Why Running Ultramarathons Has Actually Made Me a WORSE Runner

Back when I had never run more than 26.2 miles, I would try to picture myself as an ultramarathoner.  And when I did, I pictured a stronger, fitter, faster athlete.  A tough, ripped, running machine.

I figured that I’d run a 50-miler and develop my ability to burn fat for fuel and improve my endurance, and then I’d go ahead and break three hours in a marathon this fall.

After all, once you’ve trained your body to handle 50 miles, a marathon is child’s play.  Or so I thought.

Today I’m actually a weaker runner than I was nine months ago, when I qualified for Boston and decided to do what I considered impossible, to run a 50-miler.

I’ve lost muscle.  I’ve lost aerobic capacity.  Most importantly, I’ve lost the competitive drive to get out there and pound the track/trail/pavement until I feel like crying, puking, or both.

What Happened?

I know exactly what went “wrong.”

Ready?  Running trails and hanging out with ultramarathoners is really fun.

When I trained to qualify for Boston, I drank customized, homemade sports drinks before and after every workout.  With my ultra friends, I drank beer after runs.

Before I started running ultras, I hated drinking caffeine before races—I just didn’t like how it made me feel.  With my ultra friends, long runs became fun (not work), and a cup of coffee and a bagel beforehand were only fitting.

And the worst part of all: I realized that I could succeed at ultrarunning without working hard.

The problem was in how I defined success.  In a 50K or 50-miler, all I had to do was finish and I’d be happy.  Not so with marathons, where anything short of a PR would have been a disappointment.

And once simply finishing became the goal, the mindset changed.  Completely.

Why suffer through a track workout when I can log 10 easy miles instead?

Why run hills when I’m allowed to walk them?

Why bother with strength training, foam rolling, and proper workout nutrition, when the intensity of my training and even racing would never be high (just long)?

What to Do About It

I don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of the sport of ultrarunning, and especially not the people who do it.  It’s a tough sport, and they’re the most hardcore bunch of runners I know, while at the same time being a blast to hang around with.  The problem is in my own approach to it.

The answer is not to stop running ultras—and good thing, since I’ve got another 50-miler in Vermont in about 10 weeks.  No, the answer is to try harder.  To train with the intensity that I’d train if I had a time goal. (Perhaps, to set a time goal at all.)  And to understand that even though I might be able to relax and let the ultras come to me, what I need to do is go get them.

brendan and matt photo 300x225

Pro Ironman Triathlete Brendan Brazier and Me

I am lucky that at right around the same time I was thinking about this, and pondering whether I had it in me to commit to training hard again after 9 months of really fun, relaxing running, I had the opportunity yesterday to see Brendan Brazier speak.  And then I got to meet him, which was really cool since he’s a constant source of inspiration for me.

I also bought a few of his sports nutrition products: Vega Sport Performance Optimizer and Vega Sport Performance Protein (affiliate links, by the way).  Both are products I’ve reviewed on this blog, and I truly believe they’re the best plant-based supplements you can buy, but they’re expensive enough that I’ve had trouble justifying the purchases in the past.

The way I’m looking at it now is this: If my spending a few more bucks than I usually do puts some pressure on me to actually get my butt out there and work hard enough that supplements make a difference, then that’s a plus.  This type of thinking has worked for me before, and it’s going to work for me again.

Today I plan my training for the next 10 weeks.  Tomorrow I start.  With a new attitude.  Who’s with me?

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Comments

  1. You finally met Brendan, how cool! Did you guys coordinate your wardrobes ahead of time or what? :P

    PS—Nice choice on the featured cookbook! I’m loving Viva Vegan right now.

  2. I’ve been hanging out with ultramarathoners lately who are trying to convince me to do one. Thanks for this fresh perspective.

  3. thanks for posting this! i’m fairly new to running (just started racing in April 2009) and i’m not fast by any means. but what i’ve learned over the past year (and change) is that it’s more about the training than about the race. there’s the importance of having a goal, but then it’s what you put into it that truly matters. thanks!

  4. This post was actually really appropriate for where I am right now! I’ve been running long(ish) distance since last October, and recently I realized how much I’ve let go of whatever competitive drive I had. I’ve ran two half-marathons so far, and my second one was actually a lot SLOWER than my first; a clear sign of my relaxation. Just this morning I made a concerted effort to run a quick tempo run, get a training plan with track workouts and intervals, and stick that out for my next half-marathon. I want to build up some speed before I try a full marathon because I’d like to run with a decent pace before I start adding on too much distance!

  5. Odd! I had a friend ask me if I would considering running Wineglass in October. Today I plan my next 12 weeks of training and tomorrow I start. Not sure if I can do it but going to try!

    You go, Matt!!

  6. I think I can relate to this, and noticed it on my run today, too. What felt like running “fast” was at a pace almost a minute slower than I was used to last Summer. But last Summer I ran shorter distances, paid closer attention to time and eating around my runs, and was probably more interested in the sport. While I still love running for exercise, since making my half-marathon goal, I’ve just been logging the miles. I suppose if I find a new target to shoot for, I’ll have to refocus my running. But since my aim now is to build upper body strength and not speed, I feel I can relax.

    Ps. The picture with the matching shirts–priceless.

  7. Did you and Brendan plan out your matching outfits beforehand? haha ;)

    Hells yes, I’m with you. I’ve been slacking on the whole “training plan” thing for the last few months. Time to get serious again!

  8. Okay…you’ve got a fitness and mental base from your ultrarunning to kick off of, you’ve got the experience of running your BQ…and now you’re gonna train like a bad ass for 10 weeks.

    Imagine how great your 50 miler will feel when it’s no longer enough to just finish, but to actually race it…

    Good luck! I don’t think I’m going to get out to the Vermont 50 this year, but I’ll cheer you on from a couple states over. :)

  9. Can totally relate! I’m going to try and avoid adopting this relaxed approach when I’m in college. I’ll be a walk on and there are tons of unhealthy habits on college campuses!

    Getting back to the idea of focusing less on speed and more on just completing the task…It bugs me when I see people telling me they’re doing a marathon, but they run 25 miles a week (in a God-awful running skirt at that, I bet!). They’re probably not as fit as the 5K runner who trains 60 miles a week, but they only care about saying they finished a marathon. And at 25 miles per week, it took them more than a week!

    Other readers, please don’t shoot me, but I think the top runners at or below the marathon distance are as fit or fitter than the top ultra runners.

    Breaking 3 hours in the marathon would be really laudable…I hope you’ll go for it at some point, but I do respect the intensity of the serious ultrarunning you’re doing right now.

  10. Sorry for putting the blog title in my name. It did it automatically and I was not intending to advertise. Won’t happen again.

  11. I live in MD so when I red that you met Brendan yesterday I have to wonder, was it in the area?! Where?! I wish I had known about it! Good luck with your new goals!

  12. I’m definitely with you. I’m graduating for the couch to 5k running program at the end of this week, and then the real training starts! No longer will I count a run as successful if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other for a certain amount of time… I will have to actually build mileage with the goal of finishing the LA marathon in 2011.

  13. LOL, I’ve heard all about these really fun trail runs. I’ve never done one but someone told me that they are great if you are not the fastest runner because you still feel accomplished at the end. Sometimes life is about having fun. I think you deserve to have some after all that grueling training.

  14. I’ve been thing the same thing since I started trail running. I’m having too much fun and not worried about time. That’s all fine and dandy until I go into my time limited tri in October. I love that you and Brendan are twinsies.

  15. Can we be matchy-matchy when we have a picture together, too, Matt? I’ll bring the tutus. :)

    I agree with you on the Vega. I didn’t want to like it because it was so expensive and I wanted to believe coffee was just fine and dandy. But I notice a definite difference in my training when I use coffee vs. Vega. And you’re right, it does make you a little bit more accountable when you spend the money on it. You feel guilty for slacking off when you’re burning such good fuel.

    Nice kick in the ass, Matt. Welcome back to the insanity. We missed you!

  16. Matt, now you are talking.

  17. I enjoy your blog very much! Keep the ball rolling on this conversation. We all can enjoy our sports as I tend to enjoy the ultrarunning a bit more and now challenge myself to longer and longer distances, now up to 200 miles in 70 hours. I just kind of enjoy brutal, nasty, muddy conditions and could never go back to road marathoning (yes, I have completed some 26 of them before going strictly to ultras) But… I did get run a 50 miler that had a marathon distance at the same time and I would rather see them not do that. Never heard so much whining about split times being screwed up because of the terrain, aid stations being too far apart,marathoners complaining to the aid station VOLUNTEERS due to lack of supplies, and so much littering of gu packets on the trail.
    I enjoy visting your site as I just really need to work some more on my diet and maybe not drinking so much beer after I finish my 100’s :) (may help my time, cause a PR in a 100 can just absolutely bring tears to your eyes, especially a sub 24).

  18. I stopped drinking alcohol last year and took the money I would have spent on beer and put it towards the high quality types of plant-based supplements you mention. Great decision and I can tell that my body runs better with better fuel. I recover faster and can handle harder workouts.

  19. Great post, Matt. You’ve got the right attitude and I think you’re ready for the next 10 weeks! I think that sometimes I pile on too many races and suddenly it turns into quantity, not quality, and my running gets sloppy. I ran a solid half-marathon in April so immediately signed up for a June half. I ran it (sporting your fab NMA tech shirt) but I slogged through it. I’m laying low in July (keeping base mileage but not “training”) so that I can get back to QUALITY training and hopefully run a decent in half in October.

  20. Matt,
    This is such a perceptive post (as you have so many times). I can totally relate. I finally hit my BQ last Fall, and then in training for Boston this winter/spring I just ‘put in the miles’ because I was not worried about my time at Boston at all.

    It was a nice break from the mental stress of having to hit splits and push through those hard parts. But something was missing…

    In training for my half ironman this Summer, I have put a track/tempo run back into my training trying to get some speed back. It is coming slowly as I am also not getting any younger :)

    Thanks for all the great info I get from your blog!!

  21. Michelle says:

    Matt. I love that your posts are always so unexpected! Congratulations on meeting Brendan!
    My thought is that there is nothing wrong with the goal of trailrunning to have fun. There’s nothing wrong with the goal of being fanatically fit either, it’s whatever works for you. Who cares whether someone is running in a running skort or if they aren’t as fit as another person. Shouldn’t we all be trying to please ourselves?

  22. I COMPLETELY understand where you’re coming from on this post. I, too, noticed a significant decrease in my speed and work ethic after running my first ultra.

    Great post. Has definitely given me a fresh perspective on my upcoming training…

  23. Oh crap, I guess i’m stuck with you. I thought we were going for a fun trail run tonight????

  24. Astute observations and good attitude – of course, it is always what one makes of it. I came to ultras a few years ago, and enjoyed all the same things you do. For me, it was a much-needed change, I was growing weary of the road running shtick, with its mile splits and obsessions with pace and exact mileage … and then I ran a 10k last year and got the road RACING bug again. Trails are definitely more “fun.”

  25. Mary Ellen says:

    Great blog post. And coincidentally it came at the same time I decided to get serious about my 1/2 coming up in September. Good timing!

  26. THANK YOU for posting this and your honesty. You really honed in on some of my fears around doing ultras. I’ve made good progress with my marathon times but I was thinking it may be fun to try an ultra or two. However, I’m POSITIVE I’d kiss off the track workouts and get slower overall. This post really makes me think I’d do best to stay in the training groove until I reach my marathon goals and then try for some ultra-distance. Great post.

  27. This happened to me after running my first marathon.

    It took me a good 6 months to realise what had happened though!

  28. I am training for my first 50k and this is EXACTLY how I feel on a consistent basis. However, I DO feel that some of the loss of speed, etc. has something to do with the God awful TX heat. (It’s 81 degrees by 6 AM with at least 75% humidity to boot.)
    Either way I will be participating in a long race or two in the coming seasons and I think you’re giving great advice!! Nice website, also! No meat athletes all the way! :-D

  29. Awful title. So what you really meant to call it was “How Drinking Beer, Walking Uphills, and Not Cross-Training Made Me a Worse Runner”, right? Just because some people do that during an ultra doesn’t mean that’s how everyone does it. I’ve seen plenty of people walking during a marathon too. And oh yeah, I believe that was beer they were serving at the end of the Baltimore Marathon.

    You’re giving ultrarunning an undeserved bad reputation. You’ve laid the burden of personal endeavor and achievement on the trail instead of on yourself. I know you said later in the article that it’s on you but I think right upfront you’ve misled those unfamiliar with ultrarunning.

  30. Love the shirt coordination. It definitely makes the picture. ;)

    And this is really interesting! I have actually thought about this with marathons, since many people don’t care about the time so much as the accomplishment of finishing. I guess I always assumed that in order to run an ultra, you have to be in amazing shape. But what you said makes sense — your mentality/goal has more to do with it than the distance. Sometimes it’s hard to find the balance between having fun and truly enjoying your running/training and pushing yourself to reach that next level. You just have to find what works for you. It can be hard to keep that level of intensity in your training up all the time, and sometimes drinking the coffee and the beer is totally necessary! That being said, I think it’s great to re-evaluate your goals every so often and so I hope the new training mentality goes well. Good luck!

  31. Jonathan says:

    Let’s do it. I’m in.

  32. hmmm, I just love your blog. I’m adding you to my blogroll

  33. I think you’re closer to becoming Brazier than you think. Nevermind eating, you’re already dressing alike!

  34. Another thing to throw in the conversation is training fast & working in long runs in the summer (hard to do long tempo runs at 85 degrees and 80% humidity). Short, fast track runs aren’t a whole lot more fun. Crazy tension.

    I’m training for Philly marathon in Nov but also have my eye on a 50k a month later as well as HAT 50k and Bull Run 50miler in the spring. Because I’m a bit afraid of losing my speed in favor of gaining the ability to run “forever” I’ve schedule a few fast races to try and keep me balanced.

  35. That’s cute that you guys dress alike.

  36. Your honesty is always helpful. I learn from reading your “mistakes”. Thank you.

  37. I totally hear ya on this. I just ran my first 50 and even though I had a time goal I came nowhere close and I also got into the walking is okay mindset. Was also drinking beers after runs as well rather than heading home for a recovery smoothie. Who knows if I will run another one, but if I do I bet I will train harder.

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