Ambassador Julie (@jujumac5) has quite a few ultra-marathons under her belt. She decided to share some of her tips and tricks to help you feel more confident about either signing up for your first ultra-marathon or toeing the start line at your next one!
You’ve done some 5 and 10k’s, you’ve dabbled in half marathons and road marathons and are now debating the switch to trail – good for you! Many of us have taken this route and all I can say is – it’s ADDICTING! I switched to trail running in 2014 and can’t get enough. I often get asked about gear, nutrition, “what do you eat on a run that long”, hydration, etc. The following is a bit of a checklist to go through when preparing for your first ultra. I listen to podcasts, read articles and talk to other runners all the time and am always surprised at how many cool technical, nutrition or gear tips I pick up and I feel like I am always learning! This is by no means exhaustive, just some categories to reflect on for yourselves and make sure you are ready for that big race!
I know this sounds silly but there are a lot of people who “wing” this long distance running thing. This has always blown my mind. I have always wondered to myself – how would that person have performed if they actually TRAINED! Natural ability is a gift, but if it is not nurtured, it can be a waste. These are also more often than not the people who you come across on the trail who may be cramping, vomiting or in some other kind of distress. Combine your talents with hard work and you will knock your own socks off! There are so many books, online tools and of course the Run Like A Girl training plan that you can engage in!
In addition, another simple tip that can often be overlooked when we start increasing distance is TERRAIN. Train on what you will be racing on! For my first ultra, I was so concerned about getting the distance in that I overlooked the hilly course terrain that I would be racing on. Come race day, I was ready for the distance but nowhere NEAR ready for the grueling climbs and descents. Lesson learned! Review the course map and elevation when you sign up. Find hills, bridges, treadmill inclines or stair climbers and try your best to mimic your race conditions. Also, will you be running a hot or humid race? You will need to prepare with some heat training as well
Train with Nutrition
There are many options for nutrition; everyone has an opinion about what is on the market and every diet around – Tailwind, Gu, Clif blocks, vegan, keto, paleo, Coke, Gatorade, carb loading…it goes on and on. The main take away is eat what works for YOU, and train with it so you know how you will perform race day! Support your local stores and buy the products that fit your diet needs or taste. Make homemade snacks that you know agree with your stomach and are easy on your wallet. It’s easy to ask other people what they use, but when it all comes down to it, all of our digestive systems are different. Some runners can tolerate a full sandwich after a grueling hill climb, while others have sensitive guts from shunting all the blood to our muscles and the introduction of large foods can send them straight to the toilet. Some need caffeine, some don’t. Challenge your big training runs each week with nutrition you would like to use and figure out what suits you best. Most importantly, do not try anything new on race day!
Don’t Over Think it!
It’s SO easy to get caught up in all the science of this fueling business. “What do I eat? How often? I am running so far I must need to eat the whole time!” The truth is our bodies can only absorb about 240cal/hr when running an ultra marathon. You will be burning more than this, but be aware that your body can only use so much at a time. Gels are helpful for the first few hours but your body will need some real food after that, and it’s best to try these on training runs and see how things sit in your stomach. PB & J sandwiches, salted potatoes, energy bites, dates, chips, gummies are examples of light weight snacks that can be packed in your hydration pack. Be aware of electrolytes and consider things like chicken noodle soup and beef jerky at the aid stations. It’s also easy to lose track of times when you are out in the woods for hours – consider setting an alarm every 20-30 minutes to make sure you are checking in on your hydration nutrition. Many runners also like endurance geared nutrition like Tailwind for ultra running. This acts as a catch-all for hydration, nutrition and electrolyte needs. This product is available to me where I live so I tried it last year and loved it. I trialed it for about 6 weeks on every long run before commiting to using it in racing. Some people I know love it, some don’t! Find what works for YOU!
Hydration and Packs
Get your pack fitted! There is nothing more irritating than a pack that doesn’t sit well, or worse – one that chafes you (thank goodness for BodyGlide)! Go to a proper store and get it fitted. I loved the look of a Salomon pack and thought it would be great for me – tried all the sizes and they just didn’t fit my body well. These aren’t cheap – find what works best for your build and evaluate how much fluid you need to carry. Are you running self-supported? Do you have a crew? Is the run well supported with aid stations? How far between water stations? These are all things to consider regarding how much fluid you want or need to carry at once. FLUID IS HEAVY! I have been the person with bottles hanging off hips, packs, and in hand. Trust me, you don’t need it all! Make it easy on yourself -this is supposed to be fun!
When you are out in the bush for 5-24+ hours, you need to be prepared. You will get sore. You may get gut upset. You may feel nausea, and you may cramp. Easy tricks are to throw a few tablets in a small pocket that is easy for you to access and use accordingly. Some key ingredients – ibuprofen, pepto bismol or non drowsy gravol ( I like the chewy ginger tabs), SALT TABS, any prescribed medication. Salt tabs are a blessing but you need to be conscious and take them as directed and ideally BEFORE you start cramping. Also take lots of water and pay attention to your body. Don’t forget that electrolyte solutions and gels all have salt too, so you will often be taking in a ton and notice peripheral swelling! A friend last year told me they swear by Vaseline in between their toes to help with blisters – I tried it and it was fantastic! A roller is a great tool to leave with your team for transitions as your legs will appreciate it! If you are nursing any injuries or prone to overuse hot spots, throw in some duct tape, tensor bandages, moleskin – get creative!
This can’t be stressed enough. We are all busy. It’s easy to cram in that last appointment or commitment. However, the reality is your body will perform it’s best when it is well rested and prepared for the task. If you are running 50-160k or more, this rest is imperative. Many people will be running in the middle of the night in these races and unless you are a shift worker, this in itself will be unusual and hard on your body. Do yourself a favor and really commit to your sleep hygiene the week before your race!
As many ultras take place in beautiful parts of the world with mountains to climb, you have to be prepared for all seasons. This means LAYERS. Just because it is summer doesn’t mean it may not be freezing cold or snowing on the top of that massive mountain or two that you are scheduled to climb. Be smart. Have a lightweight, warm coat (good quality rain coats work well). Space blankets are cheap and work in both hypothermic conditions and extreme heat. Keep one in your pack at all times. Make sure you have something to keep your head warm and your body dry (headbands and buffs are small and easy to put in a pocket). Small gloves are always a smart idea. Remember eye protection and a headlamp if any possibility of running after dark. Consider wearing compression socks or arm sleeves to stay warm and aid in recovery. Buy good trail socks that wick moisture away from your feet – they will get wet! Many people like toe socks to prevent toes from repeatedly rubbing. You will find blisters in the most unusual places!
This is such a personal preference and depends on your anatomy, comfort and the mechanics of how you run. I often see people asking about what shoes other runners recommend, and it is important to try out a few of these recommendations to see how your own feet feel in them. Do you like a lot of cushion? Minimal? Something in between? Get a good pair that fit your budget and expand from there. The important thing on trails will be tread. This can be so drastic. I had a pair of shoes that I used to think were GREAT trail shoes. They probably were, at FIRST. I wore the tread down significantly from running on both pavement and trail and was soon sliding down all the downhills and nearly breaking my neck. Take a look at the bottom of your shoes and make sure they have some tread left. I picked up a tip last year to bring along another pair of runners to change into if wet conditions, mud, etc. I bought a second pair on sale and took the advice to size up half a size for this second pair. This was such a good tip as my feet had swelled, had some bandages and definitely would not have appreciated being crammed in to my normal size half way through that race. Many runners have a variety of shoes they rotate through based on terrain. Don’t stress about not having enough shoes- just get the RIGHT ones for you and your feet will thank you. Your local running store is key in choosing the right shoes – befriend them and don’t be afraid to ask questions!
A support crew can be an amazing asset to your run, but it’s not for everyone. Some people can comfortably run a 100 mile race by strategically planning out their drop bags and picking them up at the dedicated locations. For a first run, a crew is a great way to mentally, physically and emotionally help you get through your race. Make sure your crew person or team is up for the challenge, and prepare them properly with directions, gear instructions and any other information you want them to know. Try to give them estimated arrival times for yourself and leave as much stuff with them as you can. The less you have to carry, the better. Seeing your smiling friends and family after slugging it out in the bush for the past 5-6 hours can be a great motivator to make it to the next transition area successfully! They are also a great barometer to gauge how you are looking throughout the race and will be the first ones to notice if you are getting into trouble with hydration, electrolytes or injury. They are also your biggest fans and want nothing more than to see you finish – it’s your own cheerleading squad!
No matter how much you prepare, plan, read, train, run the course and check the weather – things CHANGE. Weather changes, terrain changes, your health changes. Be prepared for the unexpected and be adaptable. If weather becomes unpredictable, go out in a few layers and be smart. If conditions become unsafe on course, accept the curveball and go with the new route. If you get injured or are not well enough to go on – remember there are ALWAYS more races. It’s a hard decision to pull out of a race but even worse to be out for a season for not listening to your body. Train smart and be ready for anything. Mountain weather is never predictable!
Music is a great motivator for people and most people I meet say they can’t run without music. Keep in mind that when you are out in the wilderness, you need all your senses about you. If you need music, try just one ear bud or a blue tooth speaker. There are many options, but many can clip to your pack and will be a lot more helpful in keeping a bear away. Become familiar with wildlife where you are running or plan to race – most race briefings will go over any predators or recent sightings and what to do if you have an encounter. GO to these talks, it’s worth it! Bear spray is light enough to carry with you – just make sure you familiarize yourself with how to actually use it. Some races require you to have it. Run with a buddy, bang your poles together or bring some bear bells. The louder you are, the better!
After the grueling months of training, preparing, and stressing about the event, don’t forget why you signed up! These events are actually a TON of fun and full of like-minded people! Talk to them! Take in the event – go to the pre race meal. Stay after and cheer people on. Encourage other racers on the trail. One of my favorite places on Earth is the finish line of a race. The grit, pain, joy and raw emotions are what make me love this sport and keep coming back for more! Happy training everyone – and remember “whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right!”