Ultra Marathons – Are You Ready?

So you’ve run a few marathons and you love a good challenge. You’ve read about Ultra marathons and perhaps the notion of running 50km, 50 miles or even 100 miles doesn’t seem too daunting, but just how different are these races than your ‘average’ marathon?

Anything longer than the 26.2 miles or 42.2 kms is considered an ultra marathon. However, the terrain on which they are ran are typically hugely different. Usually marathons are road races, where ultra races take place over varied terrain, but will predominantly cover most of their mileage on various trails. These can range from being very mountainous and hilly and some cases, also very technical underfoot with loose rock, roots, craggy ascents and descents, etc. Not all of them of course as there will also be a number on comparatively flat terrain. Therefore, these races are not for the faint hearted!

It takes an incredible amount of mental and physical strength to complete (yet alone ‘compete’!) these races. Depending on the race length and terrain, you may well find yourself out on the course from anywhere between 6 and even 24 hours. Apart from obviously logging sufficient mileage prior to the event, there is also a need to ‘mirror’ the challenge as much as is sensibly possible.

You will want to practice being up on your feet and running and walking for numerous hours. Of course, as with marathons, there is a point at which you will reach diminishing returns. Many training for these events will do a ‘long run’ of say 4 hours on a Saturday, followed by another long run on the Sunday, perhaps 3-4 hours. The idea being that you get to practise time on your feet and on the second day, you can mimic the feeling of running on tired legs.

You should also try to train as much as possible on similar terrain to that of the event. For example, if the race is over very hilly, mountainous terrain, simply training on a treadmill or on the roads will not really help replicate the race conditions.

Nutrition is also extremely vital to the successful completion of an Ultra. Much will depend on the length of the event, but typically anything over 4 hours or so, will require a very well rehearsed fluid and food plan and should have been tried and tested as much as possible prior to the day. We all know that dehydration plays a major part in how well we can perform and the effect it has, but perhaps unlike in a shorter event, such as a half or full marathon, getting this right can be the difference between finishing or not.

It is wise to carry water or even a carbohydrate replacement drink on your run. Many of these drinks will now also contain electrolyte replacement as well, which is another vital consideration. One should try to drink fairly frequently, taking sips as you move along (there is a risk of over drinking and this can carry its own problems!). It is also vital to look closely at the amount of carbohydrates you regularly digest en-route. Many will consume a number of ‘gels’ which contain much needed nutrients, such as ‘carbs’, electrolytes, potassium, etc, but after a while, these can get a little much for the gut. Sometimes, after hours of running, your body will be crying out or some solid food, or simply ‘reject’ it.

Many staged events will have frequent aid stations stocked with fruit, pretzels and even potatoes. You will even see some runners eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Everyone has a different tried and tested formula, but getting the mix of everything is essential. For me, often the carbs are not sufficient as my body is telling me it needs protein. Now what your body and more importantly, your stomach and GI tract will tolerate, is a very individual thing. Hence the need to practice not only running, but drinking and eating and being prepared to switch plans if necessary.

Assuming you can get the nutrition dialled in, then as long as you have sufficient training and approach the event in the manner that it commands (IE: build up the long run mileage gradually, be familiar with the type of terrain, taper and look after sore or damaged muscles, etc), then there is no reason to fear it. Just start out at a slower than normal pace and try to enjoy it – thanking all the volunteers along the way.


Running Training and the Importance of Body Maintenance

Looks like it may well turn out to be a busy year for me after all. I still have concerns over the ‘fat pad’ impingement that is effecting me, although this has subdued sufficiently to allow me to train in earnest. I’m still scheduled to have an ultrasound scan in a few weeks time and possible guided cortisone shot if this is still deemed the best way to aid a quicker recovery and reduce the swollen ‘pad’ in question.

However, I am successfully logging the miles again and speedwork has been thrown down over the last few weeks. Fortunately the Zurich marathon is 3 months away and as long as there is no further breakdown from my body and the commitment to train in the cold, rain and ice where I live, then hopefully, I’ll be able to shoot with some confidence at my elusive sub 2 hr 40 marathon time.

So now it looks as if I may have finally been accepted into another of the ‘glamour’ races in New York and now the trick becomes careful planning of my schedules to not over race this year in between the two marathons (roughly six months apart), train smart and allow sufficient recovery, both during training and after each race.

Every good runners manual will recommend slowly increasing your mileage each week by no more than @ 10 percent. This is to ensure that we’re not suddenly placing increased stress on our bodies that it’s not ready to handle and breaks down, maybe a hamstring is pulled or your IT Band becomes aggravated or achilles tendon becomes inflamed amongst other complaints. All of which will slow you down, probably enforce a period of prolonged rest in the middle of your important training and leave you feeling very frustrated. Sure, you maybe feel good enough on your weekly long run to chuck in a couple of miles and may decide to keep running until you finally feel tired or sore. Yes, you may still feel great after this new long distance you’ve achieved. Trouble is, the potential damage of too great a training increase may not show itself until several days down the line when little ‘niggles’ begin to show themselves – often a cumulative effect.

It is also painfully important to get sufficient rest. The body improves physically by becoming more powerful and stronger and efficient not just from the actual training, but from the adaptions it takes from the training sessions. This means your body improves during the rest. Now, obviously, this is not the ‘green light’ to take days and days off from training to keep resting, but rest should be considered as part of your training.

You may be able to physically cope with a long run one day, perhaps a couple of other tempo run sessions and some speed and hill work each week. However, these are all considered hard sessions and depending on your running background (how many years you’ve been running, how many miles you’ve logged over time to build that endurance base – Consider many of the East Africans who often run several miles a day to and from school from a very young age!), your age and how fit you – these considerations are factors in how well you recover from these sessions and there will typically always be the need for two or three easier sessions per week or perhaps a 10 day training cycle. For most, a hard days training session such as a 20 miler or a long tempo run, which both take a toll on the body, will be sandwiched by easy running days before and after to allow recovery and be ready to train hard again.

There are of course some other great ways to assist the body and not ‘overtraining’, which can lead to injuries, becoming run down and ill, constantly tired and lethargic, etc. If you can, consider having a regular massage to relax the muscles and tissue and help flush out the toxins by speeding up the blood flow. Sleep is also very important. Once the mileage you log each week begins to increase, your body will demand that extra rest and you should aim to get a good eight hours shut eye whenever possible.

Other training methods can help just as much to maintain fitness, cardio-vascular capacity and lessen the tax on already tight and worked muscles. Consider cross training by biking or swimming, perhaps using an elliptical machine in the gym or even cross country ski if you’re in a wintry environment. These won’t substitute actually running, but for anyone with little niggling injuries or perhaps just need to take a few days off from training but still feel the need to keep up some body maintenance training, cross training should be considered.

We can also all benefit from some strength training. There will be great benefits to be had from working on your ‘core’ muscles to maintain good running form and posture. Consider one or two days a week of some light weight work and don’t merely focus on those legs.  If you’re aware of any body mechanical imbalances where you’ve been susceptible to injury, look for some advice on how to strengthen those area, focus on training those glutes and hips, etc.

Finally look to your diet. Just as important to any rest and training. A long or very hard session can lead to great body adaptions and therefore improvement. However, recovery can be greatly aided be replenishing lost nutrients within an all important window that lasts only around 30 minutes or so after you’ve finished your session. You should aim to take on a mix of both carbs and proteins (typically a suggested ratio of 4:1) during this window immediately after you finish training. Often a drink containing these ingredients will be easier to digest and will be absorbed into the body much quicker than solids, but both are important. This should then be followed by a more substantial meal, nothing excessive  in size, within the next 1-2 hours. You should also ensure that you are well hydrated at all times. Often after a long run of over an hour or more, you will become dehydrated to some degree and it is important to replenish as soon as possible and keep drinking throughout the day until your urine  becomes clear or at least only a pale yellow discolouration.

Overall it is important to eat healthily, get a good balance of foods, avoid too much bad fats (especially saturated fats) and if you are logging big miles each week, keep your carb diet to around 60% or so of your diet – try and keep to the ‘good’ carbs, those which are slow release such as nuts, pulses, beans, wholemeal grains, etc.

If, like me, you may well be attempting more than one long race per year ( a couple of marathons, possibly some half marathons and maybe even an ultramarathon), it’s also important to not jump straight back into training in the first few days straight after your last long race. Your muscles may actually feel good, but after having just ran a marathon, your tendons and even bones will be very susceptible to more damage as the muscles have just taken a beating and are grossly taxed, meaning something else has to take the strain. Gradually ease yourself back into some easy, slow, short running over the following week or so. The desire may be too much to handle in not running for a while, but consider some of the great names and athletes, such as Paula Radcliffe and Karen Goucher for example, who may take as much as a whole month off before resuming training again, depending on their schedules of course.

All in all, recovery is a very personal thing and is dependant on a multitude of factors, such as how well trained you are, how much you taxed yourself during the race ( a marathon will take much longer to recover from properly than say a 10k race), did you give it everything you had, did you ‘bonk (where your body has depleted its energy levels from it’s nutrient stores) and how quickly you get nutrients back into your body.

So, train hard, train smart and work for your goals.

Runners Nutrition Basics

Good basic nutrition needn’t be too complicated? These 10 simple commandments are guaranteed to make you healthier, fitter and faster

1. Plan your diet

Devise a sensible eating plan that you can stick to, which will suit your lifestyle. Don’t set yourself unreasonable targets for food consumption. Unless you’re seriously overweight, it’s unlikely that your diet will need to undergo drastic restructuring.

Start by analysing what you are eating now. Sit down with a pen and paper and ask yourself some questions about your dietary habits. Do you have breakfast? Do you feel tired and hungry by the time you run in the evening? If your diet is repetitive and boring you may not be getting the variety of foods necessary for adequate nutrient intake.

2. Eat little and often

Frequent snacking throughout the day is a sure way to avoid low blood sugar levels and tiredness by the time you get home for your run. Research shows that eating little and often is best for runners… as long as you’re eating the right things!

Make a point of taking high-carbohydrate snacks to work with you so that you aren’t caught out. Avoid high-fat snacks such as crisps and chocolate, opting instead for high-carbohydrate and low-fat snacks, which make the best fuel. Dry breakfast cereal, plain popcorn, bagels, low-fat crispbreads, bananas and other fruit are all excellent choices.

3. Don’t ignore the main meals

Regular sensible snacking is important, but proper meals are where carbo-loading really counts. Pasta is deservedly the runner’s favourite, but there are plenty of other excellent high-carbohydrate foods, such as rice, baked potatoes, lentils, muesli and even baked beans. Still, beware! Some high-carbohydrate foods are also high in fat. Lasagne, thin-crust pizza, croissants and granola are some of the worst culprits.

4. Supplement those supplements

Instead of spending a small fortune on pills and potions to supplement your diet, try to ensure that you get the vitamins and minerals you need from the food you eat.

It’s a big mistake to think that a supplement will completely satisfy your nutritional needs. Taking a pill might give you the recommended daily amount of a particular vitamin, but you also need protein, minerals, fibre and energy in the form of calories, which no pill will provide. Much nutritional goodness can be found only in the vast array of natural food ingredients and is hard to replicate to a pill + food leaves us feeling good when we choose wisely.

6. Drink more water

Water is the body’s most important nutrient. It makes up between 50 and 60 per cent of your bodyweight and provides the medium in which most of the body processes occur. Aim to drink throughout the day, with a pint of water (or a sports drink) an hour before you run, and half a pint for every 30 minutes of running. On days when you run you should aim to consume five litres during the day, twice as much as is necessary on rest days.

8. Don’t forget your pre-race meal

You’re well-versed in the idea of carbo-loading, but there are still a few tricks of the trade that can help you to race at your best. Firstly, don’t overeat late the night before as this will make sleep harder to come by. Secondly, don’t think of that final plate of pasta on the eve of the race as your last meal. Your body will use up some of that food energy overnight, so make sure you have breakfast. European 5000 and 10,000m champion Sonia O’Sullivan chooses bread or cereal, coffee, perhaps a banana and lots of water, but the carbohydrate combination you opt for is up to you. Just cut right down on fat and protein, which take a long time to digest. Coffee is fine if it’s part of your normal routine – just be sure to drink plenty of water along with it.

9. Learn to drink on the run

Lengthy races – 10Ks and longer – often have drinks stations to replace lost fluids, and if you are running a marathon they will help you to scale the dreaded ‘wall’. Drinking on the run is an import element of technique and one you will need to practice prior to your race. Before you start the race, find out whether the drinks stations are providing water, or carbohydrate drinks as well. If you plan to use a carbo drink, be sure that you’ve tested it in practice runs. As you approach the station look right; most runners prefer to veer left to collect their drink, so the other side is often less crowded. Grab the cup with one hand and instantly cover the cup with the other if you plan to drink it as you run. Don’t be afraid to stop and walk; a few seconds spent drinking properly will easily pay off in terms of performance.

10. Carbo-load for recovery

Immediately after a race or a hard training run it is important to refuel your body with high-carbohydrate food or drink. The 30 minutes or so are absolutely the best time to consume carbohydrates and protein as the body’s muscles and tissues are highly receptive and primed to absorb their vital nourishment needed to repair itself. After this, the first four hours after strenuous exercise is a crucial time for taking on new glycogen to replace what you’ve lost lost while working hard. Aim to keep stocking up every 15 minutes or so rather than gorging on one meal, because this maintains higher blood glucose and insulin concentrations, which in turn makes greater absorption into the muscles possible. Recent research suggests that including around 25 per cent protein in your recovery food will optimise the recovery of your muscles.

All in all, enjoy your food, but avoid too much ‘fatty’ food, especially the ‘wrong’ fats. Try to eat a balanced diet with fresh fruits, veg, fish and lean meats. Portion control is hard to learn, but great for your body’s digestion and absorption. Keep well hydrated and recognise that as you begin to clock up the miles each week, your body will crave the extra nourishment, but don’t abuse it!

Importance of ‘Good Fats’ in Healthy Diet – Omega 3

Fats and Omega 3

Now it should be pointed out that ‘fats’ are actually an essential part of all of our diets, or at least it should be. What needs to be considered, however, is how much fat is consumed and more specifically, what type of fats. You may have heard of ‘good’ fats & ‘bad’ fats, well here we concentrate promarily on ‘Omega 3’.            

Omega 3 fats are essential to health. Found mainly in oily fish, they improve heart health and brain function.


The recommended daily intake of essential fatty acids, including Omega 3 and Omega 61, has been set by the Government at six per cent of our dietary energy total. It has also recommended a weekly Omega 3 target of 1.5g.

Department of Health guidelines state that we should all eat at least two portions of fish every week, and one of those portions should be oily fish, such as salmon or mackerel.

Surveys show that most people currently only eat one third of a portion of oil-rich fish per week2 and are therefore falling short of the recommended intake and the associated health benefits of Omega 3 fats.

What are fatty acids?

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat and there are three different types: saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

While monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can lower blood cholesterol and help reduce the risk of heart disease, saturated fats can raise blood cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease.

There is a special sub group of polyunsaturated fatty acids known as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). They are called ‘essential’ as they are not easily manufactured by the body and must be provided by food. They are split into two groups:

Omega 3 These are found in oily fish (such as , fish oils, some vegetable oils (olive oil & Canola oil) and some nuts and seeds (walnuts and flaxseeds are excellent sources). Omega 3 is not limited only to these foods as it can also be found in kindney beans and soy beans to name a few.

Omega 6 These are found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and grains. In general we get sufficient Omega 6 fats in our diet from vegetable oils used in cooking, polyunsaturated spreads, nuts, seeds and grains. Omega 3 fats, however, are found in fewer foods so it is important to ensure we get enough, especially by eating more oily fish.

Chart showing types of fat and the foods they are found in

Why are Omega 3 fats so important?

Omega 3 fats are needed for the body’s normal growth and development. They are used to maintain the membranes of all cells including those of the nervous system, the liver, eyes and kidneys. They are also vital for good muscle function, inflammation and for blood clotting.

Omega 3 fats are part of the family of ‘good’ polyunsaturated fats and there is increasing evidence that Omega 3 fatty acids, when eaten as part of a healthy diet, can help maintain heart health.

They have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes, and protect against heartbeat abnormalities. They are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease through their effect on blood triglyceride (lipid) levels, rather than in the reduction of blood cholesterol.

Omega 3 fats are also vital to normal brain function. The need for Omega 3 is increased significantly during the last three months of pregnancy as it is needed for the development of a baby’s brain and eyes. It is particularly important for the mother-to-be to get the correct levels of Omega 3 from dietary sources during this time.

Scientific evidence is emerging that long-chain Omega 3 fats may also help to increase concentration span, and may aid those with attention deficit disorder, Alzheimer’s disease or depression.

In addition, Omega 3 may be beneficial to anyone suffering from psoriasis and inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and some bowel disorders.

What are the sources of Omega 3?

Omega 3 fats occur naturally in seeds as alpha linolenic acid (ALA). However, the most effective Omega 3 fats occur naturally in oily fish as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Good sources of ALA include: linseed (flaxseed) oil, linseeds, soya bean oil, pumpkin seeds, walnut oil, rapeseed oil and soya beans.

The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. This is why oily fish plays such an important role in our diet. Oily fish contains EPA and DHA in a ‘ready made’ form that the body can use easily.

The main sources of oily fish in the UK include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers, either fresh, frozen, canned or smoked. Tinned tuna does not count as it does not contain the high levels of oils found in fresh and frozen tuna.


What about vegetarians and vegans?

If you follow either a vegetarian or a vegan diet, your main dietary source of Omega 3 will be from ALA (alpha linolenic acid). As the conversion of ALA in the body to EPA and DHA may not be sufficient to provide these two vital fatty acids in the amounts the body needs, lots of plant sources of ALA must be eaten. An additional source of Omega 3 may be required in the form of a supplement to maintain healthy levels.

Should I take supplements?

For those who choose not to eat fish, supplements are a sensible way to get the Omega 3 that the body needs. Cod liver and fish oil capsules are a good source of EPA and DHA and in some cases contain vitamins A and D as well. However, if you are taking a supplement that contains vitamins A and D it is important not to exceed the recommended dose. If you are taking any medication you must seek your doctor’s advice.

Remember though, all of the above should be considered as part of a well balanced diet.

Some Healthy food Suggestions

Canned Salmon (or Tuna): Healthy Quick ‘n Easy Recipes

A quick, easy and cheap option, canned salmon adds nutrients and flavour to meals. Check out these recipes for simple ways to spice it up!


5 Minutes: Add salmon to soups

Stir salmon (about 50g per serving) into canned or homemade soup made with corn, onion, carrot, potatoes and/or veggies. Heat then pair with a hunk of wholegrain bread.

10 Minutes: Swap for tuna salad

Flake salmon into a bowl. Add diced celery, red pepper or gherkin. Blend with mayo. Stuff into a wholewheat wrap or spread on bread. Top with greens, sprouts and sliced tomatoes.

15 Minutes: Make salmon cakes

Mix salmon with diced red pepper, lemon zest, onion, Worcestershire sauce and an egg. Shape into patties and dip in bread crumbs. Brown patties in a pan with a little oil, 3 minutes per side.

20 Minutes: Toss with pasta

Cook wholewheat penne in boiling water. Drain and return to pot, Mix with cooked peas, salmon, onion, a little olive oil and lemon to coat pasta. Serve with parmesan, black pepper and fresh parsley.

Canned Salmon and Tuna have similar dietary properties and are great for runners and athletes. Why Salmon though? http://bit.ly/8XTeIH