Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ultramarathon Training: Train like a marathoner for peak performance

Over the past decade the sport of ultra running has grown exponentially and with its growth the level of competition at the front of the pack has risen proportionally. With its growth in participants, media coverage, and prize purses, the sport of ultra running has seen a lot races won by serious athletes who have road marathon times in the 2:20 to 2:30 range.

The ultra community however still engages in behaviors which are completely counter-productive in relation to gaining speed  beyond marathon distance, (and any distance for that matter!). Ultra runners still wear the number of races they partake in each year as a badge of honor even though over-racing is detrimental to performance capabilities. Along with racing too much, the lack of speedwork we do in ultra running is appaling. Speedwork is the key in gaining speed at even the one hundred mile distance. Can anyone tell me the name of an elite marathoner who races 6-12 marathoners per year who has peak performances in all of his or her races? No, because racing is counter-productive to training. To perform at peak levels, a runner must taper and decrease mileage, and allow recovery post race for several weeks which also results in decreased training abilities. Peak performances can only happen every few months. The inconsisties in training which result as a product of racing do not allow the adequate training routine needed to get stronger and faster. If someone thinks they don't need recovery after a race,  I assume they don't know it feels like to race at maximal capacity.

It may surprise most ultra runners to know that to prepare for even the hundred mile distance one must still train as if they were preparing for a marathon PR. Ultra running is an endurance sport, and as such we rely our lactate threshold to govern which pace we can manage for any given distance. Whether its a marathon or a one hundred mile ultra, we must build our aerobic engines to its maximum potential. Building our engines requires speedwork and tempo runs.

The human body for all intensive purposes has two motors which drive it; the aerobic sytem and the anaerobic system. The aerobic system fuels exercise considered easy to moderate and the anaerobic system fuels activities considered hard and beyond. Aerobic means "with oxygen" and anaerobic means "without oxygen". The aerobic system runs off of fat and oxygen, and the anaerobic system runs off of stored carbohydrates in the body.  These stored carbs are called glycogen. The body is very efficient at burning fat and oxygen for fuel. The aerobic system is the preferred energy system of our bodies. Fat comes from storage in the body and oxygen is delivered from the lungs as we breath. When the body runs out of oxygen because the lungs are taking in all of the oxygen they are capable of at increases efforts, the body supplements with glycogen and we go anaerobic.

Even the slimmest runner and cyclist has enough fat to fuel themselves for days and even weeks, but those same bodies can only store about 2000 calories worth of glycogen. This 2000 calorie supply is enough to fuel roughly two hours of intense exercise. Coincidentally, the worlds best marathoners finish the 26.2 mile distance in just over 2 hours... just enough time to make that final kick a real challenge when their bodies run out of their high octance fuel source, glycogen.

Elite marathoners train their bodies to burn fat and oxygen for fuel by raising the point at which their bodies switch from aerobic to anaerobic. This is called the lactate threshold.

For an ultra runner the advantage of raising their lactate threshold comes in the ability to run at higher paces and intensities using fat and oxygen primarily since the human body can only store a small amount of glycogen. Ultra runners are racing for an entire day, and in doing so, they must race below their lactate threshold as the events last from several hours to several days, clearly these requirements burn through more than 2000 calories worth of glycogen! Ultra runners must spare as much glycogen as possible while racing to avoid the dreaded "bonk" or "hitting the wall".

Here is an example to illustrate:

        Imagine a runner attempting his first 50 mile race. Let's call him, "Quadzilla". During Quadzilla's first ultra his lactate threshold was 75% of maximum heart rate. Even with perfect nutrition, getting in gels every half hour to provide the glycogen his body craved, he was only able to run the race at 60% of his max heart rate since his threshold was 75% of max. Quadzilla is happy to finish but he understands sports physiology and vows to start doing speedwork and raise his threshold. Quadzilla doesn't buy into the poor logic ultra runners dish out all the time. He doesn't "run on tired legs" and he avoids "back to back long runs". Marathons are not his speedwork. Over the year he raises his lactate threshold ten percentage points to 85% of max. He shaves nearly an hour off his 50 mile time since he is able to maintain a higher power output as a result. Nice job Quadzilla!

Speedwork such as mile repeats are the tools with which to increase your lactate threshold. Along with logging long quality miles the balancing act can be hard, but there must be a combination of all of these aspects to reach your maximum potential. Speedwork is very hard on the body. While running at max intensity the body recruits the endocrine system to help bump up hormone production to push hard during intervals. More than approximately 8 weeks of dedicated speedwork and the endocrine system fatigues and runners can become stale. Yet another reason that peak performances can only happen a few times every year. Recovery can be pro-active by planning it, or retroactive by waiting until your body says, "No More!" and you end up sick or injured.

Of course there are many aspects to training which provide the end result, lactate threshold improvement is only one piece of the pie. Nutrition is paramount as well. Low carb runners are doing themselves an injustice by not allowing their bodies to receive the fuel it craves for these high intensity workouts. To reach peak intensities during workouts the body uses glycogen, and as you know, glycogen comes in the form of carbs. It sound catchy to say, "I'm teaching my body to burn fat", but in reality a runner just can't hit the speeds they could hit with a full fuel tank of glycogen. Try to do speed work while being carb depleted and notice an inability of the heart rate to elevate. Look to clinical science before anecdotal conjecture. Low carb diets and high intensity training do not go hand in hand. An intake ratio of 65% to 70% carbs should be maintaned during the two month period in which speedwork is the focus. Your body will become plenty efficient at burning fat during your long runs which you will now have the energy to complete due to your increased focus on diet.

Good luck in training for your next ultra. Keep the information stream flowing! Most of us runners could benefit from taking an hour off from running each week and sticking our nose in a book! Be critical of articles, research their claims! Just because a runner trains in a certain way, doesn't mean that's the best way. I'm sure there are low carb runners who are fast, and I'm sure some people blow off speedwork, but are they really living up to their potential? What about a mid-packer who has a 95% lactacte threshold and has trained his body flawlessly, he just wasn't gifted with elite physiology. Someones placement in a race is not indicative neccesarily of how well they have tuned their body. A podium finisher could actually be capable of better and the mid-pack runner could be at the top of his game. It's all about the numbers. What is YOUR lactate threshold?
Comment call! Post questions and comments below!

Best of luck in training!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Zen Pudding Energy Gel- Land Between the Lakes 60K Race Report

The night before the Land Between the Lakes 60K a friend asked me if I was nervous. I replied "Nope." with a smile.

This years running marked the 10th anniversary of the LBL Trail Runs. The event has grown over the last decade to include a 50 miler (which I have run every year since 2007), as well as marathon distance and shorter.

Based in Grand Rivers, Kentucky; the race begins with a two mile run on pavement to thin out nine hundred runners before they embark on the singletrack loop which comprises the remainder of the day. Runners tackling the 50 mile distance circle the trail network four times, 60K runners circle three times, and marathon runners circle twice.

The original ultra distance of the LBL Trail Runs was 60K, (37.2 miles). This year I decided to take a departure from the usual 50 mile distance to try to break the 60K course record which came with a nice $500 purse for the runner who could establish a new CR.

Rolling into packet pickup on Friday night I was greeted by the race director, Steve Durbin. Steve is a great director and has done a good job organizing the event. Steve informed me Scott Breeden would also be going for the 60K course record which came as no surprise to me. I have become friends with Scott as we run a lot of the same races and Scott and I had talked about the 60K CR previously.

Some people had asked if I was bummed, or psyched, that I would be running against the speedy Scott Breeden again after Louisville Lovin' the Hills 50K. Sure, with Scott at LBL the chance to win a good chunk of cash was greatly reduced, but my goals in running aren't about placement, so I was stoked Scott was running as we would probably help push each other. I strive to improve performances. That's where the "Zen Pudding" part of the title comes in... Running to me is about goal setting and maximizing personal potential. Placement is irrelevant as it is based on comparison of other individuals and doesn't reflect maximizing personal potential. I might go out on a limb here but stick with me, I'm making a point.

Here is why placement is irrelevant...

Just because someone wins a race this doesn't mean they have maximized personal potential. Say someone is capable of running even faster but doesn't train well and doesn't eat well, but they still come in first place even with a sloppy performance because their innate talent is through the roof, what is there to respect about that and learn from? I respect someone more who reaches 100% of their potential even if they are a mid-packer but they reach maximum economy and potential through flawless training and nutrition. I've won some races while performing at sub-par levels, and had perfect performances and not won. I'm more proud of the races in which I met my potential and ran at my maximum capacity regardless of placement.

I know most runners aren't fighting for wins and podium finishes but the lesson still has a valuable takeaway for anyone striving to push the limits and excel whatever their pursuits may be.

It's this kind of perspective I've been lucky to realize and learn over the past few years of pushing the limits. Running has been a blessing and it's taught me not just how to get from point A to point B, but how to live in the present and practice mindfulness in the process.

So, when my friends asked me if I was nervous and I replied "Nope." I meant it. I was ready to dig deep and push the limits once again, and see if I could surprise myself at a new distance. I was fresh and ready.

The morning sun was at our faces and the air was chilly as nearly a thousand of us stood in our brightly colored synthetic clothing ready to begin our journeys. Sailboats surrounded us at the race start reminding us all that the day would be a trip full of adventure. I wondered if the wind would blow our sails and how the seas would treat us. I was ready for whatever the trails could toss our way, but on race day, March 9, 2013 the seas were calm. The trail was in better shape than I had seen in my 7 years of racing the LBL Trail Runs. Mud was minimal and runners could probably have gotten away with even wearing road shoes on the singletrack hiking and mountain biking trails.

At the command to "GO!" Scott Breeden and I bolted off at sprint pace and my heart rate was through the roof. I felt better than ever, ready to push the pace all day and punish myself. Scott and I ran together on the road at a clip of just over 6 minute per mile pace. I constantly gauged Scotts breathing at this effort and made note my breathing seemed more labored than his. This was a race of almost 40 miles and we were hurdling ourselves forward unabashedly ready for more challenging terrain. The first half of the loop Scott and I each fell once and didn't seem to slow even with the tumbles. One might think that at these paces which seemed insane to me we would be nose to the grindstone, faces gritty and determined but the air was light and the conversation good, relaxed and quite enjoyable. Scott and I chatted about upcoming races and I enjoyed his company. We took turns leading one another until he finally pulled ahead on the second half of the loop where the larger hills are.

Scott is built like a professional marathoner, light and tight, with minimal upper body mass. I have been working with my PT, Lauren, at Advanced Orthopaedics and my form on flat terrain has become much more efficient which gave me the ability to hang with Scott on the flat terrain, but on the climbs he can pull away from me with his monster lungs and lack of mass. (...and my specialty is challenging terrain and climbing!). The 37.2 mile course holds 3000'-4000' of vertical ascent, most of which come on the second half of the loop. Trying to hold 7 minute miles on this terrain is challenging to say the least but I felt comfortable and once I was on my own I settled into a rhythm and focused on form.

I was thrilled with my time completing the first loop. Including nearly two miles of road to enter the trails, I had only been running an hour and thirty minutes. My first lap was 1:16.45. I was well ahead of course record pace. Stephanie and I had constructed a plan in which I only had to carry a water bottle for half of the loop and this plan worked well. On the faster first half of the loop I could float along at speeds I once thought I was incapable of without the weight of a bottle to affect arm-swing, and then on the second half of the loop when the climbs would slow me down regardless, I would carry a bottle and pick up an energy gel.

I took the second lap easier and slowed by five minutes, for a 1:22 split. Rarely during a race do I have the chance to enjoy myself, but while running along the Kentucky Lake shore I looked around and realized I had the opportunity to have a day full of running in gorgeous weather. I knew second place was locked in at the speeds I was running and I knew I had some time in the bag from the speedy first lap.

Finishing the second lap I was still enjoying myself and was shocked how fast the race was going by. Having run the 50 mile event for six years prior, I was used to having to run four laps so the prospect of pounding out just one more lap seemed refreshing. I knew I had taken it a bit too easy on the second lap but by watching my heart rate I knew I was still pushing pretty hard since I was averaging well over 85% of my maximum heart rate.

I grabbed a 5 hour energy and a gel from crew extraordinaire, Stephanie, as I ran by and pushed a much harder effort on the third lap. I was still enjoying myself but in a masochistic way now. It was time to dig deep and destroy my legs, heart and lungs, with everything I possessed.  I had begun lapping people on the start of my second lap and now on my third and final lap the trails were pretty crowded. I was forced to yell, "COMING BY ON YOUR LEFT!!!" to large groups of runners. I wanted to make sure to say "Thank You!, Nice Job! Keep it up!" to all who made way for my passage and smile so as not to seem like a jerk. I respected their efforts immensely but I too was on a mission. A minimal amount of runners had their iPods on too loudly and I was left to graze by them brushing shoulders on the narrow trails. If you're going to wear iPods on singletrack, keep the volume down.

I was stoked to finally see friends while I made my way around the third lap and was catching up to them on their second lap. It fueled me to push harder to catch as many people as I could on their second lap as I finished my last!

My eyes were glued to my Garmin as I completed my last lap and began the 1.8 miles to the finish line. Had I slacked off too much on the second lap?! I made haste and took off towards the finish at a pace in the high 6 minute range. I came in a few seconds over the previous course record and was happy with that. Scott Breeden earned his payday.

Final numbers showed an effort that lasted 4 hours and 27 minutes for my 37.2 mile run. I averaged exactly 85% of my maximum heart rate which I was psyched to see! My final lap required great effort. I ran the same pace as my second lap although it felt much faster and more difficult. My third lap was 1:22.30. Honestly, I goofed off and had too much fun on my second lap, and it cost me a few minutes so I came in a few seconds over the old CR, but I ran a strong race and I was cool with that!

I wasn't happy with my Lovin' the Hills performance the month prior, but this was one I was very happy with. The day was a blast and I felt good. Running the 60K was rewarding and I saved my legs for Umstead 100 mi which is the main goal for spring. I'm pretty sure had I run the 50 mile distance, I could have knocked off at least 10-15 minutes from last years 6:25 including fade for the longer distance, so I couldn't ask for more than what I came up with on race day.

Congrats to Scott on a phenomenal race, and congrats to everyone who ran on Saturday, regardless the distance or pace! We're all doing the same thing here!

Don't wait to sign up for the Backside Trail Marathon on April 28th! It's going to rock! Go to

Regarding the title...I'd love to get into a personal treatise on how running has helped me practice mindfulness and how living in the present has improved my training and overall peace, through helping me not overtrain however I'm guessing this is better served in a separate article...hahaha. This was supposed to be a race report.



Friday, March 1, 2013

Louisville Lovin' the Hills Race Report

Lovin' The Hills 2013- A Review

I choked down yet another energy gel packet, sticking to my nutrition strategy of one gel every 30 minutes. 20 miles had gone by and my stomach felt good, but not great. The previous 20 miles were very strong, but not sheer perfection like the previous year. The final 12 miles would follow suit, worthy of contentment, but not awe. 

In the opening miles I maintained a pace which felt punishing. It was a pace I knew from experience I could maintain throughout the 32 miles of trails that comprise the LLTH 50K course. The course is a little long to be a true 50K, and to add to the challenge the route boasts 6400' of climbing- not bad for a Midwestern ultra!

Entering Scott's Gap at mile 20 I had finally escaped the affable Harvey Lewis who was running in 3rd place. Harvey is a talented runner who is on the TEAM USA 24 Hour Team. Harvey was the second fastest US male at the World Competition this past fall. Scott Breeden was somewhere far ahead of me at this point, and about to gain even more ground during his scorching return on the Siltstone trail. 

This was my seventh year in a row running this race. I know how to run the course. I always use the challenging Scott's Gap loop as a chance to recover slightly before the return on the Siltstone trail, and apparently Scott Breeden did the same, as he only gained two minutes on me while I ran at a relaxed pace. 

Ironically enough, the section of course in which Eric Grossman and I dropped Scott Breeden last year was this same stretch, aptly named Scott's Gap. This year, however, the tables were turned. Scott was in 1st place and swiftly flying through the forest en route to a win. Scott has grown and matured as a runner. He's had a stellar year including a sub-70 minute half marathon and a 50K in which he finished only minutes behind David Riddle, (one of the fastest guys in the country). From his smoking fast times in shorter races I knew he had the physiology to be an amazing ultrarunner, and he showed everyone what he is capable of in his first two ultras of 2013. 

After exiting the Scott's Gap section, Breeden put the hammer down and ran a sub-55 minute Siltstone return. This stretch of trail is the return from an out and back and the runners I passed on their way out weren't giving me any clue as to how far ahead he was. I didn't care. I was punishing myself, and giving it all I had regardless of anyone elses proximity to my churning legs. My one hour return on the Siltstone wasn't enough to bridge the gap he was forming.

As I finished the Siltstone trail and entered the Yost Ridge Trail for the final climb of 3 miles to the finish I contemplated my overall goals in the race.

  • Beat last years time of 4:47
  • Beat the Course Record from 2007 of 4:39
  • Maintain a high heart rate
  • Stay strong mentally. Push myself as hard as possible and "stay in the pain cave..."  
  • Practice good nutrition by eating every 30 minutes
  • Carb-load well the week prior to the race at a 70/18/12 carb/fat/protein ratio.
  • Run from the core. Keep lower abs firm during the race. Kegel throughout.
I closed strong and held my second place finish, with an overall time of 4:37, beating the old course record by two minutes. I knew it would be close, and so I dug deep on the steep grades heading up to the races finish line.

It was a good race considering I didn't taper. The course was a little shorter than the previous year and I ran 10 minutes faster without speedwork in January. Scott Breeden roasted me, but I met my goals.

Not every race can be an A race. Last year this was an "A" race. I tapered well and trained for it. This year however I'm building to peak for the Umstead 100 in April. I'll walk away from LLTH this year content that I ran as strong as last year while training through the race.

Recovery from LLTH which was now 3 weeks ago was fast. I began focusing on mile repeats and tempo runs only a week or so after the race. I was fresh and ready after a January which was high in volume but low to medium in intensity. The workouts my PT Lauren, at Advanced Orthopaedics has me doing helped with recovery as there are fewer imbalances in my form. I felt stronger than ever on the decents and I look forward to the improved recovery times which focusing on hip strength, form, and balance has brought me.

I'm shooting for the Course Record at the Land Between the Lakes 60K this year on March 9, (next weekend). I've opted for the 60K distance over the 50 mi. I'm happy with past performances at the LBL 50 and this is the 7th year I've run LBL. This year I want to spare the legs and endocrine system from the 12 added miles of racing the 50 mi vs. the 60K. The 60K course record attempt will still be challenging as its a stout time. I feel like I am making a wise move by racing the faster 60K at LBL this year which is only 4 weeks prior to Umstead. It boils down to 4 hours of racing compared to 6. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make my goal for Umstead happen; a sub-15 hour 100 miler. (2012 Umstead 100 15:27)