First 50 Mile Ultra Trail Race Training
After last year’s North Face Marathon SF win, I wanted to dedicate a year to learning more about endurance events and see what it was really about. After last year’s marathon, I swore that I would never put my body through that ever again. Once I took a couple months off, I forgot about all of that in the same way I imagine women must forget about child birth. I thought I could come back and run the race again, but curiosity taunted me with the longer distances. 50k sounded good, but only a few miles more. So 50 miler it was. Time to go double or nothing (almost).
I had planned on writing detailed monthly reports documenting our training, what we learned as we went along, and what tips we could pass on to you. Unfortunately life got in the way as it has a habit of doing. What follows is the very condensed cliff notes format of what the last 10 months looked like as we built a foundation to run twice as far as we had ever run, and how that all fit into the schedule of a traveling airline pilot.
So we picked up some books and tried to understand the lunacy (so we thought) behind ultra running. What heart rate zone training was all about, what information hear rate monitors provided, fueling, nutrition, recovery, etc. As it turns out, it is an addicting form of active meditation that is completely centering and inspiring. I thought my body would take a beating with all of the extra mileage and volume too. But with the right type of training and prepping the body, you are capable of amazing things you never thought possible!
Not to say that it is easy. Lauren and I had to really work together to motivate each other for those early morning runs, late evening runs, fatigue driven sessions and long weekend adventures. The start of the zone 2 training was embarrassing for me, as I learned that I don’t have a slow twitch muscle in my body and I had to really slow down. I hurt more from our slow crawls than I did from my faster, more comfortably paced runs. Lauren really took well to the distance training and is like a diesel driven motor, able to chug along all day at an efficiently low heart rate. It really leveled the field between us.
We spent months going slow and long, having to come to an almost walk up some of the hills in our area. As the training progressed, we began to see gains in our fitness and the endurance engine we were slowly building. Our paces began to increase, while our heart rates stayed the same, which I thought was unbelievable! Our training was really working! Soon, our long runs became our standard runs, and our longer days went further. We were able to start pushing longer runs closer together, requiring less time for recovery in between.
We continued our high octane, whole foods, plant based diet and made every attempt to keep stretching and foam rolling an integral, consistent part of our training program. In hindsight, we both wish we made more time for strength building and yoga. As our 50 mile race day came closer, we started cutting back on the cycling and swimming cross training as well, just to be able to fit all of the running volume into our hectic schedules.
Recovery shakes became a daily ritual to our performance and recovery. The largest change was a noticeable need for sleep. Solid 8 hours at night, and if that wasn’t possible then daytime naps were paramount in keeping us healthy and free from sickness. Usually a nap was necessary anyway.
Our aim was to build solid for the first 6 months without getting out of zone 2 starting end of February, with the race in December. We entered in our first triathlon in May, and had planned another in Lake Tahoe, however it canceled due to forest fires and poor air quality. Other than that, we did not enter any other races for the sake of training. Our entire focus was on this big, end of the year race.
Once August came around, we began increasing the intensity and heart rate levels to upper zone 2 in order to raise our lactate threshold, as well as adding in some interval work on the many hills around Mt. Tam. We did our best to move our training to 3 weeks on then 1 week of active recovery but that proved to be difficult with work schedules, rebuilding the website plus shooting exercise videos; our plates were full! So we fit our training in where we could, recovered as needed, and began to build the volume while trying to balance the interval training.
As for my schedule, I am based in SFO and do not commute which simplifies things incredibly. I am able to hold stand-ups/split duties/continuous duty overnights (graveyards) allowing me to have my days free to train in the afternoon in between shifts. The main struggle was juggling the sleep, basically operating on nothing more than naps, and avoiding chronic fatigue or illness. The harder we trained and the longer our miles built up, the less sleep I received and the finer the line became between health and a full immune system breakdown. It was a very fine juggling act.
To put this into perspective, at its worse, one of our last long weekends in our peak period, was a short 10 mile run one day, followed by a 31 mile run the next. We finished in the dark, with just enough time to race home, drop off Lauren where she made me a shake while I recovered on the foam roller. A quick rinse and out the door, shake in hand to work a standup that night, received my nap and then back early in the morning as the sun was barely waking up. It was chaos.
My longest volume weekend was shortly after that with 23 miles of steep trail running followed by 20 miles the next day. The taper ensued for two weeks after that. It wasn’t ideal because my schedule for November was the worst I received all year. No stand-ups, all 4 day trips and only home 10 days. This could have ruined an entire years’ worth of dedicated progress, as this was the month I needed to train the hardest to peak properly for the race. The exact same thing happened last year before the marathon. A pattern perhaps?
My answer to that was to train hard back to back on my days at home and then use the days on the trip to recover. I was even able to fit in runs the morning my 4 day trip started and then on the same day I returned to keep my off days to only 2 in the middle of the trip. Of those 2 days, I took one completely off and the other day was spent doing core yoga in the hotel room for active recovery. I even planned ahead for one of the 4 day trips which had a Reno overnight by packing my climbing gear to do some gym climbing while I was in town. So even working 4 day trips, with the heaviest training load, this is possible for flight crew members! It just takes a little creativity!
Here is the snap shot of my schedule in November, with the North Face 50 Mile on December 7th. The blue strips are the trips, with the start and ending times.
We experimented with different types of shoes as the extra mileage was taking its toll and quickly wearing out what we had. Lauren and I found that we actually needed several different pairs for varying demands of our training days. We kept all of our shoes in the minimal profile category, but experimented with some that were designed for asphalt performance, trail performance, or with extra cushioning for runs that required lots of hill descents, etc.
I utilized my Vibram Five Fingers for running while traveling at hotels and on treadmills as well as shorter trail runs for skill work and maintaining a proficient running gate with a proper fore foot/mid foot strike.
We both liked the Adidas Energy Boost for track days and road running as well as triathlon races. They have a great neutral platform and amazing bounce, adding some pep in your step! They are amazing for absorbing the impact of asphalt and cement while still keeping the cushioning to a minimum.
My main trail shoes were the Patagonia Evermore which were perfect for what I liked. Great durability, nice rock plate with just enough cushioning. As the race grew closer, we both integrated the Hoka One One Stinsons into our arsenal to save our joints from additional stress from high volume, back to back runs.
The Hoka’s proved to be a fantastic addition, however there are some words of caution about there use. With all the extra foam, we both ran into problems as they crested the 300-400 mile mark. The extra foam meant extra breakdown and more exaggerated positioning of the feet in an unnatural position. Add to that, their primary use was being for longer days, meant high mileage in the wrong foot position; not a good combination. For the first time in my life, I developed shin splints in the 2 weeks prior to the race. Of course this could be attributed to many things; the additional mileage, lack of stretching, less recovery, etc. So while it might not have been the shoes entirely, I would recommend to rotate these shoes through and maybe not run day to day with them as well as retiring them as soon as you see any breakdown in the foam and the positioning of the foot. This could be good advice to follow for any shoes, rotate through several pairs at a time.
So the day before the race, Patagonia released their new Everlongs for 2014 which I used for the race. No break in required as they are a very soft and flexible shoe with just the right amount of cushioning and support to get through 50 miles and over 20,000 feet of elevation change. I took these straight out of the box and showed up at the starting line wearing them for the first time; they are that good. These are my new all time favorite minimalist running shoe and new daily trainer!
What are the secrets? How do you juggle it all while traveling? Well, I live in domicile to start and bid the best schedules for what my seniority holds, which isn’t great at 60%, but not bad either; its manageable. The real bulk of what makes this all work is a balance of proper nutrition, rest, and recovery tools.
I would add discipline to that list, but I hesitate and here is why. There were many instances that I did not feel like doing the runs due to a lack of physical energy and fatigue. As long as I laced up my shoes and left the house, I always felt better when I returned home. So it wasn’t really discipline to work out, I just had to leave the house faster than my mind was able to rationalize a reason not to go.
As far as dietary discipline goes, this is a lifestyle. One that highly rewards you when you eat the right things and fuel your body properly, or punishes you for making bad food choices. For instance, I love beer. As the training volume increased, I quickly noticed a negative consequence the next day, even after having only one or two beers with dinner. So that slowly went out the window along with any other foods that did not specifically suit my recovery and performance. We work in an extreme industry of disrupted circadian rhythms, chronic sitting, stress, and fatigue. The benefit of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and clean eating is paramount! You have a choice to “pee in the gas tank,” or power your body with nothing but high octane fuel. So eating nothing but plants just makes sense to protect your body from dangerously high radiation levels at work and fuel your performance and recovery off the clock.
Compression tights became my number one recovery aid to wear throughout the day to cope with the long sits in the airport, followed by sitting for hours on the longer flights. The styles range from knee high compression socks to ones that go waist high; think man spanx! They can be purchased right out of the box or even custom tailored to fit your body exactly. Compression science is based on improving circulation from the lower extremities by adding compression to aid in blood flow return, increasing total circulation. This increases oxygenation to the muscles, removing lactic acid build up to speed recovery while decreasing the risk for blood clots from a sedentary job and lifestyle. Increased blood flow is also paramount for joints as well. Ligaments and cartilage have a poor blood supply as it is. So it’s no surprise that a day of sitting and inactivity (resulting in reduced circulation and blood flow) make you more sore and tight than if you had exercised instead.
I now have several black pairs for all trips that I work and a pair of custom fit compression tights to follow up the high volume, high intensity days to maximize every day of training possible and reduce my downtime for recovery. Compression tights make all the difference in me walking fine at the end of the day or hobbling around like an old person form sitting and poor blood circulation to my muscles, joints and ligaments.
Foam rollers and lacrosse balls are my next best friend. Whether I trained that day or not, I always try to roll out and massage my muscles when I arrive to the hotel to loosen up my body and stay flexible after sitting all day. If not, my joints tighten up, IT band issues arise and sciatica creeps back into the picture. Being tight and stiff corrupt how you move when exercising. This will increase your risk of utilizing improper form and causing undue injury. Avoid joining the injured list and take the time to properly recover, stay flexible and maintain your plan to obtain your goals.
Lastly on the recovery list but probably the most important is rest and hydration. Although your body is constantly repairing itself, the big changes occur during deep sleep. Without adequate deep sleep, our body is unable to repair tissue and regulate various hormone levels leading to increased stress and a reduction of appetite control. When you are operating under reduced, deep, night time sleep, the levels of TSH drop which affects the thyroid function. Reduced sleep also increases a release of cortisol; basically a stress hormone. Briefly, a rise in cortisol levels increase insulin resistance which is a risk factor for diabetes. Your appetite is also affected by lower levels of leptin which is a naturally released appetite suppressant. When quality sleep decreases, the signals for satiety from leptin drop, and you feel hungry even though your calorie levels have not changed. Basically, you are consuming the same amount of food, but not feeling satisfied, resulting in over eating.
Hydration is major player on the cellular level and normal bodily functions. The typical day spent flying around in dry cabin air is bad enough before adding in high levels exercise and moisture loss through perspiration. On the road we also tend to eat more processed foods that are dehydrated and absent of moisture. All the more reason we need to drink more water than normal. Staying properly hydrated allows red blood cells to deliver oxygen and nutrients more efficiently while taking out the garbage (removing waste products) while keeping hormone levels in check. So do yourself a favor and always carry a Klean Kanteen with you to stay hydrated while reducing your carbon footprint from drinking from plastic water bottles. Did you know that it takes 4 quarts of water to produce the plastic bottle to hold and transport just one quart of water? That is an easily avoidable waste of a precious resource. Also, plastic breaks down under UV light which means most of us are unnecessarily consuming plastic particulates with our bottled water. Refill your reusable water bottle throughout the day on lay overs in airports and at the local gyms at the hotel overnights.
I hope this helps inspire you to remove the roadblocks put up by working in the airline environment! Even though we operate with challenging schedules, extensive sitting, and under chronic fatigue from poor schedules, there is a way to still reach your better self! It makes no difference if you are planning a 5k, 50 mile, or IronMan. All it takes is a little creativity in your daily schedule and a little extra effort to nourish your body with better, whole plant based foods, hydrate often and enjoy the precious rest where you can get it!