By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Earlier this year CTS Athlete Coree Woltering set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail. He decided to take up the endeavor with relatively little specific preparation, allowing himself just several weeks to pull all the logistics together, as well as get in some last-minute training. FKTs of this length are a different beast. They require meticulous planning, a good team, high levels of fitness and an unrelenting commitment to finish. Coree is a great athlete, but with relatively compressed training and planning time leading up the event, he only had a few of these necessities to rely upon. We both knew he’d be operating at a handicap compared to his potential and at times would have to fly by the seat of his pants. None of this was concerning in the least, because Coree had an ace up his sleeve, something he had honed through thousands of hours of being an endurance athlete, and long before I started coaching him. Coree possessed the ability to compartmentalize his effort into very small chunks, 10 seconds to be exact, and merely repeat these 10 second efforts over and over and over until the finish line was in sight.
We’ve heard of this compartmentalization strategy before in ultramarathon running. So much so that it almost seems trite by now. Pacers and coaches have told their runners to ‘stay in the moment’, ‘run the mile you are in’, ‘run to the next aid station’, ‘just make it to the next tree’ or, in Coree’s case ‘I can do anything for 10 seconds’, all in an attempt to keep their runner tuned into the present moment.
Few think about why this strategy is actually effective. They’ve just regurgitated it based off of an experience, anecdote or tall tale. But it turns out there’s a scientific rationale to the practice. Additionally, this practice is well suited for ultrarunning because of the sport’s complexity and uncertainty.
How runners determine pace
Endurance athletes have always adopted a wide range of pacing strategies. While I advocate for a strategy based on perceived exertion for trail and ultrarunners, I realize my opinion is not the only game in town. Some athletes choose to use heart rate, others utilize pace, cyclists use power meters, and some runners are starting use power as well. Triathletes, having to juggle three sports, can even use a combination of all of the above. When I was in college, our coach would place orange cones every 50 meters along the track and then program a beeper to to go off at distinct intervals–broadcast over the loudspeakers–corresponding to the paces we were trying to achieve. All of these strategies have their merits. They provide feedback to the athlete and the athlete can either adjust their effort or maintain it accordingly. However, when uncertainties enter the equation, as they do in ultrarunning, the athlete has to adjust.
A 2018 study looked at athletes performing a 30k cycling time trial with and without cues about their distance. The athletes that knew how far they had gone in the time trial were able to achieve higher power outputs, despite no changes in heart rate or RPE.
This makes a lot of sense, because if you know how much further you have to go, you can take an internal risk assessment as to how hard you can push (Figure 2 below). This phenomenon is what is known as ‘perceived exertion end point interaction’. It simply states that if given a task, let’s say a workout or a race, athletes will pace themselves according to two facets: 1) how they feel at the moment, and 2) how far they have to go. You constantly integrate those two points as the task goes on and calibrate your effort such that you are spent (or at least perceive that you are spent) at the very end. You literally are drawing and redrawing an internal line between where you feel right now and where you project you will feel at the endpoint.
Interestingly enough, this rationale has also been used to explain why novice athletes are so poor in pacing, because they don’t know the end point well enough. It can explain how ‘tougher’ athletes can perform better; they are willing to risk a steeper slope and higher end point (see figure below). And it can also explain why youth athletes have a tendency to start out too hard, because they have poor internal measurements of exertion. Flavors of this phenomenon have also made their way into famous models of performance regulation. It shows up in Tim Noakes Central Governor Theory, Ross Tucker’s Anticipatory Regulation model and De Koning’s Hazard Score. I also feel there is a translational point in ultrarunning.
How perception leads to drop outs
Every year (2020 excluded) I make it a point to spend several hours at the Outward Bound aid station at the Leadville Trail 100. Located at Mile 77 of the race, it is a DNF decision point for many. Runners enter the aid station in all different states. Some look great, others awful. Despite their varying outward-looking conditions, there is no real correlation between those athletes’ appearances and who drops out or continues on to the finish. There is, however, an internal calculus made by each and every person as they enter that aid station. Whether they realize it or not, they examine how they feel at that moment, and extrapolate that to how they would feel running the remaining 23 miles back to the town of Leadville–including going up the infamous Powerline climb en route.
According to the ‘perceived exertion end point interaction’, if the slope or the end point of that imaginary line exceeds what they perceive is tolerable to them, they get their wristband cut, head into their car and take the ride of shame back to town. The athletes who forge on have imaginary lines that are within their preconceived limitations. That could be because they have a higher tolerance of exertion, a more accurate forecast, or a lower degree of instantaneous suffering. However, the risk for error in both of these strategies remain the same: you are forecasting about a long period of time with many unknowns. So, I suggest another strategy altogether for ultrarunning performance.
How to pace by staying in the moment
This brings me back to my earlier story with Coree. Athletes like Coree are able to bypass the ‘perceived exertion end point interaction’ entirely. The line forecasting where you will be hours from now is never drawn in their head. They simply make note of where they are now, focus on a short period of time in the future, then rinse and repeat that strategy until- viola– they are standing at the finish line.
The take home message for ultrarunners is that there is some method to the madness of ‘being in the moment’. Forecasting and predicting in ultrarunning can be a fool’s errand, even though we’re naturally inclined to do it. We’re even trained to incorporate ‘perceived exertion end point interactions’ within workouts and hard runs. However, unlike a workout or marathon, your ability to predict how you will feel down the trail is clouded by the sheer duration and your impaired ability to comprehend (let’s get real, are you smarter or dumber after 80 miles?). So, when you get to your own Outward Bound aid station and all seems hopeless, forget the forecasting. Be like Coree, focus on the next 10 seconds, and the next, and the next. The finish line will eventually show up, just give it time.