Article - Ultra Performance

Article - Ultra Performance
What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? – Part One

The question I often ask myself is "What makes me slow down during an ultra race?" I can part explain the answer physiologically and biomechanically in terms of the eccentric muscle damage affecting my running economy, or becoming dehydrated. Both of these factors contribute to a rise in heart rate for the same running speed, known as 'cardiac drift'. There could also be nutritional issues, with their being a depletion of glycogen/reduction in blood glucose. However, thinking back to ultra races I have ran, I think a major aspect, which is often overlooked, is one's 'current state of mind' during the race. I will try to explain.

I used to think that the mind and the body were separate items. The mind would instruct the body what to do, the body would respond, and inform the mind that it could or couldn't do what was instructed, i.e. it would send messages back stating that it was sore, tired, injured, exhausted etc. However, now I believe that the two are heavily intertwined. It is not possible to separate the two. It is not just the body that gets sore, tired, injured, and exhausted. The body and mind together experience these feelings, as well as experiences the positive feelings combined, such as joy, powerful, strong, floating, energy, etc.

Let’s try to look to some sporting examples to illustrate how performance is influenced by a combination of body and mind. I seldom follow football, but when the World Cup is on, and having two teams to cheer on (England and New Zealand, (yes NZ made it to the 2010 World Cup for only the 2nd time ever!) I have taken a larger interest. Looking at the 2010 Premier League table, Chelsea finished top winning 27 out of their 38 games. The interesting statistic which is relevant to this post is that at home, they won 17 out of 19 games, and away only won 10 out of the 19 games. To further highlight this interesting statistic, Fulham won in total 12 out of their 38 games, however, 11 of these wins were at home. They only won 1 game away! The relevant question is, why is there such a big difference between home and away performance? Is it not the same teams they play, the same ball, and pretty well the same sized pitch!

What about another example, not football based but a mixture of activities including racing performances. Let’s look at the performance of the host nation of the Commonwealth Games: New Zealand hosting the Games in Auckland in 1990, and England hosting the games in Manchester in 2002. In both situations, the host nation performed significantly better than in the Games either side of their host games.

New Zealand
1986: 8 x G, 16 x S, 14 x B = 38 medals
1990: 17 x G, 14 x S, 27 x B = 58 medals
1994: 4 x G, 16 x S, 20 x B = 41 medals

1998: 36 x G, 47 x S, 53 x B = 136 medals
2002: 54 x G, 52 x S, 60 x B = 166 medals
2006: 36 x G, 40 x S, 34 x B = 110 medals

So you can quite clearly see that being the home team results in a massive improvement in performance! This occurs because the mind and body are interlinked. Racing / competing at home results in improved performance largely due to the positive energy the athletes / players receive from their supporting fans, friends, and family. This home support makes the individual feel happy, to feel good, to feel comfortable, but most of all to feel positive. And it is this positive feeling, this positive attitude, this positive energy that then leads to a positive successful performance.

So let's get back to ultra running! and "One's 'current state of mind' during the race".

Firstly let's look at how one's training recently completed affects performance. Quite often, following a consistent period of 'good quality' training, performance in ultra racing improves. Common sense suggests that this improvement in performance is due to the good quality training completed. I however suggest an alternative answer. As a consequence of the period of good quality training, one feels more positive towards their runs, feels more positive overall and happy. There is also an increased confidence, an improved attitude in relation to racing, that actually causes the improved performance. With it being very little to do with the 'improved body'! Similarly the opposite happens following periods of poor training, leading not to decreased physical fitness, but leading to a poor attitude, low confidence, a negative 'state of mind'!

So the secret is to be able to be positive, to be confident. But this has to be at a 'deep level'. It cannot be superficial. You must truly believe, must truly experience the positive energy, the positive confidence. And this must continue, must OCCUR DURING the ultra race.

I am a firm believer of the pacing strategy "Run as fast as you can, while you can". One benefit of a fast start is to obtain, to enhance this positive energy. As long as you have a strong belief in your ability, in your race approach, then a fast start generates enormous amounts of positive energy. This positive energy is largely generated from within, because you are running fast, the absolute joy of moving over the ground quickly, running quicker than you have previously run, running substantially quicker that your usual training pace.

But you also get positive energy from everyone you come across during the race. Have you noticed that people are often a reflection of yourself? Well if you are racing along, with bundles of positive energy, everyone; i.e. marshals, spectators, friends, family etc., you meet; will reflect this positive energy back to you, with added 'interest'. If you are running feeling in a negative 'state of mind', your low levels of positive energy will be further drained! Think back to how your support crew responded to you in recent races, did they reflect your energy levels, think about their response at a deep level, not what they superficially tried to portray?

So during my race preparation I focus on generating this positive state of feeling, a positive attitude, a positive confidence. And during the actual race I do my utmost to maintain high levels of positive energy. To help achieve this I try to race "being in the now". To take on board, to experience everything that is happening around me, at each and every moment. I try to appreciate the scenery, the terrain, the spectators, the other competitors. Some people use 'distraction' strategies, I try to do the exact opposite!

I find that my positive 'state of feeling', or 'state of being' corresponds to a positive mind and a positive body, remember they are not separable. 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.

The negative state may start from within the mind, disappointment at being down on race schedule, disappointment that other runners are performing better than you, focusing too much on others rather than yourself, forgetting to appreciate the joy of running, forgetting to appreciate the excitement of racing, of running fast, not appreciating the beauty of the surrounding trails, the surrounding environment. This is why I find ultra trail running so much easier than road racing, the enjoyment I get, the positivity I experience by being in the trails. Running the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc was a prime example. You don't get a much more spectacular environment than on the mountain trails of France, Italy and Switzerland. Hence my performance, which I felt was equally as spectacular to match the scenery, to match the atmosphere, the amazing overall experience.

To summarise the above I think the important message from the discussion above, is for ultra runners, to take 'one step back', and try to look at how they approach ultra races. What is your 'state of feeling', 'state of being' during ultra races? Try to reflect on those races that you gained most enjoyment from, possibly these being those races that you performed the best. Was anything different in terms of your positivity, your attitude, your self confidence?

Time to sign off this first section of this article with a self quote that hopefully summarises the above: "Ultra Trail Running is significantly enhanced through maintaining a 'positive state of being' as one remains 'within the now', experiencing the overwhelming joy of running within the surrounding natural beauty". Stuart Mills, 2010.

May your ultra runs be enhanced through positivity,

What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two

The content of Part One above could be seen to be a bit simplistic, "Keep positive and everything will be fine and you will perform well in ultra running". So here is Part Two, to expand a little bit on some of the aspects raised. The key paragraph from Part One above is probably:

"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. Click the link to see what his thoughts are on "The Limitations to Performance in 100km and 24 Hour Events

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 this aspect is addressed in another article.

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 at the top of the list has to be fuel. You must get the fuelling correct. Running intensity in an ultra, depending on its 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 cannot 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 the 2009 UTMB I pretty well got all the way around eating the flapjack and sultana/fruit cake provided 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.

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, 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!

"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. Time to sign off from this article:

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

Enjoy your training.


  1. Great article, many points I have not considered and reaffirmed some that I use. Thank you, Ben

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  3. Thank you for taking the time to write your articles Stuart, and for sharing you knowledge and wisdom. They are a pleasure to read and very insightful.
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