Running an ultramarathon is actually pretty simple. Once you figure out your nutrition and hydration requirements, all you really need to do is run from one point to another while stopping as few times as possible.
Simple doesn’t mean easy. Anything can happen in the course of an ultramarathon. You could break a bone, get assailed by bears, go hypothermic and get lost, break a nail…
While the race itself can be quite trepidatious, sometimes what happens during the race is already determined by your actions before the race. So, today we’re going to examine a few ways you can sabotage your race before you even near the start line. Let’s talk about ten things you shouldn’t do before running an ultramarathon.
1. Eat Spicy Food
If you’ve ever eaten spicy food or pizza before going to bed, you’ll understand why this is the first thing on the list. Your stomach is a literal acid bath. But it can increase or decrease the amount of acid it produces in response to the kinds of foods you place in it.
Spicy foods do two things to your stomach, they irritate the lining and cause overproduction of stomach acid. If you’re running an ultra, neither of these effects are good news.
Getting just enough fuel to your muscles and body to keep you running and hiking for hours on end is one constant goal in ultrarunning. One of the most common things that throw runners out of the game is stomach upset which keeps them from eating and drinking.
If your stomach is already irritated and overproducing acid, it’s not going to handle the extreme exertion of running long miles. So, try to only eat bland food before your race, especially the night before. I often eat gnocchi with cream sauce or some sort of pasta dish.
2. Sit “Indian Style”
Camping is a big part of ultrarunning for some. And it does save on cost, especially since races are getting more expensive all the time. But camping can put you in some pretty cramped situations.
Your muscles are designed to tell you when they’re being overstretched. They’re full of long nerves that stretch when you stretch.
They also react by telling your muscles to contract (a protective action). And when you sit cross-legged, you’re stretching and contorting the muscles in your knees and hips in an unnatural way. This position is counter to how you’ve been training your body to move for months.
As soon as you stand up from sitting cross-legged for too long, your muscles are going to cramp and become stiff. And unless you plan on walking the first few miles of your race, you’re going to be more prone to injury if you’ve been sitting cross-legged all morning.
Instead of sitting cross-legged in your tent, stretch your legs out in front of you or sit in a deep squat.
3. Eat Beans
Beans, beans, the magical fruit… unless you’re about to run an ultra.
Beans are great. They are an awesome source of fiber. They help keep your gut healthy through your flora. And they have a small amount of protein.
But don’t eat them the day before your ultra. Actually don’t eat much fiber at all. Unless you like the idea of defecating in your shorts (nobody wants to see that…).
Instead, eat more carbs.
4. Static Stretching
Studies show that static stretching before warming up actually decreases race performance. Why? Because your body is reacting to stress when you stretch.
Your body doesn’t want you to tear it up. Hence, your muscles will react when you “overstretch” them. When they’re cold, this overstretch limit is pretty low.
It’s actually better to stretch after or in the middle of a run to help your body recover. Instead of stretching before a race, try doing some easy warmup moves (squats, high-knees, etc.). This is called dynamic “stretching.” It’s like lubrication giving you a greater range of motion.
5. Forget to Drink Water
Your daily hydration status depends on how much you drink the day before. It takes time for your body to absorb water and hydrate itself.
If you wake up dehydrated the morning before a race, you’re already at a deficit. I personally experienced this during Elkhorn Crest 50 mile, and it wasn’t good news for my body. On top of starting out at a deficit, I didn’t have my hydration dialed-in and by mile 40, I was overheating and hardly able to eat.
You want to drink at least 64 ounces the day before your race. Yes, you can overhydrate, but for most people, that’s hard to do on a normal day. Euhydration or overhydration is more common during a race when people drink more water and eliminate too many electrolytes.
You can check your hydration status the day before the race by checking the color of your urine. If it’s a light wheat color or even clear, you’re golden. If it’s dark yellow, you need to hydrate. If it’s red, go to the E.R. If it’s neon green, you might turn into a supervillain tomorrow and skip the race in favor of blowing up the moon or something.
Unless the race in your backyard, you’re going to travel to get to the starting line. Often this means sitting in one position for hours on end.
If this is you the day before an ultramarathon, you’re definitely going to need a shakeout run. When you sit for long hours, your muscles get stiff. You cut off some circulation and your muscles don’t get enough oxygen.
You need to restore full function to your muscles before your body can handle the stress of running for hours on end. Do a short thirty-minute jog when you get to where you’re staying for the night. Nobody’s going to judge you for disappearing into the night for a bit. Just get out there and give your legs the gift of oxygen.
7. Avoid the Toilet
It’s 8 AM. You’ve been running for two hours and suddenly it hits you. A bowel movement. It’s becoming increasingly hard to hold it in. Your gait changes from a normal stride to a goofy waddle. The trail bends and you stumble into the woods. It’s early in the race, you argue and head off-trail to let it all go.
This is probably the best case scenario. If you don’t figure out a way to make yourself “go” before the race, you could put yourself in another dangerous situation. Constipation.
Your guts don’t function as well when you’re running an ultra. In fact, you’re likely to experience some gut breakdown when you run an ultramarathon resulting in small amounts of sepsis (blood poisoning). If you don’t keep your bowels moving before an event, you’re likely to end up with severe constipation during an event because your gut isn’t working as well.
Add on top of this dehydration and you’re in an even worse situation. It might seem weird, but keep track of your bowel movements to be sure you have a healthy gut going into the race.
8. Drink Hard Liquor
Beer is essentially liquid bread. Unless you’re drinking a ton of beer or some brew with a high alcohol concentration, you’re pretty safe drinking a beer or two the night before a race. But hard liquor is a different story.
While you might think all the sugar in hard liquor will be great for your muscles the next day, the glycogen benefit won’t outweigh the dehydration effect. One shot of something might not do much, but who drinks just one shot when celebrating?
9. Eat Too Much Dairy
Dairy takes a lot of time to digest because it’s so full of fat. If you eat too much dairy before a race, you’re probably going to feel sick when your body doesn’t know whether it should send blood to the stomach or the now-working muscles.
10. Buy New Shoes
You get a blowout during your last workout before your race. What are you going to do now?
You quickly go online to order a new pair of the same shoes and get distracted by all the awesome new shoes that came out in the last few months. You instead pick a new brand and hit the order button.
You get your shoes just in time for the race and lace up. You head out at the start and quickly realize your new shoes are blister city. You’re out of the race before you know it.
While you can buy a new pair of your go-to kickers, you should make sure you’re buying them early enough to break them in. Your old shoes conformed to your feet during training. You need to give your feet and your shoes a bit of time to meet.
If you have to buy a new pair of shoes, run in them on the treadmill for 20 minutes to make sure they fit right and then take them on a three-mile run. Then wear them everywhere.
You’ll be grateful at mile 20 when your feet are mostly blister-free and your legs are still in working order.
Take Care of Your Body
There are a ton of things you probably want to avoid before running an ultra. Many of those things are quite personal.
But if you don’t want to sabotage your effort, be sure to take care of your body before the race. It will respond better and you’ll be happier when you cross that finish line.
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