Learning to Suffer

Regardless of how much you train and how hard you race, running an ultra marathon is going to be hard. It will hurt. Your joints and tendons will aches. Your quads will scream and you’ll feel like…well, crap! What do you expect when you’re putting your body through something it’s not really meant to do. Yes, it ‘can’ handle it. But in essence, the human machine is not conditioned to the rigors of 50km plus of pounding. All you can do is prepare as best possible and do as much simulation as you can in your training.

It’s the capacity to suffer that generally sorts the wheat from the chaff. The ability to endure the pain, discomfort, lack of energy and mental battles is what can make or break you. For a lot of people, they enter an ultra in the belief that they are going to feel good for a lot of it and only really hurt towards the end. This is probably a mistake. You really need to get your head around being able to keep pushing through the inevitable soreness and fatigue. Take that comment with a pinch of salt, because while you need to be able to hurt, you also should know the difference between an injury and general aches and pains. The best ways to learn to suffer and get to know your limits are firstly, doing a few very long runs in your training, and secondly, double or back to back long runs.

What constitutes a ‘Very long run’? Essentially it’s an effort that is upwards of 50% of race distance. For example, if you’re planning on running TNF100, then you really should test yourself on the hills and trails for at least two runs that are 50km or more. You can do them on relatively fresh legs, by having a few easy days leading in, or ideally, try doing them on slightly tired legs after a week of training. The reason for running in a state of fatigue is that it will simulate race day more accurately and the training effect will be better. It’s also a good idea to practice running with your mandatory gear and also practice your race day nutritional strategy.

The second technique is the old back –to-back long runs. These are fantastic for getting use to keeping the feet turning over when you’re tired and sore. To do this, try running for 40km on a Saturday morning and then on the Sunday, lace up the boots and get out there again for a 30km run. You could also try doing this in the reverse order. What this does is it teaches your body to run in a depleted state. It helps stimulate fat burning and gets your mind conditioned to the sensation of running when you’re sore and tired from the previous day’s effort. Ideally you want to run at a faster pace than your goal time in the event.

By combining the above two strategies into your training, you will get to know your body and its limits much better. You’ll come to understand just how hard you can push and also, condition your muscles and supporting tissues to the toils of running an ultra. And one other thing. When you do start to hurt in a training session, think to yourself that the more you suffer in the lead up to the event, the better you’ll feel when you’re half way through the race!