How to Prepare for an Ultramarathon

How to Prepare for an Ultramarathon

When I first looked up how to prepare for an ultramarathon I was horrified at the amount of info and the scientific mumble-jumble I was expected to absorb. “I just want to run with my two legs! How did it get so complicated??!”

But now that it’s all done, it’s great to hear that finishing the race has been an inspiration to some. For anyone who’s looking to conquer an ultramarathon here’s at least one proven way to do it. Note: I am still very much a running novice who didn’t know my Vo2Max from my glucosamine until recently. So please take the following with a pinch of salt (pun unintended).

Areas we will cover:
1. Pre-race preparation
2. Race day must-haves
3. What I didn’t bring
4. Post-race recovery procedures

1. Honey and salt mix
Mix honey and salt in a cup of warm water to drink the day before the race. The concoction should help prevent cramps during the race. Courtesy of my dear friend Trish (and fellow Sahara Race 2010 runner from Singapore!) who really is your garden variety of people that does triathlons for fun and eats steel for breakfast.

2. Carbo-loading
It’s tradition that one loads up on carbohydrate-rich food (pasta, rice, etc.) the day before the race. Although the effectiveness of this practice has been questioned of late, I still wolfed down a whole can of potato chips per Trish’s recommendation. No better excuse to eat salt-laden junk food! So go ahead, pick the flavour with the highest sodium content.

3. Get enough sleep
For an overnight run where you’re expected to race right through the twilight hours, getting enough rest the day before is critical.

4. Glucosamine tablets
Take these like your running depends on it — because it does. In fact, take regularly to keep joints healthy.

5. Clip your toe nails
Unless you’re the sort that likes seeing black toe nails detach from flesh.

Race Day Must-Haves
1. Fräulein Maria
No, you don’t need “doe, a deer” on your iPod for an ultramarathon, but make sure you bring a happy and never-say-die attitude. Because on a long races, chances are something will go wrong and you’ll need to improvise solutions and stay optimistic in order to finish the race. Remember that  giving up due to mental weakness instead of physical weakness is a very common pitfall in ultramarathons. There will be tough stretches throughout and I did see people breakdown and cry right in the middle of this race. These are the times when staying cheerful and positive will be the hardest but most important thing you can do for yourself.

2. Vaseline
The chafing on your arms, inner thighs, waist can be quite severe if you’re eating up 84km in one go. Slather on Vaseline to avoid uncalled for pain.

Cho pat 23. Cho-Pat Dual Action Knee StrapI knew I was pushing it with attempting an 84km without having built up significant mileage over the last few weeks. So I tried to protect the poor knees the best I could and got one of these Cho-Pat knee straps for the weaker right knee. It did wonders in the race. They’re different from the typical single-strap knee bands in that, with a strap above and below, the  straps do a much better job at holding the knee cap in place. Now that I’m well into the post-race recovery period, the right knee is healing much faster than the left. Do note that these knee straps are only for support when you need it; do not wear it all the time during training unless you’re feeling the pain. A physiotherapist and fellow runner had advised that providing artificial support over the long term takes away the need for the knees to strengthen itself, thereby weakening it in the long term.
Where to buy Cho-Pat knee straps: More info here

sahara race 250km 113. Electrolytes

Replenish the sodium and potassium you lose during exercise by mixing a tablet into your water. These are a must for endurance races if you want to avoid cramps or hitting the wall. My preferred electrolytes are Nuun tablets. They work like coffee in keeping you awake, only they’re healthier. They’re also sugar free and only have 8 calories per tablet. I swear, these give you an amazing turbo boost. If I could, I’d lug a whole crate of ’em to the Sahara.
Where to buy Nuun electrolyte tablets: More info here
sahara race 250km 134. Energy gels
Lots of brands out there. Some just go down better than others but it’s a personal thing. Always the brand/flavour  before a race. Conventional wisdom says that you should not use a new brand of gels during the run itself; your system may not take it well. For the ultra, I used those by PowerGels, GU, SIS, Hammer, and Carb-BOOM! Hammer was by far the best for me in terms of taste, ease of intake, and amount (and length) of boost to my performance.
Where to buy Hammer energy gels: More info here
5. Race belt
To help carry the artillery of energy gels. Also came in handy to hold my knee strap when I initially opted to run without it. The belt I used fro the 84m ultramarathon was handed out by the race organisers, but you can easily find them online.
Where to buy race belts: More info here
6. Injinji toe socks
Anti-blister socks designed by gods and slipped through to our mortal world with the help of a modern day Prometheus. I find the fabric of the sock a bit thin but they work so well in wicking moisture and keeping my feet blister-free. I’ll pack a few for the Sahara too. Works even better when you dump some of that anti-blister powder into the socks before the race.
Where to buy : More info here

sahara race 250km 137. Asics Kayano
Ladies and gents, may I present to you the shoe that made all that running in the last 6 months possible: my beloved Asics Kayano 16.  I used to get severe knee pain after just 4km or so using a pair of nondescript trainers. But since switching to this pair, well… apparently I can run through the night and finish a double marathon. Of course, different people have different types of feet so this is not a “one model fits all”. The point here is to invest properly in a pair of running shoes that right for you.

Where to buy the latest Asics Kayano: More info here

8. Wrist bands
When you’re running in 30 degrees heat and 90% humidity like I did, wrist bands help A LOT.  I was surprised at how few people used wrist bands in the race?! Mine were drenched by the end of it.

sahara race 250km 149. Pedometer/watch
This pedometer by Sportsline is the little gadget that kept my sanity and pace throughout the night, especially during the tougher stretches when it was all too easy to just stop and walk. As soon as the speedometer read “4km/hour” I sped up again. It also monitors your heart rate without a chest belt. Nifty :)
I’m quite happy with the Sportline watch as it’s waterproof and small enough to function as an everyday watch. However, some users report inconsistent performance with the watch’s pedometer function so I’m not fully comfortable recommending it. A better version of this sports pedometer watch is the Garmin Forerunner 10.
Where to buy Garmin Forerunner 10: More info here
10. iPod and good music
I’m not the type that runs with music but for a race where one will be running for more than 12 hours on end, some music might be needed as a sanity check. Really glad I brought the iPod nano. Having sound in my head was instrumental to staying upright when I felt like stopping to sleep at 3am. The ABBA and w-inds. playlists lasted me for the whole of the second lap. Yes, apparently ’70s Swedish Pop and millennium Japanese Pop make good endurance race gear. Go figure.Besides, I got to take a video of myself crossing the finishing line with the iPod nano :) Historic moments must be recorded!
Where to buy an iPod nano: More info here
11. Your own hydration system
This could be the latest Camelbak hydration system or something as simple as carrying your own bottle of water. I just found it extremely useful to be able to load up on my own electrolytes as and when I wanted to, instead of craning my neck for the next water station (which might not even have the beverage you were hoping for).Made it much easier to take my energy gels regularly too. Not to mention that using your own hydration system means using less paper cups at the water stations so you’re environmentally friendlier :) For the actual ultra, I used a water bottle (because I was still a noob!) but afterwards got a Camelbak for serious training. Wish I’d got it sooner.
Where to buy Camelbak hydration packs: More info here

What I didn’t bring
1. Counterpain
I saw a handful of runners bringing this (a cream that helps to dull the muscle pain) but I didn’t want the bulk and didn’t want to just numb the pain away. Didn’t find this item essential.

2. Cash
A lot of people who had run last year’s Sundown ultramarathon said to bring a bit of money – if you do need to drop out of the race, you can at least get a cab. Some also bring change in case they get snack cravings when passing a convenience store. I didn’t bring any money but it worked out fine.

If you plan to bring cash, go for notes. I ran past a guy who was carrying coins. He jingled like a Santa’s reindeer.

Post-race recovery procedures
The day after an ultramarathon, the following worked well for me and ensured a speedy recovery (read: only 4 days before I started walking like a normal human being again!)

1. Ice bath

This is mind-numbingly painful, but dunking your legs into a bucket of ice submerged in water does wonders. If you can’t find a deep enough bucket or a pail, I’ve found that IKEA dustbin works just as well :p
2. Salt bath
Put your legs through an Epsom salt bath. The magnesium that’s absorbed through the skin helps to reduce inflammation and reduces toxins that cause muscle pain. It’s very simple procedure: heave large spoonfuls of Epsom bathing salt in hot/warm water, mix, and submerge your legs into the solution. Let sit for 20-30 minutes. Try to use water as hot as you can take; the hotter the water, the greater the therapeutic benefits.Where to buy Epsom bathing salt: More info here

3. Full body massage
Do this as soon as possible. Your muscles will scream during the massage but your body will thank you for it later. And don’t be a hero and try to go for a Thai massage; my “gentle” Swedish was bad enough.

4. Pain patches
The hot/cool combo kind works particularly well for me. Like the massage, there’s a trade off. This time, it’s between stinking like a medicine cabinet for a few days and feeling like a bed of roses afterwards.

THE END! Thanks for reading this far. Hope the info comes in handy. If there are any questions, just post a comment below. Do you have race tips to share that I didn’t cover? Share in the comments section too!

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