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Lakeland 50 finish: Why race strategy is as important as training to a successful ultramarathon

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

One of the most common phrases I hear before an ultramarathon is ‘I haven’t done enough’: too little, too flat, too fast, too late. People rarely feel physically prepared and indeed many of us really are not. However, focusing on physical fitness alone misses the myriad other variables that affect an ultramarathon experience and outcome.

Of course, physical preparation and fitness are important but there is a lot we can do outside of this to maximise success. Having a race strategy that includes nutrition, pacing, environment, checkpoint approach, and psychology, is really important.

Last weekend marked one of the annual highlights of the UK trail running year, the Lakeland 100/50 races. It’s a big event by UK standards and an exciting weekend of catching up with the Lakeland ‘family’ for a fantastic route around the Lake District. Having had athletes competing last year and marshalling myself, this year I was racing with just one athlete (my partner!) running.

Neither of us had optimal preparation. I’ve had a pretty poor year training-wise with 6 months of covid/long-covid and a change in jobs so am not as run-fit as I was in 2021. It felt like a bit of an experiment but I came out with a 74 minute PB in 12hrs 05.

Matthew was racing his first Lakeland 50 this weekend and finished in an incredible 13 hours. Work and childcare means that his training involves just 5 x 45 min flat runs, one hilly long run and 1 short hilly run over a 2 week period. This isn’t ideal training for a mountain ultra and we both owe a lot of our success to race strategy and good decision-making*. I worked with Matthew to help him apply my race experience to his event and make as many incremental gains as possible.

So what worked?

Planning what to eat and when. I knew how much carbohydrate I needed, what foods contained the right amount and what foods I could stomach, and I set an alarm to eat every 30 minutes. As I have food allergies, I have complete control over what I eat during a race. Matthew took a less exacting approach but ate every half an hour, capitalised on the checkpoint food and continued to eat even when nothing appealed.

Knowing the course: recceing beforehand and knowing the course really helped Matthew. It meant he knew what was coming next and could prepare himself for hills, eating appropriately but also knowing how much longer before the next descent.

Know (and work with) yourself: accepting my strengths and ‘weaknesses’ and not allowing these to negatively affect me is something I’ve learned to do over many races. For example, I know I’m not as strong on steep ascents, I slow down and lose places.

This used to upset me and trigger a negative thought spiral. I now expect this and as I slow down acknowledge that I can only ascend at the speed I can ascend at. Accepting this reduces the adrenaline rush and anxiety and preserves energy for the descents which I excel at. Knowing that a long descent is imminent, I feel more confident. Once you are racing there is no more training that you can do so working positively with your strengths is important.

Psychology: dark periods are almost inevitable on a very long race but their impact can be minimised by knowing what works to get you through them. A period of ‘I CANNOT do this’ rumination will pass with time and can be hurried away by focusing on your motivation. Whether this is a medal, T-shirt, to inspire your child, or to annoy your ex-boyfriend, they are all valid. I draw on past experience: I know how it feels to DNF but I also know how it feels to win and remembering which feeling I preferred drives me on.

Pacing is at the forefront of a road marathon plan. For an ultra, things work differently: pace is affected by the terrain, weather, and nutrition and sticking rigidly to a schedule can be catastrophic. For the first 30-34 miles I raced on effort and feel alone with no awareness of my speed or of the time.

I focused on jogging rather walking as much as possible but without worrying about speed. This prevented me from pushing myself too soon and it worked: I was faster on every leg of the race. Matthew has learned to pay less attention to what other runners are doing and stuck to his plan of resisting the urge to run hard from the start.

Checkpoint management: on the Lakeland 50 there are 6 checkpoints so if you spend 10 minutes in each, that’s an hour of non-moving time added to your finish. As well as safety, CPs are there to support you so there are good reasons to spend time there. However, a good strategy ensures that every minute spent stopped is enhancing your race.

Sitting down with stew at 2am might be exactly what you need to get you fuelled, warmed and motivated for the next 7 miles but dithering over crisp flavours at every CP is probably not adding much value. Knowing what you need from a CP before you run in helps you get the most value from it.

Prepare for the weather and carry what you need: knowing that you are prepared will go a long way to improving your confidence, as will knowing how you respond to conditions. I hate stopping to put a waterproof on so I carry a plastic poncho (as well as proper waterproofs!) which I can pop over the top of myself and my pack easily for brief showers.

In short have process rules and follow them. Importantly, don’t worry about everyone else and how fit they look, you have no idea what training they have or haven’t done.

Signed up for the Lakeland 100 or 50 and looking for a coach?

For 2024 I am offering a Lakeland 50 and Lakeland 100 training package to prepare competitors for this amazing event. The package includes 3 recces of the route as well as event-specific training. Details on my webpage Lakeland 100/50 Package | Run Moor Mountains

*I’m also coached by the brilliant Dave Troman at Love to Run – coaches need coaches!

Two runners in silhouette on the Montane Lakeland 50 route


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