PT on the Net Research

Jungle Marathon


Question:

I have been approached by an athlete who will be running a 120 mile jungle marathon (event is over seven days). I was wondering if you have any suggestions physiologically (training plans, eating, etc) and mentally that you could give me to help his training along. He's managing 16 miles a day in a semi humid environment, but I am worried he is going to end up peaking too soon.

Answer:

The Jungle “Marathon” in Para (the Caribbean of the Amazon) in October will truly be a test of physical, mental and nutritional strength. While this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list since every athlete must be approached differently, here are some general tips for your athlete.

Physiology

There are six stages each day that consist of 16.7, 17.4, 21.7, 10.5, 49.6, and eight miles, respectively.

Ultra marathon training for most athletes will require around 50 to 80 miles of running per week with some weeks being higher based on the long run. Depending on the age, ability and experience of the athlete, a traditional periodization plan of a 2:1 or 3:1 build to recover can be followed with long run volume increasing by five to 15 percent each build week or a non-traditional yet popular method of training for some ultra runners is to maintain five to six days of running per week with a longer run every second or third week. This will of course depend on how much time the athlete has before the race as well as his base fitness level and his training plan up to this point.

Long run theories vary greatly, but I would recommend for a race of this length to have the highest one time session at 50 to 60 miles. This type of volume presents anatomical challenges and increased risk for injury, so I recommend either combining running/walking or separating it into two sessions in one day.

The daily distances for this race may seem somewhat achievable, but when you factor in jungle terrain and challenging environmental conditions, a 16.7 mile run could turn into an eight or more hour adventure. Therefore, it is important that this athlete run at least four to six times per week during training to get more “time on the feet.” Hill training should be a key focus in the athlete’s training program to build leg strength. I would recommend at least two hill terrain sessions per week.

Because the athlete will be spending so much time on his feet on the road and trails, it is important to focus on physical recovery. Ice baths post run are highly recommended as is getting adequate sleep and choosing the right footwear.

Psychology

The mental demands of an ultra marathon are great. Much of the athlete’s mental training will be done during longer training sessions as he will experience the solitude, rough environment and self doubt that is associated with this type of training. However, it is important to provide the athlete mental tools to help him when times become somewhat unpleasant and the negative self thought takes precedence in his mind. If the athlete has had problems with these types of thoughts in the past or expects to, I would highly recommend visiting a qualified sports psychologist who can provide more in-depth skills.

The most basic and important mental skills to teach an athlete are:

  1. Realistic goal setting. Unattainable goals will ruin an athlete’s race, so it is important to set specific process goals for each stage of the race. I would recommend not focusing primarily on time goals. Rather, I would recommend focusing on attitude, behavior and nutrition goals for each of the six stages. If these process goals are met, then most likely the athlete will achieve his time goals.
  2. Positive self talk. There will be more times than not during this event when the athlete has self doubt and negative emotions consume his thoughts. It is important to teach him strategies to combat this by arming him with positive thoughts/feelings/emotions prior to the race. Ask the athlete to make a list of all of the positive aspects of his life and training leading up to the event. He can use this list to reflect on during the race.

Nutrition

There are many nutritional strategies for ultra running. The following are general recommendations for the athlete:

  1. Hydration. This is of utmost importance considering the environmental challenges and the possibility of a great amount of weight that can be lost per hour. I would recommend drinking between 28 to 40 ounces of fluid (with carbohydrates and electrolytes) per hour, taken at 15 to 20 minute intervals. Because athletes must pack and carry all of their nutritional requirements, this will be a challenge. Therefore, it is very important for your athlete to be very well hydrated prior to the event and follow well planned re-hydration guidelines after each day of running.
  2. Electrolytes. Because there will be a great amount of sweat lost, it is important to replenish electrolytes on an hourly basis. Of utmost importance is sodium. Sodium tablets are used by many ultra runners with great success. While there are no set requirements for sodium use per hour (as there are for hydration), I usually recommend beginning with at least 700 milligrams per hour under these conditions. It is quite possible for individuals who sweat heavily to need upwards of 2000 to 3000 milligrams per hour.
  3. Fuel. While this will be very dependent upon an athlete’s individual preferences and digestive tract, I recommend athletes consume carbohydrates, protein and fats during the race with the emphasis on carbohydrates. Because the athlete needs to carry all of his supplies, I would recommend higher calorie, more nutrient dense foods such as energy gels, peanut butter and honey tortillas/sandwiches, higher salt candy bars (for the longer days), mashed potatoes with salt, energy bars and trail mix, to name a few. Aim for 300 to 500 calories per hour.

It will be very important for the athlete to eat and drink immediately upon finishing each stage in order to recover well for the next day. I recommend eating 1.5 grams/kg body weight of carbohydrates, up to 20 grams of protein and at least 30 to 40 ounces of a sports drink immediately after finishing. Follow this with higher carbohydrate, moderate protein and lower fat meals at two hour intervals for the next six hours if possible.

I recommend the book Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes: Taking Sports Nutrition to the Next Level, published by Bull Publishing in 2004. It contains many great nutrition strategies including carbohydrate loading, which will also be important for this type of event.