Tuesday, 25 May 2010

What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two


Having just re-read my post from the other night, to summarise, it all seemed a bit simplistic, "Keep positive and everything will be fine and you will perform well in ultra running". So I thought I would add a Part Two post to expand a little bit on some of the aspects raised.

But first I will briefly mention one comment I received from a running friend, and one post I have read earlier tonight.

From my running friend:
"Just had a quick look at your blog on psychological stuff very interesting, my thoughts exactly, I think running is 90% in your head. I like to look back over my training diary having gained confidence from good training and very frequent 3,5,10k races and take that into marathons and ultras and rarely fail to meet my targets if im am fully comitted to achieving a certain result. The only time i struggle badly is when someone passes me in the latter stages of races and i go to pieces as i start to think i have run a terrible race as my mental state completly changes, its like someones switched my legs off, all in my head."

It is really pleasing to see that other people have similar thoughts to myself regarding the importance of getting it right "in your head".

The post that I read earlier tonight that I found interesting was John Kynaston's post on meeting Graeme Obree. http://www.johnkynaston.com/2010/05/meeting-graeme-obree.html

Having been a 'full time' cyclist for four years I was a strong follower of Graeme Obree, and have read his book and seen the movie about him "The Flying Scotsman". Both excellent, but as usual the book is heaps better. Well worthy of a read as it covers more than just cycling. What was so great about Obree was that he did things his way, always questioning the accepted norm, experimenting, and amazingly succeeding at the highest level. Setting a number of world records, and changing the style of bike riding, so much that everyone had to adopt his riding style, until it was banned. He then invented a new style "The Superman Position", set another world record, then bettered by Boardman using his style, which was then also subsequently banned. Absolutely amazing story. A truly great inspiration to not just all cyclists, but all athletes!

Well anyway back to what Graeme Obree had to say as summarised by John K:

"He had some interesting thoughts about the role of the mind and said that when he set out to break the one hour record he knew he could do it. He seemed to be saying that if you have the will to do something then you will achieve it if you have the right attitude."

So it appears that he also has the similar views to what I expressed in my last post. Maybe my ideas are the accepted norm! Well in that case sorry for stating the obvious, I'll try to add something new in this post as I expand things a wee bit!.

I think the key paragraph from my post the other night was:

"The true secret of ultra running is ensuring this positivity remains, and is not overcome by a negative 'state of feeling/being'. Although. I talk about the body and mind being inseparable, I do find that the initiation of a negative state can occur from either the mind or the body. It may start from within the body, due to muscle damage, cramp, dehydration, lack of glycogen/glucose. All of these will initiate a negative response. Two things are important here, trying to deal with the physical causes, but then as soon as possible return back to positivity."

I guess what is an even more important issue is developing strategies to help prevent these 'negative states' being initiated from the mind or body. How can this be achieved? What are they?

In answering these questions I will refer you to a well written article by William Sichel that I stumbled across on his website a few weeks ago as I followed him on his amazing 1000 mile race. Click the link to see what his thoughts are on "The Limitations to Performance in 100km and 24 Hour Events http://www.williamsichel.co.uk/limitations.php

If you have followed the link, and know some of my beliefs, you will see that I obviously don't 'on the face of it' totally agree with all of his ideas e.g. "6) The ability to pace the race effectively. This means to run as near even pace as possible although effort will be very uneven." But I really need to give this aspect some more thought. I will return to it in a future post.

It is difficult to try to list the sources of negative states being initiated in a ranking order, as all are important and can lead to negativity, which then subsequently decreases performance. However, since William ranked them, I will try to do the same.

Sources of Negative States Being Initiated from the Mind and/or Body in Ultra Trail Running, or in other words - Limitations to Ultra trail Running Performance

At the top of the list, but not really on the list, is the ability to remain within a 'positive state of being, a positive state of mind', while all of the many negative states from various sources are being initiated. It may sound simple, but it is extremely difficult. It all comes from changing one's mindset, and starts by changing one's terminology.

Some people may refer to it as learning to "deal with the pain", to deal with the "discomfort from the increasing fatigue". Both of these phrases are rather negative in expression. I tend to refer to it as "learning to enjoy the satisfaction as the body and mind work together, running to their absolute limit!" It is a positive experience, it is what I strive to achieve, running as hard and as fast as my body and mind will allow me. It is what I look forward to, in addition to taking in the surrounding natural environment of the trails.

However, sometimes things may go a little wrong, and make it extremely hard to maintain this positivity. So here is my list of "Sources of Negative States Being Initiated" for ultra trail running, this would differ for road running, and also differ for trail marathons:

1. So finally, at the top of the list has to be fuel. You must get the fuelling correct. Running intensity in an ultra, depending on it's duration, will be below lactate turnpoint, and the longer the race, significantly below. Hence fatigue will not arise due to lactate accumulation. However, the higher one's intensity, the more carbohydrate fuel will be used. The body has limited stores within the body in terms of muscle and liver glycogen. To help spare these limited stores, you must take on carbohydrate during the race! If you do not, then no matter how 'strong' your mind is, you can not maintain the same pace once your glycogen stores are depleted. It doesn't really matter what form or type of carbohydrate you take on. This will be dependent upon personal preference, experiences. There is lots of research suggesting a carbohydrate percentage concentration of around 6 - 7% is ideal. The key thing is that you must take on sufficient water in order to dilute the carbohydrate consumed to this approximate percentage level. I tend to use gels, cliff bars, but during last year's UTMB I pretty well got all the way around eating the flapjack and sultana/fruit cake provide at the feed stations, in combination with 50/50 ratio of coke/water (to ensure a 6-7% concentration as coke is around 12%).

2. Closely following at number 2, but really part of number 1. Do NOT get dehydrated! Ensure you take on sufficient water, (but not to the extremes that can lead to hyponatraemia, which has lead to death in marathon runners!) This is where the carrying of a backpack with a bladder is really beneficial in long races. Yes, carrying the extra weight of water on your back will affect your running economy/efficiency, but if you get your water, carbohydrate/water ratio wrong, then it doesn't really matter how efficient you have been running, it is pretty well end of a good performance, and may be even end of the race!

3. Stay 'within the now' whilst racing. Focus on enjoying every moment, staying confident in that your preparation has been sufficient for the realistic goal you have set yourself, and feel assured that the fast, but comfortable pace you have started at, is correct. Listen to your own 'deep and inner beliefs', and ignore the comments, views and actions of others if they are in conflict with your well thought out and planned strategies. (Quite a few topics that need expanding there, but not tonight!)

4. Muscle damage, muscle soreness, stiffness, cramping etc. As the duration of the race progresses, your muscles will get damaged, your running economy decreases, i.e. there is an increase in intensity, effort, heart rate, in order to run at the same pace. This is fact, clearly demonstrated in loads of research. But how can you help decrease the rate at which your muscles get damaged? This is all to do with running technique! Running is a skilled event. Unfortunately, as mentioned in some of my earlier posts on running economy, it takes years of miles for the legs 'to harden up', to be able to take the pounding of long distance running. Not only is it the legs 'hardening up' but it is also your running style improving, becoming more relaxed, more smooth, more flowing, more cruisey. However, you want to describe it, it is about running in rhythm. Running with your mind and body as one. Running with positivity, running with joy! I think now is an appropriate time to 'throw in' another one of my strong beliefs, but I will not explain it now. It would take too long! As a certain Jo, once said to one of my work colleagues "You will have to just trust me on this one, until the time is right to explain!" Hopefully I will be able to explain it in a post in the not to distant future. Well anyway here is my belief:

"To run faster in ultra trail races, train slower! Your training pace should enable your running to be relaxed, smooth, flowing, cruisey, and in total rhythm, with positivity and joy. For the vast majority of your runs, do not train hard!"

5. There isn't one! Ultra running performance is pretty well largely determined by the above four factors.

On my closing note I would like to draw your attention to the following, that both within my list, and also within William Sichel's list, there is no mention of VO2 max, and I only barely refer to lactate threshold / turnpoint. Therefore:

"In order to address what training is appropriate, one must first consider what limits performance!" Stuart Mills, 2010.

Enjoy your training,



  1. Another great post Stuart. I'm so glad you started this blog!

    I thought of you the other night when I was listening to Graeme Obree. You have a lot in common in the way you approach your sport.

    You are both prepared to 'think outside the box' questioning accepted opinion.

    One thing may differ though ... he said he doesn't like road races where tactics come into it especially in cycling where team tactics determine so much.

    He chose to do individual pursuit where it was him against the clock and if he was fastest he won - simple.

    With the whw just over 3 weeks away I'm thinking a lot about my food and pace and found your post today helpful.

    Over the last 3 years I do feel that my positive attitude to ultra running has really helped me.

    I've run with people who 'hate' certain bits of the route and I've thought that it must affect the way you perform so it was interesting to read your thoughts.

    So thanks again and hope your training is going well.

  2. Great post Stuart. Having been running for only 2 years (completed firt ultra in 2009, second one coming up in July) I have found your posts very insightful and they have reinforced my belief that ultras really should be enjoyed to the full.

    Recently I have found my long runs (20-25 miles) quite tough going in the heat and often want to run faster than what is probably comfortable. Not a great idea as it does take the enjoyment out of things to some degree. I don't eat anything on these long runs and wondered if you did use any food/gels etc during your long training sessions.


  3. Hi Stuart,

    Again a brilliant and fascinating post. I was someone that used to train hard. Every mile had to be hard fought and if I finished without feeling totally exhausted then I was being lazy. Now I train slow and stop and watch the scenery, talk to people and just enjoy running.
    My racing performances have been better and I also enjoy running again so much more.

    Keep up the great blogging Stu.


  4. I bailed out of the 145 mile GUCR at the weekend basically because I didn't want to finish enough. Physically I could have continued beyond the 93 mile point where I stopped, but just didn't have the drive to complete. Completing is definitely all mental. Doing really well, well there's a bit of physical in their too. :-)

  5. Hi Stu

    Just a thought, what is the relationship between pace and muscle damage? Perhaps a steady pace is better as the muscle damage is restricted for longer?


  6. Hi David

    An interesting question, regarding the relationship between pace and muscle damage. Yes, I think that the faster you run, the increased likelihood of muscle damage, but not if it is not maintained. It is later on in a race that the muscle damage occurs, e.g. compare the damage one tends to get in a half marathon compared to a marathon, i.e. minimal damage in a half marathon (and even less in a 10km), even though the pace is heaps quicker than in the marathon. So starting of at a fast pace in an ultra event isn't going to cause an increase in muscle damage as the pace is only fast at the start, not quick later on when the damage takes place.


  7. Hi Stuart

    That really is 'food for thought'. Very interesting, thanks for taking the time to respond.

    Cheers David