Monday, May 31, 2010

Ultramarathon Recovery - Lessons learnt

For some recovery is like the taper – a much looked forward to break from the intensity of training. For others it represents an undesirable but necessary period of rest, away from their regular endorphin hit.

I probably veer towards the former category, and use it as a time for reflection. It’s important to acknowledge what you have achieved, otherwise you could find yourself continually training without any personal reward, or fulfilment of goals.

The importance of a recovery period should not be underestimated. No matter how much effort you put into your training, you cannot mimic the addition effort you exert in an actual event. The atmosphere of a race, the mental preparation, and the benefits of tapering and training to a peak will lift you beyond what you will have achieved in even the most strenuous training sessions. It is because of this that some form of recovery is important.

There are some very experienced and hugely successful ultra distance runners who swear by gentle sessions of running in the days following an ultramarathon race. They state that by using the muscles that are employed to run, you aid recovery by flushing the build up of waste products, such as lactic acid from the muscles which cause stiffness (and usually the inability to walk downstairs!). For ultra distance races, where you may be out running for more than 12 hours at a time, you will suffer some cellular damage (including DOMS, which I’ll cover in another posting), and for this to heal you need a different approach.

Firstly you do not want to exacerbate the situation, so resting the muscles can only be a good thing. This doesn’t mean sitting in front of the TV all day, using your recently completed race as an excuse to have others wait on you hand and foot (although it would be nice), but rather you should not be stressing the muscles by overloading them or over stretching them. This can do more harm than good. Gentle, unloaded movements will help maintain a healthy blood flow to the target muscle (and other connective tissues) which will in turn facilitate repair.

Secondly, for your body to recover it will need to have the correct nutrients available. Antioxidants to clear up the free radicals generated as a by product of the muscle exertion, and proteins as the raw materials of the repair. I will go into nutrition in more detail in later posts, but it is obvious that if the raw materials are not present in your body or they are not available to assist in any cellular regeneration, then recovery will be slow.

Thirdly it is important to avoid the mistake that many runners, and in fact what many people who exercise regularly or even those on a diet do (usually as a result of injury, but the concept is the same). You will be reducing the amount of activity you perform, and hence you will be burning fewer calories. It is therefore common that during a recovery period a person will reduce their calorie intake to avoid any dreaded weight gain. This however is flawed as following a period of stress and damage to your muscles. Your body still requires a normal calorific intake to maintain your normal metabolic activity, as well as additional energy to aid the repair processes at the cellular level. Without, this extra fuel, your body is running low and you likely will take longer to recover and will feel tired for a longer period.

Finally this leads us to sleep (and I hope this post isn’t). Tissue repair mainly occurs whilst you sleep, and it takes about 4 hours of continuous sleep for you to physiologically slow down enough to focus on repair and regeneration. We all know how good we feel after a good night’s sleep, both physically and psychologically, and conversely how bad we can feel without one (just ask my wife!).

There are many formulae quoted about the rest and recovery the average runner should take, but these rarely take into account the above factors. For me, and I’m sure for many others, the prospect of losing the fitness level I have worked hard to achieve, by taking too long off, is not appealing. So my approach is very much in line with the concept I have adopted as a training mantra, in that we are all unique in the way our bodies respond to different stresses. I tend to work by feel.

Last year following TNF 100, (during my rookie year for ultras where I learnt a lot through trial and more often error) I had 2 weeks off and then entered the NOSH footrace in Sydney. A 15km trail race along the shores of the Middle Harbour. A really nice little trail race that I would recommend to anyone thinking of getting into off road running. The problem for me was twofold. I thought given that I had just ran 100kms that I was invincible, so ran to and from the event making my total distance about 32kms. In addition, as it was a race I found myself pushing myself way too hard (I was racing!), taking my heart rate about 10% higher than my normal maximum for the last 5kms of the event.

The race went well, but the return to home afterwards consisted of hobbling along with one very painful knee, which I later found out to be ITBS (Illiotibial Band Syndrome). In simple terms too much, too soon. I ended up having to wind my training right back, and focus my workouts on rehabilitation.

The positive from this is that I understand my body better, and know what I need to do to avoid this happening again. (I heard stories of some poor souls being cursed with ITBS forever, not being able to run more than a few kms without severe debilitating pain.)

So how have I done things differently this year? The main difference is having flexibility in my plans, and really listening to my body. I did not run for the 2 weeks after the race, but remained very active, walking and cycling short distances. I have been doing light stretches and gentle massage to any sore muscle groups, often whilst sitting doing other things like writing this blog. I have maintained a healthy diet, and had a few early nights.

What I have found most enjoyable about the recovery period is reviewing what I have done, and the plans for the next adventure. The most significant is the commitment to this blog.

Tomorrow, I will start my training programme, and set my baseline statistics to gauge my progress over the coming months.

Happy running


Sunday, May 30, 2010

The North Face 100 - What happened and what did I learn?

On Saturday 15th May 2010, I toed the start line of the North Face 100 in the Blue Mountains with my friend Marty, and I had a point to prove following last year’s result.  TNF100, like many Ultra Marathon races, doesn’t award you with a medal that you keep in a draw collecting dust. Instead you earn a belt buckle which stays in the same draw! Such a trophy has become common in the sport where the tradition stared in the Western States 100mile race in the US. It was originally a horse race and those riders who completed the course in under 24 hours were awarded the sort of trophy any cowboy would be proud to display.

Now for TNF 100, you can earn a gold buckle (if you win), a silver buckle (if you complete the course in under 14 hours) or a bronze buckle (if you complete the course in under 20 hours).  In 2009 I came home with the bronze buckle, having missed out by about 50 minutes.  I was determined to convert this to silver for 2010, but in reality I don’t think I’d trained any harder, so I was not really sure how I was going to shave 50+ minutes from my time.

Physically I was in no better shape, but mentally I knew what to expect, and this I believe was the key factor.  There are two particularly tough sections in the race.  The first is from about kilometre 60-63, which is the 400m vertical ascent from the valley bottom to top along a rough track and then an energy sapping set of stairs. 

In 2009 this section pretty much broke me. It was at a point further than I had ever run before, and so much more brutal than anything I had expected.  I was raising a lot of money for charity, and along with the encouraging words of fellow runners (including “Ultramarathon Man” Dean Karnazes), I had a commitment to fulfil and it pulled me along.

The second tough section is between 80 km to 86km, which is a steep and seemingly never ending uphill drag which you do in the dark (unless you happen to be in the running for a gold buckle). This has about 700m of vertical climb in it, at a time when your legs are numb, and the voices in your head are only telling you to stop.  This section in particular is the cause of many a DNF (did not finish), and if ever you try it, you’ll know why.

This year, I was prepared for these sections and was actually looking forwarding to facing my two nemeses. We had unfinished business from last year, and it was my turn to put the record straight.

During the first half of the race, everything went according to plan. I felt strong, and kept to my nutrition and drinking plan pretty much exactly as I hoped.  Amazingly in this respect I fared far better than in any of my training runs.  I put this down to a good taper period and a successful carbo-loading period (both of which I’ll cover in more detail on another day).

The section half of the race is more mental than physical, especially for me given the challenges I had set myself. Approaching the first climb towards the steps at Nellie’s Glen, I was chatting with another runner, who I had discussed my experiences from last year. He was far more experienced than I, and wisely stated that you won’t make up much time on this section, but you can lose a lot, or even take yourself out of the race altogether.  

So the steps arrived, and my legs were tired, but it is amazing how the power of your mind can overcome any physical hardship you may be suffering. Now I didn’t race up these by any means, just a steady walk, and that was all it needed.  I had a caveman moment at the top, where I let out a triumphant primeval wail, as if to say “Is that all you’ve got?”, and there was no reply. Chest puffed out I actually ran on to the next checkpoint.

I stopped at the next checkpoint for about 15 minutes, so that I could get plenty of food and drink on board, change my shoes, and if I’m honest, I was enjoying the sit down! Had great support from John and Clive who had come out to crew for me, although I think the only reason they had come along was to see me suffer.

From this point there is about 13kms of downhill along paths, stairs and fire trails.  Now the downhills for me are enjoyable (relatively speaking), but in the back of your mind you know that every bit of downhill has an uphill counterpart. By this stage there are a few runners about, but the conversations are pretty limited. I put this down to general exhaustion and the preoccupation with the voice in head telling you how hard it is and “You really should stop”, “It’s not worth killing yourself for a belt buckle”, and “Only 5 more km of this hill to go”.

To run on this hill really does require some form of super human strength, a skill that I was regretting not having at this point.  However, the same tactic of steady strong walking proved to be highly effective. Given the darkness, and monotony of the hill (which for me lasted almost an hour) you get into an almost trancelike state as you keeping putting one foot in front of the other.  The trick for me was just focusing on a strong upright stance, and maintaining a consistent rhythm.  The occasional stare up at the stars was just fantastic too. It distracted your mind from the difficulties of the task at hand. 

This section, and indeed any physically challenging task highlights the psychological arm wrestle that goes on between your conscious and subconscious mind. The result comes down to which has the stronger will, and I had made it my mission that I (my conscious mind) was going to prevail.

With this out of the way, I wouldn’t say the remaining 11kms after the final checkpoint were easy, they are very tough. However, because of my performance in the previous section, I knew that I could have a good 15 minutes rest at the checkpoint, and should still comfortable get home in under 14 hours. This was a point I shared with everyone I met on the final section, in the hope they would reassure me that my assumption was correct. The mental lift I had from this belief, allowed me to draw on more physical resources than I thought I had. I felt strong and relatively fresh, as I was not overtaken in those final 11kms.
Approaching the finish line I do what I am sure many other competitors do, and that’s plan my victory celebration. I leapt in the air, clicked my heels and proudly posed for photos! 

The end of any ultra marathon event is unique in the sporting world. The support you receive is incredible, and probably the only event where the person who finishes last gets a cheers as big if not bigger that the winner. We’ve all got our own little goals and targets, and they’re very personal, and it seems as if everyone watching knows and wants to share it with you.

I crossed the line in 13 hours and 26 minutes, and about 2 minutes after crossing the line I was wearing my silver buckle!

So I’ve had time to do some comparisons between this year and last.  I felt as though I ran about 50% more this year and was much more in control.  When I checked my split times for the first half of the race, I was actually a few minutes slower on the first and third sections, and about 10 minutes quicker on the second. The difference was I had much more in the tank, and had the experience to keep eating and drinking when I didn’t feel like it. Even though I had a reasonable stop at the last two checkpoints, I was at these for about 40 minutes more last year. I really did need that rest last year, whereas this year I could have shaved another 10-15 minutes off that stopped time had I been in a rush!!

A lot of the improvement comes down to knowing you can complete the distance having been there before. On a  first outing in such an event your body doesn’t know for sure that it can get you around, and your subconscious is very conservative, so gets over protective and slows you down more than is necessary. On subsequent attempts your subconscious give you a little more rope!

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss recovery, what the textbooks say, what some others say, and what I have learnt. Then I’ll be getting my shoes back on and will start some gentle training for the next event in my schedule.

Until then,

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Run for the hills!

I have been running in Ultra marathons for 2 years now, having “retired” from road marathons because of the boredom factor and the perpetual obligation to monitor my watch. At the time I announced that a marathon is just too far to run, and have since had to eat my words!  By converting to the Ultra distance events, which are predominantly ran on trails, my enthusiasm for running has been rekindled.

During the transition period I found information on training for endurance events to be very limited, which is why I wanted to create this blog.

The key concept with Ultrarunning, and indeed running of any distance, is that there are no hard and fast rules for how you will perform. We are very much individuals in how we respond to different circumstances from a physiological and psychological point of view. I have heard the phrase “we are an experiment of one” and this for me sums things up very well.

We are all governed by generic limitation dictated by the laws of physic, biochemistry, genetics, etc, and the real art is to maximise your output in each area to optimise your performance. This is very much individual, and the only way to find out is by trial and error.

So I will share with you my trials and errors, as well as what I have learnt personally and through others in the hope that it will help you with your own endeavours in the running world.

I have recently completed my 3rd Ultramarathon, The North Face 100, a tough 100km trail race up and down the trails (and stairs!)of the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, Australia.  Dean Karnazes ran it last year and described it as the toughest 100km race he’d ever done. Check out the event website 

I made a 90 minute improvement on my time from last year’s event, and this made me question what I had done differently to get this improvement. More excitingly, I want to know what I can do differently to improve further in future events.

As with any distance event, be it 5kms or 5000kms, training is very time consuming and requires a high degree of personal discipline and often sacrifice. For ultra events, these pressures increase geometrically.

So I have decided to share my “experiment of one”, which will consist of a rigid training program, based on my learnings of many years of running. My training plan is somewhat different to that which you will read in any text book, and one I believe will give me better results in upcoming events.

There will be daily updates on training activities, as well as discussions and observations on all manner of topics related to running, with special attention paid to long distance and trail running.

So please follow me on my journey and contribute in what, with your help, will become the most complete source of information for the aspiring and experienced ultra runner alike.

I will be kicking off tomorrow with my review of the North Face 100, and my recovery since the event, before putting the new training program into action.

Happy Running