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Beyond The Marathon

26/12/2008

The following article by Carolyn Hunter-Rowe was first published in the Dumfries & Galloway Medical Journal, Volume VI 2008....

 

Beyond The Marathon 

I have been especially fortunate to have enjoyed a very successful career as an ultra distance athlete, representing Great Britain a total of 12 times. The highlights have been winning the World 100Km Championships in 1993 and 1998, winning the European 100Km Championship in 1996 and setting a number of world records over distances from 30 miles to 40 miles. 

My personal bests are 2:40:28 for the marathon, 3:18:52 for 50k, 4:26:43 for 40 miles and 7:27:19 for 100k (62.1 miles). The 50k and 40 mile times (both set at the Barry 40 Track race in Wales) still stand as world track records, and the 100k, set whilst winning the World Championships in Belgium in 1993, stands as the current GB 100k record.

 

What is Ultra Distance? 

Ultra distance races generally refer to road or trail races and track running events at any distance greater than a marathon. The standard distance recognised at international level is the 100k (62.1 miles), which hosts an annual world championship. The other standard distances and events include the 50km, 100 miles, 24 hours, 48 hours, 6 days and 1000 miles. There is a growing popularity in trail races such as the 95 miles West Highland Way and 100 miles Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, as well as multi day events like the Marathon des Sables.

 

Why Ultra Distance? 

I started running in 1991, inspired by a book called Wild Trails to Far Horizons by Mike Cudahy *1, which detailed the author’s experience in setting a record for the Pennine Way. There was something very appealing about pushing the boundaries of how far and how fast I could run. 

Though I previously had a sporting background (I played regional level hockey), this was my starting point for regular training. I quickly built up my distance, running my first ultra at the Two Bridges, a 36 mile road race around the Firth of Forth at Rosyth in August 1992. 

That was followed by a win at the 55 mile London to Brighton in October of that year, which resulted in my first Great Britain vest, at the 100k World Championships in Spain. I placed third in that race, and this proved to be the springboard for my ultra career over the next six years. 

One of the enduring attractions of ultra running is that each race presents it’s own unique challenges. Standing at the start line of an ultra is facing a journey into the unknown, with so much that can happen over the course of the day. Each race is an adventure, and successful racing is as much about adapting to variations in terrain and climate, as mental and physical fitness. I have always preferred challenging, scenic courses, and have had some of my best performances in this type of race. 

My favourite race is the Swiss Alpine Marathon in Davos, Switzerland. The course is a 78k loop in the mountains and includes two long climbs up to an altitude of 2,500 meters. The scenery is fantastic, with the high altitude section passing near the Kesche glacier. The sense of accomplishment having survived the heat and the hills makes it a day to remember. 

At home my favourite race was the Speyside Way, a 50k run organised by Scottish ultra running legend Don Ritchie. Held in April the weather was often challenging, but still gave the opportunity for fast running. The early part of the race is along a lovely disused railway line, before a good climb up Ben Aigan. From here you can see the finish, fifteen miles away at the mouth of the Spey! 

My best race experience was winning the World 100k Championships in Japan in 1998, thereby becoming World Champion for the second time. The race was a point to point course along the River Shimanto, and the start had been delayed by a day as a typhoon swept across the region. We started at dawn, running through paddy fields and up over two mountain ranges. I loved the heat and humidity and knew early on I was going to have a good day. I had a good race plan, and slowly worked my way through the field as runners who had started too quickly for the conditions dropped off. I went into the lead around 85k, and running through the final feed station at 90k was electrifying. At this point I knew I was going to win and could savour the last 6 miles; one of those experiences I will never forget. 

I will now assess some of the factors that I consider most important for success in ultra distance running, and how I applied this to my own preparation for races.

 

Balanced Training 

The aim of a training programme for ultra distance runners should be to develop the ability to run for a prolonged period of time, develop the speed at which this run will be performed, and have sufficient strength to maintain this speed for the duration of the race. To achieve this, four aspects of physical training need to be targeted: endurance, strength, speed and running economy. 

Basic endurance is built up by both long runs and by consistent training. Long runs do not necessarily need to be very long. I think a weekly run of 20 miles is sufficient for most ultras, with just one or two longer runs to achieve specific race fitness. Particularly valuable are hilly long runs, as leg strength is as important as endurance for ultra distance runners. Strength can also be developed by running hilly courses whenever possible and doing specific hill sessions. Speed for ultra distance runners should be focused on developing lactate threshold speed. This is the exercise intensity at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the body, and is equal to the speed that can be maintained for distances of 10k to 10 miles. This can be achieved by doing short, fast training sessions or running in short races. The fourth component of training is running economy. Running economy, which is the energy cost of running at any given speed, is improved through most forms of training *2. It is particularly important in ultra distance running because good economy enhances a runner’s ability to run at race pace with the minimum of energy expenditure. 

Physiologically I was very well suited to long distance running. Laboratory testing showed that whilst I had a very moderate VO2 max for an elite athlete (64ml/kg/min) I was able to run for a prolonged period of time whilst producing very little lactate. My resting heart rate was 40 bpm, and I had a Body Mass Index of 21. 

Whilst running at my peak I trained on average 10 times a week, covering about 90 to 95 miles. Much of this training was steady running to and from work, with a couple of faster speed sessions. Weekends were built around a long Sunday run, usually covering 20 to 22 miles, ideally on hilly forest tracks and paths. I have always enjoyed racing, and tried to do a short race such as 10k regularly. This helped to develop the speed endurance required to race at a high level. In the build up to a major event I would aim to do a couple of longer runs, such as an off road marathon. I would always taper for a big race by stopping long runs 3 weeks before and reducing my weekly mileage. Being well rested was one of the key factors that enabled me to complete the majority of my races running strongly at the end.

 

Fatigue Resistance 

I believe that one of the key concepts in ultra distance running is fatigue resistance and the ability to overcome muscle soreness caused by the repetitive strain of distance running. The quadriceps are particularly susceptible to this soreness as eccentric contractions within the muscles occur with every stride. These contractions are due to gravity pulling the knee downwards, thereby stretching the quads at the same time they are contracting to control knee flexion. The resulting, repetitive strain can produce significant quadriceps-muscle damage *3. 

This soreness, familiar to anyone exercising for the first time, diminishes over time as the muscles adapt to the training volume to which they are exposed. However, one of the challenges within ultras is the difficulty in training over race distance without overtraining or incurring injury. Adaptation does occur within each race, as the muscles remember previous exposures. Adaptation can also be enhanced by specific eccentric load training, such as downhill running, which help inoculate the muscles against soreness. 

I incorporated this principle into my training by doing regular downhill running sessions, where I would be running quite hard downhill for at least 30 minutes. My preparations for the 1998 World 100km championships in Japan included a hard hill run once a week; 4 miles steady uphill and 4 miles fast downhill. Whenever I have trained for mountain races a regular run would be up Skiddaw in the Lake District, running the downhill hard. The first time I did this would leave me very sore for days, but after several runs there would be no after effects, vital to be able to run the race to the best of my ability.

 

Nutrition 

Good sports nutrition has three main aims: to provide sufficient energy to sustain a training load, to provide sufficient fluid and fuel for optimum performance during training or racing, and to provide sufficient energy for good recovery. 

Preventing dehydration during an event is of vital importance in ultras, as studies have shown that even low levels of dehydration have physiological consequences. A loss of 2% bodyweight causes an increase in perceived effort and is claimed to reduce performance by 10-20% *2. Published evidence indicates that runners should aim to drink between 400-800ml per hour, with the higher rates for the faster, heavier runners competing in warm environmental conditions and the lower rates for the slower runners/walkers competing in cooler environmental conditions*4. Carbohydrate replacement during a race is equally important as replacing fluid loss, for without this a runner is unlikely to have sufficient energy to maintain an optimum pace. The amount of carbohydrate that can be replaced is influenced by individual rates of fluid absorption and gastric emptying. Generally, while providing more calories, stronger drinks tend to be absorbed slower. 

Having a race day nutritional strategy can be developed by trial and error in training. For example, I experimented with different drinks during training, and quickly learnt that I needed a minimum of 50g carbohydrate and 500ml an hour to avoid energy depletion. During races I would aim to drink 250ml of a 7% carbohydrate solution every 5 kilometres, supplemented by an oral rehydration solution such as Diorolyte to replace essential electrolytes. On very hot days I would drink additional water, and flat coke as the race progressed. I personally find it difficult to eat solid food whilst running at pace, so would only have small amounts of banana or jelly babies. This strategy worked for me; I had little gastro-intestinal stress whilst running, and was always able to finish races strongly.

 

Mental Training 

Ultra distance running is hard both physically and mentally. It is not always the fastest or fittest athletes who win races, but those who have prepared mentally and are better able to cope with the pressure and fatigue that are part of racing. One of the advantages of being well prepared mentally is having the self discipline and confidence to run your own race from the start. It is also important to have a mental strategy for use during a race. Developing a series of key words such as ‘’relax’’ and ‘’flow’’ can help you focus during difficult periods. These words can be rehearsed during training, visualising situations that may arise during a race and anticipating positive outcomes. Thus on race day itself you are better able to adapt to situations that may arise without panicking and losing confidence. 

I used to rehearse during long training runs a number of scenarios that may arise in a race. Examples of this included imagining a key rival overtaking me and practicing my response and visualising myself running well in the later part of a race and the positive emotions this provoked. I would then be able to pull on these feelings on the day and use them to my advantage. This preparation paid off during the 1993 World 100k Championships. I had been leading the race for 30 miles, and in the later stages was aware that a Russian athlete was catching me. I was prepared for this happening, so that when I was caught with just 3 miles to go I was able to put in a final surge of speed, pull away and win by just 19 seconds after some 62 miles of running.

 

Attention to Detail 

This final point is often overlooked and can make all the difference between a winning performance or not. To win a world title requires good training, the ability to produce a peak performance, and the execution of a good race plan on the day. It also requires a degree of luck, as many athletes will have prepared equally well and have the ability to win. Attention to detail can help eliminate some of the variables that affect this ‘luck’. For example, rigorously drinking every drop of prepared drinks, not getting blisters from new kit, only drinking bottled water and sticking to a familiar diet when travelling.

 

Summary 

The basic training programme for the marathon – a weekly long run of 20 miles and some form of speed work – is sufficient for most ultras. The specific race fitness is best achieved by racing at ultra distance. 

Leg strength is as important as endurance for ultra distance runners and it is best developed by running hilly courses, both up and down, and doing specific hill sessions. Race frequently at shorter distances. They develop the gears and speed endurance required for successful ultra distance racing. Have a realistic target for races and base your starting pace on this. This means having the self discipline and confidence to run your own race from the start. Plan a drinks/nutritional strategy for races carefully. Experiment during long runs and training races to develop a blueprint that can be easily adapted for different conditions.

 

References 

*1 M Cudahy. Wild Trails to Far Horizons: Ultra-distance Runner. Harper Collins Willow 1989. 

*2 T Noakes. Lore of Running. Oxford University Press 2003. 

*3 Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage, International Journal of Sports Medicine, 15:3, 132–135, 1994.

*4 T Noakes. New Studies in Athletics: The IAAF Technical Quarterly. 17:1; 15–24, 2002.

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