Category: Running

9 Things I Learnt from Running My First Ultra


Setting off into the hills on the final stage of the West Highland Way

Two days ago I completed my first ultra. The ultra I got roped into trying just ten weeks ago. My friend Telle asked myself and my fiance, Sam to keep her company on a ‘training run’ she wanted to do along a 41-mile section of the West Highland Way. Technically I think this classes as a ‘social ultra’ as it wasn’t an organised race, but hey, I’m still taking the tick!

The plan was to run from Tyndrum up to Fort William (the official finish of the West Highland Way). Off-road, with over 2,500m of height gain, it was not a straightforward first ultra. And it was November, which in Scotland could mean weather conditions ranging from driving rain and gales to snow and ice.

In the days leading up to the run, friends sent me photos of snow-covered landscapes and reports of icy, treacherous walking conditions on the route. But in the end, we were lucky with the weather. It was a cold, but (mostly) dry day with barely a breath of wind, and the snow underfoot was crunchy, not icy. We were also lucky to have a support crew in the form of Telle’s fiance, Liam who met us with spare kit, water and food at the 7, 18 and 26 mile marks.

Setting out I honestly didn’t know if I’d make it to the finish, and I had my doubts on the way round. But we made it! And here are a few things I learnt along the way.

It will hurt

Yeah, sorry to break that vision you had of running for miles and miles with fresh legs. Obviously the more you train the easier it’s likely to be. But really, training just puts off the aches and pains for a bit longer. They will come. Remember, when you’re doing your first ultra, you’re pushing your body hard. You’re making your legs go further and for longer than they’ve ever been before. And all that pounding takes its toll.

You are stronger than you think

Everyone will have a low point on the run – a point where the first niggling doubts set in. For me, this was after our first decent rest stop, around 18 miles in. We’d been running for four hours – the longest I’d run for in training – and my body decided that it was time for a post-race nap. (Yup, even in the snow.) My hips were aching and after switching shoes to give my feet ‘a break’ my arches had started hurting.

The truth is, I wasn’t suffering half as badly as many people do. And looking back on this time made me understand – really understand – what endurance athletes mean when they say that it is all a mental game. Because you can keep going. It’s just a case of continuing to put one foot in front of the other until you reach the finish line.

So be prepared for it to hurt, and be ready to grit your teeth and push on through, even when you think you can’t go another mile.

If in doubt, eat

When I asked Telle for some last minute tips the night before the run she told me this: “If you feel crap, eat. A lot of the time it’s a fuelling thing.” She was right.

I found that the time passed a lot quicker than I thought it would. I’d planned to eat about every 45 minutes but often checked my watch to find over an hour had passed since my last snack. This was particularly the case towards the end when it’s tempting to focus purely on getting to the finish. You’re burning way more calories than you can physically consume and if you don’t keep eating, you’ll pay for it at some point.

Also, remember to eat AFTER you’ve finished. This was the one big mistake we made. In training we would always have a protein recovery shake or bar as soon as possible after our long runs. But when we finished the ultra, we were too wrapped up in the joy (and pain) of having done it to remember to eat. We then rushed around getting checked into our hostel for the night, having showers and stretching, so by the time we finally sat down to eat it was about two hours after we’d finished the run.

Just as our food arrived, Sam said he felt sick, staggered a few paces and collapsed in the doorway of the gents’ toilet. (He does like a bit of drama.) We’re pretty sure this was his body demanding payback for not having given it recovery food. (And yes, by the next day he was fine.)

Don’t run the full distance in training

Running an ultra is a huge mental challenge, so save that mental strength for the day of the race. It also puts a huge stress on your body which takes time to recover from. If you try and build up to running 30 or 50 miles in your training runs, you’re more likely to end up injured, or burning out too soon.

One great tip a friend gave me was to do some ‘pre-fatigues’ before your long run. This is essentially a set of exercises that works the big muscles in your legs (e.g. squats, lunges, jump squats etc.). Completing 4-6 sets of these before you run means you’re starting out with tired legs and simulates what you’ll feel on a much longer run. For more tips on training, check out my post on How to Train For Your First Ultramarathon.

Look after your feet

In my experience, people tend to fall into two camps: those who get blisters, and those who don’t. I’m one of the lucky ones, but I do get foot pain from pounding (particularly on long walks) and on this run, a pain in the arches of my feet.

Whichever camp you fall into, taking care of your feet will make the whole ultra experience a lot more pleasant. If you’re prone to blisters, get used to where your hot spots are and tape, tape, tape. Possibly the best tip of all is to carry spare socks (or have them stashed in your bag at support stops). There’s nothing like a nice dry pair of socks to make your feet feel better.

Break it down into stages

During my low point of the ultra, Telle told me we’d just passed the half-way point. She said it to make me feel good, but it just made my heart sink. How could we be only half way? If this is how I feel now, how can I possibly keep going for another six hours?

Sometimes contemplating how far it is to the end of the race is just too much. It’s much easier to focus on the next milestone or checkpoint. After all, you have to make it there – there isn’t another option. So I asked Telle to just let me know how far it was to the Kinlochleven checkpoint and focused on just getting to that point. After that, the final stage was easier as the finish was in sight.

But always aim for the finish

When we got to the end of our run, I swore I couldn’t have gone another mile. But is that really true? Or was it just that I had that 41-mile distance in my head. If there had been another ten miles to go I probably could have done it. It would have been hard, painful and slow, but I could have pushed on that bit longer.

If you tell yourself that it’s ok if you only make it to 30 miles and anything after that is a bonus, then you will only make it to 30 miles. So even when you break the race down into stages always have that final figure in your head: the finish is your ultimate goal.

It won’t all be fun, but it will be worth it

I spent quite a lot of time on the run asking myself why I was doing this, or coming up with mantras to get me through the next mile. There were some amazing parts: the stag silhouetted against snow-capped mountains and the mountains glowing in the pre-dawn light. But I can honestly, hand on heart, say a lot of it was not particularly fun at the time. But was it worth it? Hell, yeah.

You may not be able to stop at one

I hesitate to write this, only two days following the run. Normally it takes me much longer to forget the pain and even contemplate going through it again. But I wouldn’t be the first person to find that their first ultra is most definitely not their last.

10 Reasons Why Orienteering is the Best Sport Ever

Girl holding a map and orienteering

Who would have thought getting lost could be this much fun? (photo (c) Federazione Italiana Sport Orientamento)

When you see the word orienteering, what springs to mind? Funny red and white flags? Getting lost in damp forests? Strange people dressed like they’ve just emerged from a 1980s psychedelic pajama party? (If the latter, then you must have been to a ‘proper’ orienteering event.)

I would be the first to admit it can appear a crazy sport. The basic principle is this: you have a compass, an electronic dibber thing and a ‘map’, which to the uninitiated looks rather like an artist’s impression of the London tube map overlain with hieroglyphics. And it probably makes about as much sense.

But stick with it. Because with a little patience (and a good sense of humour), what is at first confusing, transforms into a delightful puzzle. There is no other sport that tests both the mind and the body in quite the same way. It’s like trying to solve a level four sudoku puzzle whilst simultaneously running an obstacle course and playing a virtual reality car racing game.

Are you convinced yet? If not, then read on for ten very good reasons why you should get out orienteering today.

1. Orienteering is a sport for life

Literally. As soon as you’re able to toddle on your own two feet, eager parents will be fighting to take you round the string course (especially if there are sweets at the end). At the large events there are age classes that cater for runners from age ten (younger competitors can ‘run up’) to ninety, and everyone shares the same finish lane. There aren’t many sports when you can carry on winning well into your eighth decade.

2. It’s not all about running

‘But you have to be a super-fit runner to orienteer…’ is probably one of the most common excuses I hear for not trying out the sport. And the answer to this is a big, fat resounding no. Sure, if you want to be winning events then it helps to be a decent runner, and elite orienteers are some of the fittest bods around, but fitness is no barrier to orienteering. Many people walk round their courses, and if you’re just starting out this can be a good idea whilst your navigation improves.

Plus, there are actually four disciplines of orienteering: foot, mountain bike, ski and trail orienteering (designed for people of all physcial abilities to compete on equal terms). So there’s something for everyone.

3. Every event is different

Bored of running the same old training routes? Plodding the same streets, week after week. Yup me too. This is why running is BORING and orienteering is FUN. I can pretty much guarantee that in your orienteering lifetime, you will never run the same route twice. Which means there is always an element of the unknown when you set off. Variety is the spice of orienteering life.

4. Orienteering is the friendly sport

Orienteers love introducing new people to the sport. Turn up to any event and you’ll be sure to find some eager face to help you work out which bit of the compass points north, the difference between a re-entrant and a depression and what the blue squiggly lines on the map mean. Most orienteering clubs have specific events aimed at beginners or young families, plus training sessions when you can get to grips with basic navigational techniques.

Many clubs hold post-training socials, and at the larger events, members congregate in club tents. Wander in after you’ve finished and within two minutes someone will be peering at your map excitedly jabbering about ‘optimum route choices’ and whether you took the direct or long route to number five. Just humour them, ok? It’ll be you one day.

5. There’s always room to improve

There is rarely such a thing as a perfect run in orienteering. Even on your best day, you’ll lament the two seconds you ‘wasted’ climbing over a stile, or debate whether you could have stolen a minute if you’d have taken a slightly different route. Don’t get me wrong, it can be incredibly frustrating when you mess up. (And even more frustrating if you’re stuck in the car with a sulking companion for two hours on the drive home.) But it means there’s always something you can work on and some way to get better.

6. Orienteering takes you to places you’d never otherwise go

Quite literally. Many orienteering events are held on private land where the organiser has to get special permission from the landowners to hold the event. So you get to explore woodlands, moors and valleys you’d never normally go to.

7. It’s a full body workout

Orienteering is not just off-road, it’s off-trail. Once you get beyond the easier beginner routes, the courses are designed to avoid paths as much as possible. Depending on the area, the terrain can vary from beautifully runnable pine forests, to heather strewn moors, and intricate boulder fields. You may end up jumping across streams, leaping fallen trees or fighting through thickets of trees (usually only if you’ve got lost).

This is why orienteering courses are quite short. But try running a 7km road race and compare that to a 7km orienteering race in the Lake District and tell me which one you wake up aching from the next day. Yup, and that’s your core aching as well as your legs.

8. But it’s not all about getting muddy

Whilst orienteering is traditionally associated with hills, forests and parks, a whole new niche of orienteering has sprung up in towns and cities across the country. Urban orienteering combines lightning-speed navigation with fast running. Many clubs run monthly, or even weekly urban evening events, particularly during the winter months. As the navigation and the maps tend to be much simpler, these can be a great introduction to orienteering for newbies. Plus they usually start and finish in a pub. It’s important to rehydrate y’know.

If you live in London, I would highly recommend the Street-O series of events – even if you don’t fancy being competitive, they’re a great way to explore parts of the city you never knew existed.

9. You can compete all over the world (without being an elite athlete)

There aren’t many sports where you can compete in 70 countries, whatever your level of expertise. Once you’ve learnt the basic orienteering map symbols, the language is the same wherever you go. Many countries host orienteering festivals: multiple days of events with social activities in the evenings. And city races are a great way to add a bit of interest (and exercise) to your next city break.

If you’re looking for international events, the World of Orienteering Calendar is a good place to start, but it’s by no means exclusive.

10. It gives you skills for life

I’d like to see anyone try and deny that navigation skills aren’t important. EVEN in this modern day world of iPhones, Google maps and GPS watches. I sometimes wonder why other people struggle to remember directions, seem to have absolutely no sense of direction and can’t hold a map the right way round. Then I remember that these people probably weren’t sent out into a deep dark forest to get lost (literally) from the tender age of ten. (Thanks Dad.)

So the moral of the story is: parents take your children orienteering! Let them go out and get lost! It will teach them to be independent, adventurous and non-directionally challenged. And one day they will thank you for it. Even if it’s just because they managed to find their way home from the club rather than spending the night behind the wheely bins.

If you’re raring to go, check out the British Orienteering Federation website for details of all UK events and your local club. Still hesitant? Watch this video and then dare to tell me it doesn’t look just a teensy bit fun.

Thanks to Federazione Italiana Sport Orientamento for the great photo (used here under Creative Commons licence). You can view the original image here.

How to Train for Your First Ultramarathon

Men running in a ultramarathon

Are you ready to tackle the trails on your first ultramarathon?

Ever signed up a challenge on a whim only to wake up the next day and regret it? That’s me in a nutshell. I’m a sucker for getting carried away with hatching crazy plans, whilst blithely ignoring the preparation required to see them through.

Take last weekend. I went to a friend’s daughter’s christening and got chatting to a few people. At some point between the dousing of the baby’s head and the cutting of the cake, I found myself nodding in agreement when a friend casually asked if I fancied keeping her company on a training run in November. “Great,” she said, “it’s only 45-miles, though we’ll need to set off early to make the most of the daylight.”

One thing I forgot to mention. This particular friend is one of the increasing band of people who put themselves through hours, if not days, of torturous running. For fun, apparently. I had always considered that some day I may want to try an ultramarathon, in that vague non-commital sense of wanting to have done one without having to go through the actual doing part. It appears she’s called my bluff.

For context, though I have done a fair bit of off-road running, I have never run a marathon and at the time of agreeing to this challenge, the furthest I had run for a good many months was about six miles. So I’m pretty much starting from scratch.

Having signed up for a challenge I am utterly unprepared for and have no idea whether I can actually do, my first step should have been to develop a training plan and get out running. However as a compulsive procrastinator researcher, my actual first step was to spend hours on Google searching for articles titled, ‘How to go From Couch to Ultramarathon in Ten Weeks!’ (Clue – they don’t exist.)

So to help all you new wannabe ultramarathoners avoid falling into the same trap, here’s what I have learnt from my many hours of research.

Leave yourself enough time to train

Ok, so I’ve already failed on this one, but this is a definite example of “do as I say not as I do”. Presuming you’re a bit more sensible than me when it comes to planning your challenges, pick an event that’s far enough out to support a gradual increase in your training volume.

How long this will be depends on your current level of fitness, experience in running longer events and how long the ultramarathon is you’ve signed up for. Runner’s World have a sixteen week training plan to get you prepared for a 50-mile ultramarathon. Sixteen weeks that is, if you’ve already run a few marathons. Perhaps better suited for those of us who don’t pop out a marathon every other weekend is this sixteen week plan, which builds the ‘long’ runs up gradually from ten miles.

Mix up your training

One piece of advice I’m definitely taking on board is to cross-train. This is partly an injury-prevention strategy and partly to keep my motivation up (I have a very low boredom threshold – possibly not the best trait for a long-distance runner).

The most popular forms of cross-training seem to be cycling and swimming. Both sports exercise your muscles and improve cardio without the impact associated with running. I’m also a big fan of walking, plus it’s a bit easier to persuade friends / family to go on a hike with you rather than a run. (You definitely want to take any opportunity to sneak training into your social life, unless you want to become a hermit for a few months.)

I’m also trying to keep my climbing up, as I figure the upper body and core workout will help balance all that lower body exercise. Yoga could be a good alternative for those who aren’t a fan of hauling themselves up vertical walls. The RunUltra website has a great article detailing different cross training sessions which is well worth a read.

Strengthen your body

I am a stereotypical lazy runner. My hip flexors are inflexible, my glutes are withered and over the years I have developed a running style that I strongly suspect fails to engage any of the key muscle groups involved in good running posture.

But I know deep down, that I will not have a chance of getting up to ultramarathon distance without getting injured, unless I tackle these fundamental issues. So I’m working on all those horribly painful strength exercises I have always avoided – mainly those that involve the word ‘squat’.

To help your hips keep working as they should, check out this set of four exercises, requiring nothing more than a theraband. If you have a bit more time (and equipment) then try this comprehensive set of ten strength and conditioning exercises.

Train off road

Most ultramarathons are off-road affairs. I like to think this is because if they ran them on roads, people would collapse from a combination of boredom and repetitive strain injury miles from the finish line.

You may not be breaking any PBs by switching from the road to the trail, but ultramarathons are not about speed (unless you’re a super elite runner). As well as getting to enjoy communing with nature and avoiding inhalation of car fumes, trail running is harder work, so you get more bang for your buck. And as the surfaces are typically uneven, you’ll be concentrating so hard on where to place your feet that you won’t have a chance to get bored.

Listen to your body

Yes, training is hard. And a lot of the time, you have to push through those moments where you feel tired, achy and want to give up, otherwise you won’t make any progress. But not always. Sometimes when your body is screaming at you to stop, it’s for a good reason – a warning sign that if you carry on you’re risking injury or illness.

Ultramarathon training is (quite literally) a marathon, not a sprint. So if your body is telling you to take it easy then relax, take a few days off and catch up on your Game of Thrones box set. Your legs will thank you for it.

Figure out what you can eat

“But surely I can eat whatever I want if I’m doing this much training?” I hear you all cry. But not whilst you’re running. One of the hardest things about transitioning from half marathons or marathons to longer distances is getting your eating strategy right. It’s not so much a case of what you like to eat, but what you can eat and (as far as possible) keep down.

Obviously this is not something you want to test out on the day of your race. And if you’re not used to eating whilst you exercise, then it may take you a while to figure out what your body does and doesn’t like. This isn’t just about stuffing your face; there is a science behind it. Although you typically burn around 400-600 calories an hour whilst running, your body can only actually absorb 240 to 280 calories. So if you scoff too much, your stomach may literally reject it.

Equally whilst gels and bars may get you through a marathon, you’re going to need some ‘real’ food to keep you going for eight hours on the trails. Find out what is going to be on offer at the feed stations on your ultramarathon event and test it out during your training sessions. See what your body likes and what it doesn’t. And as a last resort carry some ginger to chew on if you’re feeling nauseous. I haven’t tested it myself (yet), but ginger is well known for helping to steady a dodgy tum.

Three tips for ultramarathon success

If all else fails, remember these three things and you should have a pretty good chance of getting to the start line of an ultramarathon, and completing it:

  • Get a lot of hours under your feet
  • Don’t get injured
  • Work out what you can eat without puking (too much).

Whoever said this ultramarathon lark was hard?

If you have any tips for training and racing ultramarathons, please share them in the comments below. Honestly, I need all the help I can get!

How to start running, stick with it and enjoy it

Man and women jogging across a bridge

Running with a friend is great for motivation

Want to get fit but can’t afford a pricey monthly gym membership? Thought about running, but worried that you’re not cut out for it (and yes, we all get out of breath running for the bus)? If so, you’re not alone.

Let me dispel some common running myths:

  1. You don’t have to be super fit. I mean this is kind of the point – you run to get fit.
  2. You don’t need a fancy heart rate monitor/GPS watch/ iPhone tracking device. Really.
  3. Running is for super skinny people in tight lycra and skimpy vests. If that’s your thinking, then please watch this video.

Why run?

Running can be hard work. You will get out of breath, sweaty and yes, you’ll probably ache a bit afterwards. So why do it?

Well for a start, it’s free! No expensive gym memberships or fitness plans. It’s easy to fit into your life; you can run whenever, wherever you want. If you’re looking to shed a few pounds then it burns more calories per hour than most other sports. But the best benefit? It makes you feel great. Running gets all those happiness-inducing endorphins racing round your body, so chances are, if you head out on your run feeling grumpy and stressed, by the time you get back you’ll be feeling more positive and relaxed.

Raring to go, but not sure where to start? Here are some top tips to start running, stick with it and – most important of all – enjoy it.

Get kitted out

Running is one of the cheapest sports. The one essential item you shouldn’t skimp on is a decent pair of trainers. And yes, I know you can probably get them cheaper on the internet, but I would really recommend going into a specialist running shop for your first pair of trainers. They will look at your foot shape and gait (how you run) and will be able to recommend the right pair of trainers for you. Your joints will thank you for it.

Start slow

If you’ve never run before, please, please don’t set out determined to run for an hour the very first time you lace up your brand shiny-new trainers. It will not happen. You will get ten minutes in, feel like crap and slink off back to your sofa feeling depressed.

The best running motto on starting out is ‘keep it slow’. Which probably means that for your first few outings, you’ll do more walking than running.

A good way to start off is by doing intervals: jogging slowly for one minute, then walking for two to recover. Do ten sets of this and you have a thirty minute workout. If that’s too much for you, then cut the times down – run for thirty seconds and walk for a minute and a half. Remember, your goal at this stage is to build up the time you spend running, not to go as fast as possible. If you’re sprinting the running sections, slow down and jog for longer.

If this is the first exercise you’ve done since leaving school then don’t run every day. Treat your body gently and ease into it. Try to set aside time three days a week and then stick to it.

I’ll let you into a secret. The day after you’ve done your first run you will probably sit on the edge of your bed, (try and) stand up, and wince. The second day may be worse… It’s normal to feel some aching in your muscles after running (or any workout), particularly if you’re not used to it. That’s why stretching after you run is so important (check out this excellent guide to stretching for beginners). But if you start feeling real pain, then stop and go and talk to your doctor.

Set a running goal

The best way to make sure you stick with your new running regime is to book a race. Preferably one where you have to pay – there’s nothing like a bit of financial investment to keep up motivation! It could be a one mile fun-run in the local park or a 5km charity run (such as the popular Race for Life) – it doesn’t matter. The key is that you’ve committed to it.

Run with other people

Running is often seen as a solitary sport, but it doesn’t have to be. Running with a friend is a great way to keep motivation up. It comes back to that commitment thing – if you both agree to meet every Tuesday evening after work then it’s harder to slink off home because it’s too cold/dark/wet.

Running with other people can also be more enjoyable. The ideal running pace, particularly when you’re starting out is one where you can talk whilst you run. You can be catching up on the last gossip and before you know it, your run is over. Workout done.

Can’t persuade a friend to join in? Then find a running group. (No, not that group of runners in matching club vests you see bounding up the hills.) There are hundreds of formal and informal groups focused on helping and supporting beginner runners. Many of them are free and some even offer incentives, such as the Sweatshop Running Community.

Don’t give up

This is the hard part. Particularly when winter comes. However, the key to sticking with your running is actually quite simple:

  1. Persistence
  2. Routine

Schedule your running time into your diary and stick to it. If something comes up that’s really non-negotiable, then reschedule your session. Remember, running can be done anytime, anywhere. Everyone can make excuses. Don’t be one of those people.

Look back at all the progress you’ve made since that first hard and sweaty run. Remember how good you feel after those runs (and how good that cake tasted knowing you’ve deserved it). Then lace up those trainers and head out the door.