racing ultramarathons underprepared

How to Race Ultramarathons When You are Underprepared

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

Despite best intentions, many ultramarathon runners reach the final month before race day feeling wholly unprepared. Maybe life got in the way or you overestimated the amount of training you could commit to. Or you suffered an injury that cost you valuable training time. My CTS Coaching colleagues and I get frequent messages from athletes who wonder what they should do. Should they race anyway? Defer to next year? Change their race strategy? Forfeit the entry altogether? In many cases, 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

Athletes brag about the longest run or 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.

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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!

Comments 3

  1. Thank you for the article and released at the right time for me. As a 60+ year old runner I have a four day multi stage race in three weeks (A race) followed by my first 100k attempt three weeks after that and I have been sidelined for a week after falling down a 12 ft embankment into a rocky river on a training run. So I know all is not lost when I will hit the start in less than optimal condition.

  2. This article came at the perfect time for me. I have a 50 mile trail race in 8 weeks. I have not been able to run the last week due to a dog bite. I was starting to get down on the lack of training. Thank you for this article.

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