How to run an elite endurance distance, 60+ miles.
I do not consider myself to be an elite endurance athlete in the fact that I enter competitions for places and achieving personal best times. I instead use my long endurance runs for more personal mental and physical resilience training when preparing for my long hard winter expeditions.
There is nothing like being out in the wilderness for days, pushing yourself hard and focusing for hour after hour on the task at hand. In the end, you get quite good at learning how to switch off, how to push “just a little bit further” and do those extra 20 miles on an empty tank and where your personal limits really are.
My single longest run to date without any sleep or proper respite is 176 miles in a 48-hour period. I have also run the whole North section of the UK’s South West Coast Path from Minehead to Lands End in just under 5 days, around 290 miles. On top of this, I have run many 60, 80 and 100-mile courses over the years.
Deciding you want to step up to the longer 60+ distances is a big undertaking and should be planned properly over a good period. If you get the first one completely wrong, you may not go back, the experience may be so soul-destroying that you give up before you have even given it a chance. You may be surprised to hear that this is quite common. It is a case of taking on too much too soon. This blog is written with the more junior runner with relatively little experience in the extreme distances. As I have said before, we are all different and the older more experienced runners will already know what works for them and what their coping mechanisms are.
The following are areas in which I get asked many questions and are the routines I go through to get me to the finish in a comfortable condition, I hope you find them useful.
This is especially important, you should have a reason to run these extraordinary distances and everybody’s reasons are different. I do it to fundraise for really important charities that I am passionate about, I do it because I love the freedom of being in remote places and pushing myself and I do it as mental and physical preparation for longer more enduring winter polar expeditions.
To not have a good reason makes the challenge more mentally demanding, it makes it easier to give up when the chips are down, as you have nothing to visualise. To have a great visionary impression of completing the run and the difference it can make will be a huge boost. Those who simply just turn up because they fancy it are often the first to fall by the wayside when it gets tough.
Communicate and Research
Talking helps, I am very often emailed or called to offer advice for people wanting to take on these longer-run challenges and it is fantastic. I know I am not a household name and have certainly never appeared in any running magazines but that does not mean I do not have years of experience doing this sort of thing behind the scenes and eventually, people hear about that, so they ask. I love to engage with people and chat about something I love as do most elite runners. Do not be afraid to drop an email or pick up a phone and discuss your thoughts with those already doing it. But remember, what snack works for one will not for another, what running shoe or hydration pack that he or she likes might not be the one for you. Trial and error in the early days is essential.
Set up a proper schedule and timeline to execute a well thought out plan. Get things in the calendar well in advance to avoid confliction with family and work. It is important that you discuss this new challenge in your life with family and work colleagues. You’re going to be much busier, putting in more miles, not being around as much etc. It is far easier with a timeline and structure that everybody can agree on. That way you get support not friction and your runs become more relaxed not rushed and stressed.
Clearly, if you are new to this game then a two-week window to knock out your first 60+ mile run is probably not the best idea. Understand what your current physical shape is and then focus on where it needs to be. Your timeline is the difference between getting from one to the other.
Once again this is fundamental and a big reason why many early adopters of endurance running drop out of the game. Overestimation of your own ability is common and is an area that you must focus on. I have seen people turn up to a 100km event and the furthest they have run before was a marathon. They think if they just slow down and take it at an easy pace they will be OK. It does not quite work out like that with these distances.
Build it up gradually, I do not run ridiculous amounts of miles all the time, but I do run regularly. I have one long run per week (normally on a quiet Sunday). You need to know what it feels like to run 30 miles and how long it takes to recover, then 40, then 50 and so on.
Get this right, you will get the race or whatever the event is, right. There are many good coaches, articles, stories, and a whole host of other material with easy access to help you build the right training platform for your needs. Find one that suits you and stick to it as best you can. Don’t be disheartened if you have a bad day or feel you are not getting anywhere, it happens to us all but with a bit of patience, you will slowly start to see and feel the changes.
You also need to ensure you understand the route description and the ground in which your race or run moves over. The topographical information is vital to help you build the right training into your plan. There are many 60+ mile races that are on flat courses with solid tracks and roads throughout or there are those with huge ascent and descent gains that are mostly off the beaten track. One course will require a completely different plan to the other.
Be very wary of those big descents, they are very often the cripplers as so many runners approach them wrong and you must train for them. In the early parts of long endurance runs the steep descents are a welcome break but towards the end, you can start to dread them and your knees start feeling like they are about to burst through the skin. Running fast downhill is an art form and to see it done well is very impressive, but it is more than just gravity, it takes years of practice. The pressure on your joints and muscles can be immense so those areas need to be built up and strengthened.
I pretty much train at a consistent pace that is comfortable to me over a long distance. You will not see me burst out of the blocks then gradually slow down later in the run. I run my first 10 miles while thinking about my last 10 miles. Except for very steep ascents and descents I have learnt to pretty much stick to a consistent pace throughout. A sign of a good steady pace for me is one where I can hold a conversation with someone without too much difficulty.
This can be the make or break of any long run and we are all different in how we approach it. The bottom line for everybody is the same though, you are burning huge amounts of fuel and it needs to be replaced. Taking on food and water must be consistent and at regular intervals. My plan always revolves around snacking on high energy food and drinks and taking in a proper high carb, slow-release energy meal every 4 hours or so.
Each of us will approach this differently but to perform you need to put the right food into the body. Put petrol in a diesel car it simply won’t work. Also, you should be aware that your nutritional need quite often changes as a long run progresses. What I like to eat after 10 miles will not be what I fancy after 70 miles.
I tend to use a little food pouch on my side or front on very long runs which is like a little grazing bag. I have used this method when crossing Antarctica Solo to one of my long tough charity runs. It consists of a small bag that consists of various nuts (Wall-nut, Brazil nut etc), pieces of chocolate, various sweets, lumps of cheese and chunks of pepperoni/chorizo. I just throw it all in together and it is like a lucky dip every time. I will then refresh the bag at each support station as I progress.
Not all runs will offer the chance to eat a proper cooked meal but if you’re supporting yourself then you can do what you like. I find it exceedingly difficult to get dry meals down me, so my food is always very moist. I love to make big tasty soups, pre-made in big food flasks. I then add big chunks of meat like chicken and loads of veg like broccoli etc. These are extremely easy to get down, tasty and full of all the goodness you need. Big pasta meals are great too but can dry out quite quickly so just ensure you use small pasta shapes and that there is lots of sauce to keep it moist, therefore easier to get down.
Be wary of high sugar energy drinks and gels. They are great for what they do and work great but too many of them can make them become very sickly. Use them well and at the right times but there is no substitute for good old simple hydration with a bit of normal still water. I have done the last third of many long runs where all I can drink is water with nothing added.
This is important to get right also. It is about getting so many things right in advance and understanding your own personal weak areas.
I have got to a point where I now hardly use tape at all and very rarely get a hot spot or blister regardless of the distance or terrain. There was, however, a time when I got it wrong in a big way. I have been through the whole mill of issues and have done damage to my feet that has rendered them unrecognisable. The simple fact is, there was no need for it whatsoever, I just never listened, researched, or paid much attention to it.
All our feet are different, and they simply react to and perform according to the life they have had. There are a few fundamentals that we all need to get right though. It begins with the footwear of choice. There is so much choice on offer these days that it can be so confusing. From extremely light road shoes to tough trail runners and everything in-between. If you are going to take this sport up for the long term, I highly recommend seeking professional advice and speaking to a running specialist. This I am not but it is a process I have been through and the difference was incredible. To get the right shoe you need to know the shape of your feet (wide, thin, long etc), what your gait is like and how you physically plant your foot. The type of terrain you prefer to run on. This can all be discovered in one 30-minute consultation and almost every major town will have a specialist that can be approached. If you cannot find one in your area then get onto one of the running forums and start a conversation, help will soon arrive.
Quite often on longer runs, especially if they are particularly wet you might want to change your footwear. This is quite personal to me, but I have found that if I changed to a different style of shoe then my muscles very quickly become fatigued and often injury would kick in. I would always recommend having your spare trainers as the same model and size as the one you start with.
Your feet will expand when warm, so if your trying a trainer on in the shop and it is quite snug then you may need to think about upsizing a little. There is no consistency with brands, do not expect to be the same size across each brand. I have used everything over the years from a 9.5 to a size 11 depending on the brand. It’s about getting them on your feet and the touch and feel. Once you find something that works, stick with it. I have used the same brand for over 5 years now and I can’t remember the last time I had foot trouble.
Socks are also important, there are so many good options now. The clue is generally in the price, you will not find the great offer of four pairs for £2 in your local discount store to be much use on your long runs. For me, cotton works best, and I always buy from credible running retailers. The sock should be a very snug fit. Supported and re-enforced around the heel and toes and quite often elasticated slightly across the top of the foot to pull it all together and hold in place. You may quite often see an L and R on the sock, yes, this is a left and right and it is not there to patronise you. If you keep switching socks to different feet, they start to lose shape which can be bad. You should always use the same sock on the same foot as this will give you much more longevity. On longer runs, I would look change my socks each time I have a longer proper meal break. This is not always practical but at the very least, have a sock change plan.
Prevention is better than cure so if you know you always get that blister or hot spot in the same place no matter what you do then tape them up but learn how to tape properly. There is plenty of tape options out there, try different types and see what works for you. Although there are some great marketing campaigns, they are just that. There is not actually any real scientific evidence that states which foot tapes are better than others so play around with them. When taping always ensure you clean the foot and dry it thoroughly before applying the tape. This will help it stick better and it will also work better if you apply it in a warm environment. Most runners will do it in a warm room the night before race day.
Common hot spot areas are balls of the feet under the toes and heel, the tops of toes, the back of the heel and the arches of the foot. Lots of people just cover their whole feet for the sake of it, I am not a fan if this and it quite often points to getting something else fundamentally wrong. Just tape where you need to, this will become clear as your running career progresses. It can be quite awkward to tape on your own and get into those toes etc so if you can get help or work with another runner. That said, you should practice doing it for yourself for that occasion when you might just be out there on your own.
You need to nip hot spots in the bud and deal with them early. It does not take long for a hot spot to become a blister, for it to burst and for real damage to be done. It is better to stop and sort it and then finish, over having to stop completely and waiting weeks before you can run again. I always carry a small foot care bag with me on long exposed runs even if I think I will not need it, that’s a personal choice.
Rest Stops and Support
These are important to get right and it is your opportunity to put any issues right, change any equipment and take onboard that all-important nutrition. Rest stops can be very short, whereby you literally will take on a quick snack, add water to a camelback and get moving again or can be a little longer whereby you are going for a sock change, a proper meal, good stretch etc. The important thing to get right is that they are planned well. On major well-organised race events, you will find exceptionally well-organised aid stations. Some are very impressive, and everything is laid out for your comfort. If you have a small support team and you are looking after yourself then you need to be equally as organised. There is nothing worse than running into a rest stop when you are wet, tired, hungry and the team are sat in the car with nothing prepared and not expecting you. Whether you are being supported by one person, two or a larger group the routine should be the same, it is about you the runner, not the team supporting, you can thank them later.
Good briefs and understanding are what is required and to have a plan, write it down as a set of instructions if needs be. Shortstops are easy, but it is the longer ones that you can get wrong. When I approach longer stop things just happen because they are briefed and understand my needs. Immediately I will be handed a warm jacket and warm hat, weather dependant, someone will take my pack or hydration vest and replenish it. My meal will be ready to eat, spare socks, trainers etc will be ready if I want to change. If I am recording or using devices that need charging then they will be checked, batteries changed etc. You might not need everything every time, but everything should be ready just in case. It should be like a well-oiled machine that knows what you want before you do. Before you leave discuss briefly as a reminder the next leg and what your most likely to want at the next stop, then get going. Never hang about longer than necessary, be disciplined, it will save loads of time over a long day and potentially help you climb many places up the ladder. Good admin and logistics are as vital as your ability to complete the run.
What to take and what not to take? It is always a big question for many endurance runners and for me, a lot of it depends on how exposed and for how long that will dictate my med-pack. The key essentials for me are foot care, Ibuprofen, Vaseline, sunblock (as required), toilet paper and I include my iPhone or any other communication device like a GPS tracker etc. as medical.
You also need to understand what the emergency procedures are for the area and country you are in. Again, for big organised events, it will be well covered but if you are like me and just run for days exposed and remote then I will have a plan. I will always have a good route description and brief with my support team. I will try to understand where possible if I am in exposed areas without a phone signal and what emergency service response is likely to be. Air ambulance, mountain rescue, coastguard etc. The first step and always the call to make if you are ever unsure is 999 or equivalent depending on the country.
Record and take notes
So many times I have looked back and forgotten or not recorded key information about my runs. These days I almost keep a diary which records as much as possible. I get as many pictures as possible, get people to interview me at rest stops, especially if tired and towards the end of races or runs. It is always fascinating to watch back later.
The main things I like to formally record are distance, terrain description, height ascent, weather conditions throughout, time on the run and generally how I felt throughout and my condition at the end. If I get something majorly wrong, then I will record that in case I come back to that event again at a later date.
Now get planning, do not be afraid, move forward with confidence, you can do it and you will do it. Adventure is for everybody, everybody has one in them, work out what your adventure is and go find it.