The idea of running a marathon is so difficult that the word “marathon” is used as a synonym for anything maximally exhausting and challenging. For some, though, not even marathons are enough of a challenge. 100K runs, Ironman races, 100-mile bike rides and three-mile swims are some of the competitions that fall under the umbrella of “ultra” events. These events attract athletes looking to push themselves to the next level and really test the limits of their physical abilities. But how do you know if you’re ready to make the jump to an ultra event?
“It’s easier than you think,” Chicago Endurance Sports cycling coach, Jordan Grauer, says. “My rule of thumb is that if you can complete two-thirds the distance of the event comfortably, you can finish the event (no guarantee on comfort).”
Daphne Glover, also a coach for Chicago Endurance Sports, weighs in on the kind of preparation required to complete the 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run that make up an Ironman.
“I think it’s the combination of having short distance and half Ironman experience, having the strong desire and commitment to do it and the dedication to put the necessary training in to be able to succeed,” she says.
Glover also stresses the importance of getting medical clearance before being training for any ultra competition, particularly if an athlete suffers from any preexisting medical limitations or conditions. A 2012 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings medical journal supports this precautionary sentiment. The study emphasized the significant health benefits of regular exercise, but also found that for some individuals, “long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce pathologic structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries.”
Ultra endurance athletes face more than physical challenges in training, though. During her time spent training for the Coeur d’Alene Ironman in northern Idaho, Glover experienced first hand the impact training for an ultra event has on a person’s free time.
“I felt that I had to basically walk away from my personal fun life,” Glover says. “I just found that the commitment to it was tremendous and that having the support of family and friends also is what really got me through it.”
In order to prepare for an ultra competition, it’s essential diligently follow a training plan. A proper training regimen should begin months before the competition date and provide adequate time to build strength and distance and allow athletes to recover from long workouts.
“When training beginners for long distance events such as a century, I rarely take them to 100 miles,” Grauer says. “The goal is to get them comfortable in the 70-85 mile range on a challenging course and know that the fitness they’ve been building all season will carry them through. The biggest mistake I see is people ‘cramming for the exam.’ Trust that the work you’ve done during the season is appropriate and you don’t need to pile on last minute miles. All that does is break your body down.”
To avoid physical deterioration during the training process, Drs. Paul and Tim Marando of Physicians Plus Chiropractic and Sports Rehabilitation in Chicago recommend soft tissue mobilization exercises using foam rollers and trigger point balls. These exercises should focus on the lower extremities, mid-back, shoulders and especially the glutes which play a major role in hip stability and gait. These exercises, in conjunction with a training schedule that incorporates recovery days, can prevent overuse injuries such as Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and iliotibial band syndrome.
Preparing your body for extreme physical endurance also requires nutritional preparation, both in how you eat before and after a workout and how you fuel during a race or training session.
“The first thing you want to make sure is that you have a well-balanced daily diet,” registered dietitian and personal trainer Jennifer Maloney says. “If you have poor eating habits, then you can’t really fuel right for workouts. You may experience more issues with a longer event, like cramping or dehydration since the demand on your body is larger. You will only find these things out when you are training so be open to products that are made for endurance events and try some new things.”
Sports dietitian and owner of RDKate Sports Nutrition Consulting, Katie Davis, agrees that a heavy emphasis should be placed on nutrition.
“An athlete who wants to make the jump to ultra events needs to make a commitment to performance nutrition. The athlete should develop a plan for daily and race-day fueling and hydration,” Davis says. “Check out the race website to find out what type of fuel will be provided and at what mile markers. There is no ‘one size fits all’ with respect to race day nutrition, which is why trying out different fueling options in training is important.”
Because of the sheer length of many ultra races, it becomes very important to account for mid-race nutritional needs.
“If you are racing less than two hours you can really get by with water or a sports drink. With races greater than two hours you need to be thinking about how are you going to maintain energy,” Drs. Paul and Tim Marando say. “Keeping your calorie count roughly between 100-250 calories per hour depending on your weight and using a liquid or gel with a high carbohydrate source will keep fuel in the tank.”