ultrarunning lessons

Top 5 Ultrarunning Lessons From 2020


By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

Oh 2020… what can we say about you? You were a year we’d like for forget, but likely will not. A year of cancelled events, but chock full of twists and turns nearly every week. You brought out the best in us by bringing us the worst. And from that adversity, there are always lessons to be gleaned. Ultrarunning is a sport that is all about adapting. In fact, it’s one of the few participatory sports that wasn’t obliterated by the pandemic. Not only that, I strongly feel that the sport is going to thrive in 2021 and beyond. So, as we move forward into a new year with new rules, new races and new goals, here’s what we can learn from the year that was.

Whys are greater than Whats

This year magnified the pitfalls in our collective obsession on the specific Whats we are training for. Finishing a race, earning that coveted belt buckle, setting PRs and other outcome goals were largely sucked into a black hole of lockdowns, travel restrictions and race cancellations. From this trend, two distinct athletes emerged. First, it revealed that many athletes were overly focused on the aforementioned Whats. These athletes struggled to maintain any sort of consistency and ultra-shuffled in and out of purposeful training. They felt frustrated, lost and confused in this new world that was absent of the bright and shiny objects they were seeking.

The second type of athlete that emerged were those that had strong Whys. These athletes barely skipped a beat and forged on with training. They continued to improve every month and continued to thrive despite not having clear outcome goals to shoot for. Ironically, they also felt frustrated, lost and confused, but still had a purpose that was meaningful to them. That purpose was more than enough leverage to fuel their training and optimism for the future.

Whys will always be greater than Whats. Whys are evergreen, purposeful and potent. Strong Whys lead to stronger athletes. Let’s remember that moving forward.

Ultrarunning can ADAPT

In the first edition of Training Essentials for Ultrarunning, I introduced a concept for dealing with adversity called ADAPT, which stands for Accept, Diagnose, Analyze, Plan, Take action. Little did I know, the ADAPT principles would come into play this year as athletes were forced to adjust and readjust their plans through the year. And many athletes did just that. Some took on personal projects, like CTS Athlete Michael Koppy did by tackling the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail at 69 years young. Others took on Fastest Known Times, like coach Corrine Malcolm did on the Tahoe Rim Trail and CTS Athlete Coree Woltering on the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail. And we saw so many other examples this year.

Trail races ADAPTed as well. Aravaipa’s renown Javelina Jundred was run over several days with multiple waves of socially distanced and masked runners. The Speedgoat 50k showed how races could be run safely by instituting pre-race temperature checks and small, well controlled wave starts. Most ultrarunners took to these adaptations, and from my first-person observations, runners felt safer out on the trails than in the grocery stores.

You are always going to have a need to ADAPT, pandemic or not. The crystal balls we use for race planning and performance forecasting are really not all that clear. This is because ultrarunning is a messy, stochastic sport filled with pitfalls and problems, many of which cannot be foreseen. When the future is uncertain, and your well thought out race plan goes awry, you better have a plan to adjust and ADAPT!

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Fitness is resilient

Even for athletes that took some down time due to work, stress or just a natural reset found that their fitness was quite resilient. Ultrarunners normally come into the sport with years, sometimes even decades of endurance training. With that athletic background, fitness is not going anywhere anytime soon, even with complete lockdowns instituted in some areas. So, if you have been taking some time off due to lack of motivation, a dearth of races, or any other malady, fret not. Your fitness has not deteriorated nearly as much as you think and will come back quickly with even a minimal amount of consistent training.

Mental skills are hot

There was no quarantine on mental training! With the transcendent popularity of ultarunner David Goggins’ bestselling book, Can’t Hurt Me, ultrarunners and everyday athletes alike took mental training to new heights. Whether trying to ‘Goggins it’, determine how to have greater self-efficacy, or practice heightened self-empathy, almost everyone was trying to step up their mental game. And I think all of these trends are for the better. Mental skills have long gone overlooked in sports performance settings, and this about-face–partially catalyzed by the pandemic–is going to be a silver lining to it all. As a coach, I have had my athletes focus more on body scanning and breath than I have in the past. These simple awareness tools are not the only way to improve your mental skills, but they are a good gateway to the process.

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The long game always wins

Every Wednesday I host an Ask Me Anything on my Instagram stories. The process has been enlightening, as I get a front row seat to athletes’ most pressing questions. Without fail, every week I get is some version of, “I am training for X, how long should my longest long run be?” While well intentioned, the athletes asking this question are missing a huge point in any endurance endeavor. And that is, there is an entirety to the training process. No one single long run, workout or drill holds the key to success. There are no hacks to endurance performance. In that sense, playing the long game, focusing on your development over long periods of training, and the entirety of training should be your focus, not one workout or one mile or one climb. Athletes focused on the long game, similar to the athletes who have great Whys and can ADAPT, are well positioned going into 2021 and beyond.

It would be easy to dismiss 2020 as a waste of a year. There were few races, little if any results and a scarcity of competition. Beyond running, we also saw tragedy. Worldwide we’re fast approaching 2 million COVID deaths. Many small businesses have shuttered and others that have limped through 2020 will never recover. The virus simultaneously exposed our weaknesses in healthcare, forethought, readiness, communication and willpower. But, despite all of the despair we can emerge having learned valuable lessons we can draw on to be more resilient for the future. I’ve always maintained that ultrarunners are a resilient lot, so my optimism for the future has not wavered.

Comments 2

  1. Whys > Whats – so simple, so profound, and so very true. Doubled my annual mileage this year, and largely attribute this to enjoying the process of training vs. any specific race or pace goals

  2. I need all the tips i can get. Doing Destin,FL 50k on feb. 14,2021. Will be my longest run ever. Have done 8 marathons over the past 20 yrs.

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