (including me!) Listen to others’ advice and experience, but remember we’re all different. With dozens of ultra races on the clock, I’m not complacent! I’m still making and enjoying new discoveries so that racing is both a familiar friend and a fresh and fascinating experience every time.
Don’t get paranoid
Some people fret if their pre-
Sometimes changes in routine can even bring pleasant surprises. You have a long journey with little sleep, unfamiliar climate and food, a scramble to arrive on time -
There is good evidence that, in a long race, the best results are obtained by even, steady pacing -
You need to work out your goal pace on the basis of your target distance/time, with a realistic allowance for a bit of down-
I know how easy it is to get carried away at the start when you are fresh, especially if others charge ahead. I prefer to start steadily, often standing around the middle or towards the back of the group. Getting boxed in is rarely a serious problem in ultra races, as even relatively large fields soon sort themselves out. Starting steadily gives you a chance to warm up, to get a feel for the course and for the weather conditions, the quality of the organisation and the support (marshalling, drink and food,) and to get a feel for the others around you (who’s there, how do they seem to be approaching this race, do they look fit and sparky today or out of condition?) Finally, starting steadily gives you a chance to get a feel for yourself, how good do you feel today, on this course (or track,) in the conditions of this race? Above all, starting steadily helps you to set your own pace, create your own space. Don’t be afraid to look left, behind. There is nothing clever about being caught up in a stampede. You will earn respect by showing that you have your own race plan and the sense to stick with it.
What do you personally want to achieve in this race? Are your goals highly individual (eg to achieve a particular time or distance,) or competitive (eg to win the race or to beat someone else, or for your team to win collectively?) How far are your goals related to other competitors in the race, much or maybe not much at all? Whether your goals are individual or competitive, it can only help you to have a good idea of what represents an optimum, sustainable pace for you. If you then vary your pace for tactical reasons, you know what you are doing, and you are deciding your race strategy, not having it decided for you by others.
Race tactics is primarily about gaining psychological advantage and/or position. Having your own pace and space, visibly sticking to your own game plan and not meddling with others, can be one of the most effective tactical approaches at ultradistance. There may be times, however, when you see psychological value in putting pressure on others by putting in bursts of faster paced walking or running at the start of the race, or at some stage during the race, especially when you are overtaking another competitor and want to look decisive and strong at this point. Use a fast start only if you are properly warmed up, and are confident you can keep up the pace for sufficiently long to achieve and maintain a lead. Variable pace tactics can be highly effective, for example, by discouraging an opponent if you are able to overtake and pull ahead when he/she is tiring. But beware.\par
Don’t Blow Up
We probably all know athletes who acquire a reputation for injudicious bursts of speed, after which they "blow up", sometimes throw up, and are overhauled again easily by the people they overtook. Some people never seem to learn, so presumably they get kicks out of such tactics, but such erratic pacing does their overall performance no favours. It is easy to damage your chances by trying too hard to get ahead or stay ahead of someone, or to stay with someone who is going too fast for you at that moment. Be patient, they may well tire and come back to you later if you stick at your goal pace. You must develop a feel for the point at which you are digging too deep, getting into diminishing returns in a way which will have ‘revenge effects’ later on.
You can build up the ability to use variable pacing. In training, try putting in hard, fast, sustained bursts, and keep up the effort on long hills. In some races, try to experiment with pacing, tactics, feeding strategies, etc under real race conditions. This is useful in giving you psychological and physical stamina, resilience and confidence about your ability to cope with and respond to different situations.
Even if your goals are essentially personal, might other competitors, knowingly or not, help you to achieve them? In ultradistance races, mutual assistance is very common, even between people who are competing fiercely with each other! There have been events when I have walked for many hours with another competitor. Such collaboration can be beneficial to you both, keeping you moving along at a good pace, providing company and encouragement when you might tire and flag, eg during the night on a dark, quiet circuit. But keep asking yourself if this cooperation is suiting your purpose. If your goal is a pb at the time or distance, and you are lucky enough to find someone at your goal pace who will effectively pace or help pull you along to a pb, then use them. If this conflicts with their goals, you will know soon enough if they change pace abruptly or take other evasive action. If someone else latches on to you, do you mind? If you do mind, for any reason, eg they may be disrupting your pace or disturbing your concentration, you will need to put space between you, eg by pushing ahead, or by taking a tactical stop or short pause.
What you prefer to eat and drink during races, and how often, are very personal matters. Get ideas from others, but don’t just copy them, or assume that, because race organisers provide particular foods, they are palatable and digestible! My earlier note on nutrition made some suggestions on feeding and drinking during races.
Facing the Music
Should you use a Walkman during races? A powerful example of the value of music during a long event is the annual 340 miles Paris-
If you find that using a personal stereo is helpful during races, go ahead. Racewalkers in particular often find the rhythm and swing of the music helps their style and pace. Some people have a radio or stereo playing for much of the time. There are risks in this, notably that the music will distract you from concentrating on your goal pace, and encourage you to go at a pace you can’t sustain, or even lead you to forget to eat and drink. There is also a risk that the stereo will lose its effectiveness to give you a lift when you really need it, if you use it so much that the tapes become like background music which you hardly notice.
I like to think of the stereo partly as a reward for making good progress, so that I tell myself I will not use it during the first 12 or 15 hours of a race, but after that I can have music if I want to. The effect of this is to reserve the stereo for times when I may really need it, so that its effect is not blunted or wasted by overuse. In many races of 100 miles or 24 hours, I don’t use the stereo at all. I like to feel "centred" -
Enjoy! However the race has gone, respect the effort you made and be good to yourself. Recover, eat well, and take a vitamin and mineral supplement to help protect you against infection. If you have made many hours of continuous effort, adjust your routine a bit to encourage a good recovery. You may be back at work and busy at home -
It’s common after a 24 hours race for the body to be so flushed with endorphins, nature’s painkillers, that for the first day or so you are not even fully aware of the physical damage to feet and muscles, and are on an emotional high. By the time you are "coming down," the healing process will be well underway and blisters and aches will already have eased.
As for training, I like "active rest." It’s a good idea to keep yourself moving. Promoting your circulation boosts healing and the immune system, and a gentle walk to move the muscles will facilitate stretching and aid recovery. Cross-
What did you learn from that race? Whether it went well or not so well, there will be learning potential. Did you have a plan and stick to it? Did it work out? Did you achieve what you had hoped? Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of that race experience and of how you approached it. Would you tackle the race differently if you did it again? Can you learn from what others did in the race, how they paced themselves, what they ate, drank, or wore? What about the race organisation -
I hope these personal reflections on racing at ultradistance will interest and help you. Go for it, enjoy your racing, the achievements, the exhilaration, the pleasure and good company it brings -