For most people the goal in running an ultra marathon is simply to finish. Often crawling over the line in agony is considered enough. However, with correct preparation even distances of 100 miles can be completed in relative comfort. Any internet search will explain how to prepare for a marathon. Yet for ultra distance events there is little specific research, despite their growing popularity. The requirements of the body are different to standard marathon distances, and the body is subject to many more variables.
It is important to discuss the different requirements of the body, and why strength and strength endurance are key components for effective preparation. This is especially the case for the legs (for forward propulsion), the core stabilizers of the hip and knee, as well as the upper back and scapula retractors (for posture and biomechanical efficiency while carrying a small pack).
It’s essential to train with long runs for aerobic endurance but often training becomes a series of long slow runs; however, varied intensity training benefits the runner. High-intensity running develops the body’s ability to manage difficult terrain, as well as long ascents and descents. It also improves blood supply to the muscles, increases the lactate threshold, and recovery from difficult sections of the course.
What’s in an Ultra?
As with the jump from half- to full-marathon, the jump to ultra distance places an entirely different physiological load on the body, and therefore the preparation should be very different. Ultras require the body to keep moving for up to 24 hours a day, sometimes longer, often with temperature variations, difficult terrain and significant changes in incline. The courses are designed to challenge, and the hardest parts of the course often come later in the race. These variations place a greater demand on proprioception and stability, particularly as fatigue sets in. To prepare for this, strength and strength endurance in the prime movers and core stabilizers is vital.
Often ultras involve carrying a small rucksack or water bottle. These loads, although small, place an extra burden on the erector spinae and scapula retractors by loading the upper body or arms. Although small weights, leverage can make a half kilo bottle of water a significant drain after many hours.
The energy requirements are also different as the runner requires more food, water and salt. The slower pace means that a different ratio of fats and carbohydrates are used. Additionally in ultras, muscle glycogen is depleted earlier in the event than in a marathon. Sometimes it will be depleted before the runner has made it to the half way mark. Improving the metabolic capacity of muscles is important to reduce this, and a good understanding of the runner’s metabolism is required. A mistake in nutrition can mean hours of discomfort or even withdrawing from the event. Adequate preparation must take into account these considerations. Failure to do so will lead to an uncomfortable and possibly unsuccessful ultra.
Strength and Strength Endurance
The duration, challenging courses and distances mean that strength and strength endurance are critical. Strength to overcome the terrain and obstacles, strength endurance to last the distance and repeated ascents and descents must be developed in a range of environments by using multi-directional movements and unstable platforms – for example using single leg exercises, wobble boards and Swiss Balls.
The prime movers are required to carry the weight of the body for many hours under difficult and varied conditions. These include steep inclines and descents, uneven ground, weather, sleep deprivation, neuromuscular fatigue, hypoglycemia, dehydration, and accumulation of stress. The body must be strong enough to control the bodyweight plus 10kg, in all planes, and in unstable environments. Once this is achieved, strength endurance can then be developed.
Strength endurance on the core is paramount. Stabilization of the spine, pelvis and knee begins in the abdominals, so excellent strength endurance here is vital. While the abdominals do not require the strength of a wrestler, they need to be able to endure several hours of repetitive activity controlling the runner’s bodyweight. The TVA and Thoraco-lumbar fascia must still be able to stabilize the spine and pelvis after many hours of continued activity.
This is key to retaining an appropriate range of motion in the hip and knee, relieving pain and discomfort, and reducing the risk of injury. The Thoraco-lumbar Fascia is important also for energy transfer through the Deep Longitudinal System, which means a more energy efficient running gait. Greater efficiency here will prolong muscular endurance.
Ultra runners tend to use several running gaits to minimize fatigue (for example walk, fast walk, jog, run). The neuro-muscular programming must be sufficiently developed by strength exercises to ensure strength good conditioning for each gait. Exercises like step ups (advanced using varied heights and directions), multi-directional lunges (advanced using step-ups and inclines), one leg squats (advanced using frontloading, backloading, and loading the thighs) will all work to develop the stability in different positions and gaits. The scapula retractors and erector spinae cannot be ignored, though. They must develop the strength endurance to hold a neutral spine, while carrying that small backpack or water for many hours.
Strength and strength endurance is not just important for overcoming terrain and distance. It increases the muscles’ ability to store glycogen. More mitochondria in a more developed muscle will be more efficient metabolically. This will make more efficient energy production, for longer, postponing muscle fatigue. It will also increase the lactate threshold, which will assist with recovery from higher intensity moments. Blood supply to the muscles then also increases, which will aid oxygen transfer and recovery. This is important in the distances and duration of ultras.
Strength and strength endurance in both the prime movers, core, erector spinae and scapula retractors is vital for success and comfort in training for an ultra. While maximal strength is not so important, they must be able to comfortably control and move the runner’s bodyweight, plus that of a small rucksack, through all planes of movement, for sustained periods of time.
Maintaining Posture and Range of Movement
Over time some muscles tighten and some lengthen. Over a period of several hours running, joints can develop a significant loss in range of motion. It is important to stretch the tight muscles to restore the range of motion during training and the event itself. A stretching program tailored to the individual is essential for this. Often in runners, especially those whose jobs require them to sit, it is Quadriceps and Iliopsoas (hip flexors) that shorten and tighten during long runs. Stretching the Quadriceps and hip flexors during these runs often restores Hamstring function and the lumbar spine.
This is important for maintaining core muscle function, and ensuring the body and spine can be in a strong position to absorb the loads that the event will cause. Also, it is critical for being able to stabilize the hip, knee and lumbar spine when they are particularly vulnerable after so many hours of running.
The movement of the upper body is also worth considering. When carrying water or a bag, the pectorals can tighten, the scapula retractors can lengthen, and the head can move forwards. Stretching to restore the correct position of these joints will aid respiration, improve abdominal function, and reduce the impact of stress on the body.
Training at a High Intensity
Ultras are run at a low intensity, and often runners prepare by increasing the number of long slow runs. However, the runner will benefit from including high intensity training in their program. It is also well-known that increasing the intensity of cardiovascular exercise improves oxygen supply to the muscles and increases the lactic acid threshold in the muscle tissues. Over time, lactates build even at low-intensity activity. It is important to have a high lactate threshold to tolerate this for longer. Similarly, oxygen supply must be as efficient as possible. So high intensity training is vital for ultras, even if they are run slowly. This will also help when dealing with the difficult terrain that many ultras are run over. Hills, descents and rocky ground are often added for an extra challenge, and high intensity training will complement the strength and strength endurance work by improving recovery times and making the runner more adaptable to the conditions.
Peaking is often used in training, and is relevant when training for ultras. Particularly as the last few weeks before the event can be exhausting when considering the enormity of the event ahead. However, it is not wise to rely on this alone to work at high intensity and develop strength.
Using lifestyle as a training tool
An often overlooked factor is how lifestyle significantly contributes to training for endurance events. This is not just in managing the physical load in training. Simple lifestyle changes can be made to condition the body to be active at a low intensity for a greater part of the day. In an ultra, you will be moving all the time for much of a day. The simplest preparation is to condition the body to be moving for much of the day at a very low intensity. Even after a long training session, being as active as possible will enhance the training plan, and will particularly contribute to strength endurance in core stability.
Simple changes such as putting the phone just out of reach so that a partial squat is needed to reach it, taking the stairs instead of the lift for a few extra floors, walking to get some water every half an hour, carrying the groceries home or using a Swiss Ball as a chair. Each small activity need not be done at a great speed or considered "training" but keeping the body active at a low and consistent level will have a profound effect on endurance.
Ultras are becoming more popular, and with the right preparation it is possible to complete them in relative comfort. In addition to the long hours of running at a slow speed, training should focus on strength and strength endurance in the prime movers and core stabilizers. It should also include high intensity training. The distances and durations also mean that posture and biomechanics are important to manage.
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