Running 50 miles is tough. Managing the logistics can feel even harder.
Here’s a well-known “secret” of ultrarunning: never do anything in a race that you haven’t tried in training. Logging mega miles each week may prepare you physically, but it’s equally important to practice your fueling strategies, foot care techniques, and other race day prep before the big day.
We sat down with a few of our favorite ultrarunners and coaches and asked them to spill the tea on their sagest words of wisdom you can implement during your training. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-timer or defending champion–these athletes know their stuff. While their advice won’t make 50 miles hurt any less, we’re betting it will take the edge off any mid-race logistical meltdowns.
Good news: it’s possible to walk away from your race without a single blister. Foot carnage doesn’t have to be the norm for ultrarunners–as long as you baby those tootsies.
According to Heather Hart, UESCA certified ultrarunning coach and owner of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, staying ahead of foot problems is the key. She recommends that her athletes check in with their feet every 15-20 miles to prevent issues before they arise. “Many people feel like this is a waste of time but it actually saves time when compared to slow downs from hot spots, blisters, and worse,” she says.
Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running, agrees. During 50 milers, Volker slathers her feet in Squirrel’s Nut Butter (an anti-chafe salve) at every aid station. Additionally, she changes into fresh, dry socks at alternating stations, ensuring her feet stay dry and protected. “I’ve literally never had a blister!” Volker laughs. But, if you’re one of the unlucky runners who has especially damp feet thanks to water crossings or plain ol’ sweat, Hart still has a magical cure: hand sanitizer. Simply apply an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to your feet every time you change your socks, and let it sit for about a minute. The sanitizer pulls excess water from your skin, making it easier for feet to stay dry and comfortable for longer periods of time.
Dry feet + no blisters = happy runner. We like that math.
Most ultras allow runners to use “drop bags,” pre-organized bags that runners can leave at designated aid stations throughout the race. Runners get to decide what goes in their own bag–which is part of the fun, according to Adam Chase. “It’s a puzzle to figure out what you’re going to need and when based on the weather and terrain,” says the president of the American Trail Running Association and inductee to the Colorado Running Hall of Fame. Above all else, Chase recommends that athletes keep it simple. “Your brain is going to be fried and your eyesight may be faltering, so less is more,” he says. “Just pack the essentials and avoid a lot of extra.”
Bottom line: your mental faculties will be on vacation, so streamline your drop bags as much as possible to make them fool-proof. Chase recommends choosing a bright-color bag that stands out in the sea of black luggage. Volker does one better by suggesting runners pack each item in a clear Ziploc bag with a label on the front: shorts go in a bag labeled “shorts,” making it easier for volunteers or bleary-eyed athletes to identify. And if all else fails, write yourself an outline on an Index card: “Leave yourself a note inside each drop bag, highlighting the things you need to do and grab,” says Hart. “That way, when you aren’t thinking clearly, you won’t forget something integral.”
Also known as the Oasis in the Woods, an aid station is as close as it gets to comfort during a race. Packed full of helpful volunteers, delicious beverages, and sumptuous snacks, it can often feel impossible to leave this nirvana behind in favor of trail time. But still, getting in and out of aid stations is essential to making it to the finish line. “The most important thing is to keep moving,” says Hillary Allen, a GO Sleeves and Brooks Running athlete. “Keep walking as you eat so you don’t stop too long. Or, if you really need a reboot, set a timer to make sure you don’t stay too long.”
Hart recommends mentally preparing a plan when you see that optimistic sign that proclaims, “Half mile to the AS!” Begin making a basic checklist that literally outlines what you need to do once you arrive: Check in with a volunteer. Refill water. Change socks. Toss trash. Grab food. Go. Say it on repeat as often as needed and if it’s helpful, say the words out loud. This will help you move with purpose.
Fairly confident your mushy brain won’t remember a thing? That’s why we have ink. Write your plan on a notecard or, if all else fails, on your hand. We promise– you won’t lose it.
We asked Allen, GO Sleeves athlete Josiah Middaugh, and Dynafit athlete and certified sports nutritionist Alex Hasenohr and they all said the same thing: Practice makes perfect. Practice your fueling during every training run so your body knows what to expect during the big day. And, don’t forget: That includes your pre-race breakfast, too.
But how do you formulate a plan? Hasenohr recommends 250-350 calories per hour, the bulk of which come from carbohydrate sources like gels, chews, or sports drinks. Middaugh follows a similar schedule (he advocates for 200-300 calories per hour), but also specifies 500mg of sodium and 20 ounces of fluid hourly. If you can, Middaugh also recommends avoiding foods packed with protein, fat, or fiber– no matter how delicious they look. “They can grind digestion to a halt and cause gastrointestinal distress,” Middaugh explains.
There are (literally) hundreds of fueling combinations to get you there, so find one that pleases your body and stick with it. Bottom line: If you don’t like the food at home, you probably won’t enjoy it on the trail, so choose foods that make you happy. And, don’t forget to plan your celebratory meal post-race. “It’s important to get protein and carbohydrates to kickstart the recovery process,” Hasenohr recommends.
Pizza party for one, coming right up.