Pre-Race Do’s and Don’ts for Ultrarunners
We’ve all been there before. You are in the last two weeks leading up to a race and just thinking about the race makes your palms sweat. Suddenly, all the weeks and months of training – countless hours on the trail – are all but forgotten. All you can see are the remaining 14 days and what you can do to get better between now and when the gun goes off. Panic ensues and somehow you forget that cramming for races, like college exams, is a terrible idea.
“How many more runs do I have from now to race day?”
You count the days. There are 14. Which means only 12 ‘real’ running days because two of them will be consumed by all day team building off-sites at work, complete with trust falls and paintball excursion. Your timeframe to race day has been compressed further. Panic intensifies.
“OK, so if I do 2 back-to-back long runs, a track workout, hit the stairclimber twice and do one hill repeat session, that still leaves me with barely enough time to sleep a couple of hours and then pack my bags and get to the airport on time. I’m glad I paid the extra money for TSA Pre Check.”
You lace up your shoes for the second back-to-back long run in a row. That’s four long runs in a row for the mathematically challenged. You are tired and there is a twinge in your IT band that you just can’t shake.
“But I need another back-to-back long run.”
No, you don’t. You want another back-to-back long run. But why? Usually it’s an overarching fear, lack of confidence, lingering doubt or some other emotion that’s not conducive to making a good decision about training. We don’t need much training stimulus in the last handful of days; we want it to quench an emotional thirst so we feel ready. Feeling ready is a valid reason for doing a training run, but not at the expense of your actual readiness on race day.
If you think I am exaggerating these internal dialogues, I am not. They are all too common in the final few weeks of training. For myriad reasons, athletes unnecessarily panic as they get within a few weeks of goal races. They do foolish things in training that they would never do if they could step back from the situation and assess it logically. They get greedy with the last handful of days, failing to realize their trivial contribution those days have to the entirety of training.
You need to cut it out.
Regardless of whether you did the work or are legitimately underprepared, your choices in the last couple weeks of training have far more potential downsides than upsides. How much downside? Well, if you execute your final 2-3 weeks absolutely perfectly (which is almost impossible to do), you might get a performance improvement of 2-3% (Mujika, 2003). What happens if you get it wrong? You might not even get to the finish line, or even starting line for that matter.
Why your last two weeks really don’t matter
During the last 2 weeks of training, most of the training stimuli you apply are unlikely to produce additional adaptations. Depending on specifically what you are looking at, most endurance adaptations take ~30-60 days to manifest into something tangible (Busso 1991, Busso 1997, Morton 1990, Mujika 1995, Mujika 1996). Why? The physiological process of applying stress, followed by rest, and finally leading to adaptation is not instantaneous. It takes time for your cellular machinery to build the structures and organelles that yield improved performance. This means anything you do in the final 14 days is unlikely to produce anything meaningful from a physiological standpoint.
How your last two weeks can matter
Although you’re not going to make substantial physiological gains, there are things you can do in the last two weeks of training that can make a difference in your race. And contrary to what we can find in the literature, sometimes these improvements can make a world of difference.
Get your sh!t together
You can use your last two weeks to get your game plan together. Like training, this takes time. The time you spend not running can easily be put to good use in the weeks before your race by planning out your drop bags, crew directions, pacing and nutrition strategy. Don’t leave it to the day before!
Get some confidence
While confidence is genuinely developed from deliberate practice over weeks, months and years, the last two weeks of training can still provide a bump in this area. Ask yourself, “What can I do to have the confidence I need on race day?” In the last two weeks of training, if the answer is some sort of ridiculous workout or long run, redirect your thoughts to answer why you need those long runs in the first place. If it’s to serve as a proof point that you can handle the distance, that’s a terrible reason for a long run. The entirety of your training is what created your ability to handle long distances, not that one run.
Focus on eccentric adaptations
Out of all the possible physical improvements, your body’s ability to tolerate the eccentric load (think running downhill) without imploding is actually the best area to focus on. Unlike building mitochondrial density/efficiency, improving capillary density, making new red blood cells, and other prototypical endurance adaptations that take weeks to manifest, the dose and time required to realize adaptations associated with eccentric exercise are small and short. So much so that the term ‘inoculation effect’ has been coined to describe the way that one single bout of eccentric exercise is enough to protect against the damaging effects of future bouts (Clarkson 1992, McHugh 2003, Nosaka 2001, Nosaka 2005).
The protective effects of eccentric exercise appear to last around 2 weeks, making the final two weeks of training critical to continue to incorporate climbing and descending into your routine. I recommend that ultrarunners maintain their normal vertical gain/loss in the final weeks of training to keep (and maybe slightly improve) these protective adaptions. I do not recommend that ultrarunners do one specific hard downhill run in this timeframe. The return on investment for hard downhill sessions is dubious, at best. Hard and specific downhill workouts frequently cause a lot of unnecessary damage, and require greater recovery, when it does not take much eccentric work to yield results.
To Sum It Up
Regardless of whether you have done the work or not, the last two weeks is no time to get greedy with your training. Aerobic adaptations will be hard to come by in this short of a timeframe. You can make a difference in your performance by getting your game plan together, gathering some confidence, and maintaining the climbing and descending you were normally doing in training.
See you at the races!
By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
- Busso T, Carasso C, Lacour JR. (1991). Adequacy of a systems model in the modeling of training effects on performance. Journal of Applied Physiology 71 : 2044-2049
- Busso, Thierry & Denis, Christian & Bonnefoy, Régis & Geyssant, André & Lacour, Jean-René. (1997). Modeling of adaptations to physical training by using a recursive least squares algorithm. Journal of applied physiology. 82 : 1685-1693.
- Clarkson PM, Nosaka K, Braun B. (1992). Muscle function after exercise-induced muscle damage and rapid adaptation. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 24:512–520
- McHugh, M. P. (2003). Recent advances in the understanding of the repeated bout effect: the protective effect against muscle damage from a single bout of eccentric exercise. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 13: 88-97.
- Morton, Richard & R Fitz-Clarke, J & W Banister, E. (1990). Modeling human performance in running. Journal of Applied Physiology. 69 : 1171-1177.
- Mujika I., Chatard J.C., Busso T., Geyssant A., Barale F., Lacoste L. (1995). Effects of training on performance in competitive swimming. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 20, 395-406
- Mujika I., Busso T., Lacoste L., Barale F., Geyssant A., Chatard J.C. (1996). Modeled responses to training and taper in competitive swimmers. Medicine and Sciences in Sports and Exercise 28, 251-258
- Mujika, Iñigo, and Sabino Padilla. (2003). Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35 (7): 1182–1187.
- Nosaka K, Sakamoto K, Newton M, Sacco P. (2001). The repeated bout effect of reduced-load eccentric exercise on elbow extensor muscle damage. European Journal of Applied Physiology 85:34–40
- Nosaka K, Newton MJ, Sacco P. (2005). Attenuation of protective effect against eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 30:529–542
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Worth mentioning that along with the above, during taper inasmuch as one is unlikely to gain fitness without cost greater than benefit, likewise making sure to do the workouts prescribed will ensure not too much fitness is lost while fatigue is being shed. It’s not peak fitness that is crucial for race day, as that is likely to be found on the last big training activity before taper begins, but rather form. Doing too little during taper will net a large shedding of fatigue, but along with that too much fitness can be shed. Do too much and the reverse is true (along with the increased potential for injury). Striking the balance to allow holding onto most of the fitness while shedding much of the fatigue is key.
This is why having a coach is so important, IMO. Your coach sees the whole picture and is the voice of reason those last 2 wks
Great stuff! Thanks!