- Training for an Ultra
- Tapering for an Ultra
- Eating for an Ultra
- Mental prep
- Hurdles and overcoming them
- Recovery after an Ultra
- Your Ultra Training Programme for UTCT
There comes a time in every girl’s life where she makes a decision that makes her question her sanity. For me, that was a few weeks ago.
I signed up for the Maxi Race South Africa 68km trail run. This will be the furthest my little twigs have ever carried me. Desperate for any help I could get, I turned to the queen of trails and trail coach, Landie Greyling. She ran the original Maxi Race in France (85km of killer climbs and rocky descents) and she has years of ultra experience. Over a cup of coffee, I picked her brain for ways to survive this weekend…
Training for an ULTRA
“The main difference between a shorter distance race and an ultra-distance race is that your legs need to be conditioned for running when they’re tired,” Landie begins. For most athletes, the deep muscle fatigue will hit around 30km in – and that’s when it becomes an ultra. The build-up to the event is vital. Here’s what your training should look like.
“If you regularly run around 30-40km a week, that’s your base week,” Landie explains. “You should build it up by 10% (more or less) every week. You should have three build weeks, then a recovery week – not a rest week, but a recovery week.” This allows your body to adapt to the added distance and the stress you’re putting on it. “It’s important that you get that curve right.”
This build-up should include lots of back-to-back runs. “So you’ll run a 20km the one day and a 20-25km the next day,” Landie elaborates. “This is what’s going to teach you to run on tired legs.” What’s more, you want to build up to 75% of your race distance in the weeks before. “If your race is 100km, then you want to run at least 60-75km beforehand. Ideally, use another race for this, but treat it as a training run.”
“We really believe in strength work.”
It’s not all running. “We [Christiaan Greyling and herself] really believe in strength work,” Landie adds. “It makes a massive difference with staying injury-free and being ready and strong.” Trail running requires input from all different muscle groups constantly due to the uneven terrain. “If your core is not strong enough to support you to stay upright, the longer the distance, the more your whole posture and running form will deviate,” she continues. “This is when an injury happens.” Your training, therefore, should also include two or three strength training sessions.
READ MORE: The Trailblazer Core Stability Workout
“There’s obviously lots of core in there along with the strength work,” says Landie. This is in addition to the full-body strength workouts. “Focus on three to four sessions of dedicated five- to 10-minute core sessions a week.”
“Rest actually completes your training.”
Finally, the key ingredient is rest. “If you’re constantly putting your body under stress, you’re never giving your muscles a chance to repair. Complete your training by just resting, allow the lactic to [leave] the muscles, while giving the cells a chance to repair and grow.”
Tapering for an ULTRA
“Two weeks before your race is definitely the taper period,” Landie says. This means no more long runs or anything that can fatigue your body. “Two weeks before the race on the Monday would be my last strength training session.”
As for your running schedule, you should cut your mileage in half. “[In the week before], you’ll basically do an [easy jog] every second day,” she continues. “Give your body a lot of chance to rest – but you also don’t want to feel sluggish. Cut the quantity but not the quality.” Plus, plenty of foam rolling and stretching.
Another vital factor is sleep. “If you have to prioritise something, prioritise sleep,” she concludes.
Eating for an ULTRA
“Food is so personal,” Landie begins. “Everyone’s bodies handle things differently.” The main guideline that holds true for anyone though, is to train with what you want to eat on race day. And stick to this tried and tested formula on the day.
“The meal you eat the night before [your race] is an important one,” she continues. “There are lots of ways to get it right, but if you get it wrong, you’re going to suffer.” Steer clear of spicy food or anything heavy to digest, like a piece of steak. “I’d opt for something very light and easy to digest – a piece of chicken with broccoli and sweet potato accompanied by a salad with avo.” And keep it simple. No sauces or complex additives that will take a while to be broken down.
“I generally eat two to two-and-a-half hours before the run.”
Your race day breakfast is another biggie. “Most people like to eat one to three hours before the run. I generally do two to two-and-a-half hours before the run.” Landie’s go-to ATM is Wazoogles Supernatural Oats with a spoonful of Butternut nut butter. “I wouldn’t go with fruit or anything that’s high in fibre as that will give you problems [read: runner’s gut]. You don’t want to have to duck around the first bush – or dive into it,” she laughs.
“During the race, it’s important to eat within 45 minutes of starting,” she continues. “When you hit empty it’s too late to start eating.” In the same way you don’t wait for your car to splutter to a stop when the fuel runs out, you keep topping up your energy supplies. “Save your gels for the last 20% but initially [snack] on your peanut butter sandwiches, bars, date balls – whatever you prefer. Try to get between 160 and 200 calories per hour.” And not just carbs and sugars – throw in some protein as well. “You won’t feel like eating, so do the hamster trick.” Landie adds. “Stuff it in your cheek and you don’t even need to chew!”
“You can’t rely on water alone.”
“Hydration-wise, you need to make sure your drinks include electrolytes. You’re losing salt, potassium and magnesium through your sweat and water will just flush them out more.” Biogen, Tailwind and NUUN are all good options. “But don’t over-hydrate either – drink to thirst.” It’s important to pace all aspects of your race: your running, your eating and your drinking.
Mental Prep for an ULTRA
When it comes to race week, things get very real very quickly. “Take time out to just chill,” Landie suggests. “Spend some time going over the route profile, your game plan, your strengths and your weaknesses.” But even the best-laid plans go awry. “Remind yourself that what happens, happens and you are mentally strong enough to handle it.”
“On the morning [of the race] I like to jog somewhere quiet and have some time for myself,” she adds. “On the day it’s 80% mental and 20% training.” Landie likes to distract her mind with good times with friends and family that have nothing to do with running. “Draw strength from those lekker memories.”
Hurdles and overcoming them
When the going gets tough, it’s also going to take some mental stamina to overcome that pain cave and other hurdles that trip you up literally and figuratively on the day. “Draw strength from tough training sessions and focus on everything that’s going right,” Landie suggests. “Force-feed yourself positive thoughts. And remember why you started this in the first place – visualise that finish line feeling.” Again, keep it simple. “Run for that beer or that coffee or that milkshake,” she adds (her go-to reward: ice coffee or choccie milkshake).
Cramp prevention is actually in the training.
Cramps truly do cramp your style and prevention is better than cure. “I’ve only experienced cramps twice in my career – once was actually the Maxi Race in France,” Landie admits. “Ninety percent of the time they’re caused by your body not being conditioned for the terrain or the type of exercise you’re doing.” Therefore, prevention is actually in the training. But there are in race solutions, such as Crampnot. “It contains ginger which has been proven to help with cramps,” she explains. “I’ve been using it since I cramped five years ago and haven’t cramped since.”
READ MORE: Here’s Why Runners Should Do Cross-Training
Recovery after an ULTRA
Directly after your run, there is a 30 minute period where it is vital to take in protein and some carbs for recovery. And then rest. “Put your feet up, book a massage, you want the blood to spread to the areas that need repair,” says Landie. Compression gear can aid with this too.
In the week post-ultra, take it easy. “[Enjoy] some cross-training swimming, chilling…” You can take up to six weeks to get back into the swing of your usual training. The general rule applies: listen to your body and be kind.