Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ultramarathon Running – Road Running v Trail Running

Whenever the topic of running comes up with non-runners, occasional joggers, and sometimes even the more accomplished runner I’m often asked “Don’t you find it boring?” or “How do you keep motivated when running for that length of time?” I’m always polite in my response, but really their ignorance probably hails back to some bad experience at school being forced to run around the block by an unimaginative Gym teacher. The thing is that running takes on many forms, including the athletic track races, trail running, road races, fun runs, fell running, ultramarathons, the list goes on, and each of them have their own pros and cons.

I’m going to generalise by splitting running into Road Running

and Trail Running

As you will know from previous posts, I used to run exclusively on the roads, and was even careful not to run on the grass verge for fear of injury. Now I have done an about turn, running off road wherever possible and the reasons for this are the significant additional physical and psychological benefits.

Any running has a health benefit, improving fitness, strength, flexibility and the endorphin rush from any physical activity. So where does Trail Running differ from Road Running?

With experience of running on the trails you will experience fewer injuries than on roads. Sounds counter intuitive, and my reasoning is this. By running on an uneven, inconsistent surface your muscles and connective tissues are working harder, more explosively and more erratically. You are effectively strengthening all around your joints and spreading the load and wear, unlike road running where the motion is very consistent and repetitive.

Whilst road running you will find that certain muscles and connective tissues will remain dormant and superfluous to the normal running action because of the consistency of the surface. They can become a weak link in your running system and can fail should you encounter any sudden changes to the running surface. I saw this during the North Face 100, a maiden ultra for many, where a number of participants had done nearly all their training on roads (coming from a conventional marathon background). The lack of toughness in the joints (ankles in particular) was resulting in a lot of rolled ankles and falls for these folk.

Those who train on the trails have stronger joints and better proprioreception, enabling a faster almost instinctive correction when encountering potentially hazardous terrain. Even if an ankle is rolled the increased toughness of the joints will reduce the severity of the trauma.

Not only are you more likely to experience more severe traumatic injury road running, but given the repetitive and consistent nature of road running, you will more likely suffer from the overuse type of injuries.  This came home to me on my run yesterday, when I can honestly say I was using every muscle in my body, just keeping myself upright and moving forward. No two strides were alike, as I careered down a rocky fire trail.  It was great fun!

Psychological differences:
It has been said that running is never fun, but rather is enjoyable.  Whilst this may be true generally speaking, I frequently have fun running the trails in training whilst running solo. A road runner could say that they have fun in a heavily supported event, and I’ve experienced that myself, but the bulk of your mileage is done alone or in a small group.

In my experience I found road running a sport driven by the watch on your wrist. Constantly concerned with pace and split times and the desire for a PB. Now these are honourable goals, but for me it ended up taking away the enjoyment.  I would be running around the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, a place people dream of visiting let alone using it for daily training sessions, and I wasn’t even looking beyond a few metres in front of me.

By changing my mindset and getting out on the trails I found myself running for the enjoyment of being out in the environment. While the overall time I was running was still important, I would happily stop and take in the sights, take a detour to check out something of interest, or just walk to take in my surroundings.

It can actually be easier to run when you are away from the roads. You can relax, not having to worry about being hit by a car or overzealous cyclist. It’s safer on the trails (unless you happen to step on a snake or get eaten by a bear!). There are plenty of distractions to take your mind off the process of running, whilst providing focus to experience a flow like state of “being in the zone”.

So who would be better in a race between the trail and road runner? Given what I’ve stated above, the trail runner would always win on the trails and have a good chance of winning on the roads (if they could get over the boredom). The one thing I know though is the trail runner would be happier doing it! Maybe just this time poor Wile E Coyote can come out on top...

Regardless of your choice of terrain the important thing is that you actually get out there and run (it’s good for you) and that you enjoy what you do (it’s good for you and the people around you). And if you do happen to do all your training on the roads, perhaps a few sessions on the trails will help your training.

That's All Folks!


Adventure is worthwhile in itself

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ultra Marathon Running - Born to run...on trails

I've been taking a short break from training because other matters have had a priority in my life of late, but did manage to get out for a run this morning.
Given that I have not had the opportunity to do much of late, I wanted to make this a worthwhile run so I chose to do my favourite hill and trail session back to back. Double the fun!

As usual I spent the first hour clearing my head of the usual garbage of everyday life, before relaxing into a comfortable rhythm and enjoyed the surroundings. I was concentrating on my running form, and really feeling the trail beneath my feet.  I was reminded of the underlying message of the inspiring and thought provoking book "Born to Run", that this is what we are meant to do. For me running on the trails is the purest expression of this.

Tomorrow, I am going to discuss the arguments of road running versus trail running, where I'll try an put forward an unbiased overview of both disciplines, and highlight what the road marathon runner can learn from the trail ultramarathon runner and vice versa.

It will be no surprise that I side with the trails over the tracks. I will be encouraging all those folk who only run on the roads for fear of rolling an ankle to get their shiny clean trainers muddy and see how it feels to run on the wild side!

Today's session:
Until then, Happy Running


"It is important to give it all you have while you have the chance"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ultramarathon Training – trouble getting your shorts on?

I remember an article in Runner’s World from years ago which said that the most strenuous part of your training for a marathon was putting your shorts on.  What they meant was actually having the drive to get out there and run. If you put your shorts on the chances are you put your trainers on, and before you know it your running down the road.

This morning I had set the alarm for 5am, with the plan to get out for a couple of hours, see the sunrise from the top of Mount Tinbeerwah and then be back home in time for breakfast. The trouble was that when the alarm went off I woke to the sound of torrential rain and what sounded (!) like a really cold wind.

 The view from the top is spectacular, but then my bed was warm and cosy, so I got back in and then wrestled my conscience for 15 minutes. This time I got up, checked the weather forecast, mixed up some sports drink, made a cheese spread sandwich for my planned pitstop, and then put on my shorts. Normally I would have been off and getting wet, preparing responses to the “You must be mad” comments I’d get on my return.

This morning was different, even after all the preparation, I stayed put.  It was at this point I got thinking as to why I didn’t just suck it up and put up with being cold for a few minutes while my body warmed up from the run.

Put simply had the circumstances been different I would have gone, and the conclusions from this are worth noting.

Currently I am about 16 weeks out my next event (Glasshouse Mountains 100). I’ve got a good base fitness from completing the North Face 100 last month, and as you will know from previous posts my training plan allows for plenty of flexibility.

I’ve actually had a quiet week for “formal” training sessions as I’ve been very busy manually labouring, so have been getting a workout more akin to cross training than running. This has been very demanding so I am physically tired, and burning plenty of calories anyway.

Finally, at the moment I am training alone, so I am only accountable to myself.  Had there been a running partner expecting me to turn up at 5:30 this morning, I would have been there in a heartbeat. I'm far more concerned about letting someone down than I am about letting myself down.

So if you want to get motivated, get a training partner. Guilt is a great motivator! At the same time don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t completing every session in your training plan. A missed session often does you more good than harm, allowing for more recovery, tissues heal, carbohydrate stores recharge, and you get a psychological break from the shackles of the training programme.

My alarm is set early again tomorrow; I’ll let you who is more persuasive, the running angel or running devil on my shoulders!

Until then...

Happy Running,

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ultramarathon training – but I just don’t have the time

It’s no secret that most of us are time poor these days with commitments to work and families. The sport of Ultrarunning is not only time consuming to compete in, but much more so to train for. We all have the same 24 hours in each day and 7 days in a week to fit all that our hectic lifestyles demand.  Unless you are training to perform at an elite level though it is not necessary to forego sleep to fit it all in to that limited time window.

It all comes down to priorities and time management.  If training for an ultra is not a priority for you, then it is unlikely you will elect to do a training session over a relaxing evening in front of the TV, or preparing for an important business meeting. The challenge arises because we feel the need to pigeon hole our time for specific activities, such that only time set aside for training, is actually of training benefit.  The secret is to multi-task, and this is something even a man can do (!) – I am living proof.
Even though we train for events lasting many, many hours, we can still benefit from activities which only last for a few minutes. Now I am not suggesting that you can cancel all your long training runs, and the base fitness you need to complete an ultra. It is how you use all your available time that will dictate how much time you need to dedicate to specific focused training activities.

You need to develop a mindset where you are subconsciously thinking “How can what I am doing now be adapted to benefit my training?”

Here are some good examples of things you could do to get a training benefit, whilst engaged in other activities.

1) One that I have used to good effect is running to and from work.  I found that the total travel time was the similar by either method, but felt better at the start of the day when I run in. If you live too far away to run to work, perhaps cycling could be an option, or you could run part of the journey and use public transport for the remainder. This idea was a massive benefit to building my base fitness, especially when we moved offices and my run in changed from 5km to 17km each way! It becomes part of the routine, without eating into valuable family time.

2) Whilst watching TV consider performing core strength exercises and stretches.  Get used to doing a few push ups or trunk curls, leg raises or side planks or any other stationary exercises.  I bought myself a “Theraband” which I use in the lounge room for hip, knee and ankle exercises. It comes to a point where you can decide if you are exercising whilst watching the TV vice versa.

3) Through a course of physiotherapy I was given specific exercises to improve my posture and running form.  These included keeping my torso upright (using core muscles) and employing my gluteal muscles when walking. So when walking have an awareness of your posture and what muscles you are using.  When people aren’t watching just hold your butt and make sure that you are using the biggest muscles in your body to propel you forward.

4) Whilst standing such as waiting for a bus, there is a great variety of exercises you can perform.  Simple controlled calf raises are a great way to build strength and endurance for the hills. Try standing with slightly bended knees to engage the quadriceps.  Practice tensing the gluteals to improve your awareness of them triggering so that you know you are using them whilst running. Try an adapted version of the Walt Reynolds ITB Special as detailed in my previous post. Stand on one leg and move your body mass around to get the muscles and connective tissue in your ankles firing and strengthening.

Many of these exercises you can perform while stationary will greatly improve your proprioreception which will help improve your running form and prevent or reduce the severity of injuries.

5) Take the stairs, leave the car at home, play with your kids outside – you may even inspire them to get away from the computer and put on their trainers without an argument!

6) Rake the garden manually rather than with a leaf blower. Not only will you get a workout for free, you’ll also be reducing your carbon footprint.

The list goes on, but I’m sure you can see the general concept.  It just takes some discipline to make these sorts of activities part of your normal routine, and that in itself is good mental training.

You can of course flip this entire concept on your head and incorporate other activities into you training.  I use the time to occupy my mind problem solving, and am looking to get an MP3 recorder so that I can write my blogs whilst out on the trails.

The way in which you can involve your training with your normal life is only limited by your imagination.  I’ve even taken to wearing ankle weights around the house, I keep golf balls under my desk to massage my feet whilst working, and stand on a balance board on one leg whilst cooking at the barbeque!

You may have noticed that I have not posted any training activity for the past few days and this is because I have been busy working on putting up over 400metres of fencing. Apart from the fact that it has taken up all the daylight hours, it has been a great physical workout, so haven’t felt the need to do anything extra. I cycle to the place where I’m doing this work also, which is a good example of what I have described above. I will need to get out and hit the trails in the coming week though, just to keep the legs turning over.

Happy running


“Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” – Luis Escobar

Thursday, June 10, 2010

ITBS – from Ouch to Ooooo! – in plain English, Part II

Yesterday I described what ITBS is (Iliotibial Band Syndrome), how to diagnose it, and how to treat it.  Today’s post has the instructions for a proven exercise designed specifically for runners to prevent or mitigate ITBS.  I have used it myself and found it to be very effective.

The exercise is known as the Walt Reynolds Special, and all you need to do it is a step, and perhaps something to help you balance (I use a broom). For the purpose of the description let us assume that the left leg is suffering from ITBS (after all it’s not right!). If you are using this to treat a problem on the right side, just swap the descriptions around.

Firstly stand sideways on a step on the left leg which is suffering from the ITB problem. Balance holding on to a wall or broom with your right hand and keep your legs straight but relaxed

Keeping your legs straight, and without leaning your upper body, lower your hip on the right side by a few inches below the level of the step. This has the effect of raising the hip on the left side a little, as well as a small outward movement to the left. You may feel a tightening of the muscles in the hip on the left side as they are stretched. This actually mimics the position of your hips when your foot on the problem side is in contact with the ground whilst running. The hip is swivelling and acting as a pivot for the upper body.

Next, move your centre of gravity towards the right hand side, so that most of your weight is being carried on the inside of the left foot on the step. Again remain upright, and share your weight evenly between both your heel and toes. This process further mimics the running action, simulating the natural and essential pronation of the foot.

So far so good. Now bend your left knee a little by about 10-20 degrees. This lowers the right foot towards the ground, but not so that it touches it. Next comes the tricky part which can take a bit of practice to get right.  Keeping your weight on the inside of the left foot, the knee angle on the left leg the same, and the left heel on the ground, move the left hip forward a few inches. Obviously keeping the knee angle the same and with the heel on the ground, the only way you can achieve this is by rotating the hip forward, raising the front of the pelvis and slightly lowering the back of the pelvis. So as you move you hip forward, you torso should move backwards. I actually find it easiest to initiate this movement by moving the upper body backwards, and concentrating on keeping the problem leg static, so you have to tilt the pelvis correctly to avoid falling over.

When you have rotated your pelvis forward by about 4 inches, rotate it backwards by a similar amount by leaning your torso forward and return to the start position to complete one repetition.

It is this motion which accurately mimics the biomechanics of running from the ITB’s point of view without actually running, enabling you to strengthen and stretch your ITB in a controlled manner.

There are a couple of points to concentrate on during this exercise. Keep the left hip higher than the right, and keep the left hip out to the left side throughout. Also make sure that the movements of the hips are straight backward and forward, avoiding any lateral motion.

If you are doing the exercise correctly you will feel burn (or intense stretch) on the outside of the effected hip. If not, or you are feeling it elsewhere, just try again, and make sure you are following the important points mentioned above.

Whilst it may at first seem that from a simplistic biomechanical point of view the hips are the anchor point about which the legs swing. The reality is that the foot whilst in contact with the ground is the anchor point, and the hip is actually a pivot rotating around the foot. This action puts enormous strain on your ITB, because the forward momentum of running multiplies the effective weight of your body, which is carried mostly through this one area every time your foot hits the ground (which typically happens around 90 times a minute!).

So it’s no surprise that without a strong and flexible ITB, you could find yourself hobbling home early from a run, with a mass of red hot painful tissue which is going to have you out of action for a few weeks, perhaps even months.

When I first learnt this exercise I did use it to treat ITBS rather than in its’ prescribed preventative manner. You just have to go very slow and steady, a as always listen to your body. From a remedial perspective I would do about 5-10 reps every day, increasing the number gradually, provided there was no further pain.

If you are performing the exercise in a preventative manner, then I would suggest 15-20 reps on each side every day, and again listen to your body.

I know that many of us do not have the time to do this every day, so once you have understood the principles of this exercise you can adapt it into your daily life and routines. Perhaps whilst waiting for a bus you can do a toned down version, but be careful of your balance. I don’t want anyone falling under the bus whilst trying this out! You will be surprised at the benefit you will get from this sort of occasional activity, and after a time you may find yourself subconsciously standing in odd positions making the most of every available training minute without even knowing it.

Happy running!

“Success is not final. Failure is not final. It is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

ITBS – from Ouch to Ooooo! – in plain English, Part I

The list of injuries you can incur whilst training for an ultramarathon is long and can be confusing with many different names, jargon and acronyms to deal with. ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome) is one of them and there is a wealth of information available for diagnosis and treatment of the condition. There is a school of thought that if you have ITBS, then you can do little more than manage the condition, you have it for life, and really Ultra running is not a good sport for you to participate in. From my research and personal experience, I would like to offer a glimmer of hope from those who have suffered from ITBS.

So what is Iliotibial Band Syndrome? Put simply it is a pain on the outside edge of your knee which you usually get a few kms into a run, and it can be so severe as to cause you to stop running altogether. It is caused by the ITB (Iliotibial Band) rubbing against the nobbly bit of the lower thigh bone (the epicondyle of the femur). The ITB is a band of muscle and connective tissue that runs from the hip to top of the lower leg bone (the tibia). It is not attached to the thigh bone at all, and in effect helps keep the “knee bone connected to the thigh bone” and “the thigh bone connected to the hip bone”, now hear the word of the Lord!
As a result of this mechanical arrangement, every time you bend your leg past about 30 degrees, the ITB has to move over the top of the nobbly part of the femur. When you’re running the ITB is under tension, forcing it to rub against the bone, and that is where the pain comes from.

It’s quite easy to diagnose this by the standard accepted method of the “Nobel Compression Test”. You can try this on yourself, and perhaps save yourself some expensive Physiotherapy costs.

So once you have established that you have ITBS, you will want to know how you can get rid of it. The standard treatment for it is to stop running and stretch the ITB. It’s not the easiest part of the body to stretch and there are loads of versions of stretches you can use. Here is one option:

If this doesn’t work for you try other positions which create that stretching feeling down the outside of the thigh. The key thing I have found is to make sure you tilt the pelvis upwards on the offending leg.

Another suggested therapy is to use a foam roller on the ITB, and this is something I do quite regularly for prevention, or when I feel tightness in the ITB (typically in my first few runs after an ultra race). Simply lie on your side (the injured side), legs straight, with the foam roller under your knee. Then slowly roll you body down over the roller, supporting as much of your weight as possible on the roller.

The first time you do this it can be pretty painful, but each time it gets easier and after a few sessions you should be able to do this without any discomfort. Roll from the knee to the hip to complete the motion, and if you have any spots of stronger discomfort go over them again, perhaps more slowly.

These treatments will reduce any pain and allow the inflamed part of the ITB to recover. This is obviously a good thing, the problem is that the effects may not be lasting, and it does little to address the cause of the ITBS in the first place.

The causes of the problem can be mechanical (such as being Bow-legged), leg length discrepancies, excessive pronation or muscle tightness. There is no “wonder treatment” to cover all these, but one in particular, the “Walt Reyonld’s ITB Special, is highly effective, and it has been designed specifically for runners.

The Walt Reyonld’s ITB Special takes into account the specific stresses and strains put upon the joints, muscles and connective tissue that occur during the normal running cycle. The treatment improves the flexibility and the strength of the ITB, which provides resistance to injury.

In part two of this blog I will cover instructions on how to perform this exercise, and how you incorporate lessons from it into your daily routines to make you a stronger, more efficient runner.

For a more detailed (and more technical) look at the ITBS, I would recommend a book that I consider to be the runners’ bible – “The Lore of Running” by Tim Noakes. It’s an essential addition to your library if you take your running seriously. One of the best things about the book is that the author is not only a doctor, but also an experienced ultrarunner. He relates his text to many of his own experiences, backed up with masses of research.

Happy running,

“You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone” – Percy Cerutty (Olympic running coach)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ultra Running – What is the right hydration system for you?

If you’re out exerting yourself for periods in excess of 60 minutes, it is a widely accepted fact that your performance will drop off without some form of rehydration be it water or another drink. In ultra marathon races and in training you will inevitably need to drink to avoid suffering the effects of dehydration. Unless you are running on a short circuit, have a helpful support crew alongside you, or there are regular drinking stations, you are going to have to carry some fluids with you.

There are a number of options available to you, which I will summarise into 4 main categories, and will discuss the pros and cons of each, to help you decide on what is the best system, or combination of systems, for you.

Before you can decide on what option to go for there are a number of things to consider.

The most important consideration is the volume of fluid you are going to need. This will be dictated by the sorts of events you are going to participate in. On unsupported multiday events you are going to need a large water carrying capacity. On a shorter ultra, or marathon with frequent drink stations you may not need any, but will need something to help you through training. Other external factors such as ambient temperature or humidity will have an impact on your fluid requirement.

You will also want to consider if you would like more than one type or flavour of drink. Personally I like to have a variety of flavours to avoid the nausea I get from drinking the same drink for many hours, as well as having access to plain water.

You should also be aware of any other gear that you need to carry. This can range from just your keys, to spare clothing, first aid equipment, food, torches, the list goes on.

Of course another important factor is that of cost. The range can go from a few dollars for a water bottle, to many hundreds of dollars for a hydration backpack or vest.

Hydration System Options

Water Bottle (such that you can buy ready filled in any supermarket, newsstand, pretty much everywhere these days.)
Pro – Cheap. Readily available. Variety of sizes. Standard bottles will fit into most bottle belts. Easily refilled whilst running.

Con – Needs to be held in hand (using extra energy). Limit to volume that you can carry as you would normally want to keep one hand free. Can be easily dropped. Fluid will warm as your hands warm up. Weight carried at end of arm, which can put strain on arms and shoulders, as well as effecting running style (especially over long distances). Doesn’t incorporate any other carrying capacity for keys, gels, phone, etc. Should not be reused too many times because of the plastic they are manufactured from can have negative health consequences.

Bottle with hand strap
Pro – Relatively cheap. Allows relaxation of grip. Can reuse the bottles many times. Easy to refill on the run.

Con – Same as for above.

Bottle belt
Pro – Weight carried on hips with minimal impact on the running performance. Carry more than one bottle keeping hands free. Usually provides pockets for keys, gels, mobile phone and so on.

Con – Typically limited to two bottles (about 1.2l) capacity. Can be uncomfortable over long distances, especially when bottles are full. Can cause chaffing.

Hydration Backpack
Pro – Carry large volumes of fluid whilst leaving hands free. Ability to carry many other items, with up to around 25litres of capacity. Easy access to drinking tube.

Con – Can be very expensive to buy and maintain. Can cause chaffing, especially when fully loaded (my 3litre pack weighed about 7kg when fully loaded with water and mandatory gear for a recent 100km race). Can be awkward and time consuming to refill the bladder during a run. Can only carry one type of fluid (unless you were to modify the pack). Not easy to access storage pouches whilst running.

As with everything Ultra running, it comes down to your personal preferences and requirements. For me, I am a heavy sweater, and often run over long distances where there is little or no access to clean water, so I use a 3 litre (100ounce) hydration backpack (The North Face Blacktail, replaced by the Enduro). This pack is really comfortable and has a large capacity for extra gear, which is usually mandatory for the races I enter. I do not like to put any sports drink in the hydration bladder as the taste can linger even after washing, so I have a bottle belt as well for these.

This combination works well for me, especially when there are 3+ hours between checkpoints. I can keep the sports drink at a higher concentration in the bottles, and take a gulp from the bottle and the water bladder to achieve the right mix. This really helps keep the sweet taste out of my mouth which has stopped me wanting to eat or drink anything in previous races.

Here is today’s session. Check out the satellite image option on the map to appreciate what a fantastic run this is. It’s just a shame I had to run about 8kms to get into the park, but well worth it.

Happy Running


“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it” – Pablo Picasso

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Something to consider when training for an Ultramarathon

Like most ultra distance runners I progressed to the longer distance events from half and full marathons. It is therefore fair to assume that you would have a reasonable experience of the training required and the potential pitfalls along the way.

One of the biggest concerns for someone starting to run in Ultra Marathons is the increased risk of injury, and the potential long term detrimental effects to your health. I still have friends warning me of the damage I’m doing to myself, and my parents regularly mention concerns about my knees, so much so it has become a family joke.

Put simply the when you are stepping up to ultra marathon distance you have to do whatever you can to avoid injuries.

There are three types of injury of concern. Injury from trauma, injury from overuse and injury from improper functioning of the physical system.

Traumatic injuries could be the result of tripping and breaking a bone or tearing a ligament. Basically an injury which is the result of a sudden stress imposed upon part of the body which takes it beyond its normal range of function, and causes local damage.

There’s not a lot you can do to avoid these types of injury other than being careful. However you can reduce the intensity of the injury through development of stronger joints, or better balance. The effects of this can be observed by those running in trail races that normally run on roads. Their knees and ankles are not used to the uneven nature of the surfaces and will role their ankles as they don’t have the additional strength or speed of response in these joints to prevent a damaging eccentric stretch or tear.

Overuse injuries occur when a muscle or muscle system is taken beyond its physical capacity. This capacity can be expanded through training, although there are limits to this. These injuries are also related to injuries of improper function.
Improper function related injuries (such as Runners Knee, Plantar Fasciitis, or ITBS) can be the most painful, debilitating and hard to recover from. They are caused by poor biomechanics, where the bones, or muscles, or connective tissues do not work in harmony. The result can be very minor when it occurs in a one off situation, but when you are taking many thousands of strides over an intensive session of many hours, the effects can add up to cause severe pain.

Some people are very lucky and have been gifted a good running gait by nature of their genetics. A number of elite ultrarunners have explained their ability to running such seemingly inhuman distances by “choosing good parents”. If your one of those people who has a naturally efficient gait, then many congratulations, get out there and make the most of it.

For the bulk of us though there will be imperfections whose damaging effects can be amplified by the nature of the sport of ultra running.

There is a school of thought that suggests that if you have poor or imperfect biomechanics then you should just settle for running for shorter durations, or perhaps take up another sport altogether. Otherwise you’re going to be suffering every time you run, and “doing all sorts of damage to your body, just think about your knees!”

Personally I disagree with this sentiment based largely on my own experiences. I developed a pain in my foot when I started increasing my distances, to the point where I could hardly walk a day later (the same catalyst to the account told by Chris McDougall, author of “Born to Run” who has come to a similar conclusion via a slightly more glamorous route). I was fortunate enough to go to a physio who had a deep interest in biomechanics. He not only alleviated the initial symptoms, but we worked together on a program of strengthening and stretching to address the cause – an imbalance in the strength and flexibility of my body from belly to my feet.

This wasn’t a quick process, after all you can’t just change the way you run overnight (if only). The results though are worth it. I’m not saying that my running gait is perfect, not by a long chalk, and I am still working on this. The difference is I have not lost a toenail for 6 months (instead of every couple of weeks), I’ve not had a blister since I started training for ultras (2 years), and I’ve not suffered any injury other than a bit of DOMS and stiffness since I went through this process. I do get the occasional twinge from a joint or muscle, but I have learnt enough now to identify a potential problem before it becomes an issue. With this knowledge and awareness, I can refocus my training regime to strengthen the problem areas and keep running.

The real beauty of this remedial training approach is that you are actually addressing the cause of the problem preventing its future resurgence. If the symptoms recur you know what needs to be done to correct it.

So my advice to anyone who is looking to run long would be to get a full body assessment done based on your running gait from an qualified professional (ideally one who actually runs themself) to identify where and what you need to do to keep injury free. If you can’t afford this, can't find a suitable specialist, or haven’t experienced any issues to date, as a general rule of thumb you should incorporate into your training program exercises which will give you a strong core and hips, and make sure that when you are running you are using your gluteal muscles (your bum!) to push you forward rather than relying on your relatively weak hamstrings.

In later posts I will be sharing details of different exercises which help develop these muscle groups to promote a better running style. I’ll also discuss how every day activities can be adapted to aid this process, which is of particular benefit to the “time poor, motivation rich”

Happy running,


“He who suffers, remembers” - Fortune Cookie

Friday, June 4, 2010

Ultramarathon – I just don’t know what to wear?

You would think that the kit you wear for ultra event would be the same as any other run. That is what most people would do when they venture into the world of running long, but with a little experience you realise that this isn’t the case. So what is different in an ultra run to any other?

In simple terms it comes down to comfort. If you’re out for a 40 minute run and you have a minor irritation from your shorts, it’s unlikely to stop you from finishing. Put yourself in the same situation when you’re going to be running for 5, 10, 24hours or more and that minor irritation can become a major problem.

The issue is one of chaffing, which is best avoided if at all possible. In itself it can be very uncomfortable with clean dry clothes, and when you add sweat and grit you can find yourself in a world of pain. The phrase “rubbing salt into your wounds” comes to mind. Anyone who has suffered from bleeding nipples whilst being soaked in sweat will relate to this.

Chaffing is caused by friction, heat and moisture in combination. Take out one of these and you’re unlikely to suffer blisters and other chaffing related conditions.

Heat comes from two sources – friction and the heat generated by your muscles. There’s not much you can do about the latter when running.

Friction comes from rubbing of two surfaces together with pressure. This is certainly difficult to avoid any friction whilst wearing clothes, shoes, and without running with a gait which makes you look like a cowboy in the saddle. However we can do some things that will help reduce friction such as tape on those tender areas prone to chaffing, and unfortunately this does come down to trial and error. When you find something that works for you my advice is to stick with it (until you find something better).

Moisture is difficult to avoid too, unless you are one of those lucky folk who doesn’t sweat too much. This is an area where the clothing manufacturers have done a good job, with the development of wicking materials. These effectively mop up the moisture on your skin, draw it through the material, where it evaporates to the air (cooling your body).
The downside for this is that the amount of moisture that evaporates is delimited by the air temperature, air speed, and humidity. So for those of us who have a higher sweat rate, we need to run like Usain Bolt to generate the air speed to dry off, or run in the dry heat of the desert marathons such as Badwater Ultramarathon or Marathon de Sables.

Typically we all try and minimise all of the causative factors. I have a few tips which I have learnt from my experiences.

Backpacks (often a requirement of Ultra races) and running vests. Firstly get used to training with your backpack on to toughen up the skin in those places where it may rub. Don’t wait until the race as one guy I met at a race last year was in agony only 10km into a 100km race because it was the first time he’d run with a pack. Adjust the straps so that it fits snugly without restricting your movement to minimise rubbing. Wear a tee shirt or sleeveless top that covers your shoulders. I prefer the sleeveless top as it allows free movement of the arms and exposes more skin to aid cooling.

Running shorts. Very much a personal preference, as there is a vast range. I always apply a healthy portion of Vaseline (or other anti-friction gel) to the more tender parts, and reapply at checkpoints as it’s the one item of clothing I don’t change during a race. I learnt this after rubbing myself raw, and could barely put up with the pain of a shower! I now wear lycra cycling shorts under my running shorts, which provides a lot more comfort and support, and best of all, they’re chaff-free.

Socks. It’s definitely worth investing in a decent pair of running socks. Your feet are arguably the most important part of your body when it comes to running, and in Ultras they get quite a pounding. I have just acquired 3 pairs of Hilly Trail socks (from Ron Hill, makers of the UK’s leading running kit) and they are just great. They are single skin unlike many other running socks, and quite thick made from a coarse synthetic material. Not only are they very comfortable, when you get a wet foot, they’re make up is such that they don’t leave your foot feeling wet. I ran with wet feet for over 5 hours and no blisters in these socks. Again it’s trial and error with what will work for you, so have a go at different options.

So by the time you’ve collected your fair share of blisters, raw skin and bleeding nipples, hopefully you’ll have learnt how to get to the finish in relative comfort!

Here’s the summary of today’s training run. A beautiful day and a pretty good run. Was about 23C and sunny. Got through 600ml Endura electrolyte sports drink, 1.5litres water and a cheese spread sandwich.

Looking forward to a rest day tomorrow.

Happy Running!


Quote for the day...
"Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction"
- William James, Philosopher

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ultrarunning - the need for a watch with Heart Rate Monitor and GPS?

When I first got into Ultra Distance running I did a bit of research over the internet and books, and one of the main messages I got was one that Ultrarunning, in particular trail running is exercise in its purest, most natural form. It’s what we as humans have evolved to do. To participate all you need is a pair of shorts, even shoes are optional. Some would argue that shorts are optional too, but I think you could end up with severe chaffing issues, and quite possibly frostbite, if you adopted that approach.

In some articles scorn was laid upon those who bought specialist running clothing, with synthetic, dry weave, moisture wicking, “make you go faster” materials. Anyone who outwardly promoting the sport was looked down upon, as running out in the wilds on your own for 5 hours at a time is done for personal reasons, not personal gain. As for shoes, to be allowed to enter the world of ultrarunning they must not cost anymore than a family size pizza, and you should not replace them until you have worked your way through 3 sets of laces and had them resoled twice.

In some ways I kind of liked this and it was part of the appeal. Having come from a road running background, I was intrigued to find out more about this peculiar bunch of athletes, and was keen to see them perform superhuman feats without any help from the scientists and mainstream sportswear manufacturers. So why is it when I turn up to my first event all around me I see are very familiar logos of ticks and stripes, and all manner of technical paraphernalia. I believe the truth is that we like to think we’re expressing our abilities in a very pure fashion, but if modern technology can help, then why not embrace it. You don't get any extra kudos for bleeding nipples or heat stroke!

My transition from the boring monotony of road running (plod, plod, tarmac, plod, watch, plod, tarmac, plod, watch, plod...repeat to exhaustion) to the exhilaration and freedom of trail running took a massive step after about 6 weeks off the roads. Whilst running along a trail, miles from anywhere, alongside a bubbling creek, I decided to stop and adjust my watch. My Garmin Forerunner 305 (my watch with heart rate monitor, GPS and all the gadgets) had the option to display different data about your session. I had it set to show Time, Heart Rate, and Pace (a habit inherited from my running days). I stopped and took off the Pace option. I had realised that running out on the trails is not about how fast you go, but how much you enjoy it.

The enjoyment on some days does come from running fast, but you don’t need to know how fast to enjoy it. In fact it’s usually the slower runs you enjoy more, because you experience more. You don’t worry about stopping to look at a beautiful sunset, or to take in the panorama around you. That for me is what those other runners were trying to get at when they wrote of the purity and simplicity of this sport. In fact it’s probably not right to call it a sport, but we do all still enjoy a race every now and then, if only to measure and share how we’ve progressed.

So when it comes down to it, do we need fancy watches to enjoy running? The answer is that we don’t NEED them, but they can make it more fun. Part of the pleasure I get from going out for a run is getting back home, and plugging the watch into the computer, to see how I did. Given the technology available to us now you can relive races uploading your routes into Google Earth, or share your progress on Garmin Connect (as I do with my training sessions). My favourite feature at the moment is keeping track of the mileage I run in each pair of my shoes. I’ve done over 1300kms in one pair, and think they’re good for another 500km at least. Looking at them now I don’t think there will be much left of them by then.

Just as an aside on the Heart Rate Monitor function of my watch. All my race training has involved quite strict monitoring of my heart rate on my longer sessions, and during the North Face 100 I competed in 3 weeks ago, my race plan had been based heavily upon controlling my HR. About 10kms into the race the battery in the chest strap ran out. Without the technical feedback to inform me of my HR I had to run by feel alone. The result is that I ran faster and longer than ever before and I put this down to having one less reason to slow down. Seeing my HR creeping up I would have used that as justification to slow or walk.

I’ve changed my training a bit now. I still record my HR, but don’t worry about it until I get back home. Then I use it as a measure of improvement in cardiovascular fitness, and can adjust my training plan accordingly.

When it comes to a GPS watch, as much as you don’t need one, once you’ve had one, you’ll feel naked leaving the house without it.

As for my training today, I was a very benevolent coach and I gave myself a day off!

Happy running

Inspiring (?) quote for the day:
"It was like getting kicked in the balls — no matter how hard you train to get kicked in the balls, it hurts every single time it happens."
- From Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko, John Weisman

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Simple Ultramarathon Training Plan – Enjoy your training without it taking over your life

As promised here is my take on a loose training plan which will help you not only reach the start line of an Ultramarathon (an achievement in itself) but also get to the finish line. I’m working towards events in the 100kms and 100mile category, so if your goals are geared toward different distances you can adjust your training accordingly.

As discussed in yesterdays post (Ultra Running Training - The importance of setting goals and how to achieve them) you need to have goals for your running, so that you can tailor your training in order to achieve them. Given the vast variety of events in the world of ultra marathons (trails, roads, treadmills, 24 hour, multi-day, hills, running tracks, etc) there are hundreds of different training programs to choose from. However, most of the training schedules I’ve seen tend to be those adopted by the ultrarunning elite, or require you to have about 8 hours a day available for your training sessions. There also seems to be a very high focus on your total weekly mileage, and little acknowledgement of the type and quality of your sessions (other than the highpoint of everyone’s weekend, the Long Slow Distance run – we all love a bit of LSD!).

I’m not totally convinced by this obsession with weekly distance in your training. Obviously you have to do some long training runs, but what I find when I do much longer training runs (4 hours plus) or when I increase my total mileage, I tend to feel physically tired all the time, and the quality of my subsequent training sessions drops off. As previously discussed my best sessions are usually after a break, effectively a taper period where you body has a chance to recharge and you will have carbohydrate loaded by burning less energy in your normal daily activities.

In the build up to the North Face 100 which I completed in 15th May, my training was disrupted by a 4 week trip overseas. This was 8 weeks before the race, and during that period I only managed a few runs with weekly totals of 20, 22, 27, and 29 Kilometres (approximately 15miles a week average). Really at this point, according to all the training plans I should have been doing my maximum training distances. I did follow this period up with a total of 170kms over the next two weeks, before a 2 week taper.

The race went really well for me, feeling stronger than ever and there was never a time when I felt that I was undertrained. On reviewing the weeks prior to this break I was only averaging around 60kms a week, between the Christmas holidays and the overseas trip.

If you look at the text book training recommendations, given my training I should have struggled to get around in 24hours, and instead crossed the line in 13hours 26 mins.

I put this down to the quality of the training I had done.

I have tried to give my training plan a little more structure now, as I am working towards two 100mile races later in the year, but the overall philosophy is the same. The LSD run on the weekend will stay, and during the peak of my training I will back up two such runs over a weekend, to stress the body to get used to running tired (a familiar feeling when you’re out for 24hours and more). In these sessions I will walk the hills, take pit stops, and just enjoy being out there – basically simulating how you would perform in a race but without the intensity.

Midweek sessions will consist of 2-3 runs of about 1.5-2 hours in duration, and will be on a similar surface to that you plan to race on. In my case these are trails and hilly ones too! I will cover the joys and benefits of trail running in future posts, could go on for hours on that one.

Vary the intensity of the midweek runs, and always include one hard hill session, the benefits of which cover strength, endurance, form, cardio, and psychology. Remember you gain benefit on the downhills as well as the up, make full use of the session.

As an example I’ve used a long set of steps which took about 2 minutes to run up, and the same back down. I would run 6 reps and make sure that the first was as fast as the last. The following week I would run 7 reps, then 8 reps, up to 10 reps. A really good session, as you get a lot of benefit in a relatively short space of time.

So this leaves a couple of days in the week and one on the weekend (the rest day). In the spare week days I would do 1 or 2 circuit style sessions. One strength and endurance focused the other more specialist exercises to help maintain form, improve balance, core strength and stretching. Most of these exercises are those that I was given when going through a long period of physiotherapy which I used to overcome injury and to change my running gait to avoid future injury.

So in essence that is the training week according to Andy Bowen. There is one more thing that I have left out, and that is that you should be really flexible with this program. Provided the sessions you do are of a good quality, then you could easily drop one of these days each week for more rest – just listen to your body. It needs to recover, and we all have busy lives, so there is no point stressing yourself out if you miss a session, that will do more harm than good.
I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on my program.

Here is today’s training run for me. The main observation from today was a higher than normal heart rate during the run. Clearly I am still recovering from the 100km race 17 days ago. I drank 1litre water, 600ml Endura, had a salt tab, and half a cheese spread sandwich at the top of the hill (my secret source of power!).

Living in Noosa I’ve just heard today that the website to register for the Noosa Triathalon had a meltdown today as thousands tried to sign up within minutes of it opening. It’s great to see so many people keen to get out there and give it a go, while the marketers continualy push new plasma screen TVs and Playstations to us to keep us inside. Not us though...

Happy Running!


“Training to run 100miles, is like training to be hit by a truck” – Luis Escobar

Ultra Training Diary - 1st June 2010

I am going to give an overview of my training plan in another post, as I to don't have the go over it properly now.

So here are some current physical stats of where I am (2 weeks after finishing a 100km trail race.)

Age: 38
Weight: 84.8KG (187lbs)
Height: 186cm (6'1")
Resting Heart Rate: 44bpm
Body fat: 17% (from not too accurate bathroom scales)

Today's workout:

The general rules I work with in my circuit sessions is that you do not work the same muscle group back to back, enabling a non-stop session (the super sets). 
The quality of each exercise is more important than the quantity.
Posture is very important, initiating each exercise from a strong core.

Tuesday, 1st June 2010


No rest between each exercise, or between sets

Keep HR elevated


Press Up
Repeat 3 times
Squats with weights
20 each side
Gluteal lift (20 each side)
30 each side

Press Up
Repeat 3 times
12 each side
Lunges holding weights
Trunk curl on Swiss ball
12 each side
Single leg squats, no weights

Calf raises
Repeat 3 times
15 each side
Side stretch with weights
Bicep curls
30 each side
Medicine ball twists, with feet elevated

10 mins
Gentle stretching

Total time
50 mins approx