Alternative Training Techniques

By: Kevin Sayers and Tom Midlam


For the past several months, fellow ultra runner Tom Midlam and I have learned with eager enthusiasm the various training techniques being employed and promulgated by fellow ultra runners. Wanting to contribute, we have developed our own training methods and have set forth in documenting them. We have no statistics on how they might actually improve your overall ability. Then again, statistics can always be interpreted differently and we wish to avoid controversy. Remember, what works for us may not work for you, so it's a good idea to make up your own mind. For your convenience, our training secrets are broken up into the following categories.

Get a job at the local meat packer. Show up two hours early for your shift in only shorts and singlet. Enter the freezer and run laps among the sides of beef. We tried working at a brewery carrying beer kegs on our backs and running up and down the stairs. Sadly we found ourselves drinking more than running. Since protein is a more important food source in ultras, the meat packing job is better suited to our needs than the brewery.

Get a job at the local steel mill. Show up two hours early and fire up the furnace. Run alongside it until your skin becomes red and irritated. Let blisters form and turn to tough scar-tissue for protection against the blazing sun during an ultra. Try to avoid using electrolyte replacement. Replenishment will only help aid in your effort and the purpose of training is to make you hard and tough, not to wimp out with fluid and salt replacement. On the other hand, using an over-abundance of replacements will also train your body to become a chemical synthesizing machine so when you do things differently on race day than you did in training, you can handle it.

After much trial and error, we have found that jumping out of trees really helps to toughen up those weak tendons and ligaments in the ankles and knees that runners so often neglect. To do this correctly, find a sturdy tree, then climb to approximately 20 feet and jump out. Most people will want to stick their landing with both feet. Those that require additional canyon falling training can incorporate a parachute roll upon impact by tucking the arms in and rolling off to one side. Seek out sharp rocks to roll over in order to get used to that. However, sticking the landing with locked knees is best as it also readies the spine for severe jarring encountered on trail ultras. With a little practice, you'll find taller trees and even jump out blindfolded. Now the most technical course will be a piece of cake for you.

No rain lately? No access to trails? No problem! Filling a bathtub with cooked oatmeal will simulate the sticky and slick characteristics of mud, depending on the how long you leave the oatmeal on the stove. Old fashioned oats have proven to be the most mud-like when mixed with extra water. Instant, flavored oats can be used in a pinch. Fill the tub up all the way, then run in place while singing, ...I gotta be me... Cream of wheat simulates quicksand common to many ultras in the south. Think of the advantage you'll gain over the competition unfamiliar with the extremes of quicksand.

Running at night can be monotonous and tricky. A head lamp is mesmerizing if the user is not accustomed to it. By putting your headlamp on, then stepping into a closet and staring at a wall for 4-5 hours, you are simulating the 3 AM death march in most 100 milers. If a hand held flashlight is your light source of choice, then run in place holding the flashlight at waist level focused on the wall and you will quickly see that, basically, you're out there on that trail, or at least your mind will tell you that.

Adding to the oatmeal/bathtub idea, a slight variation is to turn on the shower, thus simulating stormy conditions. Also, go to Home Depot and pick up an industrial-strength fan to create a 50 mph wind. Using cold or hot water will help approximate either winter or summer showers (tip to the tuff: do not wear Goretex). We have taken to using cold water and ice cubes, running in shorts without shoes, to make us extra tuff for our Barkley or Hardrock encounters. Boiling water and loin cloth help with Badwater conditions. Sometimes we break coke bottles and stir the shards of glass in with the oatmeal. Your ultra-prepared feet will thank you during the next race. Blisters will be just a happy memory from now on.

Practice eating small amounts of tree bark to aid digestion. Also, eat poison ivy leaves whenever possible. This will acclimate your entire digestive system to what you will encounter in the woods of many ultras. Don't get hung up on which glucose polymer BCAA carbohydrate protein electrolyte fructose drink gel mix to use. We recommend Car-boom gel, Fig Newton's, and a double-dosage of Ex-lax during your walking breaks. As ultrarunners do best on an empty stomach, the sudden infusion of apple, carbohydrate and laxative will speed the digestive and intestinal process. You will never throw up during an ultra again, and you'll know how to react when hit with gastro- intestinal distress.

On your next trail run, steal and kill a baby cougar (please no animal rights activist comments - this is ultra training and nothing is as important). Strap the little guy to your back and soon you will experience the exhilarating feeling of being stalked. Luckily, you'll be prepared! This is the point at which either fartleks, pickups or intervals can be used to deter a deadly confrontation. Wearing a mask backwards is also an excellent idea. But don't get a mask that shows an animal that's superior to the cougar; that's not training! Get one with a picture of a timid-looking gazelle or bunny rabbit. Then get ready to bolt. Bonus tip: If you're lucky enough to have a vulture swoop down to grab the kitten off your back, grab the bird and bite its head off. Honing these skills harkens back to the days of the truly tuff distance runners and will help establish your legacy on multi-day runs.

Nothing is more worrisome to an ultra runner than a babbling brook. But take heart, flowing water can be your friend. Before you take to the trails, visit your local scuba shop. Purchase a wet suit, flippers, goggles, and a bathing cap. In your next ultra, think how envious your competitors will be when you whip out your water gear at the appropriate moment. If packed correctly this will all fit in a survival pack.

Toss a few rocks in your running shoes. Run several hours, then place thumb tacks into your shins to experience the soreness of shin splints. If that's too difficult for you, have a buddy or spouse insert them. If you've got a really tuff ultra in the near future, you must plan and train for any contingency. This isn't for everyone, but you can cut off part of any toe (big toe not an option due to balancing requirements). Do not apply any pressure or attempt to stop the bleeding. Relish the experience of low blood volume and know that no other competitor will be as ready as you.

Unless you actually live at altitude in the Rocky Mountain area, everyone has the potential for having problems at altitude. We tried sealing up our houses and decreasing the oxygen content by pumping out oxygen. This greatly upset our wives after imploding all the windows. As a compromise, we've taken to climbing tall book cabinets and perching there for long periods of time. This has nothing to do with altitude acclimation but it sounds really X-treme.

Well that's all the secrets that we are willing to discuss at this point. We are in the midst of developing a number of others but are not prepared to share them until they are tried and proven and can be supported with some irrefutable anecdotal statistics.

The preceding is not meant to harm or flame any specific or general individual(s).