Six Things That Elite Ultrarunners Are Doing That You Are Not

Stay the CourseI consider myself an interloper, as a person and as a runner: embracing the similarities and differences that come from variety. As a kid, I was the one who took something completely apart in order to figure out how it worked.

Ultrarunning fits this theme. As a clinician, scientist, and coach, I’m constantly seeking out the keys to success and longevity. I search inside and out and top to bottom, hoping to glean a few pearls to absorb and then pass along.

This year’s Lake Sonoma 50 Mile was one such opportunity. After a couple top-10 performances in years past, I was unprepared to rumble up front, so I chose to simply run it, mingling amongst the midpack of runners that just may be the prototypical of American ultrarunning.

In the process, I made some notable observations about what factors separate the sport’s very best from the rest. While many may think it’s raw talent or brute toughness, these lessons were far simpler than that.

In Racing

These are the things elites are doing in races that you probably aren’t.

1. Elites Run Slow[er Than You Do] Uphill.
It’s commonplace for the early stages of ultramarathons to feature long, steep uphills. The Lake Sonoma 50 Mile features several grunting ups and downs along the reservoir road before dumping onto the trail–and more ups and downs.

Elite runners, by and large, run uphills conservatively. This is a misnomer because, by all accounts, their pace is still damn fast. However, compared to their hard-charging pace, early-to-mid-stage hills are run relatively slowly to avoid sharp heart-rate and lactate-producing spikes, which can lead to painful crashes later in the race.

Elite runners can and do run very hard uphill. However, because they are acutely aware of their cost, elites save these efforts for a precious few tactical moves on race day.

Midpackers, on the other hand, have a tendency to grind uphill at hard, unsustainable paces early on. Hills that are aggressively charged early on are the same ones that are staggered in the second half. Indeed, it was shocking for me to struggle to keep up with midpackers in the early stages of Lake Sonoma when my own heart rate was approaching threshold!

Tip: Even out the efforts and save the big pushes for when they count. The Central Governor knows all, and it knows if what you’re doing is unsustainable–even if it ‘feels okay’ early on. Be objective. Is your early hill pace going to be your late-race hill pace? If not, slow down. Powerhike to conserve muscle energy and avoid the lactate burn until the end is near and your brain is confident you’ll make it! An even-keeled approach avoids spikes and crashes, and ensures your fastest performance.

2. Elites Always Run Fast Downhill.
Descents are free time and distance, and elites know it. Or maybe they don’t, but they quickly learn that in order to stay in contention, they have to keep pace. Elites learn to run quickly–yet utterly effortlessly–down the most technical terrain. They do so using a variety of methods:

  • A lightning-quick cadence. Elites tend to run a cadence of 180 steps per minute. And not only is that maintained on the downs, it is often accelerated–to upwards of 200 steps a minute. A quicker foot strikes the ground with less force, enhancing stability on unreliable surfaces. But the big benefit of a quick cadence is energy and impact management. The less time spent on the ground, the less energy is absorbed by the legs.
  • Moving laterally. Many elite runners have skiing backgrounds and it shows. They enhance stability and hop more quickly downhill by picking, tapping, and bouncing laterally from side to side, picking steady areas like trail berms and solid rock to assist in their descent.
  • A relaxed upper body. Elite runners allow their arms to go out to the side and even overhead on quick downs. It’s partly for balance, but mostly because they can dissipate ground-landing forces through their arms.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Elite runners make a point of practicing fast, technical downs and doing so consistently, on every run. The quick turnover and lateral style is a challenge at first, but once mastered, it is an effortless technique far removed from the jarring, bone-crushing sensation most of us are used to. Indeed, both last year’s Western States champions–Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe–have mentioned numerous times in various interviews how much they focus on honing their downhill technique.

Midpackers tend to run slowly and inefficiently downhill. This was a real shocker to me. After being dropped on uphills at Sonoma, up and over the crest, I’d double the distance on the same runners on the downs, with minimal effort. Many of them decreased their cadence, and in doing so, their ‘conservative’ descent resulted in greater leg stress than their elite counterparts–with none of the benefits!

Tip: Make quick-cadenced, light-footed downhills a part of every run. Fast downhills must be practiced, and they must be consistent. A moderately fast downhill, performed with a quick turnover, might result in soreness at first, but stick with it. Over time, downs will be faster than ever and with less soreness! And do it on every run, unless one is incredibly sore. (In which case, why are you running hilly terrain?). Quick, efficient descents cost nothing.

3. Elite Runners Swing Their Arms.
The arms mirror the legs, as well as adding a dimension of efficiency to footstrike. An efficient arm swing is vital to optimal performance and limited aches and pains. Elites by and large have excellent arm carriage: the trunk is tall, shoulders are open, and the elbows and hands move straight forward and back (or as the Max King-borne legend has it, “Hips to Nips”!).

Midpackers tend to have poor or nonexistent arm swings. The absence of arm swing is a tremendous cost to speed and body stress. Deficient arm swing creates overstriding, decreased push-off power, and–because of how it impacts hip mobility–tends to lead to cramping issues sooner than those with strong arms.

Their are myriad factors for poor arm swing. Often the arms mirror the legs, and issues with the feet and hips simply show up in the arms. But more often, it is the tendency toward carrying things–food, drink, and gear–that overloads the arms and prevents a true swing.

Tip: Work the arms! Don’t neglect them. Be mindful of both trunk posture and the forward-and-back integrity of arm swing in training and racing. But perhaps more importantly…

4. Elite Runners Run Minimally.
Elite runners train themselves to run on the bare minimum of external tools: food, water, salt, supplements, and other gear. Often, you’ll see them run with nothing more than a small bottle and a few gels. Simply put, they don’t use much. So they don’t have to carry much or load themselves–inside or out–with excess weight.

This is not because they don’t need water or energy. Indeed, despite being smaller, they frequently burn more calories and sweat more fluid per mile and between aid stations than midpackers, but they recognize the trade off between being over-prepared and overloaded. They simply adapt their bodies to the most basic needs, leaving their running as free and unfettered as can be.

Going minimal not only means lightening the load, but also maximizing efficiency. With only a small bottle and a few gels, seldom do their supplies interfere with an elite runner’s stride. Many use ultralight vests or belts, or a bottle tucked into the shorts band, allowing for fluid, efficient mechanics.

Midpackers tend to run too heavy, with too much stuff. Despite the current knowledge and practices on hydration, the average midpacker now runs with two (or more) large water bottles and/or a bulky, backpack hydration system. While they may be meeting their water and calorie needs, there is a tremendous mechanical cost:

  • Heavy bottles in the hands hinder arm swing. Running all day with full-sized bottles invariably impacts an efficient arm swing, robbing the legs of power and efficiency.
  • Backpack hydration systems create stiff trunks. These heavy packs, no matter how small, tend to create a rounded ribcage. This has two significant mechanical impacts: a rounded trunk inhibits the shoulder blades and their role in arm swing, and a rounded trunk prevents full rib expansion and maximal breathing!
  • Ingesting more than you need makes you heavy. Calories, water, and salt enhance performance and are necessary for success. But too much of either results in real weight gain, and those extra pounds carried over miles and hours takes a toll.

Tip: Hone your needs, and keep supplies minimal. Standard ultra races are run in moderate conditions with copious aid. Use them, and trust in yourself to survive. But before race day, learn about your body’s precise needs in a variety of conditions, and learn to do more with less! Indeed, studies on dehydration in marathon and ultra races consistently find that the fastest runners are those who lose the most weight. Simply put, they did the most with the least.

If you do use gear, practice using it, and practice running fast and efficiently with it!

In Training

As an extension of the race-day comparison, here are a couple elite training factors that you may not be focused on.

5. Elites Train Slowly (Most of the Time).
Again, this is a bit of a misnomer, because for the average runner, a chance to run at the recovery pace of the sport’s very best may seem impossible. But from a physiological standpoint, elite ultrarunners run their base mileage at a significantly slower percent of their maximum effort, compared to you. Their fat-metabolizing aerobic pace is quite fast: honed by years of consistent, efficient training. Yes, they’re running relatively quickly, but the metabolic cost is quite low.

The midpackers chasing their coattails often do not follow suit. They frequently ‘train fast to get fast.’ But in doing so, they fail to run at a low-enough intensity to develop the fat-burning enzymes necessary to take their running to the next level. They constantly chase, frequently burn out, and are often injured.

Tip: Slow down and tune in. Base mileage must feel extremely easy. If it doesn’t, you’re simply running too fast. Get a heart-rate monitor, and consider heart-rate-based training systems such as the Maffetone Method to ensure you’re developing that fundamental system.

6. Elite Runners Train Very Hard (Some of the Time).
By training most of their mileage easy, elite runners have the physical ability to push themselves hard. The world’s best ultrarunners–during the middle to peak periods of their training–frequently run at a high intensity three to four times a week.

But this hard running is carried out with extreme prejudice and over a variety of specific conditions including flats and hills, road and trails, and short and long intervals. Workouts are tightly controlled and measured from week to week, and they’re able to gauge training effect by comparing a workout today to the same one a month prior.

Midpackers tend to make one big mistake. They frequently (and often daily) enter ‘The Gray Zone’–an area of moderately intense aerobic output that’s too fast to be fat burning and too slow to obtain true fitness benefits. Because the body thrives on stress and rest, this lukewarm zone limits development and results in injury and burnout.

Tip: Run structured, specific, disciplined hard workouts–and do them with others. Workouts need not be dogmatic. Pick your favorite workouts that are fun yet challenging, specific to your goal race, and sustainable over the long haul. Don’t be afraid to make them hurt, but always finish with a bit left in the tank.

*****

Being a champion is exceedingly difficult and fleeting, but mastery of these fundamentals is not exclusive to the talented pros. Hone these skills and watch your own running rise to its own elite level!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Okay, it’s time for confession. Which of these things aren’t you doing and why?
  • Having read this, what easy improvements could you make to your racing and training that would improve both your experience and performance?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 53 comments

  1. Justin_M

    Great article Joe. Thank you. A lot I can improve on. When I race I usually power hike the uphills, because my running them is barely any faster, and seems to take considerably more energy. Is this a good strategy, or should I be running them anyway? Should I be running them when training and walking them when racing? Any advice is appreciated. Thanks.

    1. 00joeuhan

      Good question. If we use Western States as the standard, a good Craig Thornley quote goes something like, "Unless you're going to run under 17 hours, you should be hiking". In other words: in heavy-vertical races (with or without altitude), the vast majority of runners should be good hikers – limiting HR spikes from running uphill.

      However, a well-honed "granny gear" on ups can also keep the HR manageable.

  2. nbskis

    There are a lot of great points made here, but I'd have to disagree with you on the point about moving fast downhill. It certainly is something that needs to be trained and repeated, but i don't agree that anyone should be running all of their downhills at a hard training pace. Just like you mention the "gray zone", I'd argue that downhill running quickly falls right in there… you're stressing your skeleton greatly while obtaining very little fitness benefit. Just like any other aspect of training, hard downhills should be saved for certain specific workouts. On many climbs I run up with say 300-500 feet of gain per mile, i may run up at 8-10 minute pace but only descend at 7-8 minute pace, which is keeping my heart rate at a very low level and not pounding on the legs too much. Save the hard downhills for a fast run up and down a mountain or a specific workout for a tough race.

    1. 00joeuhan

      It's all relative. A LOT of mid-packers run as slowly as 10 minutes per mile on smooth downhill. 6-7 minutes IS fast (and relatively stressful) and such hard pushes should be strategically saved.

      1. nbskis

        I guess that needs more clarification then, because on any sort of incline moving at ~7 requires almost no effort for me, so by your reasoning i should be running it at 6 or under, which, while not taxing in terms of fitness (heartrate in the 130s) would definitely pound my legs if done frequently and really impact my training poorly.

        1. @EricAshleyNJ

          I'm a big fan of Joe's point about cadence. The quick cadence allows me to increase speed downhill, still at low HR, without pounding the legs. Forgive me if you're doing this already, but if you're not, it's definitely worth practicing.

        2. AdamLawrence

          I tend to agree, and if we take Strava's GAP algorithm seriously (not that we need to), most elites seem to run faster in aerobic terms on climbs than descents. This is doubly true on technical descents where getting the heart rate up is almost impossible for all but the most skilled mountain runners, but even on smooth downhills, the musculo-skeletal stress of fast descents sets an upper limit on how hard you can work aerobically on descents, so in a sense you're actually "losing time" on downhills. Elites who can run 5:30-6:30 pace relatively comfortably on flat ground "should" be running 4:30-5:30 pace on downhills, something most elites don't seem to do a lot of of. Anecdotally, aerobic beasts with a road/track background like Krar and Canaday often talk as though the climbs are where they make their lethal moves, knowing that a "pure" mountain runner like Dakota Jones is going to move much more efficiently on the descents. Joe has way more experience and scientific training than I, so he could well be right…it just runs counter to my own spotty analysis of elites' Strava data.

          1. @SageCanaday

            Great post!
            ….and so, not all descents are created equal! Percent grade of hills matter and trail surface/smoothness matters a ton when looking at the margins.

            Taking trail technicality into account for some ultras (as well as race distances of 50km to 100 miles etc.) again I think that bigger gains can be made with general aerobic fitness and skeletal muscular strength that are reflected more in the uphills (even if it is power-hiking). Probably the majority of trail runners that I've met and run with are plenty fast on downhills and can really fly if they want to! But of course for the long haul, blasting down a downhill at top speed isn't in the best interest for any runner in any ultra race. For the downhills the only limiting factors will be sheer muscle failure and/or the ability to navigate techy sections (neuromuscular coordination, stride rate/form, and risk-taking…all of which can be learned). But for uphills there is the leg strength (and specific running economy with proper form and muscle development), but also the limitation of the aerobic system which can cause one to cross the aerobic threshold and then lactate threshold. This system can be trained and there is a lot more of potential improvement here I believe.

            Again, I'm not against some targeted downhill specific sessions to callous the quads and develop specific leg strength for descents. Navigating techy trails at a fast pace I believe is also a very learned skill…I just won't recommend doing it all the time when potential gains in uphill ability (and flat running ability for that matter) can be trained more often for a better overall aerobic/cardiovascular benefit. Become more efficient on the uphills, and burn less fuel.

            1. Ben_Nephew

              Who really uses anything close to maximal downhill speed, or anything close to it, in an ultra? I too am often impressed by the downhill abilities of many runners. There is certainly a good deal of potential improvement at more difficult ultras with improved downhill and technical endurance. Just the 5k race pace that many folks can blast off the start with, I often see runners with little trail background (perhaps a road runner) absolutely flying for a short period of time on technical terrain and/or a hard downhill. After a few miles, though, this type of terrain tires them out more than runners with a stronger trail background, even though the road runner has superior aerobic fitness. The thing is with harder ultras, most can callous the quads enough with a few downhill workouts. Think of what happens at Cayuga every year. I'm certainly not the hill runner that Zach Ornelas is. Uphill ability and downhill tend to overlap a bit in the latter half of an ultra, where if your quads are shot from the downhills, your aerobic fitness is useless. Both downhill and technical endurance can be trained for, and improvements lead to gains on downhills, technical trail, as well as uphills where it allows to take full advantage of your fitness for more of the race. I think the challenge for many is the vast difference between the length and intensity of their long run and the race itself, especially for those that do not race frequently. Easy long runs that are many hours shorter than the race distance are not going to be as effective as a harder effort that is also closer to the race distance.

  3. @SageCanaday

    I agree with what nbskis had to say about the downhills.

    Separate these systems: 1. Skeletal muscular System (muscles, tendons, bones, etc.) and 2. Cardiovascular System (heart, lungs…even fat burning/metabolism). Think in terms of what you are doing to each system separately through specific workouts and know when to differentiate appropriately.

    I think one would want to take their personal considerations into account above all else. The "gray area" in training is good as a lot of people can benefit from dialing into very specific intensity zones for certain workouts (i.e. Lactate Threshold on Tempo Runs). A lot of runners do push too hard and too steady on "easy days" when they need to recover…this is true, and a big issue that can lead to overtraining/injury when hitting higher mileage totals and more vertical gain.

    I've also seen many a mid pack runner with excellent running form though: great arm swing and mechanics and very fast/very great technical descent ability (something of course one wouldn't see at a very unique and smooth course like Lake Sonoma). From my experience a lot of MUT Runners (regardless of where they fall in the pack) are actually very fast downhill runners! But I wouldn't recommend honing into that everyday or especially on an easy day….some days yes for sure to beat up the quads…but the damage is pretty severe. I think a better stimulus would be practicing doing downhill strides (i.e. 100m fast on a -2 to -3% grade downhill on dirt/grass) and working on leg turnover closer to 200 steps/min and actual running form.

    In the end (taking individual variation into account): Capitalize on your strengths and address to improve upon your weaknesses. For me, that means blasting up uphills with reckless abandon…even early on in a race (at least up to 50 miles) -and carrying a UD belt stuffed with 8-10 gels at a time while swinging a 20oz handheld full of coke. While in training I hardly ever run fast downhill because of the injury risk (granted I'm weaker on the downhills, but still I won't recommend people focus on it that much) but I digress…

    But the general principles of specific zone training, targeted workouts with a certain stimulus in mind, and dialing in on individual pacing/nutrition/running form are great to bring up here as they are key. I just don't think it's a good idea to compare to others or try to generalize because we all are so diverse in our training/racing background, our anatomy/physiology and how much time/energy we actually have to train. Furthermore, since the MUT Running events we do are very diverse with very specific demands those training/racing parameters are going to need some flexibility and variation.

    1. Ben_Nephew

      On the downhilll running, injury risk will decrease with more practice! A good way to avoid infringing on your easy days is to do your your hard downhill running at the same time you are doing your uphill work. This tends to be very race relevant in terms of working on the transition between uphill and downhill, and it also provides input on how hard downhill running affects your ability to go up. This is something that can be under appreciated. In races, I think most folks, no matter what their level, have to pick whether they want to push the hills, either up or down, early or late. No one can go hard, relative to their maximum output, all day long in a 50m, or even 50k. Some may cite even paced races as evidence of this, but quality even paced ultras are the result of comfortable running early on and very hard running towards to end to maintain the same pace.

      Your post made me realize that another thing elite runners are doing that others are not is competing at events they are not training for! Most runners either race locally where they have access to terrain similar to their races, or have 1-2 goal races that they train very specificially for. Many elites are either invited to or decide to attend races that are very different from their typical training. Sometimes overall fitness can allow this to work, other times, it doesn't work out so well.

    2. iRunFar - Bryon

      "While in training I hardly ever run fast downhill because of the injury risk (granted I'm weaker on the downhills, but still I won't recommend people focus on it that much) but I digress…"

      The counterpoint here is that someone like Luis Alberto Hernando used to suck at descending and, now, he's one of the best descenders in ultrarunning. How? He actively practices descending. It's one of the types of workouts he does.

      "RunFar: Why do you think you’re such a good downhiller? Because you also have shown it last year descending [at Transvuclania], and at Zegama last year you were a very strong descender. Why are you so good on the downhills?

      Hernando: If someone told me five years ago I was going to be a good downhiller, I wouldn’t have believed it. In fact, when I started with this I used to like vertical races so I didn’t have to run down. But, well, I’ve made the idea that you also have to go down well in order to succeed in races, and I’ve done many more trainings, many more meters of downhill. Every time I’m adding meters of downhill training. What I also do in trainings, besides doing specific workouts, it’s not to relax in downhills, always trying to go down focused, and a little frantic, and accepting the idea than you can also train for downhills.

      iRunFar: Do you train just to be good on the very long downhills or do you also have speed sessions on descents?

      Hernando: Where I live, in winter, there’s snow over 1,300 meters normally, and we live at 900 meters. So we can train doing ups and downs, but we can’t make too long uphills or downhills, so we do speed workouts, and try to do all the downhills. If we do many uphills, we try to do the downhills on different ways. In some trainings, we try to do the downhills series as fast as we do the uphill series."

      1. @SageCanaday

        Bryon, I never said that i don't exclude running some (often techy) downhills fast! It's done sparingly though.

        The point I was trying to make above is that I think most MUT Runners (front of the pack, mid-pack, back of the pack etc.) really are already pretty good at downhill running (esp. technical downhills). For the majority of people, bigger gains can be made on the uphills (also something one can train for). But it is a matter of revving the cardiovascular engine and developing specific running economy. Luis honestly already won Transvulcania by a long shot on the uphill. For sure both uphills and downhills can be honed, trained and learned but the bigger focus is the important difference in the actual terrain one is running on (i.e. how steep and techy) and that variable makes it harder to generalize by what a "good downhiller" actually means. Smooth road and trail descents (i.e. Lake Sonoma) are a totally different ballgame than steep technical rocky ones of course. In one instance we may be talking about sheer muscle failure and in another it is more a matter of neuromuscular coordination and/or "taking risks" with mental fortitude/courage. For uphills though we are taking about big potential cardiovascular gains, leg strength and specific running economy…much more applicable and beneficial to the majority of US ultra runners.

        Most of us US ultra trail runners aren't doing SkyRunning events on super techy mountain lines with thousands of feet of descent. We're just trying to finish a trail (or road) race as efficiently as possible.

  4. ajoneswilkins

    During my "elite window" at WS between 2004 and 2011 I subscribed to the hike the ups, jog the flats, and hammer the downs technique every time. Of course, that like AC, is a true descenders course. Doesn't matter as much in 100k or below but in 100s having good downhill speed makes up a ton of time.

    1. 00joeuhan

      Both you and Meghan Arbogast come to mind first and foremost with these principles: of "straightening the curves and flattening the hills" — to decrease intensity on the ups and [relatively] increase it on the downs. Smooth it out for an even effort over a hundred miles is – I'm guessing – pinnacle to success!

    2. AdamCondit

      I can vouch for AJWs approach as Barger and I were descending down to El Dorado Creek along came a stomping & storming AJW barreling down the trail. My precious Iowa-quads were tentative as could be … I'll get it right one day :)

  5. @davidhenry114

    I agree with Sage and Joe :). I like (and follow) Sage's two separate systems approach because I think it is often overlooked a big reason why I don't do much cross training other than the off season is that it ignores the skeletal system while still building the aerobic system so that (especially if doing because of a niggle or injury) you come back super aerobically and metabolically fit but your skeletal system has not be gradually and progressively stressed. That said, I agree with Joe that one should run downhills strongly most of the time. Not necessarily in wingsuit mode, but I don't think that is what he is talking about. I think the main factor to control is not the speed (I go by the rule of going with the flow, i.e. not pushing downs, but not braking either…feeling based rather than pace) but the volume of downhill and yes if quads are wrecked, time for a flatter day to let them recover. But I think Joe's point is valid and if you practice running downhills slowly you will just get better at running them slowly since it is relatively more of a skill (and skeletal strength) issue that a power output one. Great article Joe! -David

  6. kjz

    I think it's amusing you seem to think many of us mid-back of the pack people run downhills slowly, inefficiently, etc on purpose. Dude. I'd fly downhills if I could but I can't! I've spent a ton of time since I started ultras in 1999 (and before when I ran shorter races) working to fix my downhills and I think it resulted in improvement from "crappy" to "less crappy" especially on tech/steep stuff. I definitely agree we should focus on minimizing our weaknesses and maximizing our strengths but honestly, I'm doing my best out there. If I could stop bleeding time and quad health on steep downs I most definitely would.

    One other point in support of my fellow not-elite runners, we often carry more than elite, speedy folks because we need it. It might take me 3h betw aid stations compared to your 1.5h deep in a tough ultra. I cannot run/powerhike that on a 12oz water bottle and a half gel. Thus, I'm carrying more food and fluid because I need it. In a mtn race if the crazy weather breaks loose, I have a hat, gloves, and a shell because I need it–I'm not moving as fast so I keep hypothermia at bay w gear. So I agree we need to minimize what we carry for weight, but if I only have a small bottle and 200 cal then I'm likely running a trail half marathon. :)

    I'm reminded of when my young kiddo said, "mom, you'd win stuff if you'd just run faster." I wish it was that simple. If I'm running and powerhiking slowly and with suboptimal form, you can believe it's the best I've got on that day with the prep I squeezed in prior to that race. :)

    1. nbskis

      You've got to use less in training to use less in races. People go out loaded up with all this gear for an hour or two long run and think they have to hydrate and fuel for this stuff… realistically, for less than 90-120 minutes, you don't need a thing. If you train with depletion and practice running with less, eventually you're going to be able to run a lot further without a thing. I'm always shocked how long I can go without calories after just a couple training runs to get my system dialed in. Sure, you may be between aid stations longer than a faster runner, so maybe you need a jacket or something, but you're expending less energy and perspiring less, therefore your body needs less fuel, especially if you train it.

      1. lewlewlewlew

        I would be interested in seeing a study showing that elites sweat more over a 1.5 hour leg than back of the pack runners sweat over that same 3 hour leg. It's claims like this that perpetuate the stereotype that middle and back of the pack runners are just out for a stroll; that they're not putting out a high personal level of effort.
        As for carrying food, I've seen numerous articles referencing that the body processes 200-300 calories per hour and an ultrarunner should strive to keep on top of that general amount. For an elite over a 1.5 hour leg, that means 200-300 calories on the way out of the aid station and a gel or two for the trail. For a back of the pack runner, it means the same aid station food, with 400-600 calories for the trail. Say I'm trained as perfectly as you express and only need 100 calories an hour, those calories still need to be carried and replaced somehow. Remember, this is for ultras.
        Like kjz says, we all have to figure it out for ourselves. There's a lot of judgement in saying that slower runners are not training themselves 'properly.'

        1. jmoffitt67

          A higher sweat rate (volume/unit time) among better trained individuals is a very well established effect in exercise physiology. It's been shown over and over. There is no doubt.

        2. @Watoni

          I think this is a great article.
          I do think elites are more efficient a burning fat, etc. and can therefore do with less. Also, their aerobic base is generally well beyond what I as a father and husband with a demanding job can ever manage.
          That said, training your body is key and experimenting.
          "The lipid power is the absolute quantity of fats that muscles utilize as fuel for activity expressed in g/min. If, instead of the percentage of utilized fats, we consider the absolute quantity of fats consumed per minute (the lipid power), we find that the higher value corresponds to intensities equal to 80-90% of the anaerobic threshold" Therefore training in this medium zone is helpful to improve efficiency.

          As for technical running, I love it but got my foot caught under a hidden root (mud obscured it) and I &^%$#% my ankle so ultras are probably out for me this season. 6 weeks on and nothing but cycling, so I hear Sage on risk

        3. @PatrickKrott

          Better heat acclimation = higher sweat rate. As for "calories per hour", it's obviously dependent on what the person is doing, but I'd bet that someone running twice as fast is going to burn more calories in that same amount of time.

          As for carrying less.. in my personal experience, carrying less pays off. When I carry a hydration pack, I drink more. And maybe because I'm carrying more weight. Or maybe because it's available, so I drink it. But if I only have a handheld bottle or two, that's what I have. I figure the less options that are available, the less decisions you have to make. Some runners carry huge packs with a ridiculous amount of gear in them as though they are preparing for a fast pack.

      2. @ThatDutchVegan

        I really agree with you 100% there. After solid advice from a pro I now always do my training runs without Gels/Sportdrinks – and I don't even bring a bottle under a 2 hour run – only if it's really hot – and then only water with a few electrolyte drops in it ( elete ) , no calories. Screw the backpacks/camelbags, you really don't need them with all the aid stations. Those Gels only scew you up in the long run.

    2. mathieuvanvyve

      I recently improved quite a bit by decreasing the amount I carry, be it food or drink. There is a virtuous cycle aspect in it because the less you carry, the more efficient you run, the faster you run and so the less you need, and so on…I recently ran my best ultra (104 kms, 4000D+) with aid station every 25+ kms, with a one liter bottle. I would never have imagined starting with less than 2 liters a couple of years ago.

      It's useful to compare with a similar evolution in mountaineering. Fifty or even twenty years ago people were doing high summits in 3-4 days modes with tents, sleeping bags, stove, gas etc…Now the same route is done non-stop in 24 hours or less (in running shoes ;-). And there the virtuous circle is even more pronounced: within 24 hours, the weather forecast is pretty accurate, so you go only if the conditions are good, and there is no danger of bad weather, so you need much less clothing, safety gear, etc…

  7. @danfogel

    Nice article with some tips that carry weight on the roads and the trails. Sage makes a great point about downhills. There is some good research on using downhill running to strengthen your quads for, well, downhill running. The timing and frequency of these workouts is key. I am a midpacker and find that my issue with downhill running is on technical trails and fear of falling or rolling an ankle. What's the tip for training through that?

      1. iRunFar - Bryon

        I have to agree with Joe 100% on the quick feet thing. I've got a normally quick running cadence — 180-190 steps per minute — but it can increase to 220-230 steps per minute when I'm descending on technical terrain.

        I'm training to Hardrock, where descending is key, at the moment and I'm actively and consciously differentiating my downhill training into three components.

        (1) General quad bashing. This tends to be the downhill training most ultrarunners are pointed toward and do. It's invaluable for races with 20,000'+ of descending.
        (2) Flowing efficiency. On the exact opposite end, I will increasingly focus some sessions on maximum downhill efficiency. I've got 34,000' of descent coming up and I want to be able to minimize the damage by running downhill as smoothly as possible. One can work on that, too.
        (3) Fearless flying. While I've relied on my natural abilities to descend quickly (as opposed to (1) resiliently or (2) smoothly), this spring I've heard enough world-class descenders talk about how they've actively improved their downhill speed and confidence. How? By pushing themselves to run faster downhill. Be fresh, be focused, and engage in concerted bouts of descending that are at your absolute limit for that grade and technicality. I've done this the past four evenings… 1,500' of descending in a mile on pretty technical terrain. I push it. It challenges me. I find better lines. I find better foot placement. I find I can react even if there's no plan. I have to be fully engaged or I'm face-first into some San Juan hardrock, but, damn, it's rewarding.

        1. senelly

          OK… good luck @ Hardrock… and please add #7: Special Conditions. Soooo many races have unique requirements. As we all know, The Barkley has its, well, specialness. Hardrock, too, has its own special stuff, namely altitude, altitude, altitude. Did I say altitude? A sea-level runner heading into the San Juans just might need to adjust a few running expectations. I know I did. Going from a pretty easy 22-hour WS100 to a 35 seconds under 48 hours Hardrock wasn't a total surprize, but it was very humbling!

      2. @PatrickKrott

        I agree. Higher cadence means shorter strides, and when your feet are closer together, it's much easier to recover from a roll because your other foot is nearby to pick up the slack. When your stride is long and laborious, a roll is much harder to recover from.

    1. Ben_Nephew

      Dan, do intervals or fartleks on progressively harder terrain. Do them when you are rested, and keep them short enough where it is easy to maintain intense focus for that duration. Start with working on the same sections of trail, and once you get good at technical sections you have practiced on, try new and more difficult sections. For rolling ankles, you have to get to point where you can roll them without things snapping. Your ankles need to be flexible, and this can be improved through stretches that simulate rolling your ankle in every direction. The intervals with strengthen your lower legs and ankles, but no matter how quick your feet are, you will roll occasionally.

    2. npedatella

      I completely agree with Ben. It has not really been mentioned here much, but I think there is a significant mental component to running technical terrain fast. Confidence, risk taking, and ability to find a good "line" through difficult terrain is very important. All of these can be developed through practice, and learned just like any other skill. If you put someone with the appropriate physical attributes on terrain much more difficult than they are used to running I think they will tend to struggle partly due to lacking these mental components.

      ps. I am not discounting the importance of the physical components. Just pointing out that I think the mental component is also critical.

  8. Davonne12

    Six Things That Elite Ultrarunners Are Doing That You Are Not? Me and lot of other ultra guys I train with do the above–hardly any new info in this article. You learn to do these things as you gain experience.

    1. E_C_C

      I, too, have absolutely nothing to learn from anybody. Isn't it great being so awesome? Someday I hope to actually finish an Ultra as well.

  9. Bpearce78

    Hi Joe, thank you very much for your timely post. Especially as it came at a time I was just re-baselining my own training. Do you have any thoughts on VO2max and what is a good indicative level to aim at for a mid packer. I know VO2 is sometimes a contentious topic but I would be curious to know what you think of this as a baseline or of any other ways to baseline our performance?

    1. @SageCanaday

      I know this question is directed at Joe (who hopefully will also post on this),
      but I couldn't help but comment on this…

      My thoughts: Throw Vo2max out the window. It's a nice "number" to have but for ultras it's really not a good performance indicator. A high Vo2max shows potential and is a huge advantage at altitude, but other than that it's more applicable to milers, 5km and 10km runners (it's most specific to those shorter events really)…and VKs…can't forget the VK!

      More value in a Vo2max test might be trying to get a 100% (or very near 100%) maximum heart rate reading. That way you can use heart rate data at times to compare relative/efforts/relative values. For example, if you want to do a Tempo Run/Lactate Threshold effort for 20-minutes (a workout you can do on the trails/treadmill all uphill) and you want to dial specifically into Lactate Threshold zone (about 84%-88% max heart rate) you'd have a pretty good indicator of the proper intensity.

      But the big gains that are specific to mountain-ultra-trail running are found in Running Economy (think like fuel economy in a car). How much oxygen you use you move your body a certain distance over a certain time. This takes your running form as well as your footwear choice and musculature and ability to climb/descend more into account than just a baseless number like Vo2max. This also correlates with your ability to burn a higher percentage of fat as a fuel over time as well (very important for ultra runners!).

      So when looking at quantitative data (in my opinion), Vo2max is pretty useless (not to mention lab error and the ability actually have a good day in the lab and gear up for a 100% effort!). The actual velocity/pace that you can run at Vo2max has more implications for training though (think 5km race pace on a flat road), as we can then start to dial into what may be an appropriate workout pace for something like 1km repeats or 1-mile repeats if doing an interval workout to work on Vo2max. In that vein, Lactate Threshold and Lactate Threshold pace is even more specific as "speed work" for ultra runners and should probably be more of an emphasis and way to measure progressions in fitness over time. Lactate Threshold workouts and developing specific running economy at that intensity range to the aerobic threshold range and then even ultra race pace is what I think is most important.

  10. lourencobray

    I have to disagree on the minimalist aproach for middle of the pack runners and even slightly bellow top elites.Top elites run races about twice as fast than middle of the pack runners in ultras. This year in transvulcania i made it to the top 40% in the stands and it took me 13h. Luis Alberto Hernando made it slightly bellow 7h in a record breaking run. It' another league. Another galaxy. If I ran as fast as him, I could take half the water with me, and count more on aid stations to refuel. For a normal runner, a minimalist aproach would surely end in dehidration or stomach problems, because it would require a higher caloric intake at each aid station. Elite might consume more calories per hour (but it depends on who we are comparing with), but they do not on the whole. A runner who takes 13h to finsh a race in moderate hard pace like me will surely need a ton more calories than someone who finishes it in 7h. Not mentioning the fact elites are more efficient in fat burning, lean etc. like you said it. But of course, the problem is the water, it's the heaviest. So, to sum it up, I don't think being minimalist in food and water is really an option like the others. It should suit your needs and you should plan to take the necessary, studying the course and the distance / time between aid stations.

    1. StonewallerJ

      I'm guessing though that the more you run in the fat burning zone and the less you rely on snacks during training runs the more efficient your body will become at feeding itself from fat reserves….that seems to be the theory…No way around the water thing though.

  11. senelly

    in·ter·lop·er
    ˈin(t)ərˌlōpər,ˌin(t)ərˈlōpər/
    noun
    a person who becomes involved in a place or situation where they are not wanted or are considered not to belong.
    synonyms:intruder, encroacher, trespasser, invader, infiltrator

    Your points 1-6: yup, yup, yup, yup, yup and yup. Thanks Joe for reminding me that, as Marx (Groucho) once said, "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member"… though unlike Mr. Marx, I repeat this famous line wistfully. I am not an elite ultrarunner. But, it is my understanding that doing (being) 1-6 faithfully is definitely required to get there. Ahhh, someday.

  12. @AndyDuBois

    Some great points but disagree with elites have a cadence of 180+ – I coach several elites and know of others that have cadence at around 160. Higher cadence is something many non elites would improve with but dont try and stick to a one size fits all number – it doesnt work like that. We are all different .

    Re the downhill training discussion – you simply cant go flat out every downhill in training and expect not to get injured. One session every 1-2 weeks of hard downhill is great but other sessions need to be a little easier . How easy depends on what you can handle – there is a big difference between , easy downhill, comfortable , fast but comfortable, fast, fast and hard , flat out downhill speeds.

    The other thing that most non- elites dont do is train specifically for the course . If your race has 5000m of up and down for 100k then your long runs should have 500m of vert per 10k . In this way you'll get a lot more chance to practise your downhills . Being a good downhill runner requires bit leg strength and skill and like any skill must be practised as often as possible but with the knowledge that downhill places a much greater load on the legs so needs to be moderated.

  13. Nick Jenkins

    When I gave MAF a go a few years back I noticed that freewheeling down hill at what seemed to be (in terms of feel) an easy pace, caused my heart rate to go 15 beats above my MAF pace. Anyone else notice that? An elevated HR on descents which "feel" easy? Could be the adrenaline I guess…

    1. @PatrickKrott

      I also have a big issue with elevating my HR on descents, and I think it's because my training is pretty weak right now and I just don't feel very confident on the downhills which in turn causes me to stress out and tense up. I'm guessing that's what's doing it, but I don't like it. I'd really like to see my HR come DOWN on the downhills since I have gravity working for me.

    2. Hillrunner50

      You weren't doing MAF if you were going above your MAF heart rate at any point of the run. To do MAF training, during your base phase of 3-6 months (or longer), you must ALWAYS stay at or below your max aerobic heart rate. No cheating. As long as other factors aren't interfering such as life stress, lack of sleep, or bad nutrition, you will improve. Easy downhills will be fast at a lower heart rate, eventually. Most people lack the patience to let it work.

  14. rtockstein

    Joe, I've been wondering about the minimalist training approach regarding hydration. I typically run without any water unless I'm doing 2.5 hours or more. I've noticed, when I use a hrm, my hr goes up the for a given effort or pace the more dehydrated I become. This is fine on cool days or in the winter, but I live in deep southern Illinois where the summers are brutally humid and hot. I find that it the dehydration and soaring hr happens much faster and is more drastic in the summer. So wouldn't it be better to have a small amount of fluid intake in those circumstances and be able to keep a decent pace, rather than slog at a crawl through the woods? I would assume it mostly depends on what the specific goal is of each run.

  15. Luke_B

    I don't know about going minimal. Sure training your body to optimize fat burning is only a good thing. But guess what, stuff happens in the wilderness, and whether or not you're elite doesn't really matter when you break an ankle or a freak storm sets in, or both at the same time. Sure you can reduce your exposure by running faster, but really we all would just use that speed to go farther in the same time, right?

    Beyond the whole survival thing, I've run out of water, and it really sucks, and I've guessed wrong on weather and how hard a stretch of trail is before and will again in the future. I'll worry about not carrying 8 oz of water more than I absolutely need whenever I don't have 8 oz of healthy body weight to lose. At current trajectory that will happen about never.

    I guess the bottom line is I don't have to worry about winning races so I have the luxury of accepting that wearing a hydration pack when I could get by with a handheld might cost me 5 minutes and also improve my quality of life and remove one thing I have to worry about and that just sounds like a good trade to me.

  16. grroes

    Many interesting points here. The downhill vs. uphill conversation is a compelling one for sure. In my experience i've found there to be a lot more to gain in long races from being strong on the uphills then on the downs. I've always found that the best indication of who's likely to be running strong at the end of a 100 miler are the runners who are able to comfortably move the quickest uphill early in a race, not the ones who are moving quick on the downhills. I can not recall one race that i've ever done where a runner who was running the downhills in the first half of a race faster than the uphills (in comparison to the other runners) went on to win the race. Over time I came to completely ignore what other racers did on downhills in the first half of the race because more often than not the ones that were hammering down were completely trashed and hobbled by mile 80. conversely, any time I was racing someone that seemed to be able to smoothly and comfortably make good timing going up I knew they were very likely to be a factor in the later stages of the race.

  17. sharmanian

    I believe it's a fell running adage that goes something like this: "Races are won on the uphills and lost on the downhills." Basically you've got to be very good at both and know what your body can sustain within a race.

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