By Jason Koop
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
If I did not despise our culture of finding the latest and greatest ‘hack’ to improve performance, the title of this article could very well be ‘8 Hacks for the Ultimate Ultramarathon Performance’. Fortunately, I have more sense than that. The fact of the matter is that many ultrarunners leave easy improvements on the table. They focus on nuances like the speed of carbohydrate delivery of gel #1 vs gel #2 or the .2 ounces they will save with the newest iteration of their favorite shoe. In my view, things like that don’t mean squat at the end of the day. Sure, I like advancements in nutrition and equipment but if an athlete tells me they would have won a race if only they’d had the latest hydro-gel or Kevlar shoelaces, I’ll tell them to take up a new sport. Simple things matter, a lot. And I would bet my last dollar the following 8 things, if done properly, are worth more than a specific gel, lightest shoes, newest equipment, advanced technology, fanciest recovery modalities and most ergogenic of all the ergogenic aids combined.
#1: Track volume by time, not miles
I have two staple six-mile runs. One is around my neighborhood and in the surrounding parks and bike trails. There is not a rock, root or stone along the route. I rarely run under 8 minutes per mile pace. It takes me about 50 min to complete the loop and afterwards, I feel fresh, recovered and ready for a harder run the next day. This staple six-mile loop is my standard recovery run and I can do it in my sleep. The other six-mile run heads up the Manitou Incline. Rising 2000 feet in less than a mile, the Incline consists of 2600-plus oddly positioned railroad ties one has to deftly negotiate. The descent down an adjacent trail (particularly in winter) can be treacherous, as erosion has littered the trail with rocks, roots and other obstacles that can cause even a seasoned trail runner to hook a toe and have a yard sale. There is no other way to do the Incline but HARD. The Incline loop takes me about one hour and 45 min to complete, if I’m moving at a good clip.
If I use miles to tally training volume, both of these runs would count the same. Yet, they are wildly different in effort, terrain, vertical gain and fatigue generated. Why, then, do we constantly see ultramarathon training plans, coaches and athletes prescribe and evaluate volume by miles? It makes no sense.
How many of you have had a 16-mile long run planned, and then chosen smooth gravel paths, benign terrain and little elevation gain just to satisfy the quota? Do yourself a favor and start thinking of volume in terms of time, not miles. It will give you the flexibility to run on different terrain, varying altitudes and you won’t blink twice about heading up something like the Manitou Incline.
#2 Use Rate of Perceived Exertion, forget pace and heart rate
I feel like I’ve been a bit of a broken record on this particular subject. However, it still pains me to see trail and ultramarathon athletes focus on paces and heart rates to evaluate intensity. I will spare you the technical difficulties associated with monitoring intensity on heart rate or pace in an ultramarathon setting. Instead, I will present one simple fact.
When you learn to run by rate of perceived exertion, you are practicing to become more in tune with your body. The more in tune you are with your daily effort, the better (and more automatically) you can manage effort on race day. Why is this important? It’s important because thinking costs energy. If you have to constantly think and evaluate: ‘Am I running the right pace (runner looks down at watch)’, ‘Am I in the right heart rate zone (runner looks down at watch)’, then you are wasting energy. There is a reason rabbits are so lauded on the international marathon scene, particularly when course, national and world records are at a premium.
Rabbits allow the athletes gunning for records to go on autopilot, focusing all of their energy on the effort and simple task of running. Learn to run by effort. You will be more in tune with your body and ultimately become a better runner.
#3 Eat more plants
One of my athletes recently bought a Vitamix for me as a gift. “The best blender for the best coach,” the card read. While the sentiment was appreciated, I really think she was trying to tell me something my mother always said: “Eat your vegetables.” I now throw at least multiple cups of kale and spinach into every recovery smoothie I make.
There is a needless and, ironically, unhealthy amount of debate in the nutrition world right now. It is difficult for a lay person, and even some experts, to agree on fundamental things such as ideal macronutrient distribution (low carb vs high carb vs periodized), the role of sugar in an athlete’s diet and even if saturated fat is good or bad. To cut through the clutter, here is something you can take to the nutrition bank: Eat more friggin’ plants and your performance will improve. You don’t have to be a vegan or a vegetarian or buy a Vitamix, but the vast majority of us can stand to add more plants into our diets.
#4 Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
At some point during an ultramarathon, you are going to hurt, a lot. This might last for hours and if you are doing a longer race, a whole day or two. If you have never been tired, delirious or sore in training, you are literally not training for the demands of the event, and whatever ails you in a race will be your undoing. However, if you have intentionally pushed yourself to be uncomfortable in training, race-day distresses will be just another run-of-the mill thing you have dealt with before. So, go out when it’s cold and icy. Your quads a little sore in the morning? Suck it up, buttercup! Don’t coddle yourself in training, because the racecourse and everything the race will throw at you will have no sympathy for you!
#5 Hike more
I use a fancy piece of software called WKO4+ to analyze training. I only know a small handful of ultrarunning coaches who use it. To be honest, it’s overkill, but I like the precision I get when looking at training files. It is like having an MRI vs. an x-ray (which in this analogy would be the data I can get from TrainingPeaks). One of the most useful things I have been able to program into WKO4+’s software is ‘run to hike’ ratio. It literally just looks at the file and based on the parameters I set, will tell me how much running vs. hiking an athlete is doing for any particular run or race or timeframe of workouts.
Quick question: how many of you know how long you will be hiking for during your next ultra? Very few, I bet, and this is a common training error. You should know how much hiking vs. running you will be doing in your next race so you can get close to that ratio in training. This is the training principle of specificity at it’s finest. If you need to hike during the race, you better hike during training!
#6 Run inspired
Any year I’m not running the Leadville Trail 100 myself, I go out to the race to support my athletes and take in the scene. Year in and year out, Leadville has a notorious DNF rate of about 50%. There is no reason for this because (sorry-not-sorry) Leadville is not that hard. Many blame the altitude. Others blame their fitness. Some blame the lack of qualifying standards to get in. Some blame ‘Born to Run’ (seriously). After observing literally hundreds of athletes choosing to drop out, I have come to the conclusion that altitude, fitness or experience of the athlete is not to blame. The blame for Leadville’s 50% DNF rate falls squarely on people not being tough enough (see #4 above) and not running with any sort of emotion or inspiration.
Inspiration will take you farther than calories, your VO2max, your pacer or your new pair of shoes. The trick is, you have to find what inspires you. Some call it your ‘why’ or your ‘purpose’, but whatever you want to call it, you need something other than fitness, a good nutrition plan and a good crew to rely on during race day. You have to have something you are emotionally connected to and invested in. That can be the sensation of the finish, the challenge, or being a role model to your kids. Whatever is it is, it should resonate on a deep, personal and emotional level… not a rational one.
#7 Rest with intent
Early in my coaching career, I always said I wanted my athletes to rest more. Rest is good, but it was naive of me to think that more is always better. What I have learned is that athletes have the time to rest. It’s not that they need more rest time, but rather that they need to rest deliberately and with intent. What does this mean? Turn off your phone and meditate for 15 minutes instead of checking Twitter and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. If you have a recovery run planned, do it as slowly as possible. Instead of watching TV, do some self bodywork with a foam roller or massage ball. Set your bedroom up so that it’s cool, quiet and without (particularly electronic) distractions. None of these activities cost one single minute more to do. But, they will all have positive impacts on your recovery.
#8 Focus on the process, not the outcome
All my athletes have goals. It is a necessary carrot and part of what will make them great. However, for every goal they have stated, there are multiple pieces of process underneath that supports that goal. For every “I want a big buckle at Leadville” (the outcome) there is “Be consistent, manage your daily nutrition, go into each run with a purpose, get in a good effort tomorrow,” and so on and so forth (the processes). Placing the spotlight on the outcome is a fool’s errand. It is not a sustainable nor effective way to manage training. Athletes are best served to focus primarily on the processes they can control day in and day out. If you are deliberate in your efforts and take joy in the process, the outcome normally takes care of itself.
So there you have them. Eight things that don’t cost you a single step. I would be willing to bet that if you improved or changed something related to all of these items, it’s worth 10% on race day. That’s 3 hours for a 30-hour Leadville 100 finisher. All without a single additional workout, supplement, interval or gadget.