Whether it’s a short high school cross-country race, or a serious 100 miler you can always count on the ‘fast-starters’ being present.  Oh yes, these are those that wake up on race morning, feeling like a pro – their purpose for race, to land a prime photograph in the running mag, or capture that perfect Facebook snap to share with the world. But hey, we’ve all got caught up in race-day commotion – and bolted out of the starting line, only to realize 3 miles in, that, that wasn’t a great idea.   If your after a PR, a solid finish, or just simply finishing, be very wary of an over-zealous fast-start in your next ultra.  Here’s why, and what you can do about it.

 

The thing about ultras, is that whether you’re a professional world class athlete or a first time 50miler,  80-90% of your race will be run at an aerobic pace.  This means at a pace, where oxygen inputs are sufficient, to burn fat for fuel, and importantly lactic acid is NOT accumulating in your muscle cells.  Lactic acid is that culprit substance behind the muscle burn and fatigue, athletes so often feel with increasing exertion levels – whether from speed, or rapid elevation rises.  Typcally, only 10-20% of an ultra is run anaerobically (rapid ascents, fast-finish, or over zealous race starts), where  glycogen/sugars are used for fuel, oxygen is insufficient,  and lactic acid is accumulating in muscle cells – giving you the paralyzing burn feeling in your legs.

So what’s a fast start?

Clearly ‘fast’ is a relative term – and is different athlete to athlete – but it also changes during a race season as fitness changes.  Additionally speed is obviously effected by trail terrain (elevation, ascent/decent changes, technical terrain) and also the weather (heat, humidity etc.)  Now we will get into some great ideas soon, on how to plan your race pace/speed to start your race, but firstly, I wanted to share why this is so important – based on a recent study that quantified the impact of some momentary ‘anaerobic-tempo’ (think an over-zealous race fast-start)  on your subsequent running-performance (think rest of race). 

shutterstock_341477000    A Norwegian Sports Medicine team, recently studied the impact of ‘lactate’ (lactic acid) produced by World class endurance athletes, on their running performance.  Now we know that lactate at high levels negatively effects the ability of muscles to contract, resulting in reduced range/strength of movement.  But what is the impact of a moderate level of lactate on running efficiency?   By a ‘moderate’,  think the amount produced from your 5 minute ‘fast start’ at the beginning of your ultra.  Well for these 7 world class athletes tested, just 5 minutes running at a speed, above their lactate threshold (more on this later), caused a significant deterioration of their running economy (speed) when they reverted back to run at their aerobic level (under lactate threshold) speeds.  So the key point here, is that even a moderate accumulation of lactic acid (even for world class athletes) will have a residual negative effect on your running speed, for the remainder of your race.

So – What to do about ‘Ultra Fast-Starts’.

First, lets get grounded on a few techie-terms.  Ok, so lactate threshold (sometimes referred to as Lactic Inflection Point) is that point when the production of lactate in muscles, begins to dramatically/exponentially increase. It’s not just that the rate of production increases, but its also when the bodies process for lactate removal cant keep up with the production – and hence the accumulation.  So when you are exercising at a level of effort under the ‘threshold’ – the processes for removal of lactate are higher than the rate of production, hence no accumulation.  By the way, even at rest there is a small amount of lactate being produced, but the body can easily deal with this and hence you don’t feel any effect.  Generally it is considered that we are exercising ‘aerobically’ (with oxygen) when our heart rate reaches 65% of our maximum heart rate (decent article on how to work out your maximum heart rate, here). As the heart rate increases (with increased exertion) to 75-80% (of maximum) we move into an anaerobic (without oxygen) state, where glucose is mostly burnt for fuel, and lactate accumulates faster than it can be removed.  So if you haven’t done so already, you should invest in a heart rate monitor, and get really grounded on your aerobic/anaerobic thresholds – so you know what pace/heart rate you can handle hovering just under and just over these thresholds. You should grow accustomed to how your body feels (breathing rate, depth of breath, muscle burn) as you cross over the threshold. You should also come to understand, how quickly elevation and ascent (and decent) can rapidly push you over/under your thresholds.

Top 5 Tips, on how to handle Ultra Fast-Starts

I’ll keep this simple,  by grouping these into two focus areas,

a) Training Ideas: How to increase your tempo/intensity, while remaining in an Aerobic state.

b)  Race-Preparation Ideas: How to be ‘ultra-prepared’ on executing a perfect ‘start’ to your next Ultra.

download  Tip #1: Training at an Aerobic Pace.  Fundamental to endurance athletic training, is tuning the efficiency of the bodies physiology to exercise at higher intensities, while staying within aerobic heart rate levels. There are many books on the subject, I think the best on the subject is this one, from world leading endurance coach Dr Phil Maffetone).  One common theme noted by many endurance coaches, is that many endurance athletes continue to train ‘to fast and to short’, rather than slower and longer.  Long-slow-distance training are THE MOST CRITICAL TRAINING SESSIONS to condition the body’s physiology to handle increased speed, tempo,  and workload, within your aerobic heart rate range (burning mostly fat / manageable lactate levels).

  Tip #2: Training Fat Oxidation for fuel.  In the same way we can train our body physiology to exercise at higher intensities in aerobic states, we can also train our body to better use ‘fat for fuel’ (checkout the FREE Quick Start Guide on the subject of Fat fuel switching).  Over the last 30 years, the ‘sports sugar drink/gel’ era has created a rise in ‘carb-dependent’ athletes.  The high-level benefits of being a ‘fat-adapted athlete’, is that you can burn fat (rather than glucose/glycogen) at higher intensities vs. the carb dependent athlete.  So, by training your aerobic and your fat-oxidation physiology, what may seem like a ‘managed start’ to you, may be a ‘fast-start’ (Anaerobic / lactate producing) for the ‘carb-dependent’ athlete running beside you.  The fat-adapted athlete has an ability to ‘spare glucose/glycogen (in the muscle and liver) giving a serious advantage in keeping this glycogen store available for use when needed (flexible fuel switching).  This flexibility, gives the fat-adapted athlete, some insurance against bonking and hitting the wall, since they can switch between fat and glucose for fuel.  There is another whole benefit (lowered inflammation, better recovery) of not consuming, being dependent on simple sugar fuels (vs. fat, and fat burning) – you can learn more about that, in this free Quick Start Guide also.

elevationTip #3: Race Prep – Study the Race start terrain/elevation changes:  Some races by design, throw competitors straight right into anaerobic states. Being aware of the first 3 miles of the ultra will be helpful – so study the course. Is it flat?  Does it contain rapid ascents ? What will the weather be like?  Knowing this, and adding some training sessions that mimic the race start (in terms of terrain, elevation, weather), will help you.  Using your heart rate monitor data,  learn what pace you can handle in similar race conditions, while staying in an aerobic range. Again like the study showed us, throwing ourselves above lactate thresholds early on in an ultra, will have residual negative effects for the rest of the race.  So get smart, on what you can handle in terms of intensity, and race start terrain/conditions.  You should do this 4-5 weeks prior to your race, so your insight is based on your current health and fitness.

 Tip #4: Race-Prep – Starting Athletes vs. Race-start Space:  You also want to study the ‘space available’ at the start, and trail structure for the first 3 miles of the race.  Highly congested race starts, fuel over zealous competitiveness as competing athletes hustle for position. Ego can easily get the better of us in this atmosphere – and our best-plan is laid to rest. To be honest, your placing-position at this stage of an ultra is not overly relevant.  Maybe for half-marathons and shorter races, you need to be more concerned about your position, early in the race.  But for 50km races and longer, its hardly an issue.  Very few ultra races are single-track (difficult to support passing) the entire race distance, bur typically provide ample room to pass, and peg back positions as you move through the race.   So being aware of the likelihood of congested over-zealous race-starts will pre-warn you, not to get to caught up in the rush.  Some races have Facebook/Twitter pages, where you can post questions there on ‘whats the race start like? …congested, fast or spacious?’.  You can also engage with the facebook follower base, and shoot them questions to get you smart on the race start. So, get educated, then position yourself at the race start, so  you can run your own race, and stick to your race-start plan.

racestart Tip #4: Race-Prep – Starting Athletes vs. Race-start Space: You also want to study the ‘space available’ at the start, and trail structure for the first 3 miles of the race. Highly congested race starts, fuel over zealous competitiveness as competing athletes hustle for position. Ego can easily get the better of us in this atmosphere – and our best-plan is laid to rest. To be honest, your placing-position at this stage of an ultra is not overly relevant. Maybe for half-marathons and shorter races, you need to be more concerned about your position, early in the race. But for 50km races and longer, its hardly an issue. Very few ultra races are single-track (difficult to support passing) the entire race distance, bur typically provide ample room to pass, and peg back positions as you move through the race. So being aware of the likelihood of congested over-zealous race-starts will pre-warn you, not to get to caught up in the rush. Some races have Facebook/Twitter pages, where you can post questions there on ‘whats the race start like? …congested, fast or spacious?’. You can also engage with the facebook follower base, and shoot them questions to get you smart on the race start. So, get educated, then position yourself at the race start, so you can run your own race, and stick to your race-start plan.

times Tip #5: Race-Prep – Study Prior Year Race Results:  A lot can be learnt about the race-start, by studying the prior years times of a race.  Now granted, race courses change, as do the weather-conditions year to year – but generally there is more similarity than change.  Now here are a few analyses you want to do.  If this isn’t your first ultra or marathon, look back at your prior races and workout where you generally finish – top 10%, top 20-30%, in top 50%.  Use this as a guide, to look at the past results of your upcoming race – to gain a sense on the time range you may finish.  Now look at the athletes (5 in front of you, 5 behind you), and study their ‘time to Checkpoint/Aid-station 1’ – try to average these, and workout (if the results page doesn’t show it automatically) what the miles/per hour average for this group of athletes. You should internalize this speed-tempo, and compare it to your aerobic/sub-lactate threshold pace (I highlighted how to work this out above).  Doing this early (after you register for the race) will help you tune your training, to be more than prepared for the expected race start pace.

…at the end of the day

Of course if you are one of those gifted few, that could actually win the race … then, you’ll probably hang all the theory, and just go for it!

As for the rest of us, I hope these Tips will help you better plan your race start, at your next Ultra.  If you have some other ideas on ‘Fast-Starts’ please feel free to share – we’d love to hear about them.

All the best in training and racing. Go Longer.