This past summer, ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter won a grand slam of 100-mile races – The Western States, the Hardrock 100, and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) – breaking course records in each, and finishing over three hours, cumulatively, ahead of her nearest competitors. No ultrarunner has been as dominant since the legendary Yiannis Kouros, who had no equal from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s.
"In general, I am pretty tired." - Courtney Dauwalter before her UTMB triumph.
If you have been a competitive distance runner, you have probably done double sessions, i.e. two runs in a day.
My biggest training week as a runner was at university when while preparing for cross-country season, I ran 190 kilometres in a single week. The last run of that week was almost 30 kilometres, and during the final 10 kilometres, my training partner Dan and I ran alone down an empty road through a forest. We were very, very fit, but we were also very, very tired, and with around five kilometres to go, running at a pace of around three minutes per kilometre, Dan threw back his head and screamed, "We're gonna f**kin' make it!"
We did make it, and I will never forget that week of mostly double sessions, and that long run at the end. A few weeks later, Dan quit the cross country team, and a few weeks after that, he made his marathon debut, running 2:18, I think, to place second in the Ocean State Marathon in Rhode Island, U.S.A.
There is some debate about the value of double sessions, but it's indisputable that to run far in races, you have to run far in training. I don't mean that to run a marathon, you have to complete training runs of 42.195 kilometres; I mean that in the months preceding your race, you need to strengthen your legs and heart, and build the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood. The only way to do this is by training, and to a great extent, the best way to do this is by running (versus cycling, swimming or other cross-training).
The thing is, running can be tiring. As we know!
If you’ve seen photos of yourself racing (e.g. from those race photo services that snap pix of every competitor, then try to sell you prints), you will have observed that your running form almost always looks better toward the beginning of a race. The reason for the deterioration in your form is tiredness. And it’s not only you – the elites suffer the same problem.
A few years ago, after Nike ran its Breaking2 project in which world record holder Eliud Kipchoge tried to break the 2-hour barrier for the marathon, the company released data showing that the main performance metrics – VO2 max, lactate threshold and running economy – did not differ significantly among the runners (Kipchoge and his pacers, who were all super-elite marathon runners themselves). There must be another factor, the researchers surmised, and they suggested fatigue resistance.
A subsequent study of elite cyclists in a five-day race called the Tour of the Alps reached a similar conclusion: fatigue resistance is what separates the elite from the merely very good. The cycling study compared the results of a team of elite under-23 riders with two teams of established pros, and you may not be surprised to hear that the pros had more of what it takes to be the best.
There are two aspects to fatigue resistance.
One is physical, and you acquire it through training. Train more (and sleep enough and eat properly), and you can build the muscle strength that allows you to run farther at speed. Nutrition is an important part of recovery, as is injury avoidance.
In-race nutrition is also important. Research has proven that running low on carbohydrates diminishes fatigue resistance, i.e. you get tired (and slower) faster, and elite endurance athletes – such as Kipchoge – consume exponentially more calories during races than amateurs, who almost always underfeed themselves. Amateurs (and many pros) are in general not well-educated about performance nutrition and think, “A gel an hour is good.” In fact, you should probably be consuming a minimum of three gels an hour. Will that upset your stomach? Almost certainly not. Try it in training and see if increasing your calorie intake affects your performance.
The second aspect of fatigue resistance is mental strength, with its links to motivation.
Some years ago I defeated my training partner in the first leg of a road race series, and afterwards, he said in a television interview, “The outcome will be different next time.” Well, that pissed me off, and I was determined that the outcome would not be different the next time.
The only problem was that the next race was scheduled for the morning after I was due to return from a trip to Brazil (a 40-hour journey). I knew I would be tired, but I was what they call “highly motivated”.
I got home from the airport at around midnight, slept like a corpse for six hours, and got up to teach my training partner a lesson, which I did. I absolutely crushed him in that race, and although I was fit, I attribute my victory almost entirely to desire.
[Bonus takeaway: don’t piss off your competitors unnecessarily!]
Returning to science, research has shown that in many cases, there is no physiological reason for performance declines in highly trained athletes (within reasonable parameters). The muscles are working fine, but the pace starts to lag.
The main theory explaining this is that our brains are designed to try to protect us from ourselves: it sets us to run at a pace it believes – or knows – will get us to the finish line. The factors governing the brain’s decision include the environment (how hot and/or humid is it?), how much training we have put in, and how motivated are we?
Here in Singapore, the big external factor affecting performance is heat, and we all know people who get “psyched out” by the heat. Visitors, certainly, but I know plenty of Singaporeans who complain about the heat.
In the running context, it seems to me that many of these people are giving up before they start. After all, the weather is the same for everyone. Sure, it’s impossible to run a marathon as fast in Singapore as it is in Berlin, but if you want a personal best, fly to Berlin. If you want to perform well against your peers locally, and give your best effort, all you have to do is put on your game face.
So what can you do to increase your fatigue resistance?
One, make sure you are well-trained for the event you’re targeting. That’s not complicated: you just have to put in the work, and be smart about recovery – basically, take care of your sleep and nutrition.
Two, get tough.
Set goals that are motivating, but achievable, then tell yourself you can achieve those goals, and in your mind, review (repeatedly) the steps you will be taking on the way to meeting (and surpassing!) them.
An important part of “getting tough” is being confident in your preparations.
I’ve run against world record holders, and been under no illusions that I had any chance of winning. My goal was to do my best.
[Full disclosure: I’ve always been pleased when I overtook a runner wearing a Kenya or Ethiopia vest. Sure, that guy was probably having the worst day of his running career, but still.]
All you can do is your best.