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


  1. I sure have enjoyed reading your blog. I run my first ultra this Saturday. Your blog is keeping me from being so scared. thanks

  2. Congratulation on your first Ultra, and I take it from that there will be more to come!

    I've never thought of an Ultra a scary, just an opportunity to look back on having done something amazing.

    Thanks for the kind words and best of luck in your next event,