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.