Training for an ultramarathon: Preparing for a multi-day race (Part 1)

This article about ultramarathon training was originally published in my own blog on January 4, 2010. It’s one of my most popular blog posts ever. I’ll re-run Part 2 (ultramarathon foot care) in a few weeks.

There is a lot to do to prepare for a multi-day running race. There are so many articles out there about various training programs. But, when I headed out to attempt my first multi-day ultra in 2008, I felt that there was so much more that I needed to know beyond the training – and I had trouble finding it.

I am going to assume that you’ve already found a training program that is appropriate to your experience and your goals. With these articles, I am going to help you out with some of the other things you need to think of when heading off to a multi-day running event – information that I have gleaned from my years following the world’s top multisport/endurance racers as a reporter for www.sleepmonsters.com, as well as by twice racing in The Coastal Challenge, Costa Rica’s 6-day, 200+ km staged expedition run.

And, I have to tell you, this kind of information pays off. I am not a fast runner by any means – and I know that I never will be. Yet, with proper preparation, I managed to finish 2009’s Coastal Challenge ahead of runners whose marathon time is a full hour faster than mine – and with my feet in better shape than theirs, too.

Foot care is so important – even on short races like marathons – but it is crucial in ultras and multi-day races. So I am dividing this article into two parts: Part 1 will be general preparation, and Part 2 will be specifically about foot care, as well as some info about first aid kits and other things to take with you. This article is geared towards prepping for multi-day, off-road, staged races like The Coastal Challenge, but much of the advice will be of use for other types of endurance races too.

Training: OK, I said that I wasn’t going to talk about training. Well, I’m not going to talk about the actual running training – but I do want to say that it is important to prepare your whole body for the long days, and especially for back-to-back days. If you always train with rest days (as is recommended by many running programs, which consider a marathon to be “the” great long distance), it will be a real shock to your body to suddenly deprive it of its rest days. So try to incorporate long days and back-to-back-days into your training program as much as possible – and these don’t need to be running (train too hard with the running and you’ll get injured – you know that!). Time on your feet: walking and hiking is great cross-training as well as foot-conditioning – but any kind of hard and sustained activity like gardening, landscaping, home renos, helping your friend move, is really good body prep for a multi-day race. And so is deliberate cross-training like biking and swimming – get some long, back-to-back physical days in. Make sure you prepare your knees and so avoid injury by training for the downhills as well as the uphills (see my article in the June issue of Canadian Running Magazine). Also – make sure that you know what you are getting into as far as the terrain goes. Some races might require bouldering, coasteering, even some swimming – if yours does, get as much training on rough terrain as you can.

Acclimatize: Get to the race location as early as you can. It really pays to get over the jet-lag, and get your body acclimatized to local conditions (heat? cold? altitude?) as early as possible. I arrived in Costa Rica a week before the race last year, and I had absolutely no issues with the heat (when acclimatizing to the heat, make sure you sleep at night in the heat, air conditioners off, so that your body fully acclimatizes). I plan to get to Bolivia at least 2 weeks before the Inca Run this September, in order to acclimatize to the altitude. I know that not everyone can afford the time to do this – but I have noticed that racers who do plan to take some extra vacation time around their race tend to do it afterward, as a “reward”. I would really recommend taking that time beforehand.

Be prepared for things to be different: Especially when you are running in a different climate than what you are used to – suddenly your pack that has never ever chafed you starts chafing, or your shoes that used to fit feel too tight. Or your heartrate going up hills goes crazy. This is another argument for getting there early if possible – to acclimatize, as well as test gear and clothing in the race environment. If you can’t get there early, just be mentally prepared for things to be different, and bring gear with you (first aid supplies, spare clothing) to give you as many options as possible when things start getting strange.

Specific to the tropics: You are hot and sweaty down here and, as I said, things are suddenly different. Be prepared to chafe in places you have never chafed before – from your pack, under your arms, and in other delicate places that I won’t mention here. (Check out Part 2 for info on First Aid supplies that can help). Bring lubricants – and use them each morning! Women, especially, often chafe terribly on the inside of their thighs in this environment – so I strongly recommend wearing tights (long or short) rather than regular running shorts. You might want to trim hair in some of those delicate places too (but not so short that it’s stubbly – you’re not trying to make sandpaper here!).
Being hot and sweaty, even at night, you are also more susceptible to fungal infections, so I’d recommend having an antifungal cream such as Canesten on hand.
Also, make sure you read the info on electrolytes, below.

Nutrition while racing: Most races will provide electrolyte drinks and some basic sweet or carb-based foods during the race. I strongly recommend bringing your own carefully chosen foods that work for you. I know that a lot of people depend mainly on sugars – gels, shots, sweet drinks. I find that they can work in the final 1-3 hours of a long day, but the problems for me with sugar is (1) it burns more quickly, so you get mich more defined highs and then crashes, and (2) after a few hours of it, it upsets my stomach and just plain grosses me out.
Each person is different, and you have to do what works for you. I really suggest going for the complex carbs rather than the refined sugars for a more sustained energy supply, other than the final hour or two of each day. It is hard to eat much at a time – I’d normally grab a handful of whatever is on offer at the aid stations and eat it as I continue on. Then I have a little bag on my wastebelt with ziplocks of carb-rich salty food, like crackers or pretzels or potato chips (food is a really good way to get your salts). I don’t stop to eat – I just try to nearly constantly take tiny little bites as I move.
There are also some complex-carb drinks out there – they tend to be a bit thick and might gum up CamelBak systems. At the Coastal Challenge this year, I tried out Genr8’s complex carb drink. It was a real pain in the butt to mix up, tending to get very lumpy – I finally found the best way to use it was to have it mixed very thick and concentrated in the bottom of an empty Gatorade bottle (i.e. something very light to carry). I used it on the longest (10 and 12 hour) days. I ate solid food as much as I could, and about 2/3 of the way into the route I added water to my Genr8 mix, gave it a really good shake, and drank it over the next 2 or so hours. Wow, what a great sustained energy source it turned out to be, and it is quite a bland and non-offensive flavour! But it really is a pain to mix up (and I wouldn’t try using it in a CamelBak), so I strongly suggest you give it a few test runs before you use it in a race situation: http://genr8speed.com/
Another one that I have not tried, but I have heard good results for, is Carbo Pro. This is a colourless and tasteless complex carb blend that you can mix into water or any of your favourite sports drinks to up the complex carb calorie count. Apparently it can gum up your CamelBak, so use it with caution (clean the bag well right after use). Look for http://sportquestdirect.com/cart/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=6&zenid=f0cd5b00d88785ee1fa8ed1e22740b5a or, in Canada, http://www.carbopro.ca/.

Hydration and electrolytes: Everyone knows how important it is to drink. Not everyone fully understands how critical the need for electrolytes is – especially in tropical settings. At last year’s Coastal Challenge, Project Athena Captain Robyn Benincasa saved dozens of people who did not bring electrolytes with them, just by handing them a little salt pill. On Day One of the race, we came across a pair of girls staggering around on the trail, and then a guy flat on his back with leg cramps, due to electrolyte deficiencies – so preventable! But, even if you don’t get that critical, it is amazing how much keeping your electrolytes in balance improves your energy levels.
Races provide electrolyte drinks, but you never really know how they are mixed, what concentration they will be at. What worked for me was having two camel bags, one with just water, and one mixed with full-strength Gatorade. It is amazing how, on long racing days, suddenly one or the other of those options just grosses you out and you don’t want to drink it. Having both options there ensures that you keep drinking.
But even electrolyte drinks don’t provide enough salt when drinking lots in a tropical environment – through sweating, your body still gradually depletes without extra added salt. You can still get into trouble even drinking sports drinks. Taking an electrolyte pill every hour (e.g. Sustain or Endurolyte), occasionally even more than that, will keep your electrolytes balanced and your energy high. It’s also a really good idea to pack salty food with you – getting your electrolytes in food rather than supplements reduces your chance of feeling nauseous from them.

Nutrition in camp: This is one of the most important things to know for multi-day racing. This is not a piddly little one-day marathon – it’s getting up again and doing another marathon with only 12-18 hours of rest, then getting up the next day and doing it again! To maximize muscle recovery, it is crucial that you get a big whack of protein into your body within 45 minutes of ceasing activity. That means that, as soon as you finish for the day, you go straight to your racing box and pull out a tin of sardines or bag of beef jerky and eat it. Do not take off your shoes, do not wash up, do not chat with your fellow racers. Go straight to your box and eat your protein. Then you can deal with the other stuff. (I learned this from Ligia Madrigal – she finished 1st female and 5th overall at the 2009 Coastal Challenge).

Clothing: Find out as much as you can about the climate you are travelling to, and think about all the things you may have to deal with: heat, cold, dampness, sun, insects, sand. Bring lots of options with you. While it is tempting to dress minimally in hot climates, long sleeves and long tights offer sun protection as well as protection from scratches and insect bites. The Coastal Challenge’s route designer, Rodrigo Carazo, is also an adventure racer – he tells me that he would always wear long tights when racing in Costa Rica. (I actually find that tights are cooling – your sweat gets more spread out in them, rather than just trickling down your legs, so the cooling be evaporation works better, and the sun is so vertical that they don’t really get hot from the sunshine). Tights – whether long or short – also help prevent chafing between your thighs (as I said, very important for women!). Consider a brimmed hat rather than just one with a visor, to provide sun protection to your neck and ears.

Sunshine: Speaking of the sun – remember to apply sunblock when you get up in the morning, before your skin is wet and slippery. Remember the backs of your legs and the tops of your ears (oh, look at those poor girls’ ears!), and take care not to miss any spots around your shoulders and neck. Get a strong SPF lip balm, and reapply it frequently. Try to source little pouches of sunblock to carry with you so you can reapply during the day.

What to carry with you: Well, this of course depends upon the nature of the race you are in, and what to expect in terms of terrain and climate. You want to travel as light as possible – but, if your route passes through remote areas away from easy access to assistance, you want to make sure you are prepared to take care of yourself. Some elites may not carry a pack at all, travelling just with hand-bottles and relying on food at aid stations – but you need to be pretty confident about your speed to do that. Things I carried in Costa Rica were:
– food (discussed above), including some salty snacks in a pouch on my waist-belt to ensure that I nibbled constantly
– two CamelBaks (one with water, one with Gatorade) as well as one lightweight rigid plastic water bottle (the three containers were not always full, necessarily, but they gave me options of how to carry my fluids – the rigid bottle is handy because it is faster to refill at aid stations than the Camel bags).
– mini-first aid kit and snakebite kit (to be discussed in Part 2)
– spare dry socks in a ziplock bag
– lightweight rain jacket (I only carried this sometimes – many sporting goods lines have these ultra-light water-resistant jackets that fold up into a tiny pocket, a good insurance if there is a chance of wind and rain together)
– space blanket (also only sometimes – a good insurance if the weather might turn on you or if there is any possibility of getting stuck out overnight)
– camera in ziplock (in spite of the ziplock, my camera packed it in in the rain). Be cautious about taking any electronic gear with you, and find out from your race directors if there is the possibility of any “water challenges” along the route. Ziplocks provide poor protection for hard pieces of gear because they abrade quickly – if you are serious about carrying phone or camera or iPod, I suggest a proper drybag, and wrapping the item in a piece of cotton cloth (piece of an old T-shirt) inside the bag, so you can dry your hand on the cloth before handling the item.
I know I carried more than most people I did. My background is much more as a wilderness guide than as an athlete or racer, so I am used to carrying contingency supplies for various situations. You just need to figure out what is right for yourself, taking into account your own comfort level as well as also how remote each day’s route is, and how quickly race support crews could get to you if something happens.

Well, that’s lots for now. Next week I will post some info specifically about foot care, as well as more specific info about things to pack, with a focus on first aid and medical supplies.

(All photos taken by me at The Coastal Challenge, 2008 and 2009, text and photos ©Jacqueline Windh)

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