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Is There a Safe Way to Train for an Ultra Marathon?

Posted: 04/23/2012 9:43 pm

This question originally appeared on Quora.

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By Andy Johns, Product Manager - User Growth, Quora

Yes, there are many safety precautions that your wife can take to ensure she runs the race happily and safely.

  • Slow, scheduled improvements over time  - she did the right thing by starting with a training plan she found online. Generally speaking, just about anyone can train for their first marathon in 4 months. Running another 5 miles on top of the marathon distance doesn't require months or even weeks of additional training time. Everything after the 18-20 mile mark is essentially a rinse and repeat routine. Run a little. Stop. Eat and drink a little. Then run a little bit more.
  • Treat training days like it is race day - when I prepared to run my first 50 mile race I found a local network of trails that very closely resembled the race day trails. The packed dirt surface was comparable, the elevation change on the practice trail was nearly identical to the race trail, and I brought the exact food and drink with me on long training runs that I planned on needing on race day. I ran in the same socks, shoes, shorts, shirt, hat and camelbak hydration pack. That way I basically spent 6 months training every weekend in near identical conditions to what I would encounter on race day. That's the smartest thing she can do! Each weekend I went 1-2 miles further on the exact same trail until I was running 20-30 miles on that practice trail every Saturday. When race day came I wasn't surprised by anything other than how much my feet hurt from mils 40 - 50. Other than that I had my hydration and refueling nailed. I was then able to focus on the rinse and repeat method where I knew I had to run 4-5 miles between each aid station, eat and drink a certain amount of food/fluids at the aid station, then make my way on to the next one until the finish line.
  • Stretch, stretch, stretch - a distance runner's worst enemy is inflexibility. Long distance running introduces an amazing amount of muscle and joint tightness, especially when you are running on mountain trails. Muscle tightness leads to form deficiencies and you can quickly develop nagging injuries (such as ITBS) that may take weeks or months to remedy. She should properly stretch after every run, especially long runs. Buy a hard foam roller and a tennis ball and roll out sore muscles daily. Find a local sports therapist or chiropractor familiar with myofascial release techniques and do a deep massage at least once every two weeks. Myofacial massages are quite painful but a life saver. They are the primary reason I remained injury free while running 50 - 60 miles a week for 3 straight months.
  • 2% chocolate milk and ice baths - After a few years of training and testing I discovered the best recipe for quickly recovering from long runs. Drink at least 1-2 glasses of 2% chocolate milk IMMEDIATELY after any run that is 1 hour or longer. It is the best endurance recovery supplement on the planet. I wrote a blog post about it here. I also took a 20 minute ice bath after runs of 20 miles or longer. That got the swelling down and helped me flush out all of the muscle damage incurred during the run. Ice baths and chocolate milk are life savers.
  • Sodium and potassium are your best friends - they are essential nutrients for long distance runners. You lose a lot of sodium and potassium when you sweat. If you lose too much of it you'll get terrible cramps and your day of running is done. At the worst end of sodium/potassium depletion, essential bodily functions can shut down i.e. organ failure. I would regularly grab a few packs of salt to carry with me when going on long runs. I would throw a pack of salt in my mouth at mile 10 and then another at mile 20. It's not bad when you throw it in your mouth and quickly wash it down with water. I'd swipe a few packs from any restaurant I ate at earlier that week. I didn't get a single cramp in my 50 mile races because I stayed on top of sodium intake. I did get horrible cramps in my first marathon though because I let my hydration and sodium intake slip.
  • Strength training - endurance runners often forget about strength training. You need really strong glutes and core muscles probably more than any other muscles. If you neglect strength training and Plyometrics you'll likely experience compensation from other muscle groups (e.g. if you have weak glutes then you'll stress your hip flexors out) and that can lead to injury. Dedicate at least 1 day a week to doing lunges, squats, dead lifts, planks, and other core exercises. Pilates and yoga are excellent for runners because they strengthen and stretch your muscles.
  • Mental training - running 30 miles or more requires training of the most important "muscle"; your mind. Recognize early on that you are not out there to win the race. Don't train so hard you condition yourself to hate running. I remember talking to a grizzled 20 year veteran of ultramarathons the day before my first 50 miler. When I asked him about if he was nervous for the race he said "Nervous? This isn't a race. This is a celebration of spring. I get to explore 50 miles of these beautiful mountains tomorrow and I can't wait." His mentality is the sort of thinking you need. You're there to run because you love it and probably because you love being outdoors. Embrace that. And don't be afraid to make new friends during the race. You'll be amazed at how much a conversation with a new running buddy takes your mind off of the pain/discomfort you're feeling.
  • Train in a group - the ultimate safety precaution is to do your training in a group. She should look into marathon training programs like Team in Training where they offer structured marathon training programs in groups. She'll learn a lot from the instructors and other runners and also have group support in case she needs help during a run. I do all of my training solo, including training for 50 mile races. I do it because I love the excitement of running off into a mountain trail by myself and exploring. It's animalistic. It's also incredible mental training because you have to convince yourself to go on. There is no one there to cheer you on and no aid stations to help you refuel. When race day came the mental part was easy for me since the race environment provided all of the exogenous motivators that I didn't have while training. But running solo is risky. Around mile 15 of a solo mountain trail run I tripped on a tree stump and smacked knee first into the ground. My left knee cap landed directly on a rock or a tree root. I knew immediately that it was bad but I hopped up and kept running since I knew that if I stayed down the swelling and pain would set in and I'd likely have to walk the last 7 miles down to the base of the mountain. I luckily made it back to my car over an hour later but the damage was done. An x-ray the next day revealed that I had broken off a chunk of my knee cap. It was just floating around in there. It could have been worse like an Acl Injury and I would have crawled home that day. I wouldn't suggest following my lead and training solo.

Now on to your comment about "stopping when it hurts". I hate to break it to you and your wife, but it will hurt after 15 miles no matter what. But there is a difference between pain and an injury. The discomfort/pain is inevitable. You're running 31 miles! Ouch! But she'll learn all about the discomfort in her training and discern the difference between discomfort and injury. She is going to have to get used to the discomfort though and embrace it like every other part of her training. In the end that's what makes the races so damn rewarding.

You push through the walls and find that you go through several perspective shifts. Running your first 10 mile run sounds daunting. But you do it once. Then you do it again. And soon enough you can run 20 miles. Suddenly the thought of running 10 miles sounds like a warmup to you. Similarly the discomfort you feel during your first 10 mile run fades to nothing when you run 20 miles. In almost every case she will have to push on running even when the discomfort is like nothing she has ever felt before. But that's ok. That's how progress is made and you go from being a novice running 3 miles at a time to a stud/studette running 20 miles at a time.

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