Holding Back: The Ultrarunner’s Art of Restraint

AJWs TaproomAs spring gives way to summer and we enter the heart of ultrarunning season, many of us are working hard to increase our distance, speed, or both. As such, we are logging long miles and trying to pack as much training into the lengthening days as we can. Along the way, of course, there are risks. And it is in managing these risks that the Ultrarunner’s Art of Restraint comes into play.

Every year, many runners fail to make it to the starting line of their goal race due to injury, fatigue, or both. Often these injuries are born out of over-exuberance in the spring that can be brought on by a wide variety of factors. Anxiety about the upcoming event, fear of what the competition might be doing, feeling extra good on each workout so running extra hard on each workout, and the dreaded FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) all play a factor in this DNS epidemic. Additionally, the excellent array of spring races provide runners with all kinds of opportunities to blow their chance at a great summer race by running too hard too soon. I have observed more than a few runners who have used up their Western States legs at Leona Divide or Miwok and left Placer High School disappointed the last weekend in June.

What is needed during these halcyon days of April is restraint. And, let’s face it, we’re ultrarunners so restraint is not exactly in our wiring. Given that, here are five little pieces of advice to help you keep it together until your big event:

1. Learn how to run a race as a training run. Many people say they are going to do this when they toe the line at that little 50-miler in April but something happens to them when the gun goes off and they end up running too hard, too fast, too soon, trashing their quads, and jeopardizing success on the Big Day.

2. Listen to your body. Ultra training takes a toll on the body and one of the things it does is increases pain tolerance. As such, often that little niggling pain can become a serious injury just because you haven’t been paying attention. A little diligence in May will pay off in June.

3. Rest when you’re tired. It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many runners train through fatigue thinking it will make them tougher on Race Day. The sad truth is, training through fatigue only brings on more fatigue and by the time your body completely breaks down, it’s too late to recover in time.

4. Run at least two easy runs per week. Typically, by the spring time you are feeling better and better and your daily runs are getting faster and faster. This is precisely the time to be sure to make a concerted effort to force yourself to run easy at least twice a week. Whatever it takes, leave the Garmin at home, run a route you’ve never run before, find a running partner that is noticeably slower than you, just try to go easy twice a week. It’ll make the quality days much better.

5. Don’t skimp on sleep. You’d be surprised how many runners don’t get enough sleep during the build-up phase. This can add to the general wearing-down feeling that accompanies an increase in distance and speed and can, like running through fatigue, cause irreparable damage.

So, this is all to say, do your best during this exciting time in your training to practice the ultrarunner’s of forgotten art of restraint.  It could just be the key factor in getting you to that finish line.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Lagunitas Undercover Investigation Shut-Down AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from a Taproom favorite, the Lagunitas Brewing Company in northern California. Their great seasonal ale, Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, is an outstanding American Strong Ale that is a nicely balanced offering in this broad, and often misunderstood, style.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have you ever caught yourself training too much ahead of a focus race?
  • Got any tips on how you keep yourself (and your training) in check?

There are 26 comments

  1. Pete

    While AJW refuses to acknowledge it this is where a little cross training can come into play as well. Anyone with a good base could easily take some time to incorporate some solid strength training in to supplement a run a week and maybe use cross training one or two more days on top of that. It works two fold as well. It keeps one spry and helps avoid over training while it also helps maintain a better balance. I was forced to dns once this year because I lost track of that and ran myself into the ground. Since re adding cross training I have seen a drastic improvement in my running in only the course of 2 weeks while fixing myinjury and without losing any endurance. I am now more balanced and stronger. Great article and lots of good stuff as well. Just feel ultra runners in general could use more baseline strength it is proven to prevent injuries.

  2. Charlie M.

    10 rules:

    (1) Don't even think about the Disney marathon

    (2) Don't show up at Bandera

    (3) Forget about Rocky Raccoon

    (4) Don't race Way too Cool

    (5) Spectate at Lake Sonoma

    (6) Gently hike Leona Divide

    (7) Power hike Miwok

    (8) Take the rest of May off

    (9) Bike the first part of June

    (10) Kill it at WS!

  3. Steve Pero

    Something I'm learning as I slide into my 60's (I'm 61) is that my legs feel tired more…breathing and endurance are fine, but the legs can't take all the daily running anymore.

    I've been running for 38 years and most of it almost every day, but something I'm having to do this year is to just go our for a brisk walk every other day and keep the harder running to one day a week, running the other days easy. This article I found I'm hoping will help me extend my years and give me one of my better Hardrocks in years. http://tinyurl.com/bzmk7u7

    1. Matt P

      Thanks, Steve. Interesting story & my advice is *do it*. The story parallels my own experience in some ways. I'm "only" 48, but about 5 years ago, w/ about 30+ years of running on my legs, found myself losing ground a bit like the writer of this piece. I can't recall why, but about 4 years ago, I went to 3 days of running a week, and after a year of this a marathon time I hadn't touched for 2 _decades_. Moved from there ultras–50s, 100s–all still on 3 days a week, and feeling better about running than I have since age 14 (and running faster than I have since 38).

      What I do find is that when I keep to 3/week, those workouts can be longer and/or harder than I would be able to take if I were running daily. Whenever I'm tempted to run more than 3 per week, I find the quality of workouts begins to deteriorate. Plus, with 3/week, I can follow Andy's rule about getting a bit more sleep.

      Sorry for rattling on, but it's been such a benefit for me, I have to share. We can still train and adapt with decades on our legs…but we may just need longer periods of recovery. Good luck with your new path!

      1. Steve Pero

        Thanks for the input, Matt….I do plan on doing this for at least the rest of the year. I have Quad Rock, Hardrock, Speedgoat, then going to try for a BQ at Pocatello in late August…so recovery will be the key!

        1. Ben Nephew

          That article does a good job of addressing the need for increased recovery, but the other factor with aging is the decrease in muscle mass due to decreasing levels of testosterone. You are probably doing quite a bit of hills for Hardrock, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if there was the potential to add more into your training (is the brisk walk hilly or flat?). The least stressful way of doing this while running would probably be shorter hills, and they seem to be as effective as long hills, anyway. You could also weight train, but short steep hills might be more useful.

          1. Steve Pero

            Thanks Ben….I have added short hill sprints to my training this Spring after reading Brad Hudson's book. Short 10 sec sprints uphill help prevent injury by strengthening the leg muscles and help with the nerve/muscle connection/firing.

            The 3 mile walks are in ever so flat Albuquerque, but they are meant for recovery, anyway and my usual pace is a brisk 14 mpm.

  4. Andy

    I solved the problem this year by running my target 100 last weekend — better to be under-trained that injured and burned out! Now I can recover and enjoy the rest of a relaxed summer of running. At least until a mid-summer race becomes the new focus …

  5. Ethan

    Fear of Missing Out is right! Good advice, but since I only have a couple months to play in the mountains before I spend a year cooped up indoors in the Midwest, I'm going to see what I can cram in. Famous last words…

  6. David

    Hmmm… with a newborn at home, sleep is definitely becoming an issue for me, and I have noticed some ill effects in my running. Not sure what to do about that one…

    1. AJW

      David, yes the newborn thing can be really tough on the sleep and it's no wonder that my running began to improve in 2004 when my youngest kid turned 2 (he's now 10 and very much sleeps through the night) Hang in there!

      1. Anonymous

        Lagunitas makes a beer called 'Lagunitas Sucks' I think because they couldn't make one of their beers a few years ago. Brown Shugga maybe?

  7. Ben Nephew

    I think the race as a training run can backfire for some people. I find that I am most likely to get worn down or injured during an extended period of time between races. What happens is that I don't have much reason for taking it easy (tapering or recovering) so I do workouts quite often. I probably wouldn't taper or recovery much from a race as a training run, either. My other issue with the training race is that it is hard to interpret the result. Was that a good time, considering I was in the middle of heavy training, didn't taper, and was only running at 85%? I'd rather come into the race rested, race hard, and get a clear assessment of my training. In terms of a 50 miler, I'm not sure training through a 50 miler is all that safe, no matter what pace you run. Wouldn't April be a good time to trash your quads a bit, anyways?

    1. Speedgoatkarl

      Hey Ben, I think key to a training race, such as my run at Sonoma,is really knowing what "pushing the pace" means. having run about 120 ultras now,I can pretty much tell what 80% is, or if I can run faster. At Sonoma I ran 7:06. Definately not my fastest I can run there, but it was perfect enough so I can recover in two weeks, then take it from there. For me, the key to success is also respecting the fact that I need to recover from Sonoma, not just run through a 50 miler Noone can run through a 50 miler without having to recover, hence the trashed quads.

      Most folks probably get hung up in racing no matter what, for me, the key is to just go cruise and see what happens, but never force it. And if anything goes wrong, I back off. I had cramping issues at mile 42, so instead of pushing the risk of injury, I slowed down to play it safe.

      All in all, I believe the training race is a great tool to improve at any distance. If one thinks they'll train for 9 months without running a race, the possibility of "failure" is high, much higher than taking the risk of running a few 50s before the big dance.

      1. Andy (not AJW)

        Great wisdom, Karl, which is obvious to us mid-packers since every race is a "training race." Sure, push the pace a little when you're feeling good to see how fast you can go, but since you're not anywhere near the front why kill yourself? It's about stretching yourself a bit and having fun. So great to hear someone who has won more 100s than anyone say "the key is to just go cruise and see what happens .." Love it!

  8. Ben Nephew

    I agree that the long term development is the goal, and I like your use of training race, rather training run at a race. Whether it is during training or during a goal race, I see no point in forcing the pace in anything longer than 50k. It's been nice to see more evenly paced efforts at 50 miles lately. I'll never understand massive positive splits at a 50. While some will argue about the fastest way of running a race, I think we can all agree that it's not much fun to stagger in the last 10 miles.

    I don't think you have to be a statistician to realize how difficult it is to have success when you only have 1-2 goal races a year, especially considering how many variables are involved in ultra races. In addition to things like weather, injury, and potential sickness on race day, you don't get race-day practice of all the ultra details if you don't race during your buildup.

    Even if you do some races during training, it's still possible restraint could backfire due to the intense focus this may create on a single event. Some may argue that this is what is needed to race your best, and stories about intense focus on a single event are well known, but I think there are many more stories where this had lead to DNS or PTSD. I'm not sure about the effects of poor races at WS, but I've seen plenty of runners train from September to April for Boston, not run well, and then go into a post race depression that lasts until the next September. I get AJW's point about racing too much, but I think most Americans don't race enough. Europeans and Africans seem to race more at various distances, yet I see a lot more DNS's and DNF's from the US. My PR's at both 50k and 50m were during periods of consistent racing. In contrast, I haven't run as well when I have focused too specifically on a single race.

    1. StephenJ

      "I think we can all agree that it’s not much fun to stagger in the last 10 miles."

      It's still more fun than sitting at home, a day work, or going to Disneyland.

  9. GO

    Great thread and as always a great website for us. I was reading about recovery and Karl mentioned two weeks for recovery after an ultra (50 in this case) I am relatively new to these distances and struggle with recovery (I just want to get back out and run). As a general rule how long after running a 100miler do people take off from running? A week? two weeks? two days? I sure could use some guidance from the voices of experience.

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