What exactly makes an ultra runner different?  How does one become an ultra runner?  These unique individuals defy the human body and push themselves to the very limit of anatomical imagination.


The Anatomy of an Ultra Runner

By Edmund Arellano

According to Urban Dictionary, an Ultra Runner is defined as an individual who runs longer than a marathon and eats like a horse.  Typically, an ultra runner will set their eyes on 30 miles or longer.  For reasons unknown, the ultra running community consist of mostly laid-back individuals, a psychological phenomenon that may be associated with a culture obsessed with achieving a certain level of adrenaline rush.  Here's a typical conversation you might find with an ultra runner:

Jen: "Hey Jim?"
Jim: "Yeah?" as he's scarfing down a foot-long sub.
Jen: "Why do you eat so much?"
Jim: (with a full mouth) "I'm always hungry."
Jen: "But you never gain weight."
Jim: "I'm an ultra runner."
Jen: "A what?"
Jim: "Uuultraaaaa Ruuunnnerrr."

 As most long distance runners know, food is important.  The amount of energy your body consumes while training for long distance runs is unfathomable.  So, what exactly happens to the body when you're training for an ultra?

The Body

When a person starts a new training program, their body will initially push back.  You'll wake up with aches, soreness, and some pain.  As they progress by adding more distance and include some cross-training, the body will start looking to burn more glucose - the immediate energy your body burns first and the most important simple sugar in human metabolism.  Once your body diminishes its glucose, it's time to replenish your electrolytes, usually with something sweet like Gatorade.

Neo UltraFoodThe further you go, the more energy your body burns.  This time, in the form of protein and carbohydrates.  Long-distance runners and other active enthusiasts (triathletes), literally burn protein during their activity.  It's not uncommon to find an ultra runner eating pizza (or some other form of high fat, high carb, and protein-enriched food source) in the middle of their 50 mile run.  If a runner fails to refuel their body with protein and carbs, it will start burning muscle, which is what we DON'T want!

How do you train for long-distance running?

A Few Principles

Hitting the road and trying to run 20 miles a day will destroy your body.  This is the first epic mistake most runners do.  There's a science behind running long.  As we mentioned above, it starts with your food.  Just as importantly however, are a few other principles you should follow.

VO2 max.

VO2 max is largely dictated by your stroke volume (the amount of blood your heart pumps with each contraction of its left ventricle) and cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped by your heart each minute). Long intervals provide the heaviest load on the cardiovascular system because of the repeated attainment of the heart's maximum stroke volume and cardiac output (and, by definition, your VO2 max).

You can improve your VO2 max by including some short-distance sprints in your training program.  For example:

  1. 3 x 1200 meters (or 4-5 minutes) with a 3-4 minute recovery.
  2. 4 x 1000 meters (or 3-4 minutes) with a 2-3 minute recovery.
  3. 6 x 800 meters (or 3 minutes) with a 2-3 minute recovery.

Lactate Threshold (LT).

According to WebMD, during intense exercise, there may not be enough oxygen available to complete the process, so a substance called lactate is made. Your body can convert this lactate to energy without using oxygen. But this lactate or lactic acid can build up in your bloodstream faster than you can burn it off.  The point when lactic acid starts to build up is called "Lactate Threshold".

As a runner you need to increase your LT to prolong the build up of acid in your muscles and keep up endurance.  You can increase your threshold by increasing the amount of exercise each week.  Segment runs are also great for increasing your threshold.  This means walking for short periods of time during your run.  Staying hydrated, eating a well-balanced diet, and paying attention to your oxygen levels are also great ways of increasing your LT.

Mental Preparation

You will have dark miles.  These are miles that seem incredibly difficult to complete.  It usually starts when your body is exhausted, tired, and fatigued but you know you're doing everything right.  You've got the protein and carbs down, enough water and electrolytes to finish the race, but something else is off.  You're mentally exhausted.

For many runners, this is the make-or-break moment.  It's that mental fortitude that we so often call on when the going gets tough.  When a runner meets these incredulous challenges, they're left with two choices - fight or flight.  Staying in the fight takes courage.  It's a step into the unknown that develops into confidence, and the further you go with this courage, the more confidence you'll build up.  Stay in the fight.

 What do you think?

Add your comments below and let us know how YOU train for an ultra.