Ultra running, the sport that is often met with disbelief from non-ultrarunners, has been said to be 10% physical and 90% mental and in a way that’s exactly how it is.
People of all abilities line up to start, and on the flipside people of all abilities pull out of a run. The reasons can be varied and sometimes, they’re the best decisions to be made, but not always. Question is, what can you do to avoid or overcome those moments of self-doubt?
The man who ran the entire length of Europe, Aleks Kashefi, has 5 tips on how to survive an ultra run:
1. Train as you mean to run or race
Whether you’re going to run a mountain ultra or your own personal road ultra, you need to prepare your body and mind for what is ahead. If it’s a hilly mountain run, get out in the hills and do it often.
If you don’t have hills, get on steps as substitutes. If it’s a flat road run with no support, get out on a road and run.
2. Slow down!
This seems to be at odds with the idea of running that we see peddled all over the place. Running and training at a lower pace means you train the aerobic, fat burning side of your metabolism and you need this if you plan on running ultras comfortably.
The other benefit is learning and reinforcing that strangely light and efficient motion that we so often call a ‘jog’. There’s no such thing. You either walk slow or fast or you run slow or fast. Don’t be scared of walking in a race.
You can sometimes walk as fast as a person is running and use the walk as a short bit of recovery. Ultras are about who can keep moving, not who runs the fastest (unless you’re a mythical beast, AKA an elite athlete).
3. Your brain lies
We underestimate the deviousness of our central nervous system. The brain functions on pure glucose and if your blood-glucose levels are low it will employ all sorts of tricks from feeling sleepy to aches and pains, all with the purpose of making you stop.
The fact is that we rarely come anywhere near the point of actually needing to stop to protect our health. Feeling a bit low, legs starting to ache a bit and positivity takes a nose dive?
Pop a sweet in your mouth, let the taste register and spit the sweet out. Miraculously the legs feel better, your mood picks up and you start to run!
4. Be efficient
Training fasted 2 or 3 times a week on slow or long runs and running for around 2 hours without any fuel will train your body to burn fat more efficiently.
This doesn’t mean start running with a massive block of lard in your race vest! The fat is fat stored in the body.
Reducing your carb intake or just your calorie intake also helps improve fat burning, but it takes a few weeks to really notice the difference. Slowing down is how you start to train this metabolism and the results are insane! You can drop 30 seconds off your mile time in around 6 weeks if you train well (check out the Maffetone method if you want guidance).
5. Ignore the distance
The story about the squirrel and a pile of nuts is a perfect analogy for running ultras. Whether it’s a 30 miler or a whopping 16,300-mile world run, ignoring the distance and focusing on much smaller goals is the secret to making the running mentally easier.
Try running 30 miles, but do it as a set of 5-mile runs. Counting down with each 5 miles has an odd way of making the distance seem shorter and before you know it there’s only 3 lots of 5 miles left. This is probably the simplest concept and the most difficult to do.
Those little niggles and low moments have a way of shifting your focus (there’s that brain being devious again!) on to the total distance and the ridiculousness of running that far.
The main theme in all the tips is simple. Discomfort creates comfort. If you train in the worse conditions, learn the little tricks and self-belief you need to survive, the real thing is never quite as bad.
Far too often, it’s the higher level of comfort we’re used to that makes us feel discomfort. There are lots of great books out there on training, diet and even the mental aspect of ultrarunning and ultimately, the best way to survive an ultra is to run an ultra, invite mistakes, fail and learn.
The worst that’s likely to happen is you walk away with a bruised ego and greater awareness of your strengths and how to work on your weaknesses.
Now get out, invite discomfort, make mistakes, learn and run free.
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