Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ultra marathon running – What the Running Shoe manufacturers want you to believe

When I first started running I found myself carefully scrutinising all the latest advice in Runners World followed by frequent trips to running shops to get the latest “essential” running gear.  Some of these things are a one off, lifetime purchases, and others seem to be an ongoing financial burden replacing consumed or worn out kit.

Of course when you do find something you like and that improves your performance (if only psychologically) it’s very difficult to run without it.

This will be the experience with most runners and joggers in the case of shoes.  We’ve all found a style of running shoes that we are comfortable and swear that you will only ever buy these shoes again.  We’ve also be brainwashed by the shoe manufacturers from all the research we’ve done in the running magazines that you should replace your shoes after a few hundred kilometres (even less if you’re on the heavier side like me). The reasons being given are that the cushioning and support is no longer sufficient to prevent injury after this sort of use. You would think with all the research and improvements they make that a shoe could be made to last a bit longer.

So in response to the emotions roused through fear of getting an injury which could cause a long lay-off, we head off to the running shop to protect our future running career. The trouble is when the next season comes along the shoe you like is no longer available, and has been replaced by an “improved” model with more science and technology, and often a higher price!

Of course the next time you find a shoe that you like you end up buying 2 pairs as you know it is unlikely to be available next time you clock up the prescribed mileage. This is a deliberate marketing strategy by the shoe manufacturers, and a highly effective one at that.

The trouble is there is very little you can do about it, especially when you are training for ultramarathons clocking up hundreds of kms every few weeks. When training for road marathons I had only one pair of shoes that I would actively use, with a spare pair in case the others were wet or otherwise not ready to use. After a bit of experimenting with Saucony and New Balance shoes (both of which were very good) I settled into ASIC Gel Nimbus and had numerous pairs of versions 7 thru to 11!

Ultra running on trails has changed this and even though I still have 2 pairs of ASICS for back up, I now have 4 pairs of The North Face Arnuva Boa 50’s. The most recent pair I bought I believe were the last pair available in Australia, having trawled the web to find them (as they are no longer manufactured). Proof of the marketing strategy in operation again.

The thing is if I were to replace my shoes as often as recommended I would be spending most of my free time in running shops! My attitude towards replacing shoes regularly changed significantly after reading “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall, and I introduced some barefoot running to my training.

Since reading that I took the generic orthotics out of my shoes to actually reduce the cushioning, and strengthen my feet. This had the added bonus of creating a larger toe box, and saying farewell to black toenails. I also intend to keep wearing the same shoes until I can no longer keep them on my feet! So far, and that’s over 1200kms since I made the decision (and 1500kms total for the shoes), I have suffered no ill effects from running on what the manufacturers would call utterly worn out shoes.

Extra ventilation holes
Plenty of life left in them!

Sure I’ve had to replace the laces once, which is unusual give the Boa lacing system, but then I’ve taken them far beyond their designed lifespan. The treads on the soles have pretty much worn flat, but this only becomes a problem for very short stretches of trails under wet conditions, so I just adjust my style to reduce slipping (not 100% effective I’ll admit, but cheaper than new shoes and more fun!). The upper has seen better days, but there’s plenty of life in them yet.

So I say when it comes to buying new shoes, vote with your feet, not through fear.  If you’re running OK in “worn out” running shoes then don’t change them. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, and you can save yourself a few dollars too!

Happy running


“The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds” – John Maynard Keynes

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ultra Running – Running trails in the Dark

Tonight's Sunset from Mt Tinbeerwah
My last two training runs have involved a significant period of running in the dark, the first before sunrise and the second after sunset.  Whilst I don’t run at this time of day all that often it is something I have done quite a bit of and tonight I realised there’s a bit more to it than your everyday run.

If you haven’t done it before it can be exhilarating and can be a welcome break from a normal routine. It can actually feel like you are running on an entirely new route when out in the dark. There are different smells and noises to take in and different wildlife to contend with – I have found myself in a Mexican standoff with a large male Kangaroo on a night run!

So what are the main consideration when running at night and more specifically when running on trails? You safety is of course paramount.  Always tell someone where you are going, and always take a phone with you. If you do get injured you could be out there for a long time as there is a much lower chance of meeting someone who could help. 

Don’t run on unfamiliar routes in the dark as it is very easy to get disorientated and lost. This can work out to be good mental training where you end up running for 5 hours instead of 2, but isn’t to be advised!

I always take my backpack which has in it warm clothing, and a space blanket as it can get significantly colder at night.  A reflective vest is also a good idea, as it can provide additional warmth as well as the obvious safety benefits on the roads (and on the trails it can help you be found more easily if you do get into trouble).

The essential piece of kit you need is a torch (with spare batteries), and there are a number of options.  Personally I prefer a head torch as they are lightweight, light up what you’re looking at, and with LEDs are amazingly effective. On their own they do have their limitations as the light source is very close to your eyes, so you tend not to get much in the way of shadows on the trail in front of you. This makes it very difficult to differentiate between a smooth running surface and a rock or tree root in your path.  To counter this I have a small hand light which I hold lower down to show the shadows and give extra definition to the trail.  I have seen other runners use a head torch attached around their waist for the purpose also.

The beauty of a hand torch is that you can also shine it on anything else you need to see, perhaps further in the distance, or to identify what made that unusual noise, while the head torch provides good ambient light to run by.

As a personal preference I like to leave it as late as possible before I use a torch, so that I can allow my night vision to develop, but there comes a point when a torch is the only sensible option. This point in a recent race was about 10 seconds after I ran into a tree!

One final piece of equipment I will mention is an mp3 player. Leave it at home and enjoy the sounds of the trails at night, it is so different from those that you will experience in the day. Also, not being plugged in actually improves your balance – I find it difficult to walk in a straight line with headphones on.

Having all the right equipment will help, but you do have to run differently in the dark.  Given the lack of visual cues from the running surface you will have to rely more on proprioreception to avoid injuring yourself. You need to be more alert to the changes in terrain, and be used to running on trails to have developed this ability. I would not advise anyone to do their first night trail run until they have proved themselves as competent trail runners. You don’t want a twisted ankle in the middle of the bush on a cold evening by yourself.

Common sense dictates that you should run a little slower to give you more time to see/feel where you are going and also to reduce the potential traumatic effect of any uncontrolled movements in the knees and ankles. As with any trail running you need to have strong joints and connective tissues, and develop an almost subconscious awareness of what is beneath the soles of your feet.

If you are going to be in a race which will involve running in the dark it is important to get some specific training in. If you aren’t planning to race in the dark, just give it a go for the pure experience of it. Take a friend if that will make you more comfortable

One of my favourite running experiences was running through the night and then watching the sun come up turning the sky bright red because of dust cloud which had blown in from the desert that week. It was like a reward for having run all night.

Happy running

“A person will not believe something until they discover it for themselves”

Today’s Training:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ultra Running – Does it make you a better person?

From a health perspective I can’t imagine anyone would argue that running, and indeed running ultra distances doesn’t lower your BMI (trying to be politically correct – but let’s face it you don’t see many ultra runners in XL clothing).  But this doesn’t necessarily make you a better person.

It comes down to how you measure “betterness”.  The thing is I’ve never met an ultra runner I didn’t like.  There have been a few who talk too much and probably more who don’t talk enough such is the nature of the sport. The thing is that they all are pretty balanced people and never judgemental.  It’s one of the few sports where the person who finishes at the back gets as much adulation from the crowd as the person who finishes first. In my mind they deserve more kudos having had the mental fortitude to be out there longer than the rest of us.

The requirements of training for and ultra are ones of dedication and discipline unless you are truly gifted.  These characteristics show a personality of someone who has a drive to achieve something and are prepared to put in the work to get there.  They are the characteristics of someone who wants to find out their limits and perhaps to push them out a little further. All of which I think are admirable and in my mind are fundamental to the definition of bettering yourself.

In the course of training for an ultra you will invariably be spending many hours alone. This gives you time to reflect and gain a perspective on any matters that are on your mind which could otherwise have caused unnecessary stress and negativity. I personally use my longer runs to problem solve, or to clear my head when having to deal with frustration. Whilst out running I can get a big picture perspective on whatever it is on my mind, and then focus on what really matters without the distractions of other thought or external factors.  I guess this is when you get “in the zone” where you are effectively running on auto-pilot.

Being alone for long periods of time you also have to become comfortable with yourself, and hence be more comfortable with others. I find myself more tolerant and calm when I’m running regularly.

So I’d say that all of those who attempt what is for them a super human challenge are indeed super humans. If everyone on the planet took the time to indulge in regular exercise, the world would be a better place.

I’ll leave with an excerpt from an article about a competitor fundraising in this year’s Badwater Ultramarathon:

Dr Finnell says he'll have a lot of time to reflect during the race and when he hits rough patches he'll draw strength from the goals of the kids and the organization. "These kids have experienced situations most of us couldn't even dream about. They've had failures, defeats and heartache and when they come into our program we ask them to try one more time." Finnell says like them, he'll be giving the race his best shot, and regardless of the outcome he'll be better for the experience.

Happy Running


“The greatest pleasure in life is doing the things people say we cannot do” – Walter Bagehot

Sunrise over Noosa this morning from the top of Mount Tinbeerwah
Today’s Training – which took in Sunrise across Noosa

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ultramarathon Running – Specific training to help YOU improve your endurance.

A common theme in my posts is that we are unique in how our bodies perform during an ultra distance running event – we are an experiment of one individual. So how can I specify training which will help any individual improve their endurance?

Without a one-on-one session this would be near impossible, as the variables that effect any given performance are too numerous to mention.  However it is precisely this point that directs us to the answer.

To know how to improve your endurance you must know what the factors are that are actually limiting your performance.  For the purpose of this blog I am going to focus on the two general areas over which you have any control (arguably!) which are your physiology and psychology.  External factors such as poor weather, getting lost, or getting hit by a falling anvil can be covered in future postings.

The capability for endurance of your body is like a chain made up of many links each one as important as the others.  So you endurance will collapse when the first link breaks.

Simply put you need to understand what it is about your mind and body that causes you to slow down and ultimately stop, hence establishing the limits of your endurance. You then focus your training reduce the impact of the troublesome factor until it no longer limits your performance. Ideally you would like to remove it completely, but that isn’t always possible.

It’s been said that ultramarathons are more psychological than physical, and this is something that I can relate to.  There have been times when I wanted to stop rather than having to stop, but stop I did. The mind drives the body, and hence the mindset of an ultrarunner is hugely important if you are going to run long.

To improve your endurance from a mental perspective you have to want to achieve the goal, but you also have to be prepared to overcome periods of negativity. That little voice getting louder and more persuasive as you begin hurting, it gets colder, and it gets dark, as it starts telling you that you can’t do it, stopping is a good option, people won’t think less of you, it’s the sensible thing to do, there’s always next year.

Not only do you need to be prepared for those downs, you also need to know they will pass and to believe that you can achieve that goal. The best way to believe something is possible is to have done it before, but there has to be a first time. So you must be confident and positive based on your training, or perhaps the inspiration of others, that you are able to reach your goal. To do this in training rather than run 100km in training for a 100km race, I would say that I am going to achieve something such as run 40km on back to back days. On successful completion of this, I would be confident that I can run 100km in a race. Now there is no real logic to this assumption, but that does not matter so long as you believe it to be the case.

Another technique could be to run one extra rep than planned of a hill repeat or interval session, so that you’re teaching your brain that you can always do a little more than expected. You must of course not start a session with this in mind!

There is a further problem for the brain during an ultramarathon which is not purely psychological, but does have a psychological impact. The brain is fuelled purely by blood sugar, and with prolonged levels of low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia), the central nervous system becomes fatigued.  This slowly reduces the ability of the brain to drive the muscles to work, and as Tim Noakes (The Lore of Running) cites has further symptoms of “reduced ability to concentrate, a sudden feeling of weakness, and the intense desire to stop running. Typically the athlete senses the impossibility of completing the race”.

I can relate to this very strongly as it accurately defines how I felt just before a DNF and another time when I almost DNF’d (but after a 30 minute rest and some food was running strongly again).

This rather neatly leads us on to the physiological limiting factors. Clearly from the above nutrition plays a major role in your ability to keep going. It’s probably the most frequent problem I hear discussed amongst ultrarunners who have had to stop or slow significantly because they feel sick, can no longer stomach any food or fluid, or they are too weak from a lack of energy replenishment. So be aware that to run further you may just have to experiment with different energy sources, solid or liquid foods, electrolytes, or even just remember to eat.

The same rationale applies to hydration.  The symptoms may be different from dehydration or the dreaded overhydration (hyponatremia), but the effect on your ability to continue can be the same. So experiment with different sources of hydration and different styles of consumption. Maybe “little and often”, or big gulps, or only with solid foods, perhaps it is just  a case of getting into a routine of drinking every 15 minutes for example – only you will know what works for you by giving different methods a try. An important point to remember with regards to hydration is the varying effect of environmental conditions on your fluid needs and sweat rate. This will be discussed in future posts.

Your clothing and equipment has the ability to stop you in your tracks as it can cause debilitating blisters, sores through rubbing, cause overheating or chilling, and they can affect your running form in such a way as to take you out of a race. These are typically the easiest factors to control and remedy. It could be just a case of applying some Vaseline, or applying some tape, or even removing the offending item, or perhaps adjusting the gear to fit better.

From my own experience my back pack fits well and I train with it all the time with about 7kgs in it without any problem. However as soon as I race over 50kms my back gets red raw and is very painful. I solved this issue with a bit of strapping tape across the lower part of my back and ran for 14 hours without the slightest discomfort.

Finally the other group of limiting factors are the physical limits of your muscles and bones to keep propelling you forward.  Now as we have already discussed this could actually be mental, or perhaps limited by your pain tolerance, again a mental factor.  However, weakness and pain can become familiar adversaries during an ultra.  If you can establish these as a limiting factor you will need to establish a course of action such as additional strengthening exercises, stretches or perhaps changes to your running gait to mitigate their impact on your endurance.

I see improvement to running gait as the most important of all physiological factors because of the association to many of the other potential weak links in the chain.  A more economical running form can cause fewer injuries, use less energy, and possibly reduce stomach problems related to agitation or friction from gear rubbing when not running smoothly.

So to summarise to know how you can improve your endurance, you must establish what specifically it is that is limiting your endurance. You must then adapt your training to address this, and then repeat the analysis again to find out what you have to work on next to improve the next limiting factor.  There is always something you can improve, so be smart, and make sure you work on the thing that is going to give you the results you are after.

Happy Running

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

Thursday, July 8, 2010

UltraMarathon Inspiration – Running on a Dream

The world of Ultrarunning has a shortage of decent books and articles due mainly to the size of the participating population and the related lack of interest in funding for the scientific community to indulge in further research. Books such as UltraMarathonman by Dean Karnazes and Born to Run by Christopher McDougall have made a significant impact on our little researched pursuit of running beyond 26.2 miles.

I always have a book on the go and given the limited topic relevant resources I am getting the point where the links to ultrarunning are getting more tenuous, but are still worth a read. Every now and then I will post reviews of whatever I read be it formal instructional material to the purely inspirational stories of individuals achievements.

The first book I would like to mention falls in the latter class, as a biographical account of the emotional and physical experiences of Pat Farmer – an ordinary Sydney guy who wanted to become the best ultra runner in the World. “The Pat Farmer Story - Running on a Dream” was written by Ian Eckersley, who so far as I am aware is not a runner himself, and this shows in the content of the book. The focus is on the achievements and the dedication of Pat Farmer, and has very little in the way of tips, tricks and statistics that the average ultrarunner is looking for. That said it is an inspiring account, and well worth a read. I finished the book thinking I could achieve anything if I was to put my mind to it, and that perhaps I should consider crossing a continent on foot!

You can’t help but be inspired by a guy who got into running after seeing the legendary Cliff Young (pictured right) go past the garage he was working in, and then declare that he was going to enter the Westfield Sydney-Melbourne (875kms) race the following year.

The book follows the ups and downs of his life based around his running achievements. I had never heard of him, and when you look at his achievements, it makes you wonder what you have to do to get famous in this sport (a topic of a future blog).

His dedication is something to aspire to as ultimately he gave up his job to pursue his dreams, which included a very strong family commitment. In the process he was a great ambassador for his sport, for his country and he raised millions for charities.

His achievements include twice competing in the Trans-American race finishing 2nd and 4th, twice traversing the punishing Simpson Desert in Australia, he ran up and down the Sydney Tower stairs for 24hours climbing over 100,000 steps (earning another world record), and he finally hung up his ultrarunning shoes following a 191 day run around Australia where he ran over 14,500kms averaging about 80kms a day without a day off. This somewhat overshadows the achievement of Dean Karnazes 50 Marathons in 50 Days, which is impressive in itself.

I've since learnt that he is now training to run from the South to North Poles starting later this year. The picture above shows him training with a few tyres in tow for good measure.

Much like Karnazes’ books I finished "Running on a Dream" thinking that I can relate to this guy and asked myself why I can’t go out and do the same things myself. Of course there is only one way to find out!

Training Log
You may have noticed that my running training has taken a bit of a vacation for a number of reasons, mainly down to a fair amount of physical work (hence a almost justifiable excuse for not needing to run). So I got back into the swing of things with a gentle 3 and half hour trail up and down the local hill 3 times (a first for me).

I should be back into the swing of things soon and look forward to sharing more of what I am learning.

Happy running

"If you believe you can or believe you can't, you're probably right" - Henry Ford