For as long as I’ve written this blog, I’ve advocated treating your long runs as rehearsals for the big day. Hone in your nutrition, pacing, and even clothing strategies while it doesn’t count, so that there won’t be any surprises when it does.
Actually, I think you should go beyond just rehearsing: instead of just “sticking with what works,” use your long runs as a testing ground for potential improvements. I truly believe most runners have many minutes of improvement just waiting to be discovered, but instead they fall into the trap of never varying from a routine that works well enough.
Up until I started training for a 100-miler, though, I hadn’t actually done any of this.
Sure, I knew the basics, and wrote most of them in a post about what to eat during your workouts. But when it came to my own long runs, I was very nonchalant: drink sports drink, eat real food (usually fruits, but sometimes pitas with hummus) when you’re hungry for them, and basically just listen to your body and do what you can to complete the run. Chances are, I thought, if you listen to your body, you’ll be within the proper ranges for calorie, fluid, and electrolyte intake.
With the 100-miler, the stakes are considerably higher. I’ll likely be running for seven or eight times as long as a marathon takes me, so any nutrition, clothing, or pacing mistake gets magnified. Not to mention the risk of actually dying, which although remote, is nonetheless a bigger motivator than it has been in my previous races. (I honestly don’t know if death or serious health issue rates are higher in 100’s than in shorter ultras or marathons, but would be interested to hear from anyone who does.)
So I’ve taken everything far more seriously over the past few months, and learned a ton as a result. I know most readers aren’t planning to do a 100 nor have any desire to do so, but the experience of testing and learning has made me a better runner, period. When I return to marathons after this 100 (and yes, I think it’ll probably be a one-and-done foray at this distance), I’ll be better off for having learned what I have.
And that’s why I’m sharing it here. Hope you find it helpful.
Do you have any idea how much fluid you lose through sweat each hour? For most runners, the answer is no. But really, shouldn’t you know at least that?
I didn’t — too lazy to test it, I guess — until a few weeks ago. I weighed myself, naked, before a two-hour and fifteen-minute run, ran with no food or fluid intake, and weighed myself naked again when I got back.
I was shocked — I had lost 4.4 pounds! Since each pound represents a pint of water (as I learned from Alton Brown, when it comes to fluid, “A pint’s a pound the world around”), this amounts to about 31 ounces per hour of fluid that needs to be replaced.
A few caveats here:
- Your fluid loss rate will vary depending on the conditions of your run (temperature, humidity, etc.), so you want to test accordingly.
- You should do several tests and average the results.i
- It’s suggested (by Bryon Powell in Relentless Forward Progress) that you run for 60 to 90 minutes when you perform this test. I’m not sure if the 90-minute limit is for safety — I was definitely feeling depleted at the end of my 135 minutes — or because your sweat rate slows as you become dehydrated. Either way, I plan to do another test on a hot day before the actual race.
Powell says you can only process 24 to 28 ounces of water per hour, which is worrisome to me, considering the race (in Ohio, in late July) will probably be hotter than my test was. I can only assume that drinking more than you can process results in peeing it out, so perhaps it’s a matter of drinking a lot and simply accepting that I’ll gradually become dehydrated during daytime, and hoping to catch up as the sun goes down.
If I’m netting a loss of, say, 4 ounces of fluid per hour during the eight hottest hours of the day, that’s only 32 ounces of fluid (two pounds of bodyweight) in total, less than half the amount I lost during my short test run. Viewed in this way, the outlook isn’t so grim.
For my runs, I’ve settled on about 32 ounces per hour — one bottle of Gatorade, one bottle of water with Nuun electrolyte tabs. As I’ll explain below, I’m thinking of getting rid of the Gatorade and replacing it with more Nuun water and food calories.
You can’t talk about hydration without mentioning electrolytes, and in fact, this is the area I where was most negligent before.
Too often during marathons I’ve been clueless about my water/electrolyte balance, and as you’ve probably heard, it’s not terribly uncommon to become dangerously hyponatremic during a long race, where the electrolytes in your body are too diluted by all the water you’ve taken in.
Nearly everywhere I look, the recommended electrolyte intake is 400 to 800 milligrams per hour, more in extremely hot conditions. Most of this needs to be sodium; while there are other electrolytes like potassium, calcium, and magnesium, sodium is the one primarily lost through sweat and perhaps the only one you need to pay attention to during a race.
I had always assumed that since I drank Gatorade, I was getting enough sodium. Wrong.
A 16-ounce bottle of Gatorade has 220mg of sodium. So even if you drink two of these each hour, you’re barely reaching the minimum recommended amount. Especially during an ultra (where you’ll be out there and sweating for longer) in hot conditions, this is not enough.
I’ve taken three Endurolyte tablets (120mg total) each hour during my long training runs. But since I’ve started alternating sports drink with Nuun water (a 16-ounce bottle of which has 350mg sodium), I’ve wondered if the Endurolyte is necessary, especially if I do away with sports drink entirely and get 700mg sodium from the Nuun alone.
Most of all, I’ve learned that fluid/electrolyte balance is not something to take lightly. Too much of one relative to the other can be very dangerous, fatal even. Here’s a fantastic table, with information about recognizing and treating nine possible scenarios involving the two, that I’ll be printing off for my crew to reference as I’m reporting to them how I’m feeling. (Side note — I’ve learned that trying to think about anything remotely complex after 8 or 10 hours of running is hopeless.)
Prior to this training, what I knew about nutrition for marathons and what worked for me was “30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, mostly sugar.” A little bit of protein (about one-fifth the amount of carbohydrate you’re getting) helps, but fat doesn’t do much for you during a race.
For ultras, the nutrition requirements are significantly higher — 250 to 400 calories per hour, according to Relentless Forward Progress. (The 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates above would represent only 120 to 240 calories per hour.) It’s true that ultrarunners rely more on stored body fat for energy than most glycogen-fueled marathoners and shorter-distance runners, but dietary fat during the race itself is only really helpful to satiate your appetite, again according to Powell. As the saying goes, “Fat burns in a carbohydrate fire.”
But satiation and satisfaction are important considerations — when you’re running an ultra at a non-competitive level (like I do), and the goal is not to win but to finish, at least some of the focus should be on staying comfortable and happy so that you aren’t tempted to quit. And in that case, the decision about what food is “ideal” involves more than just what’s optimal from the standpoint of pure performance.
I haven’t found this balance yet. In my 12-hour training race a few weeks back, I tried to get my calories from only fresh dates, along with some sports drink. I ate one medjool date (about 15g carbohydrates, mostly glucose) every 15 minutes — which worked great, until mile 25 when I decided I could never eat another date for as long as I lived. (Like most life decisions I make in the midst of long runs, this one proved dumb and fleeting.)
During a 50K run two days ago, my final really long training run, I adapted. This time, I ate one to two dates an hour, but incorporated boiled, peeled potatoes dipped in a little salt (about one medium, six-ounce potato each hour, 30g carbohydrates). Sixteen ounces of sports drink per hour added 28g carbohydrate, bringing my total carbohydrate intake each hour to roughly 80 grams, along with about 5 grams of protein from the potato and dates (340 calories total per hour).
This worked for a while — the salty potatoes tasted great in between dates. Still, after 25 miles I found myself wanting neither of them, or anything at all, really. I’m beginning to think this is simply a function of mileage rather than food — that no matter what I eat, after 25 miles of running in the heat, I’m not just going to be hungry.
That’s my challenge now. With the 100 only five weeks away, I don’t have any more training runs over 25 miles. I’ve got time to do some more research between now and then, but if I someone put a gun to my head and said I had to make a decision now about my fueling plan, I’d replace an equivalent amount of calories with half a pita spread with hummus or almond butter each hour for a little more fat and protein. I’d also consider that a very strange demand of a gunman.
Finally, I’m thinking about doing away with the sports drink to make room for calories, drinking only water with Nuun tablets instead, as I suspect the sugar from the sports drink plays a role in my stomach’s closed-door policy after 25 miles.
As I mentioned, my race is in July and runs from Cleveland to Akron. The race website reports that 95-degree temperatures are not out of the ordinary, so heat is obviously a huge concern.
I tend to do pretty well with the heat, but again, with the 100, I’m not comfortable leaving anything to chance if I can avoid it. So I’ve started learning about heat, and specifically, how to prevent it from shutting your body down.
In my 12-hour race, where the temperature was in the 80’s, I experienced some unnerving symptoms towards the end. I felt fine when I was running, but after each 5K loop when I’d stop at my station to refuel, change socks, etc., I could physically feel my body temperature drop. By the time I started running again, I’d have goosebumps and chills, the way it feels when you’re coming down with a fever. Within minutes of picking up the pace, my temperature would return to normal. After the race, though, periodic hot and cold flashes continued all night.
I’m still not sure quite why I had such trouble regulating my temperature, but I suspect it’s because I did nothing to cool myself all day. I was hot but comfortable, and I just kept chugging along, my temperature (probably) rising, until it plummeted whenever I took a break.
In the 100, I’ll need to be more careful. I’ve since learned that ultrarunners cool themselves with ice in their hats, those cooling bandanas, or even submerging themselves in ice tubs or streams to cool their core. (Cool Off brand bandanas are popular but have a chamois sewn in, and I don’t know if it’s real or synthetic so I’m not sure if they’re vegan-friendly.)
There’s a fantastic article on iRunFar called “Peak Performance and the Selfish Brain” that touches on heat as one factor that your brain uses in determining when it’s time to shut your body down. I’m not quite sure the suggestion of “tricking” your brain by cooling mainly those areas near the head is a smart one (do you really want to trick your brain into thinking it’s safe to keep going at your current pace when it’s actually not?), but it’s worth a read.
Too many first-time marathoners that I talk to are clueless about what type of pace they’ll be able to run on race day. It’s not their fault — training plans, especially for first marathons, have you running your long runs at much slower than race pace (for good reason), so there’s no chance to test how you handle race pace for more than a few miles.
So what’s a marathoner to do? Shorter tune-up races, in combination with a pace calculator like McMillan’s, are useful here. Monitoring heart rate during training also helps you to make sure you’re staying where you need to during the race, so that’s another option. And I do think every runner should train with a heart monitor for a few months; you’ll learn a lot during that time even if you decide never to wear it again.
With a 100, though, there’s much more uncertainty, mainly because the farthest you run in training is 50 to 60 percent of the race distance. Add to this the fact that ultras vary so much by terrain and other conditions, and it’s very hard to project what pace is reasonable for a 100 when you’ve only done up to about 50 in another race.
There’s another big difference between this distance and marathon-or-shorter: the idea of negative-splitting (running the second half faster than the first) or even-splitting a 100 is pretty much out the window.
Most people I’ve talked to (and mile-split data of past Burning River finishers I’ve looked at) suggest, if you want to finish your 100 in 24 hours, that you run the first 50 miles in 10 or 10.5 hours. “That way you can walk the next 50 in 14 hours,” someone told me during the 12-hour race.
It sounds absurd to me, but I can’t argue with the data. So something along those lines will be my pacing plan, obviously with the hope of at least shuffling during the second 50 instead of just walking. But while I’d like to finish in under 24 hours, that goal isn’t nearly as important to me as the main one: finishing. To increase the likelihood of that one happening, I’ll probably run a slightly more conservative in my pace early on, aiming to get halfway in 11 hours or so.
And yeah, I’ll walk every hill I see, from the start. And I’ll probably walk for 5 minutes after every 25 minutes of running, as a lot of ultrarunners who’ve racked up far more miles than I ever will have suggested.
A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have said that shoes matter all that much. Find a pair you like, train in them, then run in them. If they’re worn out, it’s not a huge deal, because it’s quite possible that cushioned soles do more harm than good anyway.
Shocker … I was wrong again. I learned this at approximately mile 20 of the 12-hour run, when my feet started killing me. I was running in trail shoes that were over two years old, with well over the recommended maximum of 500 miles on them.
In fact, my feet were just about the only thing that hurt that day. My legs felt great, at least for an ultra. But every step I took, even when walking, sent dull pain through the balls of feet up through what felt like the ankle.
I noticed something interesting in that run though, something that’s not apparent when you’re not running on the same exact course as runners going much further than you are: a huge percentage of the 24-hour runners wore big, gigantic-soled, ridiculous looking Hoka One One shoes.
I’d heard of Hokas a few times but never took them seriously until I saw how many people wore them. When I got home, I did some Googlin’ and found that many really serious, top-level ultrarunners wear these shoes that I previously had assumed were a gimmick.
So I ordered a pair! Perhaps just replacing my old trail shoes with a fresh pair would do the trick, but I needed to know about the Hokas.
The 50K I ran Monday was my first long run in my Hokas — and there was no pain. And Tuesday, I felt zero residual soreness in my legs and feet. Fatigue, sure. But not an ounce of actual pain, and I’ve never been able to say that about any run over 20 miles before this one.
I plan to write a detailed review post soon, but for the time being, you might say I’m hookad on Hokas. (Wow, I apologize for that.) I did notice that the extra bounciness and cushioning required a tiny bit more energy with each step, and I missed feeling the ground that way I do in my Brooks PureDrift. But for the 100, I’ll be wearing the Hokas. It’s possible I’ll start out in a more traditional shoe and switch after 30 miles or so, but I might just wear them for the whole thing.
With that, it’s hard to believe I’m less than five weeks out, with only one more hard training weekend (a 24-miler followed the next day by a 14-miler) before taper time. I feel pretty well trained, but nothing like I used to imagine when I pictured a person capable of running 100 miles. I still feel like me.
Mentally, though, I think I’m just about there. I’ve got some detailed planning to do, for sure, and some more nutrition research and testing, but I feel like I can do this. I know for a fact it’ll hurt more than anything else I’ve ever done, and I’m sure there will be moments, maybe hours, where all I want to do is quit. The question is how I’ll handle those moments, and the answer will have to wait until race day.