Random Trail Tips

Here are some things I have picked up over the years, through experience or from other runners. It is designed to allow runners to compete in races solo, without having to rely on drop bag locations or a crew. If you have those options, even better !

However, nothing replaces your own research and testing, and what works for others may not work for you - and vice-versa. Ultra running is like life - there's no failsafe solution for getting through it without mishaps and adversity, and if there was, wouldn't that make it boring?

Feel free to add your own tips and advice.

Starting out

Running an ultra is possible for anyone, if they give themselves enough time to train depending on their level of fitness. And do so without seriously impacting their professional, family or social lives (unless you aim to finish at the top or tackle massive distance). My last take on that in terms of training can be found here. What I've done here is really just throw in some tips I've learned over the years to increasing enjoyment of race and that might possibly prevent a DNF.
That said, I’ve come across so much material on this topic—advice to people who aim to complete their first ultra, whether they are a novice or experienced marathoner—that I feel like I have little to add.I would rather refer you to two blogs that I found best summarized the advice I would give and the enthusiasm I would like to communicate :


On blisters and socks


The plague of ultra runners – although it is much easier to race with blisters that one might think. It is best to take care of a blister as early as possible, even before it is formed if you recognize the heat and chafing, by piercing it and covering it up with second skin (like Compeed). Then forget about it.
If you are on a multi-day stage race, you will feel a blister in the early miles but, like the soreness in your legs, the pain will soon go away.
Piercing and disinfecting a blister at the Marathon des Sables

I’ve managed to finish most of my races, including two Marathon des Sables and the Jordan Desert Cup, without any blisters, or ones that are so small that they barely registered. But there is no fool-proof way of avoiding them. Prepping the feet with a lube product (like Nok) certainly helps, providing you start several weeks before race day, as does putting a generous palm full in your socks just before the event. For my first edition of the MDS, I actually used a trick from Swiss soldiers: rubbing the feet with formaldehyde (you should be able to get it at a drugstore), which toughens the skin. But even that’s not a guarantee, and if you over do it you can find yourself with ultra dry skin that could have a tendency to crack – far more painful.

Shoes should be as comfortable as possible. For this reason, I wear anything from a half-size to two sizes larger than usual to account for my feet expanding from the heat. This is essential when racing in temperatures like those at the Marathon des Sables. It makes it difficult to train in them, but it makes all the difference between having blisters and dead toenails—and having a fighting chance at avoiding them.

Socks: keep them as dry as possible. My "trick" in hot weather is to have three pairs and rotate every two-three hours: the pair you just removed goes on the backpack to dry, the pair hanging from the backpack goes in your pack (they are now presumably dry) and the pair in the pack go on your feet. In this way, I only used three pairs for all seven days of the Marathon des Sables. In wet or cold weather, you can pack two or three pairs depending on the distance and change each third of the way through the race, about every five to eight hours. They can easily be put in zip-lock bags to keep them dry. For a race that lasts more than  24 hours, a drop bag becomes almost essential, and usually they are allowed, but if not, you should be okay changing every ten to twelve hours.


Foot care


Make sure all your toenails (and fingernails actually) and properly clipped (not too short and not too long) a few days before the race. A hangnail on a 20-hour race can be absolute agony, and you don’t want to cut your nails on race day in case you clip too short, which can also be painful.

On time vs. distance             


Marathoners tend to have a slightly different mindset than ultra trailers, who are generally well-known for their camaraderie and democratic approach. I’ve never seen a marathoner stop for another runner in pain, while it is common on ultra-trails to ask someone who isn’t doing well if he or she needs help, and often you find a running buddy for a few miles (or several hours) while either one of you, or both, emerges from the slump they were in.
And, as you’ll find out very quickly after finishing your first marathon, there’s always someone to ask you when you tell them proudly that you’ve just run 26.2 miles: “Oh, really? What was your time?” My answer to that is: “I didn’t really pay much attention.” At a little later you can add: “Actually, it’s just a training run for something much longer.” Then you’ll notice how they veer onto the subject of distance and forget speed altogether. In fact the time it takes to complete an ultra becomes a source of pride, since finishing is what it is ultimately all about. Someone like Killian Jornet who can finish the 100-mile Mont Blanc Ultra Trail in just over 20 hours is impressive to those who understand how truly fast that is—but when the last person crosses the finish line in 45 hours, everyone is impressed with the sheer amount of time they spent on the trail—and the willpower, doggedness and endurance required to finish.
So unless you are ultra-competitive, throw any concept of speed or pacing out the window until much later in your running career. Learn to listen your body. Breath evenly and regularly, imagine your arms and legs as pistons, and most importantly: never, ever, get out of breath. If you do, slow down. If that doesn’t work, walk. But keep moving.
I think this quote sums it up well: “Run by feel and you cannot go wrong. Run by time and you will go wrong.” – Candice Burt (When Ultra Runners Go Too Far)

Racing with a backpack


Many ultras, especially in Europe, are semi-autonomous, which means participants are required to carry their gear with them at all times: change of clothes, second or third layers for cold/wet weather or mountain races, headlamp, survival blanket, first-aid kit, water bottle(s), gloves, hat, as well as some food.
This means wearing a backpack, which can often weigh as much as four kilos (ten pounds), and the sooner you practice racing with one the better off you will be. I usually practice with an old backpack loaded with several bottles of water to get used to the weight (and to make those long runs safer—that way I can get lost and not worry); then before the race, I do several test runs with my race pack filled with everything I’ll be taking with me on the day.

Nutrition


My first running experience, aside from a single marathon, was at the Marathon des Sables. We had to carry all our food with us for seven days, so it mainly consisted of freeze-dried food, nuts and anything that packed a maximum amount calories for a minimum amount of weight. Still, we barely managed 2,000 calories a day while burning up to five times that amount. So for many years I was accustomed to running with very little nutrition.
Running the Médoc Marathon while consuming two bottles of wine also showed me what the body could handle.
So feeling safe in the knowledge that your body can carry you a long way on low fuel and bad fuel, imagine what it can do with proper nutrition!

When it comes to race nutrition, however, everyone is different, but as a general rule I would avoid relying on gels as you may in a marathon because they can wreak havoc after many hours of racing. Eat real food as much as possible, even if this means packing trail mix (which is actually a good idea since nuts pack a lot of calories for little weight and many, such as almonds, are high in protein; dried berries like cranberries or goji berries also have a high antioxydant content).
If you are allowed a drop bag, I learned from Rich Roll (Finding Ultra) that coconut water (not milk) has a high natural content of electrolytes, which helps to avoid too much Gatorade-type drinks. They might not upset your stomach, but I’ve found that it gets sickening after awhile. Also, avoid taking gels with sports drinks—have water instead. I also learned in that book that it is a good idea to drink some apple cider vinegar in the morning and after a long training run to alkalize the body (i.e. fight the body's acidity).
In fact my preference in general goes to water, with some salt tablets or packages (small fast-food ones are fine) for sodium intake work just fine. If the weather isn’t too warm, you can probably do without the salt altogether and rely on salt bars or naturally salty foods (nuts, chips,...) for your sodium. But again, it's all personal and no-one found the perfect universal combo.

Still, there are specific physical signs that the body is underfueled. The best and most comprehensive article I've read on this topic is "Demystifying the bonk" by Sunny Blende (got to love the name, especially if not a pseudo!), which provides solutions to various nutrition-related ailments that can occur during a long race.

My own current preferences in race nutrition are:
  • Carbo-loading three to four days before: pasta, rice, quinoa and bread + the all important maltodextrine. The UTMB website has excellent advice on how to eat during the week preceding an ultra trail.
  • A mix of savory (salty) bars, fruit/nut bars (mainly from health food stores) and some antioxydant jelly bars during the race. Again, relying on gels during an ultra is a bad idea, like spiking your performance with a quick sugar rush, and can lead to stomach distress. But I usually carry two or three depending on the distance, one for a particularly hard climb and another caffeine gel for night runs. I might carry a few more since reading Sunny Blende's article to counter a possible sugar depletion and the need for a quick (=liquid) fix.
  • Eating natural foods: aid stations on trail runs are stocked with them; take your time to eat properly—bananas, chocolate, ham, cheese, salami, bread, cookies, soup, peanut butter and jelly... I try to eat what I can without feeling too full, then carrying a sandwich or banana to eat slowly as I take off from the aid station, especially I’ve spent more than 10 minutes there.
  • Proper hydration: think “small quantity but regularly”, e.g. a few sips every ten minutes. I’ll usually drink a liter every hour or two depending on the heat.
  • Caffeine: I also enjoy a cup of half coke, half water at aid stations; it gives me a bit of caffeine, some sugar, and helps maintain a steady stomach. If my stomach is on its best behavior I’ll even enjoy a cup of coffee, especially heading into the night.
  • A morale-boosting treat: on my first MDS, one of my tent mates pulled out a small pack of haribo gummy bears on rest day, right after the long stage. I was very jealous. For my third MDS, Cyril and I packed a can of albacore tuna fish. A little on the heavy side, but on rest day, after four days of nuts and freeze-dried food, it tasted absolutely delicious, the oil especially.

On upset stomachs


Blisters you can race with; an upset stomach will quickly drain you of all your energy and is probably one of the main reasons people don’t finish an ultra.
The primary rule is not to try anything new on race day. Make sure you’ve found what works for you. This involves going on long runs (5-6 hours) or, if you’re preparing for a 100-miler, using a shorter 50-mile race as training ground, since the stomach reacts differently after two, six or fifteen hours.
What I always do on a race is pack charcoal tablets. They help to regulate your intestinal flora. I usually start taking one or two a day, two days ahead of the race, as well as in the morning.

If you have a high level of training and have a consistent problem with your stomach no matter what you it, or are very limited in the kinds of foods you can handle, then you probably need to treat a more basic problem. In fact, anyone competing in an ultra may want to do a few months of preparation with L-Glutamine and probiotics. This involves taking 500mg to one gram of L-Glutamine a day, in the morning at least a half-hour before breakfast and probiotics that contain as much colony-forming units or CFUs as possible (up to 10 billion). Obviously check with your doctor and/or pharmacist before taking these products, since they are best placed to advise you on how to take these supplements most effectively—and also, of course, to make sure you don’t have a more serious problem.

Other stomach preparation tips

I think there is nothing worse than having to go to the bathroom in the middle of a race. Until you do, you feel bloated and sluggish, yet for obvious reasons you are reluctant to stop and drop your pants by the side of the trail.
Always pack toilet paper, however, because if you have no other choice, you'll be happy you did so. And you can forget about being prude. At the Marathon des Sables, after two days, no-one is going any further than they have to in order to do their business; and you know what? no-one else is looking because everyone's been there at some point.
So, pack toilet paper. Wipes are only good if you are somewhere where sand won't infiltrate your pack and turn the wipes into sand paper - which it will do at the MDS unless you have them in an airtight container...

Ideally, however, you want to empty your bowels before the race (if you're getting squeamish - get used to it; i think stomach-related problems are the no. 1 conversation at some point among runners). Coffee can help, but my fail-proof beverage is: warm water with a pinch of unrefined salt; a soup spoon of apple cider vinegar; and lemon juice (one lemon squeezed). Definitely don't try this for the first time on race day! Actually, it's a great cleansing potion to drink daily upon waking up and before breakfast, and apple cider vinegar alkalizes your blood, which runners definitely need since exertion tends to acidify it, and many of our foods are acidic.

A note on iron

Iron is important for athletes. Foods high in iron include ground beef, fish, spinach, lentils, eggs, baked potato with skin, sunflower seeds, brewer's yeast, and cashews. In more detail, meat, including liver, lean beef, and pork loin; seafood like oysters, clams, shrimp, tuna, and sardines; fruits, including raisins, figs, dried apricots, and prunes; vegetables like spinach, greens, broccoli, lima beans, and avocado; and beans, peas, and lentils. And then there’s spirulina (micro-algue): see below.

On other supplements


There are three supplements I would recommend looking into : spirulina for its cleansing properties and high iron content ; magnesium for cramps and muscle soreness (usually take 2-3 months before a race); and brand chain amino acids (BCAAs) to take for 3-5 days leading up to the race, and one an hour (up to the daily recommended dosage) during the race.
Again, as with any supplements, do your own research and ask your doctor before taking them—and make sure you get them from a very trustworthy source. Spirulina that comes from vats filled with polluted water will do you a lot more harm than good.

Tips for running on a low budget

  • No need for spandex right away, unless heavy in the thighs – the cheap kind is fine; remember: compression shorts didn’t exist 15 years ago. If you have a problem with rubbing in the wrong areas, just wear some underwear or apply vaseline!
  • No need for special fabric shirt : I wore 100% cotton for years and never had a problem; you win fancy shirts at races now anyway. If running in cold weather, however, you may wish to invest in some thermal underwear, a warm second layer and windproof jacket - your basic three layers. But these can be found relatively inexpensively at most sporting goods stores.
  • Lightweight painter overalls can act as effective and very cheap windbreakers and/or to keep you warm at night in your sleeping bag. Very common at the Marathon des Sables (see image). 
  • Shoes: read the literature out there; you don't necessarily need an expensive pair of shoes, but just shoes that feel comfortable. You'll wear them out quickly anyway. But you also might feel that this is the one area you don't want to skimp - and certainly I won't contradict you, especially if prior experience with cheap shoes has led to injury. That said, if you've been injured with expensive shoes, you might want to change also!

 Feeling Good & Positive Thinking

The most important component to finishing an ultra trail is obviously the mind. As I mention below, there are many blogs out there that will provide excellent tips on how to prepare mentally, and I don't need to repeat them here. (James Adams' blog, has some of the best practical advice out there on how to banish dark thoughts during a run).
If there are only two tips to remember, however, these would be: always believe that you can finish anything (no matter how bad you feel, things turn around) and always remember the reasons why you are doing this that do not solely concern you.
I'll elaborate on this last point. We can have many selfish reasons for running, all of which are valid: experience a zen-like state that provides a glimpse into enlightment; self-esteem and confidence boost; bragging rights; great health; knowing oneself... These are all important. But there should also be a component of sharing.
Recently (2 May 2014) I decided to forego a trail run, which I had been looking forward to for months - not only because it promised to be a beautiful one, but also because it was my first race of the season after a serious arm injury (dislocated shoulder) and a test of where I was at before heading into major training time for my 100-miler in August, just less than four months away. I did so in order to compete in a marathon, one month after competing in the Paris marathon, when I'd claimed in Paris that I didn't really like marathons and that if one a year was good training for ultra trails, two in five weeks were not. I needed to get specific about my training.
But I did this because otherwise I would be abandoning a friend. I didn't particularly mind being on my own on the trail run, since in any case in August I will be; but when it meant making my friend run his race alone, when we'd both signed up for this marathon ages ago together, then it became pointless. One race won't make a difference, and even if it did, putting running before friendship or family is not worth it. Running is sharing, and if I'm not sharing the fun with a friend, what's the point? If your family needs your presence, don't go on that next training run or race. In the long run, you'll be far better off.
Training yourself to maintain a positive outlook is as key as any physical training. In fact, you can influence the outcome of a race simply by shifting your expectations and belief systems. Stuart Mill has an excellent blog on this: Training for Ultras - What's It All About? What is Fatigue?




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