Despite their diverse backgrounds, elite ultrarunners share three common characteristics. You have them too. The differences just come down to a matter of degree, and you can enhance all three characteristics to improve your running performance!
- Talent: All elite ultrarunners (and elite endurance athletes in general) have a high genetic potential for aerobic power. If you want to run fast for long periods of time, you have to be able to suck in a lot of air and use it to metabolize food into energy. The takeaway for any runner is that no matter your starting point, working to optimize your aerobic power will make you a better ultrarunner.
- Toughness: All elite ultrarunners are tough as hell—almost to a fault. The good news for all runners is that you can harness your inner toughness with focused training.
- Emotional engagement: Ultramarathons are hard. The best runners have an emotional attachment to the races they compete in. They perform best when they have a genuine, visceral attraction to a race, the type of attraction that makes you excited, giddy, and just a bit scared all at the same time.
The best ultrarunners possess the highest levels of talent, toughness, and emotional engagement. For the rest of us the key is to optimize what you have by tapping into, leveraging, and developing your own innate talent, toughness, and emotional engagement.
For an endurance athlete, physical talent is largely (but not exclusively) measured through the amount of oxygen one can consume, more commonly referred to as VO2 max. This measure, the maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can consume, transport, and process, is usually expressed as milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min).
Elite ultrarunners don’t have VO2max values as high as elite marathon runners (around 77.4 ml/kg/min (Nevill et al. 2003)), but they still have to be able to consume oxygen at or above a certain rate in order to compete at the top of the sport. In my testing of elite ultrarunners, males can be successful with a VO2 max of approximately 60 ml/kg/min and female athletes with a VO2 max of approximately 55 ml/kg/min. This means simply that if you want to win a big, competitive race, like the Western States 100, Leadville Trail 100, or Lake Sonoma 50, your VO2 max values need to be in those neighborhoods.
In spite of how much emphasis I put on the aerobic system, I am the first to admit that an athlete’s aerobic power is not the only physiological variable to consider. If races could be won simply by having a higher VO2 max, athletes could skip the running part and just show up with VO2 max test results to claim their prizes. The fact of the matter is, elite ultrarunners are elites because they are talented across many physiological variables, not solely aerobic power.
It is important to note that aspects of talent are trainable. Even an athlete with an elite VO2 max can improve with proper training. This has been demonstrated in elite athletes in many endurance sports. For beginning runners, VO2max can improve by well over 20 percent. In elite athletes, improvement can also be attained, if to a lesser degree (usually 5 percent). Other aspects of innate talent can be similarly improved. You can train to consume more food, run over technical terrain, and handle heat and cold.
Why Talent Matters
Very few athletes have the constellation of physical gifts required to be an elite ultrarunner, but talent is nevertheless important for everyone. Every athlete has talent, and it is important to identify the areas where genetics and predispositions are well suited to ultrarunning. Maybe you don’t have a world-class VO2 max, but you have a better-than-average ability to maintain your lactate threshold pace for long periods. That’s useful for long climbs in events. Maybe you adapt remarkably well to high altitude, so your performance and pace don’t drop as much at high elevations. Or perhaps you are able to sustain a heavy training workload week after week because you recover and adapt to training stress quickly. These are all naturally derived traits you can optimize and leverage in training and competition.
No matter where your own physiological ceiling is, the goal of training is to close the gap between your current performance level and your maximum potential. The great thing is that there is always room for improvement because none of us, not even Olympic-caliber athletes, operate at our maximum. We can get very, very close to that theoretical maximum, but we always come up a little short. That gap, which always exists, is the reason we can all improve given proper training.
Elite athletes are naturally very tough. All too often, they are too tough for their own good. They have a tendency to push through injury and illness, sometimes to the point where these problems become unnecessarily serious. This can be a bad thing in day-to-day training, but toughness is a golden quality on race day. However, even elite athletes show up at the starting line with at least a few chinks in the armor. Maybe they left mileage on the table. Sometimes they can’t get in the vertical (Kaci Lickteig, for example, who lives in Nebraska). In these instances, toughness can take over where training leaves off. The elites bridge this gap better than the rest of the pack.
Why Toughness Matters
No matter how well you prepare for an ultra, it is nearly impossible to be fully ready for everything the race will throw at you. The elites have to be tough to maintain a performance level that will keep them in contention for victory. For a nonelite ultrarunner, toughness may be even more important because you are out on the course longer. There’s more time to be a affected by adversity, more opportunity for unfavorable weather to creep in, and several extra hours for your stomach to turn against you. You have to battle through fatigue at hour 23 or 27, whereas the elites were at the finish line hours earlier. Fortunately, toughness is a quality that can be developed and honed. It is forged through day-to-day training and through learning to endure specific challenges as you prepare for your ultramarathon event. Rising to those challenges by pushing through difficult workouts, working through bad patches during long runs, and venturing out for runs when it’s rainy, snowy, windy, or dark increases your toughness. Being willing to be uncomfortable is essential for building toughness; it’s a characteristic that will pay dividends when honed to its fullest potential.
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Elite athletes have a high level of emotional engagement in the events they compete in, and it shows. They have a tendency to care about the community surrounding the event, not solely their own performance on race day. During interviews, the elites have a sense of history, past winners, and every rock, nook, and cranny of the racecourse. In 2015, Western States 100 winner Rob Krar ran the final mile with the last finisher, in flip-flops. Think about that for a second. After running 100 miles this guy had the energy and emotional investment to escort the final finisher all the way around the Placer High School track. He cared about the overall race, and he cared about that last finisher. He has an emotional engagement with the Western States 100 that surpasses his own planning, preparation, and rigors of race day.
A large part of success in any elite competition is the athlete’s emotional engagement with the event. During the process of picking and choosing events, it is easy to identify the characteristics of the races that would best suit an athlete’s physical abilities. It is easy to look at a race to match up how much climbing and descending it includes, consider how hot or cold it will be, and look at whatever other variables exist and say, “Well, you are good at X, Y, and Z, so go do the races with X, Y, and Z.” However, I always begin with finding events the athlete is most emotionally engaged in. I put my athletes in a position for success by first encouraging them to train for events they genuinely care about, then building their physical tools around that event, not the other way around.
Why Emotional Engagement Matters
For the last four years I have been working with an athlete who has been attempting to complete the Leadville Trail 100 within the required 30-hour cutoff. Unfortunately, she has been unsuccessful in this endeavor thus far. Based on her innate talent, the 30-hour cutoff for that race is within the limits of her physical capabilities, but only by a razor-thin margin. For her to be successful, everything has to go right. In training she has to make the most of every day, completing each workout to the fullest and resting with purpose. During the race she needs perfect weather and flawless race execution, and she has to dig further into her training- honed well of toughness than ever before. If, and only if, all these things go right, she has a chance to be successful.
On her very best day in her very best year, this athlete is capable of a 29:45 finish. Unfortunately, for the last four years, she has been on the other side of that coin, yet she continues to go back, and I wholeheartedly encourage her to do so. I could easily coax her into an easier race with a more generous cutoff—perhaps a 100-miler at sea level. There are numerous events that would greatly increase her chances of finishing her first 100-miler, on paper at least. Yet, despite what I know from the rudimentary mathematical exercises of cutoffs, paces per mile, and probability ratios, I refuse to talk her out of racing Leadville. The sole reason for this is that she is 100 percent head over heels, obsessed, infatuated, and in love with the Leadville Trail 100. She is more emotionally engaged with that event than with any other race. So, even though on paper another event might be “easier” for her, I would argue that her best chance of success in a 100-mile foot race is in the race she’s most passionate about.
Many people race in events they simply have no attachment to. I honestly don’t know why. Even when you love the sport and the event you’re preparing for, at some point you will want to quit. When you’re exhausted, wet, cold, and nauseous, a part of your brain will tell you it’s just not worth it, and you will quit. Training for and running an ultra are extremely hard. You’d better like what you are doing.
TRAINING TIES TALENT, TOUGHNESS, AND EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT TOGETHER
Training is the catalyst that maximizes talent, toughness and emotional engagement. Training maximizes talent by pushing your raw physical capabilities ever closer to their predetermined genetic limits. Even rudimentary training moves you in the right direction, and training that is well designed further enhances your progress. The better, more intelligent, and more precise the training design, the closer you will get to your physical talent ceiling.
The importance of toughness cannot be exaggerated. As much as I am an advocate for intelligent, precise training, I’m not averse to pushing athletes very hard when required. Some hard training is needed to impose enough stress in order to adapt, and toughness is a beneficial byproduct of those difficult workouts. The act of pushing yourself in training reinforces and builds toughness you will draw upon come race day.
Training is a choice, which is all the more reason emotional engagement is essential. You choose to lace up your shoes, head out the door, and put in the miles. This engagement also has to be reinforced frequently. The hills you run, the intensity of your efforts, and nearly all aspects of training should remind you and positively reinforce your emotional engagement with the event you have chosen.
CTS Coaching Director
Author, “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
Adapted from “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”