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Six Critical Ultra Endurance Hacks for Your Next Challenge

600 400 Patrick McCrann
Ultra Tired

Will You Have What It Takes?

2020 has quickly turned from an epic race season into something entirely…different. Depending where you fall on the emotional spectrum, you are either excited about the opportunities you have or you are despondent about everything you have lost.

We are working with our teammates to make sure they remain focused on their long-term endurance goals. This means staying consistent across each year regardless of the events they are able to take part in.

To help our athletes out we’ve created a series of individual events that they can complete. These are actual race replacements, such as our UltraMay Challenge.

But there is a catch. These events are different than traditional races in many ways. They require a different set of pacing, nutrition, and mental skills. There events are not one-for-one race replacements. They are, however, a chance to expand your fitness as well as your understanding of your physical and mental limits.

Every workout is an investment in your self today and into who you want to become as an athlete.

What is an Ultra Challenge?

The easiest way to talk about this is to talk about what an ultra challenge is not.

  • It is not a race…the only competition is yourself.
  • There are no spectators…unless you have fans on Strava.
  • You have to self-support…there are no volunteers.
  • There is no crowd at the finish line…heck, there might not even be a finish line.
  • You will likely not receive a medal…surviving is it’s own reward.

Ultra Challenges are, well ULTRA

The biggest differentiator is time. Your ultra challenge will likely take a great deal longer than a traditional race.

In the case of the UltraMay Challenge, this is a 48 hour event that’s will challenge athletes to remain consistent across two full days. There are very few, if any, triathlons out there that span two whole days.

Think of it this way: on race day it’s who gets to this finish line first. On ultra day, it’s about the journey more than the time on the clock.

Racers have problems. Ultra folks? They have adventures.

Overview: Racing vs an Ultra Challenge

There are three main differences between an endurance race and an ultra challenge.

First, the type of support available. 

In any given race you will have aid stations and/or drop zones where there is nutrition available for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s provided by the event itself or something that you’ve created and left to pick up later. In a race you know there’s a planned place where you can get extra nutrition, calories, and support.

In an ultra event that’s not the case. The parameters of the event are set, but how you support yourself is up to you. You need to create the entire plan from start to finish. This includes when and where those support options will exist. Don’t miss this critical step.

Second, the speed at which you are completing the event.

While there are some amazing athletes out there who can go very fast for very long periods of time, most of us are different. The point of most of these challenges is to build endurance not to set a personal record.

We encourage you to eliminate speed from your ultra plan because it could set you back. Increased speed means increased effort. Increased effort means increased demand for fluid and calories. It means decreasing your stores of glycogen. And that means a great chance for nutritional difficulties.

On the surface, races seem dynamic. But there is actually a complex mathematical equation we are all using. We are all doing the math to make sure our personal finish line intersects with the event finish line. And not a moment (or minutes or miles) too soon.

Third, is tapering.

When we have a big event on the calendar it’s something that we trained for. We build our fitness. We create a peak of work (and fatigue). Then we recover using a taper to sharpen for the big day.

During this taper time we are resting up and preparing for the event itself. This allows us to start the event rested and ready to go,  increasing our chances of success.

Ultra challenges don’t have the same set of external cues for you to follow. How much you rest or prepare is a function of your experience and your ability to plan.

The size and scale of the challenge that you have chosen should determine how much you taper for it. But since very few others are doing it — and very few others have actually ever done it — just how you handle this part of the decision-making process is up to you.

6 Critical Ultra Challenge Tips 

Here is short collection of advice for you to consider as you plan and execute your next ultra challenge. Even if “someone you know” has done something epic doesn’t mean that it was in any way easy.

More often than not, the important decisions they made that led to  success are not necessarily apparent — even to them. As part of our mission to make sure that you can be as epic as possible, we are sharing these out.

Author’s Note: If there’s anything that you think we missed, please put into the comments at the bottom of this post.

#1 Event Pacing

Determining a level of effort/work that you are comfortable sustaining for the event is really important. Most of us determine this pace through a series of mistakes made over time.

For example, most of us learn how to pace a marathon not by math but by running a marathon and getting it wrong. Some of us get it wrong several times before we actually learn our lesson!

You don’t have that same opportunity in an ultra challenge. The scale of the work you are doing is a one-time thing. To put it another way: Since you’ve never done it before, you don’t have the experience to make a well-thought-out plan.

So we start with the pacing. Do the math on the parameters of the event and determine what effort you can sustain across the entire event. As if it happened in a single go. Start with that.

In the case of the UltraMay Challenge, we have 12 hours of exercise split up into six one-hour bikes and six one-hour runs. These are alternating workouts that must happen every four hours.

In order to successfully run six individual one-hour sessions across the 48-hour block, you should run that first hour at a pace you could sustain for the complete six-hour block of running.

In other words, if we told you to run six hours right now, what would your pace be? Take that pace as your starting point.

#2 Consistent Calories

The longer the event, the more complex your nutritional needs can become. But it doesn’t have to be that hard unless you make it that way.

Calories during an event of an ultra nature are less stringent and what you might see on race day. Since speed is not part of the equation, that allows us to consume other types of foods and fluids otherwise unavailable on race day.

It’s important that you have a selection of nutrition that you actually want to eat and can eat consistently over time. Don’t think about how the workouts fit in around your daily meals. Treat each workout as an entity unto itself and fuel as such.

In the case of UltraMay with 12 one-hour workouts spaced four hours apart, the most important thing to do is recover after each session. Not because the first hour is the hardest, but because by the time you get to the 10th hour you will really be in a tough spot. This forethought is critical to making sure you are nutritionally and physically successful.

An easy way to do this is to make sure that you recover after each session. We recommend you take these two critical steps:

  • First, consume some protein after each workout, ideally in liquid form.
  • Second, replace any fluids you have of lost in that time. Consider keeping a scale nearby to measure your fluid losses after each session.

This approach will address the muscular needs that you have. It will also give context for you to make decisions about larger scale nutrition choices as they fit into your event nutrition plan. The inverse, more reactive approach, will not succeed.

#3 Frequent Fluids

It doesn’t matter whether your ultra event is held in hot or cold weather. Your body is still putting out the same level of work.

That work has a cost associated with it, and that we must address that cost in many small micro steps across the challenge.

Fluid management is critical to make sure that your body is running as efficient as possible. While we can go without calories for some time, lack of fluids will have an immediate impact on our performance.

Poor hydration can lead to an elevated heart rate, decreased power output and a higher rate of perceived exertion. All of which will combine to put you in a difficult mental place. The difficult mental place is coming — thanks to the challenge — there is no reason for us to accelerate this problem.

Use sport nutrition that allows you to consume fluids throughout the session. Your starting and ending weight for each part of the challenge should remain consistent as a result.

Choose your fluids wisely. You will want something that has electrolytes in it and is palatable to you. It’s over the course of your challenge you will likely want to have some calories in that beverage and potentially, down the road, possibly even some caffeine (Coca-Cola anyone?).

#4 Emergency Nutrition Options

Despite the best of intentions, ultra challenges are defined by the point in time when each of us hits our wall. Since we aren’t racing, the wall isn’t an obstacle to performance, only an obstacle to our finish.

With speed out of the equation, solving this challenge is a nutritional issue, not just a mental game. Speed as a decision point forces limited choices of calories you can consume at the end of the race. On the flip side, endurance events require that you choose the right calories. This is not to rule out the importance of the mental focus; it’s meant to highlight the significance of your nutrition.

Having some emergency calories makes a big difference when it comes to keeping going. Depending on the nature of your event and its duration, your calorie choices may vary. These emergency rations should be simple to digest, easy to store, and something you want to eat.

There are two types of emergency fuels to consider: simple vs complex.

The first is sugar-based that will help with rapid energy delivery and get you back on track. Coach Patrick’s go to emergency fuel is jellybeans, for example. You may have a special gel that you enjoy or perhaps a beverage. Whatever it may be, have it ready to go and not too far away in case of emergency.

On the calorie side, things get a little different. Since we aren’t racing you have a wider variety of choices than “normal.” You should keep these calories clean and easy-to-digest. Reaching for chocolate milk in the middle of a workout for protein, for example, could be the worst thing you do.

Protein is an important source especially for longer efforts so don’t rule it out. Instead of that chocolate milk, use something simple such as an energy bar or one of your proven clean snack options that you have experience with and trust.

Managing the time between each segment of the event is more important than optimizing the time you are exercising!

#5 Strategic Recovery

The instant you complete each leg of your event, you need to switch into recovery mode. Every small incremental recovery will add up and enable you to be successful.

In the case of UltraMay, we have 12 individual workouts. This means participants need to have 11 specific recovery periods. Veteran athletes will set these out beforehand so everything is ready to go. Even if you aren’t that detail-oriented, it’s worthwhile making sure you are as organized as possible.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Consider a rapid, protein focused recovery beverage after each leg of the event.
  • Have a change of clothes to get dry so your body temperature remains consistent.
  • Elevate your legs and perhaps even do some light stretching.
  • Depending on the time of day consider a strategic nap or break to ensure the next leg of the event is enjoyable.

Ideally you will also have a specific space dedicated for the recovery. This way you can instantly get into recovery mode. Ultra events are not in a silly fast but you still need to execute well. Wasted time on the recovery front only eats into each rest period.

#6 Balancing Winding Down and Winding Up

In addition to the protocols mentioned above around nutrition, you will want to have a plan for managing the exit from each workout session.

This can involve calming music, a good book or even a movie. Even if sleeping is not on the agenda, resting with your legs up early on will ensure that you have more energy later.

Eventually you’ll so exhausted that getting to sleep quickly won’t be a problem! But we want to invest in our recovery at every chance possible.

On the flipside, winding up is also important.

You will want at least a half an hour before your next leg of the event to not only get dressed but to go through your ritual of getting ready.

During this half hour you will have a chance to take stock of your total system health. You can make any adjustments needed and stay on track. Worst case scenario, you are ready a few minutes early and you can use that time to focus mentally on the challenge that lies ahead.

Your thirty minutes might involve:

  • A few small calories.
  • Light stretching / activation exercises.
  • Time to check the weather in case a gear change is in order.

Final Words

Your ultra event performance will only be as successful as your ability to handle the logistics. Without a race director and hundreds of volunteers dedicated to making your experience a success, it is 100% up to you.

This is part of the fun in the process and doing it right will help you not only be successful for this event but will make future use successful at all the invents that you choose.

Best of luck in your ultra challenge of choice.

Have More Questions? 

Visit us online at the official Endurance Nation Facebook page and ask us there!

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