Saturday, February 28, 2015

Brain Training

In my last post, I discussed how endurance is a three legged stool: Brain, Body, Metabolism. I have blogged quite extensively about my thoughts on metabolism and body (training) in the past. But the topic of training the brain has come up more and more recently, and I have learned through personal experience that it may be the single biggest thing holding me back from achieving my 100 mile race goals.

The first time I heard about this topic was reading Matt Fitzgerald's book some years ago. However, I have seen the topic come up in recent podcasts and some of the books that I have been reading on endurance recently. Brain training starts with a relatively simple concept -- the brain is the central governor of your entire body, it defines when you feel fatigue and pain. This is pretty profound in that it removes, or changes the way we view, some of the other limitations runners typically embrace: lactic acid build up, muscle damage, glycogen depletion, etc... All of those factors are real, and all of them contribute to your body sending signals of distress to your mind. But, it is ultimately the brain that decides when we slow down and when we feel pain.

A simple example is glycogen depletion. When people first run a marathon they are more likely to crash than future races. Between their first and their tenth marathon they don't suddenly triple their glycogen stores. Instead, their brain becomes adapted to going into a state of glycogen depletion without freaking out (technical term). A newbie marathoner may only be able to use 60% of available glycogen where a seasoned marathoner more like 80 or 85% before the brains sends fatigue distress signals to the body.

Here are some ways in which training the brain can help with ultramarathon racing.


Specificity is a topic just about every runner is familiar with. Seasoned runners quite often do tune-up races or quality workout sessions that mimic the intensity and the duration of their goal event. Ultrarunners frequently train on terrain and environmental elements similar to what they'll race in.  However, training specifically for a 100-miler is a whole new animal. How does one properly do that? I mean, a race that takes 24+ hours has so many different angles to specificity -- length, weather, time of day, terrain, nutrition, etc.... It is quite overwhelming and may not be feasible to hit them all in training, at least not with regularity. Experience may be the best way to truly get better at 100s. But this blog post wouldn't be all that useful if that is all I had to say...

Training volume is a consideration, but I am not a "volume guy". I do think running 55-75 miles per week (8-12 hours) on a regular basis is a great idea. And I do think more volume would help if the runner can handle it and has a life that accommodates the added stress. But, for the mid-pack, family-centered athlete, there is diminishing returns to volume that will lead to fatigue, burnout, maybe even injury. (As a side note, I am starting to think of volume more in terms of time than miles because that is really the defining factor.)

Another consideration I see in my own training is training too fast. Specificity is about mimicking race conditions. Running too fast in a tune-up race or specific workout sabotages your ability to find the flow and to teach your mind what a sustainable effort feels like. A practical suggestion here is just to take breaks to eat, drink, walk. These breaks slow you down and allow you to recover, a great tip for race day as well. I often get hurried into the race mindset and that causes anxiety unnecessarily, particularly in aid stations. Slow down, eat, drink, say hello to friends, crew and volunteers.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for specificity training that I see in my own training for a 100-miler is learning to run ALL DAY LONG. My hundreds have not been marked with a lack of fitness or preparation, but rather fatigue and exhaustion that results from missing out sleep/rest and normal meals. Most runners, myself included, have a typical window of time where we train. Our bodies become used to that. Then we show up for a 100 and may have to see two sunrises on the trail, a recipe for a body freak out. One of my pacers at Bear 100  brought up night running in conversation and later that night my body totally seized. With the help of Robbie's comment, I finally came to the conclusion that I must embrace this and train more running at night. I tried my first night run of this cycle a week ago and it was tough! My heart rate was sky high and I felt fatigue normally saved for the late stages of a race. I was cooked! (See note about adversity training below as well.)

I think that perhaps taking the concepts of B2B and night running and blending them into a B2B2B might be a great way to mimic the kind of fatigue felt from running all day. Instead of running 40 miles in two runs over two days (like 20 Sat and 20 Sun), a routine of morning-night-morning might do wonders for pushing through this wall. For example,  Saturday morning,  Saturday night and one last block Sunday morning might be an incredible way to train. Of course there are tons of variations: changing the length of each run, using time instead of miles, fasting in between the last two runs, minimizing sleep in between the last two runs, etc... A pretty extreme but quite useful example might look like this:

  • 2.5 - 3 hours Saturday morning
  • 2 - 2.5 hours late Saturday night (with a headlamp on trail would be preferred)
  • 2.5 - 3 hours Sunday morning with only 4-6 hours sleep in between and fasted.

Forced Adversity

I borrowed this term from a friend. I think the concept is pretty self-evident, don't go out of your way to make training easy. When opportunities exist, make it tough on yourself. Embrace changes in weather and life circumstance. Some of this is related to specificity training -- heat, climbing, technical trail -- things that not every runner enjoys everyday. But much of is it just a mindset. If it snows, get outside and run. A little bit of rain? A new opportunity! If you have a morning meeting, run at lunch. The concept here is to put yourself in -- or maybe just don't avoid -- uncomfortable circumstances and learn to perform well in them.

Before someone takes this too far, I am not suggesting every run be miserable. Running is supposed to be fun, even training. I just mean takes what each day gives you and don't be afraid to have tough days in training too.


I know for me that Bear 100 was ruined by fear, among other factors. After running my first 100-miler, all I could remember was the pain and fatigue I felt that day. And it consumed me heading into Bear. Worse, it caused me to make silly decisions during the race. Fear is zapper of mental energy and a cause of fatigue. Not everyone has this issue, but for those of us that get anxiety about performing and about pushing through the pain and fatigue, we must learn to deal with that. We must learn to manage that fear. Fitzgerald's book has some practical tips on this.

Ken Clouber's famous quote "the toughest distance to manage is the 5 inches between your ears" applies here. Or, maybe you prefer: "make friends with pain and you'll never be alone". Bottom line, it is going to hurt... a lot. Be ready for it, but don't be scared of it. Challenge yourself to accept the pain and keep moving forward. Practice this with all the other techniques mentioned here, namely specificity and forced adversity.

Keep it Simple

Our minds will fatigue quickly when given too many tasks to manage. I know I tend to over-complicate my 100-milers -- pacing plans, pacers, gear, food selections, etc... Keeping it simple allows us to focus on the simple task at hand, getting from point A to point B on foot. Running is an amazingly simple task unless we make it hard on ourselves. Practice what you want to do in training, then just do it on race day. Do it, but remain flexible. Stay in the moment and keep moving forward.


Another good tip that I have used and read about is positive messaging. Don't get down on yourself. Listen to uplifting music. Write positive thoughts and comments on your clothes, water bottles, wrist-bands, etc... Say positive things to your pacers, crew, and aid station volunteers. I know I am guilty of occasionally circling the drain when things aren't going well. The great news about an ultramarathon is that you have lots of time to improve your race!

Be Fully Invested in the Outcome

This may be the toughest one of all. Many of us tend to race often and have many more "B" races than "A" races. That is normal, but set yourself up to give it your all on that "A" race. Trust me, you cannot force this. It has to be a goal that speaks to you at the core of who you are. It has to be something you are willing to work tirelessly for months on end. You can't just "kind of want it". If you aren't all in, the hundred will eat you alive and spit you out. I often try, but words simply cannot describe last 30 miles of a hundred mile race.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Slow Burn

*Title borrowed from Stu Mittleman's book.

Back when I was training for my first 100 miler (Leadville in 2012), I quite literally beat the s&%t out of myself. In fact, I nearly couldn't run the race because of a knee injury that left me scrambling in and out of doctors offices the week of the race. I just didn't believe that the common person -- the guy with a full-time job, kids, etc... -- could really train the way "elites" do. But, I attempted to do it anyway.  During training, I asked Wyatt Hornsby about his thoughts and methods on training and he referenced Dr. Maffetone to me. That was the first I heard of Dr. Maffetone. Wyatt went on to train very diligently using Dr. Maffeton's methods in 2013. While he had some horrible nutrition issues, he still finished only 5 minutes off of his personal best time at Leadville 100. And, talking to him and Chuck (his pacer) after, it sounded like he was incredibly strong the last 30 miles of the race. What struck me following along with Wyatt's training that summer was the consistency. There weren't a ton of crazy long runs or super intense speed session.  I think he surprised himself with a break-through performance at the Leadville Marathon that year as well.

Since that Summer of 2012, I have been quasi-practicing Dr Maffetone's methods myself. Of course, like many runners, I have adapted to make them my own. After listening to yet another podcast with him yesterday, I am struck by the simplicity of his method as well as the holistic approach to health. In his book, The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing, Dr Maffetone talks about a three pillar approach to training -- Brain, Muscle, and Metabolism. The book is about running faster by living a healthier life. It is about giving up the short-term for the long-term. Can hacks like overtraining, high carb living, etc.... make us better for one season or one race? Probably. But, at the cost of long term success and health.

Muscles is quite simple: prepare your body for endurance. There are numerous elements to this, but the bottom line is that running easy allows your muscles (and joints, ligaments, etc...) to catch-up and stay even with your aerobic system. Running anaerobic puts undo stress on the muscles and joints and can lead to injury. Why spend hours in the gym and PT playing catch-up AFTER you overdo it when you can just ease into it and prevent these things to begin with?

Metabolism is something I completely endorse. If you follow along on this blog, you already know I am a believer in low carb living -- not NO CARB, but LOW CARB. Primarily that means eliminating processed sugar, grains and legumes. This is a complex topic and books are written about it. But, the bottom line here is that having a happy metabolism allows your body to train and race better. I have seen huge benefits in my own life. Those benefits will be amplified by training slower to build a bigger aerobic engine.

That brings us to the brain... Is that the missing piece? I think so. I've blogged several times about the difference between Bear 100 and LT100 for me. The biggest thing is that I just wasn't having any fun. Training felt forced. My body was nagging with injuries. I never really got into it. I was much stronger at Leadville because I was happy to be there. I didn't obsess about time goals. My plan was simply to run patient for 40 miles -- easy to do a LT100 -- and then simply getting to the next aid station as quickly as I could. My pacers can attest to the fact that I was mostly upbeat. (Note that Dr. Maffetone wasn't just talking about mental perceptions but also chemical and other factors regulated by our brain...)

I finally decided to quit splitting hairs with Dr. Maffetone today and ran my entire run at sub-142 (my MAF number). No more rationalizing zone 1 or 2 or whether I should add 5 or 10 beats for this or that. (Note that most runners are happy to find reasons to add beats to MAF, but few are honest enough to subtract them when they are sick or injured.) The run felt amazing, even after a 16 mile trail pounding the day before. It was so good that I added mileage. In my post, I described it as a "religious experience". I felt good the whole way. No aches. No hunger. My breathing was regulated and I was in-tune with my body the whole way. Midway through the run I began regulating my HR almost with my mind. I could tell when it was rising and I kept it in the zone by concentrating on breathing, form, and taking what the route was giving me.

To be honest, I enjoy running aerobic. I enjoy getting home and feeling like I barely worked out at all, having a simple breakfast and moving on with my day. No need for extensive recovery or well planned out "recovery foods". So, this change isn't a big deal for me, much the same as LCHF fit me well. This journey has always been about life health and enjoyment. Things lined up well for me, and this method is proven. I have never bought into the "No pain, no gain" method of training, even though I have tried it once or twice.

The day-to-day changes really just mean two things for me: 1) I will lower my MAF effort to 142 beats per minute instead of the more typical 150 I used to use 2) I will do a more comprehensive warm-up before my runs. I typically do MAF workouts about 80% of the time, but I won't do them 100% of the time. Even during MAF workouts, I will add occasional "light quality" such as short Fartleks and Hill reps to improve myself as a runner and vary my training. I will still do some quality work -- primarily during my weekend longs -- to push my fitness after a solid base is in place. I am also a big believer in progressive runs where only the final third is hard.  More than anything, the goal is to stay healthy, enjoy the journey, and build a monster aerobic engine. It is the ONLY way to survive the extreme circumstances that 100 mile race brings.