When it comes time to step up to their first ultra, many runners automatically assume that they need to start running crazy-long distances, in extremes of heat, while fasting and restricting fluid intake. That's one approach I guess, but I'd suggest not a very good one. More important than anything is progressively overloading the body to adapt to the rigours of running long distances, and in no case is this more important than in the feet and legs.
There are lots of pieces that have to fit together in order to form a functional #ultrabody. But perhaps the most obvious is the combination of your feet and legs - the act of running kind-of requires them (obviously this generalisation excludes para-athletes who do amazing things - including running - without full use or indeed presence of these limbs).
Your feet, and then slightly further up the chain your legs, are your point of contact with the ground, and they'll touch the ground somewhere around 170 steps per minute when running - that adds up to more than 10,000 steps per hour, which, for a first-timer attempting a 50km ultra may be 10hrs plus, which then adds up to over 100,000 steps! Check my maths, but regardless you get my point - it's a big job that the feet and legs have to do.
It would be madness to attempt to jump straight in and run long training runs of 3, 4, 5+ hours without first giving the body some preparation - you can't expect the body to suddenly take 50,000 steps in a training session when it's only used to doing a mixed 10,000 steps over the course of a day when walking from your desk to the coffee machine. Madness I tell 'ya.
So how do we prepare the feet and legs for such a poundin'?
You want to expose your feet and legs to running stress, which forces positive adaptations (think bigger and stronger muscles and better functioning joints), and then rest sufficiently to allow these changes to take place. Picture this analogy:
I'm building a 30 storey building - do I just keep building level after level, and hope like heck the wet and still-drying concrete is able to hold, or do I build a level, let the concrete harden and gain strength, then continue on to the next level, repeating the build a bit, wait a bit process? As a structural engineer (you didn't all know that about me, did 'ya!), I can tell you the build a bit, wait a bit approach is much wiser. Much.
Your body, or specifically your feet and legs for this post, is the 30 storey building, and you are the builder, slowly building a layer of running fitness, allowing it to adapt ("set"), then building some more, each time developing further until you reach your goal height (or race in running terms). You see what we're doing here?
The key is moderation.
If you too quickly try and run big mileage, the muscles, tendons, joints and bone structures in your lower limbs simply aren't ready to withstand the load, and you will break down.
If you too quickly try and cram in large vertical gain into your runs (i.e. lots of uphill running), the muscles, tendons, joints and bone structures in your lower limbs simply aren't ready to withstand the load, and you will break down.
If you too quickly try and do speed work in the hope of becoming super fast overnight, the muscles, tendons, joints and bone structures in your lower limbs simply aren't ready to withstand the load, and you will break down.
See the point I'm making here?
Your feet and legs can withstand running crazy long distances, but the key is in slowly allowing them to do so, and you do this by progressively exposing them to more work.
The last thing with feet and legs is to make sure you're nice to them when you aren't running. By this I mean:
- making sure you aren't sitting all day at work (get up and walk around as much as possible),
- do some easy mobility exercises (watch this space or my Facebook on Wednesday),
- keep a tennis ball with you at all times and constantly roll your feet around on it,
- if you're watching TV at night, find some simple stretches that you can do while your laying there,
- get a foam roller (and actually use it) to work out niggles in the quads, hips, hamstrings and calves.
- the list goes on...
And that's the feet and legs. By slowly increasing the time and intensity of your running, you allow your lower limbs to prepare themselves for running a long way, and you minimise the risk of nasty stuff like stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, ITB pain, etc becoming a hindrance to your running.