Running has become more and more popular , not seen since the days of the Sony Walkman revolution of the early eighties when for the first time you could run with music. (To the young generation amongst us we used a thing called a ‘tape’, analog not digital music. ) People new to running inevitably join a running club or run with more experienced friends and before they know it they’ve signed up for their first race. This is a good thing as I believe you never push yourself as much as when the competitive juices start to flow with a racing bib on your chest. One thing leads to another and before too long you’ve entered your first half or full marathon.
Invariably this distance is conquered and you’ve informed all your friends via Facebook and normally your work colleagues via daily updates on your progress. The problem arises though when the marathon doesn’t seem to cut it for kudos like it use to. In the office there seems to be quite a few marathoners and worse most are faster than you. You start to get compared to John in accounts who ran sub3 or even Sheila in Purchasing who ran has ran 10 marathons while juggling family commitments and a busy career. So these days to get some real kudos it’s time to take this running to the next level, the ultra-marathon.
The ultra has the added benefit of the slower you run the more kudos you get, where as the marathon is, these days, about not only completing it but also setting a good time. Non runners are getting use to people telling them they’ve ran a marathon and have responded asking how long they took. Again they are wise to what they consider a good time and if you reply ‘4 hours’ they look at you with pity and ask ‘what went wrong’? Not so with the ultra-marathon. Because it is still not mainstream a non runner has no idea what a good or bad time is for an ultra and even if they did the distance can be varied to confuse them. Remember an ultra is anything longer than a marathon distance, it can be 42.3k upwards.
The ultra gets even better, they tend to be in far flung locations and have pretty serious titles, again earning kudos points. How good does an ‘ultra-marathon in Death Valley‘ sound. Death valley, c’mon, if that doesn’t get serious kudos around the drink fountain nothing will. Ok, Sheila from Purchasing has ran 10 marathons but she’s never ran an ultra-marathon in Death Valley. They have no idea where Death Valley is or even what an ultra-marathon is but who cares, you are now the running god in the office, someone who wouldn’t waste their time with silly ‘girl distance’ like marathons. The universe is realigned and you can ‘strut’ around the office yet gain.
The only downside to this new running adventure is the office folk then look to you for more and more longer distances and/or exotic locations. After your first ultra you can never repeat that distance as non-runners , although initially impressed , soon become impervious to distance running unless there is a serious upgrade or the location adds some spice. e.g. The Marathon Des Sable ( http://www.marathondessables.com/en/), the toughest footrace on Earth. ! ( ..On Earth? are they saying there’s a tougher footrace not on earth, the Moon 100k maybe? Now that would be worth talking about !??)
A word of warning of course, you may come across the non runner who knows a thing or two about ultra-running and while you strut around the office sprouting off about a 100k race on the local trails, basking in the adulation of the finance department, they walk past and grunt it was ‘no Marathon Des Sables’. Instantly your credibility is destroyed and you sneak off back to your desk plotting your next adventure.
So to sum up, an ultra marathon may fill the void in the office kudos states. It has the benefit of still being relatively hardcore, in the view of the uneducated, allows you to focus on distance and not time (to counter that nasty sub3 runner in Accounts) and even allows you to slow down and take your time as the longer you take will actually earn more brownie points. I won’t even start to mention the extra equipment you get to buy and use on ultra-marathons. The wardrobe options are endless and include camelbacks, gators, water belts and my mate Mark’s favourite, a cappuccino machine. ! (He doesn’t actually bring along a cappuccino machine but he wore a water belt once that had so many accessories he might as well have!) This can become more of a hindrance than a help as I always remember feeling my mate TB’s camelback at the end of the 6 inch ultra-marathon ( http://www.6inchtrailmarathon.com ) and it must have weighted 10k; and that was at the END of the race not the beginning !!
The 6 inch is a good example of the small step up needed from the marathon distance. Remember anything longer than a marathon is classed an ultra. The 6 inch is 46k (assuming you don’t get lost, which I have on a number of occasions!), so for that extra 4k you get to shoot down Sheila in Purchasing as you’ve ran an ultra-marathon and ,as everybody knows , so much harder than the silly marathon…
So lookout Sheila, we’re coming for you ?
Today registrations opened for one of the best trail ultras in WA, the 6 inch ultra marathon. http://www.6inchtrailmarathon.com
The event was started by Dave Kennedy 13 years ago as a fat-ass (free entry with no volunteers) and has morphed into this powerhouse of an ultra that sells out in days and is the highlight of the ultra racing calendar. It offers everything a good ultra should and then a bit extra for good measure. Dave explains the thinking behind the ultra below.
Six Inch Trail Marathon is inspired by the famous Six Foot Track Marathon in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.Returning from New Zealand in January 2005 I bemoaned the lack of trail races in Western Australia. I wanted to move to the land of the long white cloud but family and circumstances warranted at least another year in WA. One evening I headed out to run a gravel road signposted “Goldmine Hill”. What followed was a soaking wet 15K with the highlight being running into the Munda Biddi Mountain Bike trail. The Munda Biddi was built to keep cyclists off the 964K Bibbulmun walking track. The first 335K section from Mundaring in the Perth hills to Collie was completed in 2004. I had seen some road crossing signs during the construction and was keen to one day experience the track either by bike or foot. Finding the track so close to my house in Mandurah had me pondering a race in the near future. On my return from New Zealand I had been discussing a possible trail race on a local runner’s message board. I bought the map and found that this town to town section was about 44K. Six Foot which I had dreamed of running for years sprang to mind. “We could have our own version”. I had ridden between the 2 towns, North Dandalup and Dwellingup, and the road was super hilly. I was a little disappointed by the lack of hills when I ran the trail but some less masochistic runners didn’t agree with me. The result is a 46K trail race starting at the foot of Goldmine Hill 1K from North Dandalup and finishing in Dwellingup. This run is designed to be tough but most marathoners can expect to finish within an hour or 2 of their best marathon time
He wasn’t joking about adding an hour or two to your marathon time. I raced it 9 times and my best is a 55 minute marathon delta. That is due to many ‘trail’ challenges including hills (and lots of them), single track trail where you have to watch every step, navigation challenges (I wear two Garmin’s for the race , one with the course plugged in and I still get lost?) , did I mention the hills ? and also just the whole ‘trail running’ thing where you can’t really judge pace as the lay of the land dictates how fast or slow you can run. With the 6 inch you can never get into a road marathon type rhythm where you can concentrate on average pace and enjoy the scenery and the journey. A trail marathon will kick you in the backside the moment you let down your guard and start too drift off, add in ‘pea-gravel‘ ,which is God’s way of teaching ultra runners how to fall over , and unless you bring your end game you are going to end up covered in ‘claret‘. Actually this seems to be the in-thing for the 6 inch finisher, some sort of wound weeping claret, if you don’t have one you are ostracised and scorned !
I’ve done several posts on there 6 inch so search the archives to read about last years run and other general comments. You’ll see I’m a big fan and typing this post now am getting excited of the prospect of lining up again at 4:30am faced with Gold Mine Hill and what is to come. The BK running posse has already entered and it promises to be another Stella event with Jon getting his red spike this year, although there is some conjecture over a possible disqualification pending over the use of (potentially) helium filled arm bands he wore in 2014. Bart’s is conducting an enquiry into this heinous crime (if proved) and his red spike (you get a red spike for completing 6 events) could be in jeopardy. It probably doesn’t bode well for Jon as last year Bart’s got his red spike despite getting an official DQ asterix against name for getting lost one year. Jon, being the owner of the official spreadsheet, was not happy with Bart’s receiving his red spike a year early, in his view. This could turn nasty for all concerned.
Truth be told the reason Jon is wearing the arm bands was the previous year he found the only puddle on the whole course, in WA it doesn’t rain for months, and then proceeded to through himself into it , get up and slip into again. Of course he was left to struggle alone as is tradition in these events and stumbled to the finish line a long way back, covered in mud. The following year he was made to wear a climbers rope as he fell into the deep ruts up the ‘escalator hill‘ and Bart’s had to jump over him while he again struggled to find his feet.
This is why I love this race, so many happy memories and that is why we keep going back year in year out to these events to add to the memory banks of ‘great times spent with great people, racing great events’, and of course documenting Jon and all his adventures.
Thanks to my very talented friend Rob Donkersloot from why walk when (http://www.whywalkwhen.com ) I have attached a short video documentary on my first attempt at a 100k ultra. I ran the Australia Day Ultra ( http://www.australiadayultra.com ) last week and after the posting about the experience the video below captures its beautifully, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, video is so much more.
Running the ultra was hard work, of course, but the feeling of finishing and running outside your comfort zone, attempting something new, is worth the hardship and extra time in the ‘pain box‘. Can’t wait for next year……
After the Australia Day Ultra ( http://australiadayultra.com ) I actually felt good the following day. You would have thought that after running 100k your legs would have been ‘goosed’ but not the case. I actually felt a lot better compared to running a marathon. On the Sunday after the race, while taking my dog Stanley out for a walk, I reflected on why the legs felt so good. (Note: I use the term ‘so good’ loosely of course, in context to running a marathon.) I felt refreshed enough to run Monday and Tuesday and even doubled up Wednesday and Thursday. So maybe going longer but slower is easier on the legs, can a 100k be easier to recover from a marathon.? I really believe the answer is yes, well in my case anyhow. This has been a pleasant surprise from the race that keeps on giving.
It looks like I am not alone in my theory, the quote below is from Alex Varner.
“A high level road marathon takes me longer to recover from,” admits Varner, 29, a member of the Nike Trail Elite team. “For me, it’s the repetition and pounding that occurs in the same few muscle groups in a road marathon—in my case, calves and quads—while a 50 miler requires some usage out of a much wider range of muscles. So, while I may be sore in more areas after a 50 miler, the damage is far less acute than it is in my calves and quads after a road marathon. The road marathon results in soreness that’s an inch wide and a mile deep while a trail ultra results in soreness that’s a mile wide and an inch deep, and for me, the latter has proven easier in terms of recovery.”
Different Soreness, Different Recovery Strategy?
Given that, should runners who race different distances that affect the body (and mind) in different ways, employ different recovery strategies afterward? Surprisingly not, according to many top athletes and coaches.
“The short answer is: the distance or gnarliness of the event doesn’t dictate recovery,” says Flagstaff, Ariz., ultrarunner Ian Torrence, the ultra coach for McMillan Running and a winner of over 50 ultra-distance races in his own right.
Torrence, 42, says post-race recovery boils down to three key factors, regardless of distance, duration or terrain:
- Specificity in training. “If an athlete trains appropriately for a trail 50-mile or road marathon they will train on terrain, surfaces and for durations that the event requires,” he advises. “Do this and recovery from the event will be easier than if you had not.”
- Experience. “Subsequent efforts are easier to recover from than the first,” he says. “The mind and body are more prepared for the next time the rigors of the event are presented.”
- Race-day strategy. “Running harder than warranted in hot and humid weather, improper pacing tactics and unacceptable hydrating or fueling plans will negatively impact post-race recovery for both a marathoner or ultrarunner.”
Varner, who lives and trains in Mill Valley, Calif., follows a similar recovery protocol after any race that’s marathon distance or longer, usually taking 1-2 days completely off from running immediately after the race, followed by another 1-2 weeks of easy running before he attempts any faster workouts.
‘If I can, I get a massage, stretch, roll and take an ice bath if I’m feeling up to it,” Varner says of his post-race recovery protocol. “The biggest difference is that after a road marathon, I have to concentrate much more on those few muscle groups that are really sore while after a trail ultra, everything is kind of sore, so I go with more general rolling and stretching.”
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone recovers at different rates, emphasizes Torrence, and that rushing back into training after a tough race, regardless of how long it was, is usually a recipe for injury or burnout. “Take the time you need to feel good again, both physically and mentally,” he advises.
It took about five days after this year’s Boston Marathon until my hamstrings felt like they were functioning normally again, and at least another five before I could wrap my head around resuming any kind of regular running schedule. For me, this is pretty much par for the course following a road marathon. It hits me hard and the after-effects tend to linger for a while. Compare this to last December’s North Face Endurance Challenge 50K—my second trail ultra—where my feet, hip flexors and quads took a brunt of the beating, while my upper arms and lower back were also quite sore for a day or two afterward. Interestingly, I was ready, willing and able to start running again just three days post-race—empirical evidence that on some level, an ultra-distance trail race appears to take less of a toll on my body and mind.
While the speed in which you bounce back from a road marathon versus a trail ultra will likely differ from my experience or that of other runners, the universal take-home message after a long race is clear: respect the recovery afterward and give both your body and mind the time they need to fully recharge.
The best recovery of course , as we all know, is Yelo muffins and seeing Thursday is progressive day it was an ideal time to pop along and run a recovery 10k while some of the boys ran the normal progressive 14k. Must admit the legs felt better after the best muffin and coffee in the Southern Hemisphere. (and probably Northern Hemisphere as well)
Today I ran the Australia Day Ultra , my first (and probably only ) 100k ultra. I had entered this race last year and got cold feet and parachuted down to the 50k instead where I managed to pick up a podium finish. This race jump started my racing year and I had my best year yet winning three events and placing in many more. To this end I entered the 100k determined to see it through and at least start.
So midnight last night I lined up with 50 other ultra runners and set off on my first 100k ultra. The more observant among you would have noticed the start time in the previous sentence. Not many races start at midnight but because of the possibility of a hot day in sunny Perth the safest option is the late (or really early depending on which way you look at) start. I had managed to get a few hours sleep before the race by paying for a hotel, an expensive option but with hindsight a good one. Running for 100k would be difficult, starting at midnight wouldn’t have helped but with no sleep it would be suicidal.
The start at all smaller ultras is the same with the race director usually having to coax the runners to the start line like a pied piper. Once we did get running myself and Jon found ourselves in the lead for the first few kilometres and we joked we couldn’t actually see what pace we were running as it was too dark to see our Garmin displays. Anyhow we waited for the rest of the field to catch up and joined with two others runners, the T-train and Mikey Mike, and set off into the night.
The race is a 12.5k out and back loop which you need to run 8 times (do the math) for a 100k. Being this was my first 100k I had no idea what to expect but have decided to set out at around 4:50min/k pace and try and hold it. The plan was 50k in around 4 hours 5-10 minutes and then maybe a tad slower for the second half for a 8 hour 30 minute finish, or there abouts’. With ultras there are so many variables it really is a lottery when predicting finishing times but you need a goal in any race, in my view. The first lap was very verbal in our group of four runners who had settled into 4th place overall, with 3 runners ahead of us. (which is the norm apparently when you’re fourth.) Second lap was similar to the first with all of us confident at the pace and, being so early in the race, generally relaxed and easing into the event.
Running in the dark has it’s own challenges and for me the most challenging part was my choice of weapon. I had gone for the hand torch option as I’ve never been that keen on the head torch, I left that to Jon who had invested in a head torch that you could probably see from space. It was bright and I’m sure the runners coming the other way would have been temporarily blinded with the halogen glow a tad less powerful than the sun ! The only fly in our oitnment was the battery life of Jon’s head torch, good for only just over 2-3 hours , so as we moved into the 4th lap we were on borrowed time and the glow soon starting to lose it’s ‘blinding’ option. I feel this was why the T-tone put a move on as we reached the end of the 4th lap and Jon was dropped. The T-train can be unforgiving when challenged and all Jon’s good work was forgotten in an instant. I must admit to being torn between going with Tony as although Jon’s head torch was dying a slow death it was still brighter than the alternative. Thinking long term, and knowing the sunrise was coming in less than 90 minutes, I went with Tony but the next lap was ran in a dark place without the virtual sunshine of the Jon’s head torch. This was actually quite depressing because we were also entering the second half of the race and when you’ve ran 50k and still have 50k to go it ain’t a ‘nice warm, fuzzy feeling’, trust me on this.
Never having ran a 100k I was always prepared for a situation where I would need to dig deep to be able to carry on churning out sub 5min/k kilometres. It was to come at the beginning of lap 5 when the T-train blew a head gasket (and a groin strain I think) and Mikey Mike also departed the BK ‘pain train’, leaving just me and my dodgy hand torch. On the bright side I had managed to sneak up a few positions as two runners ahead of me had pulled out. All of sudden I was in second place and only had to run 36k to cement the place on the poduim, how difficult could that be, especially after already running 64k? The answer is very difficult. In a marathon you normally hit the wall at 32k and can then negotiate the last 10k , in an ultra the wall may manifest itself any time after half way and worse case scenario you could have nearly 50k of post wall race to run, gotta love an ultra? I did manage to avoid the wall in this race thanks to good pacing and an esky filled to the brim with nutrition and hydration that kept me fully fuelled. As I have mentioned on many occasions it is generally acknowledged an ultra is really an eating and drinking conception with running between the aid tables. I can concur this is the truth, get the fuelling wrong and it doesn’t matter how good a runner you are you will stop and it will turn ugly very quickly. On a side note Jon loves his nutrition strategy and food in general, truth be told, and the highlight of the race for me was Jon offering me some potatoes as we crossed on one of the later laps. I swear his bag of potatoes was enough for every running in the event!
I have attached a photo of Jon below just before the presentations, I’m not sure it he was coming down from a sugar high or just plain ‘goosed’ after the run. It’s hard to tell with Jon sometimes…..
Right, I digress for a change, where was I, oh yes just entering the second half of the race and I was running alone after all the members of the T-train ‘train of pain’ had deserted me. Lap 5 (kilometres 50-62.5k) was uneventful bar the sunrise which meant we could jettison the reflective tops which were mandatory (health and safety apparently) and my hand torch (which was just about useless anyway). It was good to be running in daylight and I even got a second wind as I started lap 6 (kilometres 62.5 -75k) and threw in a 4:25min/k early on. I remember thinking to myself this ultra running wasn’t that hard and even contemplating a good negative split and maybe even a sub8 finish. Silly boy, about 3k later it was back to the maintaining a sub5 min/k and grinding them out. Amazing how quickly the whole race changes and I suppose in an ultra the ‘swings and roundabouts‘ come thick and fast and it’s about trying to maintain an ‘even keel’ throughout.
I continued on my merry way for lap6 feeling very tired (surprising that.) and starting to understand the pain an ultra puts you through. Compared to a marathon this is certainly more mental and I prepared myself for lap 7 which I knew would be the hardest as the finish line would be in sight on the final lap. Starting lap 7 (75k – 87.5k , wow these numbers are starting to add up!) I had to dig deep and this lap was always going to hurt. You’re already struggling to keep to your required pace and you still have 25k to go, which is 2 hours of running minimum. I remember thinking this when I set off on lap 7 knowing this next 12.5k would be a test and I wasn’t disappointed. They say an ultra is a good mix of metal strength and running fitness and lap 7 showcased this. I was counting down the kilometres one by one as I struggled through what I considered would be the race decider, get through it and I knew I would make the distance but start walking and the last 20k would be a real struggle. Eventually I got to the start/finish line for the 7th and final time. (87.5k – 100k) Starting out on the final lap was uplifting and mentally I knew I would now make the distance.
Although I was confident of now finishing it didn’t make the actually racing any easier. I was now determined not to ‘blow out’ and set myself a goal of keeping each kilometre below 5min/k. Being the last lap made every step easier as I knew it was the last time I would be doing it , after 7 previous iterations. Again it was still a painful last hour but made easier by knowing the finish line was insight.
Eventually I get to the end of lap 8 and after a final flurry into the finishing straight it was time for a few press ups and a medal. Mission accomplished, a good time and, due to so many people dropping out , a 2nd place finish. (Amazing how easy the last 500m is with the finish line in sight. If you could somehow persuade the brain to release this ‘finishing spurt’ stretch a bit earlier the race it would be so much easier. I say a bit earlier I’m thinking like 25 k earlier !)
Of course no BK post would be complete without the post race celebrations and it was off to the Dome cafe for waffles with maple syrup and extra bacon as a finishing treat. I mentioned this in a previous post and for the last 25k this feast was at the forefront of my mind. These treats in the last few hours of an ultra are priceless and can get you to the finishing line. Also I’m a big believer in treating yourself after you’ve achieved any running milestone, actually treating yourself full stop is good but you need a good reason for the treat before the treat becomes the norm; you’re then in a world of trouble as pancakes become your staple diet !
Will I run another 100k ? Once I finished I would say ‘not a chance in hell’, but now typing this I’m thinking it would be nice to go sub 8 and how bad was it really ? The classic ‘women and childbirth’ question, ask any of them after they have just given birth and none would ever envisage reporting the process, but a few days (months?) later with that ‘bundle of joy’ in their hands most would contemplate the whole process again. It’s the same with runners, the mind plays tricks on you and once the rose coloured glasses are on all you can remember is the great feeling of finishing, the previous 8 hours of pain are conveniently wiped from your memory.
To sum up, an ultra 100k is a long way and there are two ways to run it. Most run it to finish it and have that achievement and the bucket list option ticked. Others race it for a time which could be personal or podium hunting. Either way along the way you are going to need to ask yourself some serious questions and if you have all the answers you will finish, the running fitness is of course also important and the fitter you are the easier the questions will be to answer. Watching all the other runners finish in times ranging from 8 hours up to well over 12 hours you can see the personal achievement in all their faces as they cross the line. It is certainly a step up from the marathon and one I would recommend , as a runner, you need to experience. As I have mentioned many times the comradely at these events is so much more than other shorter distances and I highly recommend you experience it. This actually goes for the whole trail and ultra fraternity , they’re a friendly lot. (must be all that tree hugging that goes on, makes them better people?)
Finally a big thankyou to all the volunteers as they were up before the race started (remember midnight kick off) and probably helped with the cleaning up at the end. Outstanding effort. Also the two race directors Ron Mcglinn and Shaun Kaesler, these guys have transformed the ultra running scene in Western Australia and if you want to get into the whole ultra and trail scene check out their race series. ( http://ultraserieswa.com.au ).
Being mainly a marathon runner I’m not as confident or sure of the taper period for an ultra. For the 6 inch ultra marathon in December last year I experimented by not tapering nearly as much as I would for a marathon. On the week of the event I actually ran twice a day Monday through Thursday and only had 48 hours rest before the race. Admittedly all runs on race week were slow and easy but I still managed over 80km’s pre-race. On the day I felt great and ran a good race for a 7th place finish but more importantly I was 4th quickest over the second half of the race. I actually ran my first negative split for an ultra. The week before the ultra I had ran 140k so there really wasn’t a taper period to talk off. ( http://www.6inchtrailmarathon.com )
Could this work for a marathon ? I don’t think so. The ultra is normally ran at a more subdued pace and although longer I feel not as testing as ‘racing’ a marathon. (Well ultras less than 100k, when you get above 100k I’m sure it becomes a tad more testing that a marathon. Once I run further than 100k I’ll confirm?) In an ultra the race pace normally decreases brings your overall cardio fitness in to play more than resting the legs a few weeks before. If you haven’t got the fitness a two week taper will not help, you’ll still be underdone. With a marathon, as the distance is less, you normally have the fitness required to finish the event, the tapering helps more by letting tired muscles recovery.
Also I feel running a good ultra is more dependant on the nutrition and hydration plan, get this right will benefit you so much more than a taper period. Again get this plan wrong and the taper will not save you. In an ultra any mistakes will be paid for, that is a certainty. In an ultra there is no where to hide.
Researching tapering and ultras on the web and there are stories advocating no tapering and setting PB’s while others advocate a 3 week steep taper and lean more towards relaxing rather than stressing about the event. All have their pro’s and con’s and as with all things running there’s no one shoe fits all. It really depends on the runner and also their experience and fitness. The more experienced runner with a good foundation of distance training under their belt will be more likely to be able to go into an event without tapering. They will not need the confidence boost that comes from a good taper as much as someone with less experience. Remember a good taper will also aid confidence and going into any race this is important, anything that helps put you in a positive mindset is welcome and needs to be embraced,
Of course if you have any niggling injuries an enforced taper may be called for. When this happens there is nothing you can do about it, just sit back and smell the roses concentrating on things you can influence like carboloading. Now carboloading, that is a whole new post and one I shall tackle next. Until then enjoy this article below by Ian Torrence which highlights ‘peaking’ rather than tapering as a benefit, pre-ultra. Ian is part of the Greg McMillan stable of writers so has a wealth of knowledge and experience to call upon. (Please note I do not advocate the Joe Kulak method of peaking described below but as you can see in the photo below my friend Jon is convinced it works… ?)
The final weeks before an event are the toughest to get right. The common notion that all hard work must cease and inactivity must ensue is incorrect. It’s also foolhardy to continue amassing mileage and tough workouts as race day nears in hopes of improving fitness. Depending on your approach to this all-important time period, you may be left feeling lethargic or simply exhausted. A runner with the proper peak will feel rejuvenated and ready to go on race day.
Greg McMillan, my mentor, has devised a set of rules to live by as race day approaches. Greg explains, “By studying peak performance research – both physiological as well as psychological – as opposed to just the tapering research, I’ve been able to dial in how to truly peak on race day. It works for all athletes no matter where you find yourself in the pack come race day.” By placing Greg’s simple and effective system into context, let’s get you prepared for your next ultra.
1. Do not drop running volume drastically
Though there are some that prefer three weeks to peak, two weeks seems to be the most popular choice. During the first week of a peak, drop the length of each run by 10 to 20 minutes. The week before your event, drop volume by 20 to 30 minutes per run. I recommend that ultrarunners limit their last long run(s), done a week before the key event, to 90 easy minutes (regardless of the distance of the event). This is enough to give you that long run feeling, but short enough that muscle recovery and glycogen-storage continue. Light, non-impact cross training can be done in lieu of runs, but only if you are used to those forms of exercise.
2. Keep the routine
Run, eat, sleep, work, and socialize when you do normally. Your body and mind have achieved stasis over the past few months of training. Keep them both happy and the keel even. Now is not the time to experiment with new workouts, forms of exercise, foods, and social events. Use the extra time not spent running for sleeping and sticking to “safe” hobbies.
3. Keep the intensity and build confidence
Before the 2007 JFK 50 Mile, I had an exchange with fellow competitor Andy Mason. Nine days before the race, he completed a round of very quick mile repeats on the track; his last quality workout before the race. I knew he was fit and feeling confident. That year, Andy finished in the top ten.
Though most ultrarunners do not need to perform a tough round of mile repeats before their next race, they might consider doing some sort of confidence-building workout 10 days to two weeks out from their event. This workout, however, should be in tune with recent training. Running a 30-mile training run or time trialing up and down Hope Pass (like the author) a few days before a race is neither smart nor beneficial. A moderate length workout that you’re familiar with, that is aerobically challenging, allows for adequate recovery before race day, and demonstrates your fitness should be the order of the day. If you don’t routinely perform hard hill, stamina-building, fartlek, or fast finish workouts then this is not the time to start. Maintain your current training and follow the guidelines for reduction in mileage as mentioned above.
Now is also the time to reflect on all of the training you’ve done thus far. Remember that you’ve done the work necessary to get you to the finish line.
4. Stick to the original race plan and have fun
No one starts a race without a goal. Whether it be to keep your Grand Slam hopes alive, finish your first ultra, or win the event outright, don’t lose sight of why you’re out there. Be deliberate in your actions and calculate each move you make on the race course. Run your own race and enjoy the time you’re having on the trail or road. Greg McMillan sums this up perfectly, “Let’s face it. Most of us aren’t going for an Olympic gold medal here. We are simply enjoying the challenge of doing our best. There is no real pressure, so quit putting so much on yourself. We run for fun, and you should remember that. Have fun!”
PEAKING FOR MULTIPLE RACES
What if you’re gearing up for several important races that are separated by a few weeks or less? The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, as well as others of that genre, and several race series like the NorCal and SoCal Ultra Grand Prix are perfect examples. In essence, you are recovering and peaking in unison between events. There are two ways to approach situations like this:
1. Reverse taper
This is like returning from injury. Gradually and slowly increase the length of your post-race easy runs and avoid fast and difficult workouts. You won’t reach your normal training level, but you’ll satisfy the need for a few runs before your next event.
2. The Joe Kulak Method
When I asked Joe Kulak what he did between each of his four 2003 Grand Slam record- setting 100-mile races, he quipped, “I sat on the couch and drank beer.” If beer is not your drink of choice, water works just as well. The reality is that you can’t gain fitness in the two or three weeks between long ultras. Recovery will be your best “workout” while preparing for your next event.
The Australian Day Ultra ( http://australiadayultra.com ) is less then 2 weeks away which means it’s taper time. Of course the taper should start today but I reckon I can fit in one more 30k with the boys tomorrow before I ease of the distance and try and remain sane as I grapple with the usual hunger pains without the exercise. This is then compounded with the 3 days carbo loading, I wonder as I’m running an ultra do I start carbo loading earlier ? Hell, should I beat eating a muffin right now as I type this post ? I would ask my mate Jon who is also running the ADU but I worry that his answer will always be ‘to eat’ , regardless of the question !
On the subject of nutrition I still haven’t totally worked out my plan. I think I’m going with the Comrades ( http://www.comrades.com ) diet of a gu/carbo-shotz every hour. It got me through three Comrade campaigns in a reasonable fashion and at least this time I don’t have to carry them as the ADU is a 12.5 loop so I’ll have an esky of goodies at the side of the track to delve into every 6.25k if needed. Carrying 10 gu’s using a belt sounded like a good idea but in practice it was a disaster as the weight of the gu’s made the belt jump up and down on my back. I only realised this at the start of the race and as you can imagine I wasn’t that excited having 89k ahead of me. On the bright side the more I ate the less of an annoyance the belt became. At around 80k I hardly felt it, albeit at 80 k I could hardly feel anything, truth be told.
Reading articles on ultra marathons there really is a wealth of information on all sorts of different diets and I’ve posted a few lately on this site as I study different approaches. I feel the best way forward is to eat when I hungry and stay hydrated. The race starts at midnight so the sun won’t be an issue initially but after the sunrise this could all change if we run into a Perth scorcher. A hot morning will certainly add to the challenge of the event as I’ll still have around 30-40k to run, and as I mentioned in a previous post when you hit the wall in an ultra you could still have 30k to go.
Hydration wise I’ll be alternating between one small drink bottle of water and then one of electrolytes for the duration of the event per lap. (probably 600ml an hour) Before the race of course I’ll carbo load (muffin time!) and that also includes drinking water and electrolyte drinks a lot, so normally at the start of the race I’m hydrated enough. (For a marathon of course, I’ll need extra for the ultra.) Maybe some flat coke on the last lap or some red bull to give me a final boost. I’m lucky to have an ‘iron stomach’ so have never suffered any issues but then I’m normally done racing in less than 3 hours so maybe the extra food, combined with another 5 hours of running, may become an issue. This is something that will not become apparent till about 60-70k I suppose. ? About the same time as hitting the wall. It seems that around the 60-70k mark things will become clearer and no amount of blogging is going to help my cause now. On the bright side whatever happens there’ll be a post in there somewhere.
Great article here on hydration worth a read :- https://www.hammernutrition.com.au/info-centre/hydration-what-you-need-to-know/
Training wise I’m still running twice a day but taking it easy bar the progressive hour run on Thursdays. Probably manage another 160k week this week (100 miles) before dropping down next week by about 40-50% and then just a couple of slow 10k’s the week of the ultra. After that a week or two of blogging and then straight back into half marathon training for my one of my favourite races the Darlington half, before possibly having a tilt at the 50-55 year old age group Australian record for the 50k at Bunbury. (assuming it is AURU registered; if not could be off to Canberra. ) Then the races come thick and fast for the rest of the year, no rest for the wicked, racing is what keeps me quick, the fear of returning to the pack keeps me honest and the fear of slowing motivates me to go faster. There must be a quote in there somewhere…..
Finally I need to share the T-train’s approach to ultra-marathons . To quote Tony ‘eating is cheating’ ,now I can remember saying this as a young man during many nights on the ‘pop’ in sunny Penzance but never in an ultra. The T-train being the T-train has his own ways of doing things and the running community may go one way the T-train normally goes the opposite. That being said he just ran over 125k for a 12 hour race a week after racing a marathon so he is doing something right. I have yet to read anywhere his ‘eating is cheating’ mantra on any running website , no matter the ultra ones, so feel he is in a community of one, just the way he’d like it. I’ll keep an eye on him in the race and let you know if I catch him cheating.
For the first time ever I ran over 200km in a week (made 206.2k in the end, thanks Strava.) , beating my previous best of 190k. Could have probably got another 10k but was forced out by my Wife for a meal one night and couldn’t fit in my second run for the day. The sacrifices us runners make, didn’t Karen realise I was on for a record week, do you think she cared ? Anyhow mission accomplished and I gained entry to the double century club. Maybe I’ll start a website and sell medals for runners who can prove they’ve ran 200k in a week. ? Funnily enough there are websites similar to this which actually sell bling for cold hard cash. ( https://www.virtualstrides.com/philosophy/ and http://www.fullmedalruns.com) These sites apparently donate proceeds to charities so I suppose they are doing some good but these ‘virtual medals‘ for some reason just don’t sit well with me. Call me old fashioned but to me you have to earn bling by actually entering a race, turning up at the race and then running the race. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.
Right back to the point of running 200k in a week. First of all it was to prove I could do it and really I only decided on day 7 of the week to give it a shot. I was running my go-to ‘old faithful’ 10k when, feeling good, I decided to add another 10k with a view to maybe adding a final 10k in the afternoon and giving me a 192k total. Of course once I started to do the maths I knew it was on and turned my 10k into a 34k which was the most I could have run as I was unprepared for a long run with no breakfast and no hydration. As soon as it started to heat up I was in trouble and managed to ‘borrow’ some water from a couple of houses on the way back which had taps at the front of their properties. Believe me when I say I was running in an area where borrowing water would be considered a risk but desperate times call for desperate measures, luckily I live to tell the tale.
Thus Sunday afternoon I ran the 4k I needed and added another 6k as I was again feeling good and had the wind behind me for the first 5k (thus the return journey had to made into a strong headwind, when will I learn?) A 206k total for the week and the double century box had been ticked. Will I repeat this ? Not sure, I’ve read a lot of material where it looks like 100-160k is about all you really need and anything else has negligible benefits but comes with a high injury risk. Most, if not all , of the 206k’s were slow and easy and I’m finding I’m avoiding the faster runs due to fatigue, although the fatigue is not as bad as when I use to run quicker all the time. As ultra training I can see the benefit of these 160k+ weeks but for the marathon and shorter distances I feel you can get away with 100-160k but add some pace work. I’ll certainly be dropping down the mileage after the ADU ( http://australiadayultra.com ) and am looking forward to some good old fashioned mona fartlek and tempo runs.
First though I have the impending 100k race in less than 3 weeks. Weekly distance I’m very confident I’m doing enough but still not really done the ‘long time on legs runs’ that I know I should be doing but just haven’t the inclination. It really will be a case of finding out at around the 70k mark if my cardio fitness as well as a good nutrition and hydration plan is enough to get me to the finish. That reminds me I still haven’t got a nutrition and hydration plan sorted out. Maybe I better get onto that this week ? How difficult can it be with my mate Google as my co-pilot?
Actually looking at the graphic below, a screen shot from Strava, there seems to be a few photos of me and the boys doing more eating than running. Maybe my Yelo Muffin and City Beach Pancakes is the nutrition plan I need ? I wonder how many muffins and pancakes a runner can digest, while running a 100k, without doing serious damage ? What is the tipping point for the number of muffins a runner can ingest before they become an issue and start to do more harm than good ? Probably around one I reckon, more’s the pity. Maybe I could blend then into small Gu like packets ? No, it’s back to Google and ‘proper’ ultra diets, remember I’m old fashioned.
As I move towards my first 100k ultra at the end of January ( http://australiadayultra.com ) I’m in a quandary as to the right amount of weekly distance versus the weekend long run distance. The weekly distance I have covered as I’ve been averaging 130k a week since June but the long runs have been very marathon focussed, by this I mean always around the 30k distance and no more. Will this come back to bite me around the 70k mark in the ultra ? This has been playing on my mind lately but I personally don’t enjoy running over 30k unless there’s a bib on my chest and I’m being measured for time. The thought of a time on feet 3-5 hour run has never appealed to me and I much prefer to run twice a day to achieve the required distance. Jon on the other hand revels in the long lonely run, normally at some God forsaken time in the morning. Recently he woke at 3am and ran 70k, by himself ! I know he has a 55k run planned Thursday but have been deliberately avoiding him as I am not that excited about the distance or the starting time knowing Jon. I did say I’d meet him at Yelo at 7am. (Just didn’t mention I’d probably be starting at 6am.)
I suppose because I’m still chasing a marathon PB I haven’t found the need to look further afield to get my PB fix. As well as the marathon PB I feel in 2017 I may have a good tilt at all the shorter distances and would like to think there may be the odd PB still there for the taking if I keep putting in the hard yards. I’m not a total beginner when it comes to ultra marathons as currently I’ve ran 18 of them but none further than 89k ( http://www.comrades.com ) Admittedly I did train very hard for my three Comrade campaigns (2008 /09 /10) and this training included the 50k runs that now days I find so hard to complete. On the plus side I running so much quicker now than when I ran Comrades and consider myself a lot fitter than those years, I’m certainly running further. So the question is does a better prepared runner beat a fitter runner over 100k ? I suppose we’ll find out next January as I have no inclination to run further than my normal 30k marathon long runs but I will be maintaining my 130k weekly average and may even nudge that up a bit over the next two weeks.
Tapering will be a two week exercise for this ultra as I feel the distance demands respect and I really need my legs to be as rested as much possible without losing fitness, the old taper tightrope we all walk pre-marathon or ultra. I believe you start to lose fitness after 2-3 weeks of no training so as long as you keep the legs ticking over, with a few rest days, you’ll be ok for a 2 week taper. When I first started marathons I use to give myself a 3 week taper but now I realise this was probably too long and I felt I lost some fitness which combined with the normal 3 day carbo-loading made the marathon uncomfortable. As it’s a 100k I may even treat myself to a leg massage, my friend Mike has recommended a good masseur but after a discussion over a Yelo muffin on Boxing Day I’m not so sure this is the type of massage I’m after. (There was talk of special garments which raised a few concerns amongst us?) It’s important to make sure the legs are ready for the onslaught of running for at least 8 hours (and probably more!) and the massage and a good taper will certainly help.
Once I get the legs ready next will be the mind. Looking at the quotes below it looks like the mind plays as much a part of a successful ultra run than the legs, a lot more than in the marathon when it becomes an issue at the 32k mark with 10k to go. In an Ultra it looks like the wall may be a tad longer to get to but unfortunately there is more distance the other side to overcome. By this I mean if you hit the wall at 70k in a 100k race you still have 30k to use all your mental strength to get you to the finish line, not the normal 10k in a marathon. I’m not selling this to you am I ? Actually I’m not selling it to me either.!
- “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, you will get over it.”
-Gene Thibeault, ultrarunner
- “We ultrarunners alternate between depression and stupidity.”
- It hurts up to a point and then it doesn’t get any worse.”
- “Ultrarunners understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being–a call that asks who they are.”
Finally once I get the legs ready and the mind prepared the final piece in the jigsaw is the food and hydration that is so important in an ultra. Haven’t really nailed that one either , truth be told. Typing this has not given me the confidence I felt it would but has instead left me with some unanswered questions and the feeling of what is ahead of me will be a challenge. Would I want it any different, no way ! This is why we run to challenge ourselves and be that by distance or time the end result is always worth the effort we put in. I shall of course draw down on this post at the 70k mark of the Australia Day ultra and hopefully it’ll bring a smile to my face as I power on to the finish…..
An article below from Ian Corless form the Run Ultra website describes the Long Run……
Every weekend, runners all over the world lace up their shoes and head out for a long run. But what is a long run and how long should the long run be?
Running long depends on what type of ultra you are training for, what your objectives are, what the date of the event is and so on. If you don’t have answers to these three questions, stop, find the answers and then start planning. Read an article about planning and running a race here.
If you are used to running 5km and 10km events, a long run for you may well be 75-90 minutes. If you are a marathon runner, your long run will typically be 21/22 miles or 3 to 3.5-hours. If you are running an ultra, mmmmm, this is where it gets tricky.
First of all, let’s look at why we run long. This is something discussed in a previous article on ‘Base Training,’ it would be a good idea to read that here. In summary, we put an emphasis on three key points: Efficiency to use fat as a fuel, muscular and physical adaptation and mental strength.
If you never run for more than one hour in training, then three hours on your feet just feels like a really long time so you need to adapt mentally for the challenge ahead and you need to be strong to get the job done.
You have had sore legs from running, yes? We have all been there, it comes from running fast and hard and building up lactic acid or it comes from running long. Muscle soreness will come for everyone, however, we can train to reduce the impact or delay the process. Progressively running longer with recovery periods allows our muscles to adapt to the stress and become stronger. The term DOMS refers to the ‘Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness’. You may well feel muscle pain during a training event or race but it’s usually in the 24/48/72-hour period after that the soreness really kicks in. By running long in training we adapt to delay or reduce the DOMS.
You need fuel to do anything, even a shopping trip. Our bodies can only store so much carbohydrate and once those stores are used up we have only two options left: top them up or slow down and maybe even stop if they have got very low. As an endurance athlete we need to tap into our almost unlimited fat stores. We do this by teaching our body to use fat as a fuel in the long run. The more efficient you become at this, the longer you can run and the longer you can maintain a pace. Ultimately it means the whole race/training experience will be better and more enjoyable. Check out our diet advice for training here.
The Long Run
Let’s be clear here, running longer requires running slower, especially if we are going to switch fat burning on, mentally make you strong and allow you to last the distance. Running hard has its place for sure but be specific and think of your objectives and what you are trying to achieve.
Think of long runs in terms of time and not distance. Distance adds some confusion and also as runners we get stressed and worried by mileage. Time on feet does very much depend on the terrain we are running on, for example in three hours on the road you may well cover 20-miles, but on the trails or in the mountains you may only cover 12-miles.
This brings in another very important and key point, make long runs specific and in line with your objectives. No point doing three hours on the road if you are doing a 50 mile mountain race with 4000m of vertical gain.
Slow down! Many runners run the long run too hard which impacts on the following days’ training and it also impacts on the long run session. Maybe use a heart rate monitor or GPS to keep on top of this and don’t worry about walking. Walking is a key element in completing ultra distance events. You can read an article on this here.
The big question, how long should the long run be?
Short distance runners often run over distance in training. Think about it, a 10km runner may run a long slow half marathon to build endurance. A half marathon runner may run a long and slow steady 16 miles in preparation for a fast race.
This all falls apart when we go to the marathon and beyond. How often have you heard in marathon training that the long run should be 21/22 miles or 3 hours and 30 minutes in preparation for a race.
Long runs and adapting for an endurance run such as an ultra comes from not one run but a combination of all runs. It’s about your accumulative run history. They all add up to make you an endurance machine.
First and foremost, consistency is key and long runs should be progressive and based on ability and experience. A long run should test you but not break you.
What do I mean by progressive?
Let’s use a 12-week scenario based on a runner who can currently run two hours in a long run. I am not looking at base training here, but the specifics of a long run and how to make the long run longer. I’m a big fan of building over three weeks and recovering for one week, I call this 3/1.
Week 1 – Sunday 2:30 hours
Week 2 – Sunday 2:45 hours
Week 3 – Sunday 3:00 hours
Week 4 – 2 hours
Week 1 – Sunday 2:45 hours
Week 2 – Wednesday 90min / Sunday 3:00 hours
Week 3 – Wednesday 90min/ Sunday 3:20 hours
Week 4 – Sunday 2:30 hours
Week 1 – Wednesday 90min/ Sunday 3:00 hours
Week 2 – Wednesday 1:45 hours/ Sunday 3:30 hours
Week 3 – Wednesday 2:00 hours/ Sunday 4:00 hours
Week 4 – Wednesday 60min/ Sunday 3:00 hours
The above scenario provides a structured example on how to build up from running two hours comfortably to four hours. But remember the above scenario is 12 weeks of running with over 37 hours of running, just in the long runs! That is huge and a great place to start for any endurance challenge.
But my race is 50 miles, can I run the distance?
As mentioned above, it’s not wise or sensible to run too long in anyone session. But the 12-week plan above on a 3/1 scenario shows you how it’s possible to build time and confidence. As you gain more experience you can look at doing back-to-back sessions and plan long training weekends all as part of a long term plan. Ultimately though, running too long in terms of distance or time is something that should be very carefully planned. You will always here about runners who can do 200 mile weeks or 50-mile training runs; they are exceptions and not the norm. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security and don’t feel inadequate, we are all individuals and this is maybe the most important aspect. Running long is a voyage of discovery. Check out our 50km training plan to start you towards your 50 miler here.
Training should be about preparing you to tackle the challenge, but it will never FULLY prepare you. There’s always going to be a bit of extra and a bit of unknown on the day of the event, but surely that’s why you’ve entered?
This morning I have the classic onset of DOMS after my 6 inch ultra adventure on Sunday. DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) is your bodies way of reminding you you just did something very silly. (This is of course different to your mind which is still stoked after the previous weekends exploits and looking forward to the next beating.) I find DOMS comes on strongest on my second or third run after a marathon and today was my third recovery run after a double up yesterday and a day off Monday.
As I hobbled into my morning run, and it was a hobble, I realised I was certainly walking a tight rope where the benefit of the morning run was more for my sanity than my running fitness well being. I could have just as easily hit the snooze button on my alarm , rolled over and went back to sleep. Of course I would have missed running my favourite 10k for the 199th time ( thanks Strava.) and a biblical sunrise over Star Swamp but as for doing me good I would probably argue the snooze option was the better one.
There has been numerous studies showing after a marathon doing nothing for a week is probably as good as recovery runs. The snooze option is also safer as you avoid the risk of injury as you roll over and get some more sleep, which is another benefit as more sleep helps your body recover. Typing this I wonder what the hell I was doing running this morning ! The answer is of course because we are runners we like to run, even when we know the right thing to do is rest and recover. We kid ourselves these slow runs are doing us some good even when the legs are screaming in protest. It’s the same when we have to taper and of course hits us worst when we are injured.
I have been working hard on adding distance since June this year and even pre 6inch gave away the normal easy week pre-race and ran eight times for 82k before the race on Sunday. I justified this as the ADU (Australia Day Ultra http://australiadayultra.com/ ) is my goal race at the moment and the 6 inch was to be a long run with friends. Of course when the gun went off it was on for young and old and I ended up running a 4min PB and racing the event. (As if that was never gong to happen!) On the bright side it did get me another good week of distance (130k) and some serious ‘pain box’ time , which is all good. Downside, my legs are complaining more than Hilary Clintons supporters after the American election at the moment with a huge case of DOMS.
Anyhow after searching the internet I actually found an article that advocates DOMS as a good thing rather than just a side effect of a good beating a few days previous. Google was very generous on this subject and offered another good article from ultrarunning.com ( https://www.ultrarunning.com/ ) which also was worth a read, so go get yourself a cuppa and a chocolate digestive, settle down and digest these articles.
An article from Runners World on Why Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a Good Thing. By MacKenzie Loddy.
Whether it’s caused by mile repeats at 7,000 feet, a brutal long run before the upcoming Houston Marathon, or digging out from under 16 feet of snow in Mammoth, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) has yet to evade anyone who engages in physical activity. The discomfort associated with DOMS usually materializes 24 hours post-exercise and lasts anywhere between two and four days. When your legs hurt immediately after a marathon, it’s not DOMS. However, when you roll out of bed the next morning and find yourself unable to descend the front steps to retrieve the morning paper, you’re experiencing DOMS.
As a result of the fact that nearly every athlete has experienced this type of soreness, much research has been devoted to the prevention and treatment of this side effect. Massage, microtherapy, icing, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, fish oil and i.Tonic whole body vibration are just a few methods that have been tried with varying degrees of success.
While the silver bullet to avoiding DOMS has yet to be identified, several methods have been shown to be more effective in lessening soreness and encouraging optimal recovery. Probably to the surprise of no one, it all relies on smart training.
Where does DOMS originate?
According to Dr. David J. Szymanski, assistant professor and the director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at Louisiana Tech University, there is currently a lot of misinformation floating around about DOMS — namely, the assertion that the accumulation of lactic acid causes it. While DOMS results from new, higher intensity workouts and an increase in lactate comes along with such activity, the soreness felt the next morning is not related. “That lactate concentration will go back down to resting levels within 20–40 minutes after exercise,” says Dr. Szymanski, who has studied the subject extensively. “Because of that, the pain that somebody associates with delayed onset muscle soreness 24–72 hours later cannot be because of that lactate that was built up while they were running.”
He contends that lactate does cause soreness during or immediately after exercise, and can end up decreasing performance if the athlete can’t clear it. However, the deferred discomfort has nothing to do with that process. Higher intensity workouts that you are not accustomed to, like hill repeats or intervals on the track, are often the culprits of DOMS. The eccentric component of exercise, in particular, can damage the integrity of the muscle cell membrane. This micro trauma creates tiny micro tears in the muscle fibers, which leads to inflammation, and thus soreness, fatigue, stiffness and reduced range of motion
Treating and preventing DOMS
Although the cool-down has long been touted as the main tool in a runner’s arsenal to combat muscle soreness by flushing out lactic acid (which is still important), research suggests that the warm-up is more important to reducing DOMS. One of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, Dr. Priscilla Clarkson of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has demonstrated how important it is to get out and warm up before competition. By increasing the muscle temperature by 1 degree Celsius before eccentric training, the amount of muscle soreness experienced by athletes is noticeably reduced.
“If you already have the muscle warmed up and prepared, it is better able to handle the activity,” explains Dr. Szymanski. “Before a race, you need to lubricate the joints, ligaments and tendons so your body is better prepared for what’s coming next.”
He also identifies the “repeated bout effect” as a method by which DOMS symptoms can be ameliorated. While the term may be foreign, the concept is far from rocket science. For instance, the Boston Marathon is known to be brutal on the quads as a result of its many downhills. To prepare for this, a runner should train on downhills the few months leading up to the race. “The more times you repeat the activity, the less pain you’ll feel because your body will continually adapt to it,” explains Dr. Szymanski. “Keep doing this multiple times and your body will say, ‘No big deal. What else you got for me?’” Physiologically speaking, the body recovers and rebuilds, and with each passing week, is less fazed by the hills.
While this is a good way to avoid continued DOMS from the same types of workouts, it doesn’t mean you should simply train your body to withstand one form of training. It’s about building on your workouts week after week and training your body to withstand more. Dr. Szymanski explains: “We have what are called chronic adaptations. Once you do a specific amount of training for a certain length of time, your body will be able to handle it. That’s why training plans help you gradually progress.”
Perhaps the best news is the fact that delayed onset muscle soreness isn’t all bad. “Although DOMS is associated with something negative, it’s actually a physiologically positive reaction,” says Dr. Szymanski. “Once your body is exposed to whatever made you sore, the next time your body will say, ‘I got it, I’ll protect you.’ It’s actually a beautiful thing.”
An article from Ultrarunning.com by Roy Stevenson, MS, Exercise Physiologist
Muscle soreness and inflammation are some of the biggest nuisances for distance runners and unfortunately, many of the dubious treatments of these symptoms are based on all sorts of witchery and myth. Some of the treatments even exacerbate the soreness and prolong recovery. Runners can be a superstitious lot, and many continue to swear by certain ineffective treatments.
Since 1902, over 2,000 research studies have been conducted on various aspects of muscle damage, muscle soreness, inflammation and potential recovery treatments for these afflictions. You’d think that with this impressive pile of studies we’d be closer to figuring out some sort of effective therapy for the symptoms, or better yet, some sort of preventative measures that would minimize or eliminate them. Well, take heart, sore runners, because we are getting closer to answering these important questions. First, let’s look at what causes delayed onset muscle soreness (known as DOMS), what the symptoms of muscle soreness and inflammation are, and the recommended treatments for reducing the pain from this affliction. I’ll finish with some recommendations on how to prevent or minimize your chances of being reduced to hobbling around like a stiff-legged duck, based on some promising recent research.
Causes of DOMS
It is very common for out-of-condition or beginning runners to experience DOMS. Its severity depends on how much and how intensely we exercise, and whether we have performed that exercise before. But it’s not just beginning runners who are susceptible to DOMS – even well-conditioned runners who’ve been training consistently for several years can experience DOMS after a race or vigorous training session, especially a lengthy downhill-running workout.
What specifically triggers muscle soreness are the high force eccentric contractions we experience when we take up unaccustomed exercise, run harder than usual, or downhill. Our leg muscles lengthen under high load or impact, while trying to contract or shorten – a lethal combination! Recent research shows that some people are high responders to eccentric exercise, meaning that their muscle damage and inflammatory markers remain excessively high for several days after running.
The effects of DOMS on muscle tissue look formidable when seen through an electron microscope. Traumatized muscle is a war zone! Your leg muscles are under siege after repeated eccentric contractions and the descriptions of the damage sound horrifying. Here are some of the main protagonists: disruption to the muscle sarcomere; breaching of cell membranes; swollen muscle fibers; wear and tear on connective tissues (ligaments and tendons); calcium spillage from muscle tubules; cell inflammation and increased production of superoxide free radicals;
We’ve all experienced the nasty symptoms of DOMS: dull, aching pain, soreness, tenderness, stiffness of muscles and joints, swelling, loss of strength, and reduced range of motion. Typically, symptoms appear 24 – 48 hours after we run, and peak between 24 and 72 hours. After five to seven days, DOMS has usually abated.
Over the years many treatments and interventions for muscle damage repair have been proposed and tried. Some “work” and some don’t, and you’ll be surprised at what the research shows.
What Doesn’t Reduce DOMS Symptoms
Stretching Surprisingly, the majority of studies that looked at the effects of stretching on DOMS have found that stretching before or after exercise does not alleviate DOMS, or that its effect is so small that it is not worth the time. My recommendation here would be that if you try stretching, make the stretches mild, and hold them for only a few seconds. If they aggravate your soreness, discontinue them.
Massage therapy Research suggests that massage is either ineffective or has only limited influence on DOMS, muscle repair and swelling. Its effects are minor or transitory.
Ultrasound Using ultrasound in physical therapy was found ineffective in reducing DOMS (Tiidus et al 1999).
Heat Above all, resist the temptation to apply heat in any form immediately after an ultramarathon or intense training session. Heat vasodilates (widens) the capillaries and arterioles, hastening the release of inflammatory substances into the muscle, thereby increasing swelling and inflammation. Sitting in a hot tub after a long run, no matter how tempting, exacerbates muscle damage.
What Might Reduce DOMS Symptoms
Much research into the hot topics of antioxidants and natural supplements is underway. Some substances being looked at are alpha-Tocopherol (vitamin E), Beta-Carotene, Ubiquinone, flavanoids, bromelain, Genistein, alpha-Lipoleic acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Glutathione, and Cysteine. In addition, there are enough kitchen ingredients thought to decrease inflammation to make a good curry: sage, black cumin, cinnamon, capsaicin, quercetin, turmeric, and ginger.
Most of these substances have no effect on DOMS, but a glimmer of hope shines through for vitamin C, D and E. Before you rush off to buy these supplements, consider the modest findings first. Although vitamin E has shown a reduction in cell leakage, thus far it shows no alleviation of DOMS symptoms. A Vitamin D supplement of 2,000 IU, twice daily, has been shown to alleviate muscle soreness, but only if Vitamin D levels are lower than 75 nmol/L. The Vitamin D Council has some interesting anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness, although this source is hardly likely to be objective.
Several promising research papers support the practice of ingesting a solution of mixed carbohydrate and protein immediately after our training and racing efforts to rebuild our muscle tissue.
What about homeopathic remedies? A natural anti-inflammatory preparation comprised of plant and mineral substances including St. John’s Wort, echinacea, belladonna, arnica, and chamomile, under the brand name Traumeel ©, was found in one study by Peter et al (2009) to reduce certain anti-inflammatory markers after running downhill on a treadmill for 90 minutes on a -6% gradient, but no mention in this study was made of perceived pain relief.
What Does Reduce DOMS Symptoms
Warm-up One study found that a ten-minute warm-up reduced DOMS a small amount 48 hours post-exercise, while a cool-down performed after strenuous eccentric exercise, surprisingly had no effect at all.
NSAIDs and other drug therapies Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have the benefit of relieving DOMS pain by blocking the production of prostaglandins, a compound that activates the inflammatory response in damaged muscle. However, bear in mind that several studies show that by doing this, NSAIDs actually delay the recovery process by impairing protein synthesis and muscle cell regeneration.
Currently, we think it is necessary for inflammatory cells to invade the injured muscle to control the tissue damage, so the muscle tissue can then be repaired. This needs to take place for the muscle to bounce back stronger and be more resistant to future encounters with DOMS.
However, if you are in extreme pain and hobbling around like the walking wounded, NSAIDs may be just what the doctor ordered. Thus, short-term use of NSAIDs or painkillers when the pain and soreness is unbearable may well be recommended, but the prudent runner will discuss this therapy with a sports medicine physician before popping NSAID pills like candy, especially in light of what I’m about to say about their side effects.
There is strong evidence that long-term use of NSAIDs can cause gastro-intestinal bleeding, stomach upset, ulcers, kidney problems, impaired blood clotting, and possible death with long term (greater than 90 days) use of NSAIDs. So if you must use them, take them with meals and monitor yourself for sharp stomach pain and distress that could indicate ulceration. And never, ever take NSAIDs before competition or training! They can mask pain signals and reduce blood flow to the kidneys, which is definitely not what you need during a race.
RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation)
Rest, then light mobilization Temporary rest during the most acute phase of inflammation is indicated if the athlete is in severe pain. However, this is not an invitation for complete bed rest until the soreness has dissipated. Mobilization, or light exercise using the affected area, has been shown to reduce soreness to some extent. Some physical therapists recommend that when the pain has subsided to a manageable level, light exercise – such as walking on a soft surface (sawdust, dirt trails, or grass) will help disperse residual waste products. Then you can progress to several days of slow, easy running on soft surfaces. Use your own subjective pain and soreness to help decide when to resume normal training intensity and duration, somewhere around two to four weeks.
Ice. Cryotherapy (application of ice) has been found effective in pain reduction and limiting inflammation, presumably by limiting swelling through vasoconstriction of the capillaries and arterioles in the affected area. Ice also temporarily deadens the nerve endings, bringing temporary pain relief. Ice is most effective when the ice pack or “cold cup” is gently rubbed back and forth over the affected area for no longer than ten minutes; cold-water baths or showers can also be helpful.
Compression One study found that compression bandaging of the legs was more effective than massage. Moderate pressure bandaging of the calf and quadriceps muscle groups, with frequent bandage release to encourage blood to circulate, may help prevent swelling and pain.
How to Prevent DOMS in Distance Running Training Apart from using the modalities recommended above as preventative methods (warm-up, ice, compression, some antioxidants, and post-training carbohydrate/protein mixtures), stimulating DOMS to a minor degree in training will prepare the runner better for DOMS muscle trauma.
The Repeated Bout Effect This effect occurs when a bout of unaccustomed exercise (such as running downhill) gives a protective effect in subsequent running sessions of the same nature. This explains why, after recovering from muscle damage and soreness from a race or hard session, you recover faster, and experience less soreness and pain in subsequent workouts.
What can we learn from this to implement in our training programs? Start slowly and gradually allow your muscles time to adapt.
When beginning running, or coming back from a layoff, avoid strenuous eccentric muscle movements such as downhill running, until your muscles are ready for it.
After a month or two of steady running, while slowly increasing your distance and pace, include an occasional faster, more intense effort. Then hit it hard again after allowing yourself time to recover and adapt. Every two to four weeks, do a strenuous high-intensity or downhill workout again.
Studies indicate that higher intensity eccentric workouts designated for the repeated-bout effect do not even need to be maximal in quantity or quality, and can progress in small increments over more than two weeks. The repeated bout effect lasts from two weeks to ten weeks, so runners should include hard, long or downhill running sessions at least once or twice every month to retain the effects of this training phenomenon. By gradually increasing the intensity and duration of higher intensity workouts, you should avoid that painful zombie walk that accompanies severe DOMS.
Incorporate resistance training into your program. Using a different mode of eccentric exercise (such as weight-training) confers the repeated-bout effect. Thus runners, especially beginners, benefit greatly from a basic resistance-training program that starts several weeks before beginning a running program. The resistance-training program should involve the major muscle groups used in running: quadriceps group, calf muscle complex, and hamstring group.
Recovery after repeated-bout workouts You will need to determine how easily you run after these intense workouts by how you feel. It is unwise to set a prescribed workout schedule and stick rigidly to it because your body may need extra time for the inflammation and repair process to take place. The days following repeated bout workouts, either take the day off, or run very slowly, for a short period of time.
Warm up Perform five – ten minutes of general aerobic activity, such as jogging or cycling.
Run on soft surfaces as much as possible. Harder surfaces impart a higher impact, causing more muscle damage than running on soft surfaces.
Consider some form of cross-training at least once a week to give your leg muscles a break from impact. Cycling, swimming, deep-water running, elliptical trainer, Stairmaster or similar modes are ideal.
Roy Stevenson has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and coaching from Ohio University. He teaches exercise science at Seattle University in Washington State and has coached hundreds of serious and recreational runners and triathletes in the Seattle area. As a freelance writer, Roy has over 200 articles on running, triathlons, sports, fitness and health published in over fifty regional, national and international magazines in the U.S.A, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.