APEX November Blog – Factors of Success at Ultra-Marathon Distances

If you could categorize 4 primary determinants of success in the completion of a race longer than 42.2km how would it look? And how would you rank those items in order of importance?

Throughout my time working with distance runners I have consistently seen a theme following strong race performances–the runners that do well have usually prepared and executed in four key areas. These are four categories of preparation I employ with athletes that, when developed, enable the greatest chance of success on race day.

These Four Categories are:

Nutrition—Durability—Race Plan—Fitness

For a 100 mile ultramarathon (or any race of roughly 8-10+ hours), the order of importance is as listed.

*However, this order can potentially shift based on race distance*

Why these four categories?

Nutrition: FUEL YOUR ENGINE

Without a rock-solid nutrition plan that has been trained and tested, none of the other factors will ever have a chance to matter. Failure to meet nutritional needs during an ultra is the #1 polled reason nationwide that runners DNF or miss a cut-off time. Nutrition is the first thing that can make or break your day out on the trail. Knowing exactly how much and how often is an absolute necessity to competitive ultra performance. The reality is that the average ultrarunner does not consume enough during races.

How many calories do you burn per hour at your goal race pace? What percentage of that is drawn from limited glycogen stores?

I’ve heard the arguments by runners citing their minimal consumption (something like 1 gel per hour), that fueled them to a 100mile finish line. It is great if you are able to finish the race and it is possible to finish an ultra with minimal nutritional planning, but just think–how much better could you have run had you fueled your internal combustion engine to the fullest? Could that final 25 or 50 miles been hours faster? More enjoyable?

*SIDE NOTE* I once read that Jim Walmsley consumes around 120g of carbohydrates per hour during races. The average gel contains about 20g. I’ll let you do the gut-curdling math on that one. Think back to what you ate during your last ultra-race—how do you stack-up?

*2nd SIDE NOTE* APEX Coaching & Consulting offers in-lab fuel testing to identify your exact needs at every intensity experienced during your race.

Durability: BE STRONG

Durability is the potential of your body to withstand the physical stress of an ultra-distance run. If you want to assess your own durability, think back to your last race where you had good nutrition practices. How did your stride look 50% through the race? More importantly, how did it feel? Were you able to withstand the pounding and press on in good form and efficiency? Durability is all about maximizing an athletes ability to cover the distance while maintaining their running economy and preventing physical breakdown. Being resilient to fatigue. Better running economy at mile 70 out of 100 means that you will be using less energy to move at the same speed. Think of two runners—the 1st practiced good durability preparation in training and is moving at mile 80 at a pace of 9:00/mile. The 2nd was ill-prepared physically and is moving at mile 80 at a pace of 13:45/mile but using the same amount of energy as runner 1 because their mechanics have suffered so greatly. The benefits are obvious. Running economy is the cost of running at a given speed. Lower the cost and you will be able to maintain that speed for longer.

Durability is achieved through practice of good running mechanics, sufficient base mileage to build-up the running structures of the body, and a specific and progressive strength training program (www.ECFITboulder.com).

Race Plan: BE PREPARED

Having a good race plan means knowing, with intense detail, what you are about to do. It means knowing what intensity you can expect to run at, what HR you may experience, how to carry your fuel, how to fuel adequately, what environmental factors may come into play (heat, temp changes, light/dark, rain, mud), how to manage physical stresses (blisters, skin irritation, muscular pain, cramps), and how to prepare for unknown in-race barriers. The way I approach a Race Plan is to lay out a map of the course, obtain strava files, elevation profiles, aid station maps, race guides, and race reports. Then use this information to compartmentalize the race. Know exactly how far you will be between each aid, and create a mini race within each of these segments. Use the elevation change and time of day of that segment to estimate how long it will take you to complete and then plan for it accordingly.

If I know that a segment should take me 2 hours, and I need 500ml of H2O and 70grams of carbohydrates every hour, then I know exactly what I need to take with me on that segment, and exactly what should be consumed/empty when I arrive at that next aid station. If something has not yet been consumed when I get there, I know I am behind on nutrition and it is time to down it!

Likewise, consider environmental factors of each segment. If segment between miles 67-85 is probably going to be run at night, then plan for the temperature changes, grab a light, and estimate your pace to be slightly slower for time predictions.

Gear is the final piece of the Race Plan. Know your gear, know that it works, and make good decisions before you start the race so that you do not have to make hard decisions during the race.

Fitness: TRAIN SMART

Fitness is the final component of success, because if you do not have the above three categories secured, then fitness may not have a chance to fully express! Ultimately the goal is to be well-prepared to cover a race distance, and compete/win if that is your aim. That requires fitness. But even the most fit runner in the world can not “power through” inadequate nutrition, a weak body, and a poor race plan. Solidify those variables so that your fitness can shine on race day. As a coach, I take a full metabolic assessment of my athletes to paint a complete picture of who they are as a runner. Top speed, anaerobic capacity, functional threshold fitness, VO2max are important variables to every runner, regardless of distance. The fact is, we are a product of how we train. In the words of Matt Carpenter, “ultras don’t make runners slow, how they train for them does!”. Train with attention to your own strengths and weakness, be progressive, and respect that success in running requires years and years of dedicated training.

Good running is good running–whether that be 100 miles or 3.1 miles! Run well!


Joseph Cavarretta has been a member of the APEX coaching staff and sport science team since 2016. He has coached runners of all levels since 2012 and helped numerous athletes achieve personal success. Joseph performs exercise testing at the APEX coaching hub, movement and injury screening, stride analysis, and coaches several runners ranging from beginner to elite in distances from 5k to 100mile ultramarathons. Joseph regularly competes in trail and mountain-running events from 10k to 50miles and beyond. He currently holds a B.S. in Exercise Science, an M.S. in Exercise Physiology, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine.