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


  1. 3M Micropore tape is wonderful. I've run marathons and fell races (through rivers and bogs) and the stuff still sticks. The only problem is getting it off at the end of a run.

  2. Hi Toby
    I've used this and also just normal strapping tape for heavy duty protection, especially across my lower back where my backpack rubs. I ran for over 24 hours in hot sweaty conditions and didn't need to reapply it.
    Just as well because taking it off can be as painful as running 100miles!

    If you have an excess of body hair, as I do, I recommend shaving it all off. Not only does it help you cool quicker, but it doesn't hurt when you have to take the tape off.

  3. Moisture-wicking socks are a must for anyone working in boots for long periods. In addition to keeping your feet warm and dry while you work, they can also help prevent painful blisters and keep you comfortable all day. To buy the best moisture-wicking socks, you can visit our website.