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An important part about spectating an ultra is having the sudden and striking reminder… ultras are really freaking far.
At mile 17 of this year’s Run Rabbit Run 100 Miler, I saw runners coming up a steep grade into the Fish Creek Falls aid station. Abby Levene bounded up the hot and exposed hill, looking fresh and fly, and I asked her how she was feeling. “I feel like I’ve already run a long way,” she said.
I love Abby’s mid-race honesty. Because it’s true. 17 miles with 5000 feet of vert would be a terrific Saturday run. The difference between what those athletes had already done and a normal long run is that they still had 83+ miles and nearly 20,000 feet of vert to go.
I saw Abby again the next morning at the final aid station, 6.5 miles from the finish. She still looked relatively fresh and fully fly as she bounded down the final hill. Her 100th mile was under 7 minutes as she sped her way to 5th place in her first 100.
Seeing Abby fly off into the distance gave me that mix of chills and tears that characterizes every ultra finish line. I was fully exhausted just from driving aid station to aid station. Meanwhile, here she was sprinting down a mountain nearly 20 hours after she’d already “run a long way.” Intellectually, 100 miles is far, of course. But emotionally, logistically, SPIRITUALLY?! What a massive, mind-blowing accomplishment, for Abby and anyone else that attempts such a monumental task.
Spectating an ultra is so valuable for any trail runner (or coach) because it removes the sepia-tone of the accomplishment, along with the bright sheen of comforting numbers and neat physiological models. It’s easy to romanticize things after the fact, or from a distance. But out there, seeing athletes go through the shit? It’s only romantic if you love Pringles and puke.
It also gives life to the numbers. 100 miles or 50 miles or 26.3 miles mean so much more when translated from a spreadsheet to a mountain. The same goes for fatigue resistance metrics or aerobic threshold calculations. Mike Tyson said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The ultra corollary might be that everybody has a plan until their legs are goop and every neuron is screaming at them to stop. What keeps them going then?
There are a lot of answers to that question. Going into the race, Abby said that her “why?” was focused on the immensity of the unknown challenge and a love of the mountains. That psychological grounding mixes with gear choices, crew approach, race strategy, and tons of other little elements. But all of those plans don’t mean anything if the trail punches an athlete in the mouth and they just can’t do anymore. That’s where training comes in.
This checklist focuses on 5 elements that apply to most athletes doing ultras regardless of their background or goals, and episode 67 of our podcast will be all about this topic. I’m leaving off controversial elements focused on specific training methodology like mileage or types of workouts, because to channel Big Lebowski, yeah, well, you know, that’d just be like, my opinion, man. These 5 points are instead based on nearly universal physiological principles.
Under each point, I couldn’t help but include some opinions about how to implement it in your training. Opinions are like assholes, I have several hundred that I feel passionately about.
One: Train to run downhills efficiently from start to finish
Over the years, my neuroses developed a way to determine from race trackers what was going to happen later on in the event. Find a split that’s a net downhill anytime around halfway or a bit before, calculate the variance between athletes, and see who is excelling relative to their current position. Athletes might be in the top 5, but slowing on the downs, and it often portends disaster. On the flip side, athletes who are farther back but rocking the downs have a high probability of moving up through the field regardless of what happens on the ups.
To put it another way: downhills are free speed that come at a high price. The heart rate will be lower, usually at sub-aerobic threshold levels that an athlete can sustain for the entire race. So it’s possible to go fast without much aerobic or metabolic cost. You won’t bonk from the effort if you’re fueling well. But then comes the price–quads that become mashed potatoes if something isn’t quite right in the physiology on race day.
What’s happening? As outlined in this 2017 article in Sports Medicine, downhill running at different grades results in varying biomechanical loading patterns. Eccentric muscle contractions involve lengthening under load, and could cause micro-tearing that reduces subsequent performance, particularly on steeper grades (see this 1995 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine). Even at less steep grades, impact forces are greater and neuromuscular strain varies. A 2016 review article in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found increased tissue damage and tiredness with sustained downhill running.
Emerging theories indicate that there may be a nervous system link as well. A 2020 article in the Antioxidants journal indicated that delayed onset soreness may be caused by “acute compression axonopathy of the nerve endings in the muscle spindle,” caused by repetitive eccentric contractions. While I’m no doctor, I do know that you don’t want “-pathy” associated with your nervous system or really anything else.
It’s possible that muscle fiber typology plays a role in how athletes respond to repeated eccentric loading and increased impact forces on downhills. Anecdotally, our athletes that are faster-twitch struggle more than those that are slower-twitch in longer events (and thus have a heavier focus on steep ups and downs in training).
If an athlete can be trained to run downhills late in races, then they can make up hours on competitors that may just be surviving. And even when training for flatter races, downhills may improve fatigue resistance. There is a repeated-bout effect in training that will make the body more resilient to whatever physiological process is causing the reduced performance, and it’s debated what’s the exact right way to achieve those goals. At the most basic level, make sure you are trained to run downhills well on grades as steep or steeper than race day, particularly in longer runs in the final 4-6 weeks.
- Do strength work with eccentric and concentric loading, like this all-in-one Strength Work Cheat Sheet.
- On back-to-back weekend days, run on trails with a vert ratio that is as high or higher than the event at least 3 times before race day (even if you need to take training trips). If you live somewhere flat, you can get by with a focused camp over 3-7 days, mixed with maintenance. More details here.
- Practice running with purposeful flow on downhills in training, particularly on weekend runs. While the aerobic demand is low, the neuromuscular and biomechanical demands are high, which takes practice.
- Do some weekly sessions of steep uphill repeats, with run down recovery at that same efficient flow. Something like 5 x 3 minute steep hills up and down a few times before race day can prevent any strange physical response that is unique to race-like intensity.
Two: Raise your hiking speed as high as possible
We all know that people run at vastly different speeds. That’s what 95% of my training articles are designed to improve. But spectating an ultra, it’s shocking to see how much hiking speed varies, even without underlying explanations in training. For example, I asked one world-class athlete what made them such a great hiker with limited practice, and after a brief reflection, they said: “My dad always walked fast.” That’s the weird thing about hiking–since output is lower relative to running, the demand is more neuromuscular and biomechanical than it is aerobic.
That’s a massive training opportunity, since it should take short training blocks to dial in the skill. Most athletes can train to the point that hiking at 3.5-4ish miles per hour is sustainable over varied terrain that isn’t too technical. And that really adds up. At Run Rabbit Run, athletes hiking at 2.5 miles per hour were losing hours to those that defaulted to 3.5 miles per hour, and my guess is that if you measured their heart rates, you wouldn’t see a substantial difference.
Everyone can become a fast hiker, it just takes good form and adequate practice, particularly in that same 4-6 week block before race day. Note: this point may not apply to athletes that don’t have to hike at all in ultras, particularly 50ks and 50 milers. If someone runs an entire mountain 100 miler, we should hook them up to a sled to deliver vaccines to Nome.
- Dial in form, with forward lean that mimics the grade (more lean for steeper grades, less lean for shallower grades).
- Add 4-6+ uphill treadmill hikes as doubles in the 4-6 weeks before race day if you don’t have to hike much in training. Outdoor hiking works well too!
- If you have to hike on your normal training runs, practice hiking with purpose, using good form.
- Do 1 or 2 longer hikes that take half of a day or more if you will likely have to hike a substantial amount on race day.
Three: Train the digestive and metabolic systems in a focused way
A fascinating training oddity I have seen over time: whenever I coach cross-country skiers or serious bikers for trail running, they almost never have the normal gut issues that plague many ultrarunners. My theory: long ski or bike days involve such high caloric intakes that they double as perfect training of the digestive tract.
Emily Caldwell is a great example. Before the race, she made a fueling plan focused on taking in gels the entire event. Usually, that’s the moment I’d speak up and mention that athletes taking in gels for 100 miles often end up like one of those rotating lawn watering systems, but with the sprinkler replaced with their mouth. But Emily was a skier, so I didn’t give her any gross imagery that she’d have to live with for the rest of her life. She took a gel every 30 minutes like clockwork (along with other food), and never had any issues.
Athletes without the gift of a gut training background need to have it be an emphasis year-round, but particularly in the 4-6 weeks before race day. A 2017 review study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that just two weeks of gut training improved GI symptoms and running performance. A 2020 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that more frequent ingestion of gels increased performance over less frequent gel ingestion. The 2017 review study cited numerous examples of gut training in action. Those researchers recommended up to 90 grams of mixed-source carbohydrates per hour in activities over two hours to optimize gut training outcomes and performance.
Consistently fueling training has the added benefit of improving performance and overall health due to the more sustainable response to training stress. In a perfect world, work with a sports nutritionist.
- Fuel on most runs over 1 hour, starting with a gel or similar, progressing to more complex foods that sound fun.
- Fuel on at least half of long runs like you will in the race itself, ideally 250-400 calories per hour, depending on background.
- Fuel slightly more on runs a few times, up to 400-500 calories per hour (pizza is great for this!).
- Periodically, drink your hourly fluids at once, rather than spread out in small sips, being careful not to exceed your hydration needs.
- On race week, take your race-day fuel on the last couple runs, even short ones.
Four: Develop and foster efficient form for your unique physiology
While studies on form indicate that changes may not be beneficial for running economy, those studies are not conducted at hour 6 of an ultramarathon. At that point, the running form you can sustain will always be better than the form that breaks down with fatigue.
At the Dry Lake aid station at mile 43 of Run Rabbit Run, headlamps bounced into view every few minutes. There was something striking about the leaders that went on to top finishes–there seemed to be a bit less bounce. Perhaps they had optimized their form for the demands of the ultra events they were doing, where excess vertical motion would probably be punished with excess muscle fatigue and damage. Most of the athletes had relatively high cadence, with limited wasted motion.
That being said, Jim Walmsley runs like the world’s fittest kangaroo and he is one of the greatest of all time, so maybe this rule doesn’t apply to everyone.
- Reduce the angle formed by your tibia and femur as your foot pulls through and knee drives forward, and maintain quick strides. As Joe Uhan says, high-heel recovery should feel like a “hip-driven foot lift, underneath your body, and forward in a cyclical motion.” Or in other words, BE A PRANCEY PONY.
- Practice these 5 form tips, with quick and light strides.
Five: Raise the ceiling to raise the floor
Every athlete will be capped out around an individual-specific percentage of their output at aerobic threshold for long ultras. The reason is that even if the musculoskeletal system can continue to do work all day with smart training, the metabolic and aerobic system require some glycogen stores to avoid bonking (with evidence that performance decreases even before the tank goes to empty). Aerobic threshold is relevant for long ultras because it’s around the effort range when the body switches from primarily lipid metabolism (fat stores can burn all day) to primarily glycogen metabolism (glycogen burns off rapidly, but refills at a drip). This 2018 article in the Nutrition Reviews journal is a great primer on glycogen metabolism.
Even with full fueling, higher intensities won’t be sustainable for long ultras for most athletes because the burn rate will be higher than how much the body can feasibly absorb. So every athlete finds themselves averaging a general percentage of aerobic threshold, with faster ultras sometimes even going above 100% of AeT. Those that have more experience and higher volume training may be at a higher percentage, while those with lower fatigue resistance or less training may be at a lower percentage.
That percentage can change over time with training, but based on the data I see, the changes take multiple training cycles for experienced athletes. Instead, if athletes elevate that aerobic threshold ceiling, the rising aerobic tide can raise all physiological ships. Output at AeT goes up, so even if the percentage they can hold for an ultra barely changes, they can go faster without having to face bonking that undercuts performance.
Reaching anywhere near individual potential in running economy around AeT requires an athlete do higher intensity training that develops their speed. At Run Rabbit Run, all of the top finishers are also pretty darn fast, and that’s not a mistake. Even in a race where the winning times are around 20 hours, the efforts an athlete can sustain for that duration are mediated by aerobic and metabolic processes that apply to events around 1-3 hours.
You don’t need to go fast often. But make sure that you’re not neglecting your speed in ultra training, or you’ll find yourself going slow and bonking anyway.
- Aerobic base is most important, and keep developing that year round
- Raise top-end output via strides
- Work all metabolic pathways with shorter intervals 1-2 times per week
- Periodically do tempos, including within long runs
- In the 4 weeks before ultras, dial in the sustained aerobic threshold running over terrain like race day
Every athlete is remarkably different. Even expecting that to a certain extent, I am continually surprised by how much physiological responses can vary amongst athletes with similar backgrounds.
But while we are all dealt different genetic hands, they’re coming from the same deck. These 5 points are designed to make the most with what you’re dealt. Just remember: whether you reach the finish line or not (or whether you race ultras or not), you are freaking amazing just for having the vulnerability to put yourself out there in the first place.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.