Injury Free and Fit as Hell: 7 Steps to Enjoying Your Ultra Beast.
1. Walking and Stairs: Let’s face it, when it comes to survival of the fittest or crossing an Ultra Beast finish line, being prepared with lots of time on your feet is probably the most important thing.
2. Climbing: Most cramps have nothing to do with electrolytes. Cramps have to do with lack of preparation for the task at hand and overuse of musculature. Climb hard and climb often.
3. The Long Run: The Ultra Beast is a long race, but too much running throughout the week can twirl you into a recovery spiral and impact the rest of your training. Keep your long runs sparse, conversational, i.e. 4-6 mph, and never "run" a hill.
4. Raw Strength: Strength is king. Divide strength by time and you get power or endurance. How much wear-and-tear your mind and body will be able to handle on race day has to do with what baseline you’re starting with. So get strong!
5. Athleticism: Constantly be moving. Everyday find time to move however you feel like; roll around, practice falling, take phone calls in a squat position, crawl, sneak in some hindu push-ups or walking lunges.
6. Fuel Economy: Most Ultra-Beast events will take people 10 hours (+- 2 hours). Imagine the amount of food you’d consume on a normal day in that span of time, then add in replacing the calories you’re expending. To me, the most viable option for fueling effectively across 10 hours is to build a body that can be efficient operating on minimal input.
7. Oxygen and mindset: Understanding and practicing optimal breathing patterns is an effective means of improving fitness, and reducing the impact of the stress-response - a key to enjoying your Ultra Beast. Most people breathe incorrectly, which increases the toll and psychological impact of any high-output or prolonged event.
The Do-Anything Training Plan
Walk 25,000+ steps per day, with intermittent loading up to 20% bodyweight.
Mix in as many long, full-day hikes as you can.
25-50+ flights of stairs per day.
Do multiple 10-minute bouts of low-aerobic work as possible (my favorite are my Fan bike phone calls!)
Breath work, i.e. apnea tables, positional breathing, cold showers.
Move and shake. i.e. casual kettlebell work or bodyweight skills, i.e. swings and handstands.
Every 3 days
30-50 minute low impact cross training, i.e. ski erg, fan bike, bodyweight circuit, yoga, etc.
Every 5 days
3-5 sets of heavy deadlifts or front squats.
Heavy carries that accumulate 7-10 minutes under tension.
Every 7 days
3 hour climb, i.e. stadium tour or steep terrain.
20 minute bodyweight strength circuit, i.e. AMRAP or EMOM.
Every 10 days
3-5 sets of heavy deficit reverse lunges, kettlebell get ups, and presses
Everyday 14 days
Long run. i.e. start at 2 hours, add time every two weeks, cap at 6 hours.
SECTION 1: Fuel Economy
Part 1: Lifestyle
My last trip to Europe was extremely eye opening to me. This as I was, not for the first time, immersed in cultures that were living paradoxes that debunked nearly every nutritional doctrine we Americans live by. Things like meal frequency, nutrient density, alcohol and caffeine, nutritional allergens, and perhaps most importantly, preoccupation with food. None of these things seem to matter to many fit people living far more healthfully than upwards of 80% of Americans.
Without going too far down the rabbit hole, the biggest take-away from the trip for me, was to finally debunk in my own mind the belief that humans need “three squares a day” or worse, that we need to eat every 2-hours. If we condition our 9am-5pm mind, bodies, and hormonal system for that type of intake, how in the world could we expect ourselves to ever “survive” in an emergency situation, or a 10-hour self-supported Race?
As a formerly, over-fed and miserable marathoner, I will confidently say that the single biggest thing I have to thank for my Ultra Beast performance was eliminating my preoccupation with food, and eating minimally - when and only my body actually needs it. This is going to vary for every mind and body, our unique health status’, and our genetics, so keep that in mind as you read the next paragraph.
Where this lack of preoccupation landed me, and my genetics and health status, was in a lifestyle of frequent fasts of up to 24-hours; eating dinner most nights but occasionally not eating again until the following night. Many of these fasts were broken by a light substance of vegetables, juices, nuts, and oils throughout the day. In time, I even found myself in a remarkable, clear rhythm of macronutrient intakes overtime. In other words, I would often have 2-3 very low protein days followed by 1-2 very high protein days and an apparent 3-week caloric cycle where 2-weeks of sparse eating would be followed by a 1-week re-feed. Giving up nutritional preoccupation and the resulting self-regulating body accustomed to operating on minimal fuel, I am convinced, is the key to enjoying life and what allows me to now run these 10+ hour events without a problem.
Part 2: Exercise.
The way our exercising metabolism works is that we are constantly burning a combination of fat, carbohydrate and protein for energy. What determines what fuel we burn is intensity and duration of exercise. Using the age-old “fire” analogy, fats are like tossing big logs on the fire, and carbs are akin to smaller sticks and kindling. If we are exercising at a very high intensity, a massive “log” probably is not what our body is going to choose to burn given the choice, nor is it what we would want to provide to it with an aim sustaining a high-intensity output. Ergo, the higher the intensity the greater the demand for carbohydrate inside our bodies and the more we need to provide it from the fuel we consume. The lower the intensity then, the more our bodies will preferentially opt for burning fats as fuel, and the more we are able to fuel with fats since the demand is more slow and steady, and not in need of fast-burning “kindling”.
Protein is more duration dependent and is never preferentially burned, regardless of intensity.
Now, in terms of internal storage, we have both carbohydrate and fat stored inside our tissues to support high-energy activities without the need for external fuel. Inside each of us, we have a few thousand calories of high-energy carbohydrate, supported by about 80,000 calories of fat. For this reason, innately, the body aims to preserve these limited carbohydrate stores and burn fat whenever possible. However, the body is an extremely adaptable machine. Based on the aforementioned intensity analogy, if the intensity of our exercise is chronically very high, the body adapts and becomes accustomed to burning carbs preferentially, instead of fat. Furthermore, if we are constantly feeding our bodies carbohydrate, we adapt and teach our bodies how to burn carbohydrate during lower and lower intensity activities that it would otherwise be using fat for. In other words, we are never providing a stimulus for the body to ever “need” to burn fat, so, it doesn’t. This creates a disastrous scenario for ultra-endurance athletes and weight-loss patients alike.
The steps I took to improve my fuel economy and burn fat at higher and higher intensity activities were as follows:
Lower all exercise intensity to the intensity at which your body CAN burn fat, and spend nearly all of your time there. Remember that nearly 80% of the time you’ll spend “training” for an event like an Ultra Beast is done throughout your daily life by either walking, taking stairs, or generally moving around. All of this activity is extremely low-intensity, high volume work that should be predominantly fat-fueled. During structured exercise keep it conversational, or if using heart rate, this is typically around 180bpm - (your age). If you’re unfit, drop this figure by an additional 5-10 beats, if you’re super-fit, do the opposite. For me, I spent nearly all my training at a heart rate of 150 bpm or less.
Train fasted. The only time most people are actually burning predominantly fat is when they are asleep. So, when you wake up in the morning and you are carbohydrate poor, perform 20-60 minutes of low-intensity, fat burning activity to stimulate your fat burning engine and retrain any carbohydrate-bias you may be living with.
Avoid carbohydrates throughout the day, refuel at night. There’s a lot of debate about high-carb and low-carb diets. At present, I believe the best of both worlds is to fuel your body on low-carbohydrates throughout theday, and simply refuel your inventory at night. For me, this has improved my sleep, my fat oxidation, and my performance. Don’t count carbs, just avoid them to the best of your ability throughout the day, and eat healthy ones at night until you’re intelligently satisfied.
SECTION 2: Aerobic Development
Part 1: The Long Run
On a foundation of efficient fuel economy, enter the Long Run. Before we dive in, it’s now time to consider the intensity-based fueling paradigm outlined above in a new light; Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Development. So long as our activities are low-intensity, they are aerobic, and fat should be the predominant fuel. Activities that are high-intensity are anaerobic, and will burn our carbohydrates. This means, the Long Run, our chief aerobic development tool must be a fully aerobic effort that thus reduces all high-intensity temptations and therefor minimally relies on carbohydrate as a fuel.
Now, running, especially on the road, is extremely hard on the body’s structure. In fact, over 80% of runners, from weekend warriors to Olympians, get injured at some time in their running career. For this reason, I minimize the frequency of my long runs (and those of my athletes) to once every 2-3 weeks - which may shock most people reading this. Instead, and as we will explore in more detail, I advise reliance on a foundation of walking, stairs, hiking, climbing, and strength work to ensure the body can withstand and recover from the abuse of the long run and always be in route to higher levels of fitness.
The Long Run in this program comes every 14-days and gets longer each time we do it. This, until we cap it at around 80% of the expected time the complete the event we are training for. In the case of the Ultra Beast, I capped mine at 6-hours, expecting to finish the Ultra Beast in 8 hours. To find yours, work backwards from the date of your event to today and chart out your runs and how much longer each will need to get to prepare you. As an example:
10 Weeks from today: 8-hour Ultra Beast
8 weeks from today: 6-hour Long Run
6 weeks from today: 5-hour Long Run
4 weeks from today: 4-hour Long Run
2 weeks from today: 3-hour Long Run
Today: 2-hour Long Run
I recommend starting at running 4-6mph based on fitness level, to ensure you keep the Long Run aerobic. Furthermore, in the words of my Coach, and6-time World Champion endurance athlete, Ian Adamson, “never run a hill”. This, as a single hill can knock you out of aerobic metabolism and increase carbohydrate usage for the duration of your Long Run.
Part 2: Climbing.
To further your event-specific aerobic development, a few hours a week climbing on tough terrain is critical to having success in an prolonged event such as an Ultra Beast. If you have a tough hike with a lot of elevation gain in a short period of time, that is ideal. I recommend your climbing session be as much elevation gain as possible packed into a 2-3 hour training session.
Living in the city of Boston without a car or much free-time, an arduous mountain hike is not something I have the ability to frequent each week. To remedy the situation, I use the stadium at Harvard University, which is a massive structure modeled after the Colosseum in Rome. The stadium has nearly forty stadium sections, each with around thirty, 16” high stairs that require a large step and a whole lot of hip mobility to climb. I do a 3-hour “tour” each week where I simply climb as many sections as I can in 3-hours time, aiming to get better each week, and again, always keeping my effort aerobic. I never run or sprint. I march at a steady pace the entire time to reduce joint impact and further optimize fat utilization and aerobic development. When devising your training plan, adjust this based on your fitness level, you may start with a 30-minute tour or a 5-hour tour either way, always keeping the mind set of improving each week, living to fight another day, and taking breaks as needed to ensure your intensity stays in the right place. If you spent 50% of your first 3-hour tour resting or walking on flat ground recovering it would be worth it, so long as next week you only spend 48% of your time doing that.
Part 3: Walking and Stairs.
When it comes to survival of the fittest or crossing an Ultra Beast finish line, being prepared with lots of time on your feet is probably the most important aspect of training. With 168-hours in a given week, even 15-hours a week of training may not be enough to combat potentially years of joint stiffness and suboptimal habits. I recommend using a step-tracking device for a period of a few weeks or months until you really understand how much is enough, and to gain perspective as to what is a “good day” and a “bad day” as it relates to step count. For me, in the 3-months before the Ultra Beast I made sure to walk at least 20,000 steps per day, everyday, and 50-flights of stairs, with some days exceeding 30,000 steps and 150 flights. On average, 25,000 steps and 25 flights is a reasonable daily target for most people.
The benefits of this volume of walking cannot be understated. The Hawaii Ultra Beast was the first Beast, never mind the fact I did it twice, that I did not experience even the slightest bit of cramping. I am convinced this can be more attributed to the massive amount of time I spend moving around, on foot, climbing stairs and being active than what I did in my actual, structured training. On top of this, my digestion and posture improved with the increase in steps per day, as did my mobility and all those nagging, lifelong injuries simply started to go away. Walking is the best medicine we all have.
SECTION 3: Strength and Structure
Part 1: Strength.
Next to time-on-feet, when it comes to survival of the fittest, strength reins supreme. Specifically, having the strongest possible power-to-weight ratio is the key to staying injury-free and living limitless. Power-to-weight ratio, for an endurance athlete, means getting maximally strong without increasing bodyweight to do so. This enables the athlete to maintain running speed, and stride technique while simply improving the frame they’re absorbing all those miles with. Consider that when we run, the impact with each step creates a shockwave that is 2.5x our bodyweight into the foot, through the knees and into the hips, back, shoulders and neck! I do not know many people who can lift 2.5x their bodyweight, never mind the idea of doing it on one leg at a time.
Furthermore, consider endurance just like power, as strength divided by time. How much wear-and-tear your mind and body will be able to handle on race day has to do with what baseline of strength we’re you’re starting from.
To achieve a high level raw, functional strength, the training does not have to be extreme, frequent or vein-busting. In fact, the times in my life where I have chased strength and really pushed my limits with the most frequency, were the times when I was most injured and most fatigued from my training. A short, sub-maximal but heavy stimulus every 5-days using a structural, total-body lift or two is what I have found to be the best for endurance athletes looking to maximize their power-to-weight potential while maintaining or while improving their aerobic performance.
Secondly, we do not need a broad array of exercises to build strength either. I use almost exclusively blocks of 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps of deadlifts or front squats for all my total body strength work. I also often pepper my strength sessions with heavy carries for distance, or weighted chin-ups. I do nearly all my strength work during lunch inside a 50-minute training session. In and out!
Next to raw strength, we also have strength-endurance, or our abilities to sustain the use of our raw strength functionally. The best way to do this are heavy but higher rep, larger range of motion movements still done in a controlled, manner.
Last we have the last piece of strength-endruance, the lightest load, highest repetition, highest intensity type. The best way to fill this need is through the use of prolonged, awkward carries and fairly arduous circuits and sessions like AMRAP’s and EMOM’s that leverage classic bodyweight movements like pushups, pull-ups. squats, lunges. I typically do a session like this once a week and ensure every rep is near perfect despite fatigue.
Part 2: Athleticism
In general, flexibility and stretching are over-rated. I rarely even refer to either of them. Instead, the ideal for any athlete under my guise should be control and high-quality subconscious movement, and optimizing what I call “degrees of freedom”. Most injuries, including cramps (and this can easily parallel the carbohydrate/fat discussion) occur because we have conditioned our bodies to bias certain, undesirable things. In most cases, living a more sedentary than active lifestyle that does not require the body to function as a singular, highly athletic unit. Rather, we adapt our body’s structures through the information we give it to sit in chairs, stand in elevators, where high-heeled shoes, walk on pavement, rarely use our upper bodies to aid in motion, and on and on. All things that opposite the needs we place on it during an event like an Ultra Beast.
Athleticism then, like Walking, needs to be a daily practice that exposes your structure to varied styles of motion, stepping, rolling and even falling.
I would recommend as many 5-minute sessions as possible, or fewer longer ones each day where you sit or walk in a fully squatted position. Where you practice rolling and tumbling over one shoulder, I’ve even been known to put my pants on with no hands! The more creative you can be the better and the more prepared you’ll be for the course you find yourself on. Two sample sessions that you may do 3-5x per day.:
5 forward rolls to each side, onto and across each shoulder.
5 backward rolls to each side, legs over head and one shoulder.
30-second High-Push-Up hold tapping same side knee-to-elbow throughout.
30-second deep squat hold then 10 yard forward walk in bottom position.
30-second tri-pod headstand.
20-yard ARMY Crawl.
20-yard ARMY Crawl.
20-yard Single-arm bottoms-up kettlebell carry, left.
20-yard Single-arm bottoms-up kettlebell carry, right.
20-yard Single-arm overhead kettlebell carry, left.
20-yard Single-arm overhead kettlebell carry, right.
20-yard Single-arm racked kettlebell carry, left.
20-yard Single-arm racked kettlebell carry, right.
20-yard ARMY Crawl.
SECTION 4: Air and Mind
Part 1: Mind
During any event spanning longer than a few hours, success in the mind is actually more important than success in measurable fitness. In fact, I believe if you are in shape to run 20 miles effectively, you should definitely be able to run 26.2. And if you can run 26.2 most people should be able to run 50, 75, or 100. What limits true ultra endurance performance is how long a person can go before becoming their own worst enemy.
“How long can you go before becoming your own worst enemy.” This quote can easily be applied to far more aspects of life than just long runs and races, as own thoughts ultimately decide our fate in nearly everything we do from being promoted at work to raising kids or building a house. The mind is primary. Over the years, I have become a specialist in two specific, anecdotal ways that I have seen it working against almost everybody with BHAGS (Big Hairy Audacious Goals.)
The first relates to following a proper exercise program and prioritizing fitness much to the way this article recommends. The brain is extremely intelligent, and there’s no faster route to fostering self-defeat than providing it with a legitimate excuse to do so, like, “this body is not in-shape to survive this”.
"What am I up against here???"
Close your eyes, and imagine you are running a really tactical trail and sprain your ankle on some rocks. You go to the hospital wondering if it’s broken but fortunately it’s not - it’s just very severely sprained. It likely would not surprise you to find that following this injury you will walk with a very visible limp until it’s healed.
Now, are you consciously or subconsciously limping? If somebody offered you $100, could you choose not to limp and walk normally, albeit painfully? Probably not. This is because the brain is neurologically modifying your head-to-toe movement patterns to reduce pressure, ground-reaction, and risk to the already traumatized tissues. It’s creating self-defeat to protect itself from harm.
The same thing happens during these ultra endurance races. If you are truly not in-shape for the Race, your brain will know that and let you know very quickly. I like to use the quote “experience is the best teacher” because, as in the aforementioned limping example, the right training plan can actually train your mind to, metaphorically, allow you to slowly but surely enter the higher-risk higher-reward zone required to complete the event, or choosing to “walk without the limp”.
The next part of this theory relates to the walking, the stairs, and the “moving and shaking” outlined in this program. Training for an ultra is a lifestyle - not a workout plan. The fast-track that most use to fitness involves a massive amount of sedentary behavior counter-balanced by 45-60 minutes of remarkably high intensity training 3-4 days a week. This is a path to destruction. Remember that every minute of the day you are either becoming better or worse, stronger or weaker. Live wisely.
Part 2: Breathing and Staying Relaxed.
Building upon fitness, we have breathing. Breathing is the single most important than we all do everyday. And best of all, every single person has the potential to improve their performance by understanding it. At it’s most distilled, I believe that breathing has the ability to impact our thoughts and internal environment, and therefor, our pain-tolerance and ability to conquer even the toughest Races.
Consider that we can all go years without physical exertion before we die from inactivity- yet we exercise our hearts out and, from the former example, now know how serious our brain takes a sprained ankle. We can go three weeks without food, yet we always pack twice as much as we need. We can go three days without water, but there are aid stations every mile. Meanwhile we can only go three minutes without air before we die and just assume we’ll be fine.
I say, the brain is very intelligent and, perhaps while we are all worried about electrolytes, all it cares about is the messages it receives from our breath. Breathing is impacted by our posture, our thoughts, our experiences, and our stress levels. The deeper we can get air into our lungs, and the more we focus on exhalation, the more the mind tends to relax and build confidence in what it is doing. The more shallow, short, and inhale-focused our breathing is the more the brain feels stressed and the more likely it is to begin a cascade of self-defeating beliefs.
Secondly, the other function of proper, deep breathing is strength. When we breathe deep, down to our pelvic floor, we expand and add stability to our entire midsection. This stability supports our spine and activates our core musculature. During an endurance event, shallow breathing then can destabilize the trunk and lead to postural conformities that can lead to low back pain, hip internal rotation, IT band tightness, and pronation of the foot, as well as decreased hip extension which has a negative impact on our running strides and speed. And once these issues start to set in, we again begin to get the negative feedback loop described above in the sprained ankle analogy.
SECTION 5: What I ate on course at the Hawaii Ultra Beast