Observations of an Ultra Coach

What is the difference between the elite runner and the back of pack runner? Is it fitness, training, genetics, mental or some other factor?

A few weeks ago I spent the weekend watching over 1000 runners compete in Australia’s biggest ultratrail event – The North Face 100 – held in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Apart from supporting the runners I coach who were competing and enjoying the atmosphere I was also looking for the differences between the faster and slower runners. I was keen to see if I could find any areas of improvement for the slower runners that didn’t involve any extra training time. Time is a factor for many athletes and whilst the elites tend to prioritise training above most other aspects of their lives the rest of us have other commitments that often restrict the amount of running we can do. Many of us are also limited by how much training our body can cope with before it breaks down. So is there a way to improve performance without any extra training time? The good news is my time wasn’t spent in vain.

1. Improve your running economy

Watching the elites run past I noticed how light they were on their feet and the ease and economy of their movement. They danced down the trails, floated up the hills and cruised along the flats. Many of the slower runners could be heard approaching from a distance as their feet crashed into the ground. With every step energy was lost from body to ground instead of being reused to propel the body forward. The elites made much better use of this energy.

The Achilles Tendon for example can return up to 35% of the energy stored in it during landing. This means less effort is required by the muscles to propel the body forward. Because of this the elites are able to run faster and use less energy to do so.

How can you improve your running economy?

Running more miles often helps but given that time is limited for many people and the risk of injury increases as the milage increases, a more effective means to is perform some form of plyometric training. Jumping, skipping and hopping will help improve the elastic properties of the calf and Achilles. I have detailed a beginner’s program here. Substituting one run a week for a plyometric session can actually transform you into a faster runner.

You could also have your running technique assessed and see if there are any improvements you could make to improve economy.

2. Run well within your comfort zone during the initial stages

I positioned myself at around the 5k mark and as the elites ran past there was no noticeable effort on their faces. No sounds of heavy breathing, no signs of trying to force the pace. They cruised by effortlessly. As I observed some of the slower runners go by their laboured breathing sounded as if they were half way through a 10km race not 5km into a 100km race. Clearly not sustainable for 100km. Lots of calories burnt, lots of damage to muscles that would come back to haunt them later in the race.

100km is a long way, run well within your comfort zone at the start. Don’t get swept up with other people, run your own race. The pace should be slower than your normal run pace. Ultras are a strange event in that race pace is slower than training pace.

3. Minimise the weight of your backpack

The size of some of the slower runner’s backpacks astounded me. I am not sure what they were carrying but they were twice the size of many of the elites. Whilst all runners have to carry the essential kit, many of the slower runners were carrying a lot more. Every extra kg of weight slows you down approx 3-4 seconds per km on the flat and 3-4 times that going uphill. With over 4500m of climbing in the race this very quickly adds up to 15+ minutes. A couple of kilograms could add 30-60 minutes to your time!

In a race where dropbags and support crews are allowed, better planning about what you may need, and when, can reduce the weight of your pack.

For example there is no need to carry 3 litres of water on a section that is only 18km long. Think about exactly what you need and carry the bare minimum. Of course safety comes first and you need to allow for possible emergencies but in the first 20kms of the race how badly can something go wrong that necessitates you carrying that much gear?

4. Don’t waste time at checkpoints

Ben Duffus shows us how to get out of a checkpoint swiftly!
Ben Duffus shows us how to get out of a checkpoint swiftly!

The elites spent less than 60 seconds in each of the checkpoints for a combined total of less than 5 minutes whereas the slower runners spent 5 minutes or more in each checkpoint for a combined total of 30-60 minutes or more spent in checkpoints.

Now sometimes when your race isn’t going to plan time spent at a checkpoint to regroup mentally is a good thing. But if you are feeling okay then every minute spent in the checkpoint is time lost.

I saw many runners come into the checkpoint and then collapse into a chair to rest for a while. If you are working that hard that you need to rest at the checkpoints then I would suggest you are probably working too hard. The strategy of some of the slower runners seemed to be to approach the race as 6 different stages with a short rest in between each stage as opposed to a continuous race. The clock doesn’t stop at checkpoints so no reason for you to. Pacing yourself during the race so you can move through the checkpoints quickly is a far better strategy than pushing hard to get to the next checkpoint and then collapsing into a chair for 10 minutes.

If you aren’t actively restocking your pack, drinking or eating then get going.

5. Stay positive no matter what happens

Staying positive when running in surroundings like this shouldn’t be too hard

The contrast between people’s mental state was fascinating to watch. One of my athletes Ben Duffus had a great race finishing 7th overall and at every checkpoint he was calm, relaxed, positive and focussed and this was true of many of the other elites.

The elites that weren’t having a good day had a range of different mental states – some came into the checkpoints frustrated, angry and negative. Whereas others were still smiling and making the most of the experience even if they weren’t going to perform as expected.

The mental state of the rest of the field varied from that same calm, focussed, positive state of the elites to a negative, doubting, worried emotional state.

Staying positive is so important in an ultra. Not giving in to the negative voice in your head that is complaining about how much everything hurts is critical to a good performance.

Remember this is what we do for fun. Learn to appreciate each moment for what it is and no matter how bad your legs are feeling you should still be able to find something positive to focus on. If you can’t it may be time to consider why you do these races in the first place.

6. Train specifically for the course

Training for the terrain in crucial.
Training for the terrain in crucial.

A common complaint of many runners was how challenging the stairs are on the course. It’s not as though they snuck the stairs in at the last minute. Everyone knows there are going to be lots of stairs yet how many people train specifically for that?

Your training should reflect whatever elements a trail has, whether it’s stairs, technical single track, big climbs, flat runnable sections etc.

7. Train your stomach

A common complaint was upset stomachs. The ability to handle food and drink whilst running for a long period of time is critical for a good performance in any ultra. The golden rule is to stick with what works in training and not be tempted by whatever the aid stations have to offer. If you want to use the sports drink provided then you should train using that sports drink.

I feel that many runners try to consume too many calories. The stomach has a hard time digesting food whilst you are running. Consuming too much reduces the ability of the stomach to process the food into your intestines where your body can absorb the energy it requires. Put too much in and the stomach rebels forcing you to either slow down or by regurgitating its contents so it can start afresh.

Another problem is that what your stomach can handle for 4,6 even 8 hours it may rebel from after 10,12 14 hours. Your training runs can only be so long so race day is often a journey into the unknown. That’s why experience counts, knowing what works and what doesn’t. If something doesn’t work don’t presume it was a once off and it will work next time. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of stupidity isn’t it?

8. Reduce your risk of cramp

Cramp was another common problem that slowed many people down. I have written in detail about it but in short the causes of cramps are varied. To reduce the risk of cramp training needs to be specific to the demands of the race, you should be fully tapered and start conservaitvely as going too fast early is a major cause of cramp.

9. Putting it all together

Imagine if you had a race where you paced it spot on, not going out too hard at the start, you spent minimal time in checkpoints, never suffered cramps or gastrointestinal discomfort, had a light pack, improved your running technique, stairs held no fears for you and you stayed positive throughout the whole race. How much faster do you think you’d go? And how much more would you enjoy the experience and feel full of confidence for your next adventure or the next challenge that life throws at you?

All photos courtesy of Catherine DuBois