racing ultramarathons underprepared

How to Race Ultramarathons When You are Underprepared

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By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

2021 is proving a weird year for ultrarunning performances. Whether post pandemic related or a cosmic misalignment of the stars, it’s hard to argue that 2021 has not been simply bizarre for elites and average runners alike. For example, this years’ Western States 100 saw a paltry finish rate of 66%, the lowest finish rate seen since 2009. Runners in the Hardrock 100, on the other hand, mustered up some better results with a markedly average 76% finish rate. Combine that result with the top two men (Francois D’Haene and Dylan Bowman) both running under the course record and women’s winner Sabrina Stanley missing the course record by a mere 3 minutes, and you might be lulled into thinking the Western States results are just a fluke. But the weirdness continues as I got to witness firsthand at this year’s High Lonesome 100 in Buena Vista, Colorado. The relatively new race is set in spectacular scenery in Colorado’s Sawatch range, home to the Collegiate Peaks and the infamous Nolan’s 14 route. The race is a qualifying event for Hardrock and normally boasts a stubborn waitlist, with few people willing to give up their spots for the novelty of a Hardrock qualifier set among some of the best trails in the United States.  This year was different though, as race management blew through over 100 people on the waitlist and still had spots to spare come race week. This last scenario oozes of a lack of confidence from the entire waitlist as when their name got pulled they simply said ‘no thanks’.

So, what gives? Why is this year so inconsistent in terms of race performance, waitlist movement and DNF’s? Is it a case of the post-COVID blues, athlete’s being out of race practice or simply coincidence? Regardless of the origin, it is now clear to me that athletes are coming into race season less prepared than usual. The race results directly show this and the greater-than-usual movement on race waitlists peel back the curtain on athletes’ waning confidence. But, racing underprepared can still yield a successful result. So, if you go into your next race with some bullets missing from the gun, here’s how to frame your day to still be successful.

Realize Training Accumulates Over Years, Not Months

We all like to brag about our last long peak training week before a big race. We put so much undue emphasis on it that it’s a constant source of content for me to put into context. While your last few months of training do make a difference, the training you did over the last 12 and 24 months has a far bigger impact. I would rather have an athlete who trained for 24 consistent months, and then skipped the last three months before a race, than the other way around. So, what I want you to realize is that if your last few months of training did not quite go to plan, it’s not the end of the world. You have a lifetime of training to lean on come race day. Now, if the entire last 24 months of training were inconsistent, then you have a right to second guess yourself.

Adjust Your Expectations

If you are stuck doing a race with less-than-ideal preparation, take a good hard look at the training you were able to do. Compare that to previous years and get a general guestimate of how far off you are by tallying a simple total of weekly training hours. If you normally average 12 hours per week, but the last 9 months of training you bounced between 9 and 12 hours per week, you can realistically expect to be ~25% off of PR shape. Then, translate that to race performance. If you expected to do your next 50 miler in 10 hours, adjust that to 12-13 hours. This ballpark estimation sets the framework for the rest of your race plan, including pacing, nutrition and attitude. If you are mid-pack runner or even a front of the pack runner, this might mean aligning your pacing strategy with the cutoffs. If you are normally close to the cutoffs, examine if the race is even feasible for you to finish. It’s a humbling process but be honest with yourself and act accordingly. Some of the lower numbers of entrants we’ve seen at some races could be the result of runners making this very assessment.

Be More Conservative on Race Day

Fitness not only makes you race faster, but it also acts as a buffer against unideal pacing, poor race day nutrition and anything else you screw up once the gun goes off. When you are fit, you can make mistakes in race execution and not pay a huge penalty because you have physiological reserve to compensate. When you lack fitness, part of that physiological reserve goes away. So, if you come to the realization that your preparation is less than ideal, take a more conservative approach to your pacing strategy than you normally would.

Be Prepared to Adapt

The ability to adapt during a race might be the most important skill an ultrarunner can hone. This is particularly accentuated when you enter a race underprepared. Expect that you will feel terrible earlier than normal. Expect that your nutrition will go awry, even if you have a history of a rock solid stomach. When these maladies inevitably hit, be prepared to adapt. This means moving your nutrition from your tried and true foods to foods similar to the foods you know work, and perhaps even sources of sustenance you haven’t tried. When you are underprepared, the adage of ‘try nothing new on race day’ gets thrown out the window because you have not tried enough things during training in the first place. It might mean taping your feet when you get a hot spot even though you have never had a blister (the skin on your feet adapts to training too). Whatever the situation is, just expect to face new and unique challenges, even if you are a seasoned runner.

It’s Not As Bad As You Think

Don’t for one second think that unideal training is the end of the world. Even in the best of training circumstances with the best of athletes, training is never perfect. There is always mileage that disappeared from the plan, a workout that was missed or some other life circumstance that interrupted what would have otherwise been a perfect training build. So, if you go into your next race a bit underprepared, get in line with the rest of the ultrarunners out there! Adapt and adjust your race plan accordingly. You can still be successful at your goal race, it’s just a matter of how you frame it!


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Comments 6

  1. Pingback: Ako pretekať na ultramaratónoch, keď nie ste dostatočne pripravení - Podcast Štartovacia čiara

  2. Hello! Thank you for telling us about this and sharing your experiences. If you’re a little underprepared for your next event, join the ranks of the ultrarunners! Adapt and change your race strategy as needed. You can still win your goal race!

  3. Here in Canada, races are still few and far between. Through this drought, my physical training has been excellent. Jason, I’m interested in your view on being underprepared mentally for racing.

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