Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Running through the mind of an Ultrarunner

I was chatting with a neighbour discussing the troubles we’ve both had with Telstra, our phone company, and that I had managed to last 14 hours on the phone to them before I lost my calm (the issue has now almost been resolved after 20 hours).  He said that it’s because of my running that I kept my cool for as long as I did. He used to run himself and since he hung up his trainers he’s noticed his patience and tolerance had really dropped off.

I hadn’t really noticed any major change in my personality since I started running ultramarathons, but as with most gradual things you don’t really notice the changes while you’re living through them. His comments were running through my head as I was running through the bush the other day and I reflected on the changes in my life since I started running long.  It was then that I realised that my family and I have been, and to some degree are still, going through a really stressful patch. I shan’t bore you with the details, but if you look at a list of the top 10 most stressful things to do, we’ve ticked a lot of boxes!

Personally my approach to these has been very much one of acceptance, and moving on, rather than too much dwelling on the past and regrets. I believe that going out running for 2-3 hours has given me a perspective on things without an emotional fog to get in the way. Don’t get me wrong I’m no saint and not everything rolls off my back, but the small stuff is just that and the big stuff is there to be dealt with.  Without the regular endorphin hit and the mental release of my training I could easily see myself suffering with a dose of depression. It’s well known that exercise is a prescribed treatment for depression and something you can get for free and it’s legal! The beauty is that it is as effective, if not more so, than prescribed drugs as a treatment.

I then thought about all the well known ultra runners, and interviews I have seen of them to see if there were any common personality traits. There isn’t a single one I could think of that you would describe as depressive or at the other end of the scale being hyperactive – simply put from an emotional perspective they are all (and excuse the pun) middle of the road with a positive outlook. I’m not saying they weren’t like this before they started running, but there certainly seems to be a pattern.
Middle of the road!

Maybe it is this balanced viewpoint that makes an ultrarunner understand that we are not running against each other, but instead against ourselves. We are trying to find our own boundaries so that we can then to stretch them a little further.  And because ultras are such a personal challenge with no fixed performance rules from one person to the next, that as ultrarunners we are almost unique in the competitive sporting world that we gladly share all our knowledge, experience and tips. In fact we are usually eager to tell anyone who’ll listen anything that we find helps improve our performance so that we can stretch those boundaries a little further. The thing is these ideas may not work for everyone, but that doesn’t matter because we are all on the same team trying to beat our (often self imposed) limits. 

At the end of the day we are all winners in our own ways, even if you DNF, just toeing the start line to an ultra is one heck of an achievement.

Congratulations to all of you who have!

Run Happy (endorphins included!)

***Please support my 33 Marathons Challenge***

“You only ever grow as a human being if you are outside your comfort zone” – Percy Cerutty

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ultramarathon Race Nutrition

Well it’s 4 weeks out from my next race, The North Face 100, and I’m starting to get myself prepared for what the race has in store for me. The one area where I have had problems in ultra marathons previously, apart from feeling tired and all the associated pain an ultra brings, has been around nutrition.  If you can get this right the event becomes a whole lot easier (or should I say less difficult), and you can focus your efforts on the physical and mental challenges.

From a nutritional standpoint you need to consider three needs – fluids, foods and electrolytes, and each should be considered independently.  You are unlikely to find a sports drink which caters for all 3 in a way which suits your physiology and the specific environmental conditions of your race, regardless of what the promises on the packaging may claim. I have found that in hot conditions for example, when sweating a lot, I cannot stomach sports drink in the volumes I need, so change my intake to water and salt tablets and other foods.

This is the key. You need to have a nutritional plan for your race. You need to stick to your plan, even when you may not feel like it. And just to contradict myself (!) you need to be prepared to change your plan to suit conditions and how your body is responding to them.

All too often you can stop eating or drinking because you don’t feel like it, when in reality it may be because you have not eaten or drunk enough that you feel that way. When you get dehydrated the blood supply to your gut is reduced favouring your muscles. This therefore impedes the gut’s ability to process the contents of your stomach, which not only makes you feel bad, but also exacerbates the problem. So by having a (flexible) plan in place you can hopefully avoid this issue and keep your body working smoothly.

It is very difficult to prescribe a nutritional formula that will work for everyone, as I have mentioned many times before, it’s all about learning hour your body behaves under different circumstances. So use your training for trying out new foods, different volumes, and frequencies of eating, and remember to take into account the environmental conditions when you do this as your body will have very different needs on a hot humid day as a cooler dry day.

Personally I prefer “real food” which I can eat for a full ultra, rather than most sports specific products which are sweet and full of sugar for a quick energy hit, but lead to flavour fatigue. I have been lucky enough to try the range of “Elevate Me!” bars which were pleasantly surprising. They are made without baking so have all their beneficial nutrients intact, and also have a reasonable amount of protein which I believe is important for minimising muscle damage and aiding recovery. Not only that but they taste great, and my running partner who has lactose and gluten intolerances, could stomach them without any adverse effects.

I do still use gels, but these are for very specific situations. I will use them when I need a quick boost of energy . Such occasions are when I can feel my blood sugar dropping, so I use the gel to effectively restart my system, but also remember to drink plenty of fluids with them to ensure they are absorbed quickly. Also in this scenario you need to get back on the normal eating plan so that you don’t crash again when the gel wears off.

Another situation I use gels, and will be at North Face, is when I know I have a significant physical effort ahead of me (namely the climb up the stairs at Nellies Glen, and the seemingly 8km uphill trudge out of the Jamison Valley). 

There will be times when the plan doesn’t work, and whatever you try makes no difference. I guess this is just what ultras is about, in that no matter how well you plan, it can always throw you that curve ball. The best you can hope for in this situation is that you finish, and give yourself a little ego boost knowing that you still completed the distance whilst feeling crappy! It is also about having the presence of mind to realise that maybe sitting down, resting and allowing your body to sort itself out may be all you need to get back on track.

This has worked for me previously, so always keep that in mind. I did fast track this a couple of years ago when I elected to “purge my system” with the help of a couple of fingers down my throat. Not a pleasant thing to do, especially with the physical strain on my stomach muscles retching after running 100kms. Still is enabled me to start afresh and keep going.

The other suggestion I have had to settle your stomach is eating ginger, and this is something that I am experimenting with currently. The only problem is I need to be running for 50kms+ to get that feeling to test it out. So for now I’ll just get used to eating it, and hopefully it will do the job when the time comes (and if all goes to plan maybe that time won’t come).

Strictly for after the finish line!
There can be no worse feeling than having trained hard for an ultra only to be forced into a DNF through poor nutritional planning. If you have a support crew at an event make sure they are aware of what you should be eating, and get them to remind you. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the excitement of an event only to pay the penalty later.

Of course the best part of an ultra from a nutritional perspective is gorging yourself on whatever you like after you have finished!

Run happy,
***Please support my 33 Marathons Challenge***

“Eat, eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink, drink, pee, pee, pee, pee, run, run, run, run" - Simon Mtuy, Tanzanian ultra runner

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ultramarathon Training without thinking

I have been particularly busy of late sorting out the logistics and training for my 1400km run across the Nullarbor Plain in August (only 4.5 months away scarily), hence my posts have be far from frequent and have not gone into the dark depths of ultramarathon running that I would normally.

Part of my preparation has been to try and learn from the best, as there is very little information on running a multiday event, and this week I was lucky enough to speak with Pam Reed, an outright winner of Badwater, she has run 300miles non-stop, and is currently training to make an attempt on the trans American record for a lady (and I’m pretty sure she’ll do it). She has also released her autobiography, the Extra Mile, covering the  stories behind her terrific achievements.

I took a lot from my call with her, which I will share over the coming weeks, but the thing that I have in mind currently is the need for a plan and to complete it even when you may not want to; in fact it is more beneficial when training for an ultra (especially a multiday run) to do those runs when you don’t want to or are feeling to tired. She actually said that I should be aiming to train tired as that is what I will be experiencing and whilst it is physically tough, mentally it can be far harder to get out there and just run.

Love the calf guards!
Yesterday I decided to mix things up from my normal routine opting instead for a road run of about 35kms. It was after dark so I opted for the full pack (about 6.5kgs) and the full compression outfit from Linebreak, calf guards, shorts and short sleeved top. I wouldn’t want to upset the locals by being seen out all in lycra in daylight! By running in the dark, which is something Pam chooses to do quite often, you have a very different experience, you could almost say a more pure experience as you have fewer distractions. The roads I run are very quiet and at night it is unusual to see any cars at all, so I can turn off my torch and rely on feel to guide me. I found that I could run on along the middle of the road without too much difficulty, as I could sense if I strayed because of the changing camber of the road.

The great thing is you have little else to think about, so I could focus on my running form, and importantly keep on top of my nutritional and fluid needs. I often find on longer runs that I forget to eat or drink properly with unpleasant results. The problem for me is getting too dehydrated on the run, which I can’t properly replenish before the next day’s effort.

What was also different was that in the course of this run I didn’t stop once, not even to pee (a trick that takes practice) as normally I would stop at the top of a hill or at a scenic spot for a few minutes recovery. I basically found myself in the zone, running at an amazingly regular pace kilometre after kilometre. My heart rate was about 10bpm lower than normal, as if my body was saying to me,” look what I can do without you thinking and causing problems!”

This was certainly very reassuring, and I guess is a reflection on the base training I have put in over the previous months.  I did feel a little tired after, before realising that I had hardly eaten anything all day, and had been engaged in some fairly physical digging in the garden for a couple of hours prior to running.

The real beauty of this run was that having Pam’s advice fresh in my head I gave me time to think and plan how I am going to approach my 33 Marathons run both for training and the run itself.  Personally I find the thinking I do when running is far more effective than if I were to sit at a desk and try and work out a solution to a problem. So if you need to convince your boss to give you 2 hours for lunch for a “brainstorming session” refer him to me.

As an aside if you are in the market for some compression gear, the guys at Linebreak have given me a 40%discount code for my running friends. So drop me a line if you’re interested and I’ll pass it on.

Happy Running!

“It is not death or dying that is tragic, but rather to have existed without fully participating in life – that is the deepest personal tragedy.” – Edward Abbey

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Compression Shorts Review – SKINS A400

A couple of weeks ago the guys at SKINS sent me a pair of their A400 range shorts to try out. Now I’ve always been a bit sceptical of compression gear as I’ve not had any conclusive proof as to their benefit. So I took this as an opportunity to be a bit more scientific and satisfy my own personal curiosity as I'm looking for any advantage I can get for my 1400km run this August.

Basically I ran for a week in my non compression gear and then repeated that week’s training wearing the A400 running shorts to see what differences I could determine. So what did I discover?

Firstly I have to comment on their packaging as they have the most fancy box for running gear I've every seen, which is probably a significant part of the cost for these!

That aside the first thing I noticed with these was the fit. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into these as they were very comfortable, and cater for gentlemen well, allowing sufficient room for the boys without raising the tone of your voice a couple of octaves! That said, even for compression gear, they were very snug. I had the right size for my height and weight, and yet I felt that they should have been in a size bigger. I don’t know if this is a design feature to be that tight as they aren’t uncomfortable.

What I did notice whilst running with them when they are so tight, especially on fast downhills is how effective they are at restricting lateral movement of the muscles. This must be a good thing as it reduces micro tears in the muscles, and lends itself to more efficient muscle recruitment.

I found that they wicked sweat away very well, especially on the front of the thighs were there was the most air movement.  I’d even wipe sweat from my forehead on to them to help cool my legs, which felt more effective than wiping it on bare skin.
But these aren’t the sort of reasons to make you want a pair, what really counts is the effect on performance.

It’s commonly accepted that Compression wear aids a speedy recovery, by engaging the same processes invoked by an ice bath, assisting venous return of blood. I had always thought of this as a benefit whilst resting or overnight, as I have often slept in compression tights after an ultra to aid recovery with reasonable results.

What I noticed with the A400 when compared to a hill session with traditional shorts was the short term recovery benefit. When doing either 1km trail repeats or 400 road hill repeats I found that by the time I had returned to the bottom of the hill my legs felt fresh as if it was my first rep. Over the course of the set each repeat certainly got harder, but with the A400 the muscular tiredness didn’t kick in until further up the hill, than running in traditional shorts.

As a follow on when comparing the with and without sets I found that I managed 1 extra repeat on the 1km trail hill, and did the same number of reps but if felt easier on the shorter steeper road set (it was a few degrees cooler, but I also had my full pack on, so in general these factors should balance out).

Now there are many variables I didn’t take into account such as nutrition, sleep, resting HR, weather, etc so you wouldn’t exactly call this is truly scientific study. However, as with all things running it is about experimentation and finding out what works for you. The thing I take away from this is that I would and do wear them as I believe they help. They are not cheap, which is their biggest negative, but it comes down to your goals and how important they are to you. For me it is all about being able to get up day after day and run, and anything which help my recover y and improves my performance, even if it is just in my mind, is a good thing. Given that this is such a mental sport, it really comes down to what you believe and whether it is placebo or not, it doesn’t matter. Every time I’m running I’m always trying to trick my brain into thinking that “It doesn’t hurt” or “You’re doing great”.

Run Happy
“Anywhere is within running distance – if you have the time”

Check out my other Ultramarathon Running Gear Reviews

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Runners – Invest in the Sock Market!

When I first started running ultramarathons I used to get hold of any old socks around, as in my mind I should spend the money on the shoes and that blisters were just part of the sport.

The effect of "regular" socks
I’m a little older and a lot wiser now, and the reasoning is simple because you have to look after your feet as they are what get to carry you around for hours at a time.  The point of contact your feet have with the ground is through your socks, and if you don’t get the right ones you could be paying for it big time.  Blisters can take you out of a race altogether, or just make your life hell as you hobble on for many hours. 

Given the length of time on your feet and the harshness of the terrain, it is infinitely more important in an Ultra than anywhere else.

The causes of blisters are threefold which cause the upper layers of skin to swell and separate. These are heat, moisture and friction.  Poor quality socks will do little to control any of these.

I have been fortunate to partner up with the guys from Drymax, who are supporting my 33 marathons challenge, and currently I’m trialling a selection of socks from their range to see which will best suit my needs.

The science behind the socks!
You can see the state my feet have got into previously during the GNW100, so when I heard of the ability Drymax socks to stay dry I was very intrigued and sceptical. The technology behind the socks is pretty clever and straight forward, designed to control the blister causing conditions. Unlike ordinary wicking material socks, the Drymax socks have two layers of different fabric.  The outer layer is of a moisture attracting material, and the dense inner layer is of “super-Hydrophobic” fabric which in effect means that any moisture on the feet is drawn away to the outer layer of fabric.

Obviously the effectiveness of these socks if influenced by a number of factors such as the breathability of the shoes, ambient temperature, humidity, sweat rate and so on. I’ve tested them in some pretty challenging conditions as it has either been raining so heavily that the water has been flowing over my shoes or so hot that the sweat has been running down my legs!

Yesterday I was running in the “Hot weather” sock, and was really surprised by how effective they were. It was 35c and typically in these conditions I’d have the sweat dripping out of my shoe with each stride within about 15 minutes, but yesterday for the first 30 mins I could actually feel a cooling on the top of my feet (as they have a very breathable mesh on the top). I completed a set of trail hill repeats and then headed back home along the roads. Only after 90 minutes could I detect any moisture in the socks.  I finished in 2 hours and whilst my feet were slightly damp, it was insignificant compared to me having to wring my socks out as I would with my normal wicking material socks.

Hot Weather sock
The only downside with these socks is that you can get a bit of debris into your shoes on the trails. So in summary these do exactly as they are designed for in keeping your feet dry in the heat, but are best suited to road running.

The Trail socks are an altogether different beast in that they have a higher cuff, and are made from a much denser fabric (without being thick and clumsy).  The high cuff is made from water repellent material to reduce the effect of sweat running down your legs into your socks. Also the denser material goes completely around the ankle, reducing the gaps for debris to get in. Of course these also have the same dual layers of material to get moisture away from your feet asap.

My favourite, the Trail sock
When I first tried these it was like putting new shoes on as they offer a really good level of cushioning, but through the density of fibres rather than thickness of material. So they don’t compress over time, and don’t restrict foot swelling in those latter stages of your longer runs.

The ability to keep the feet dry is very good, although not as effective as the hot weather version, which I put down to the denser material and higher cuff making the foot warmer and hence sweat more. That said on my first test run I inadvertently stepped in a deep puddle soaking one foot completely which dried out to the same level of dampness as the non puddle foot in about 30 mins. Even when I have run in torrential rain and my feet have been soaked, on completion of the run I have wrung out the socks and significantly less water comes out of the Drymax than my previous wicking material socks.

I’ve run from 10-45km at a time in these socks in some pretty challenging conditions where you would expect to get blisters, but to date I have not even experienced a hot patch on my feet.  Having good socks which really do keep you feet dry and pain free means you have one less thing to think about, and you can focus on the physical challenges of finishing your race.

I have been converted, and now really appreciate the value of decent socks, because unlike shoes where you can change your running style to reduce the need for specialist shoes, everyone will get sweaty feet running longer distances and you simply have to get that moisture away from your skin to avoid blisters.

So now is the time to invest in your future prosperity and dip your toe in the "Sock Market!"

Run Happy

“Don’t limit your challenges – Challenge your limits”

ps Since I wrote this conditions have improved, cooling to just 28c and no rain. After 2hour hill runs my feet have been dry at the end. Got to be happy with that!