International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation

Connecting Ultrarunners Across The Globe


So You Want To Run A Marathon?


How About Several In a Row?



July 2017
by Claire Nana


“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vison for the limits of the world.”

Arthur Schopenhauer


Running lore holds that for runners the true test of their ability is the marathon. If they can last a grueling 26 miles, push through the ubiquitous “wall” at mile 20, then they have earned the right to call themselves a runner. Adding to the sheer impossibility of the test, inaccurate interpretations of Greek history, commonly hold that the marathon was precisely the distance Pheidippides ran before his death.


For ultrarunners, however, the story is something different. A marathon is not the finish line, rather, it is a sort of start line. For many, a marathon is nothing more than a training run. And when you string a few together, you have a pretty solid training cycle.

This was perhaps what Jesper Kenn Olsen, the Danish National Coach had in mind when he sent Tina Andersen running across Denmark pushing a baby stroller in preparation for the six day race in Hungary. Her instructions: “Run as much as you can every day, learn how to pace yourself, how much you can take, and how much time you need to recover.” Andersen later broke the Danish and Scandinavian National six day records at that race, besting the previous record – which she set herself just seven months prior at Icarus Florida UltraFest – and setting a new age group world record of 741 kms.

Olsen, himself, is no stranger to this type of training. Although his runner career started with a 2:27 marathon at age 24, he later twice ran around the world (becoming one of only handful men to do this), and along the way, won the six day race in Australia, running an incredible 756 kms. Years later, in 2014, after a long break from running, Olsen returned to win the Icarus Florida UltraFest six day race, with 712 kms.

For Olsen, multiday training (or running several long days in a row) not only speeds running recovery, but builds a kind of mental toughness that only comes from repeated bouts of exhaustive training. As Olsen states, “Running long for several days in a row works on the specific mental preparation and toughness needed to run ultramarathons.”


Lisa Smith Batchen, an accomplished Ironman competitor, nine time Badwater finisher, and the first American to win the Marathon des Sables, seconds Olsen’s approach. Having coached several athletes to top finishes at races like Badwater, Marathon des Sables, and the Keys 100, Batchen frequently uses several long bouts of successive training to ready her athletes for races. When David Green, a student of hers mentioned that he wanted to run the Marathon des Sables – which consists of five consecutive days of marathon distance or more across the Sahara desert – Batchen instructed him to run a marathon a day for eight days.

For both Olsen and Batchen, training like this makes use of the body’s inherent adaptive response to running – and in particular, running with little recovery time. As Batchen notes, “The purpose of back to back long days is to get your body ready and customized to doing what you are going to be asking it to do day after day.”

And what these two accomplished ultrarunners and coaches may have arrived at intuitively, a research team headed by Uwe Schutz, a specialist in orthopedics at the Department of Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology at the University Hospital of Ulm in Germany, have validated scientifically. Following 44 competitors in the Trans Europe Foot Race, which entails running 4,487 km over the course of 64 days, Schutz and his team used an MRI scanner to examine the runners every three to four days, along with a panel of blood and urine tests.

The results showed that with the exception of the patellar joint, nearly all cartilage segments of the knee, ankle, and hind-foot joints showed significant degradation over the first 1500 to 2500 kilometers of the race.

But then something interesting happened. All of the same areas that had initially shown degradation began to regenerate. Foot, knee, and ankle cartilage thickened, as did the runners’ Achilles tendons. As Dr. Schultz explains, “Interestingly, further testing indicated that ankle and foot cartilage have the ability to regenerate under ongoing endurance training. In general, we found no distance limit in running for the human joint cartilage in the lower extremities.”

No distance limit. It is a point that is worth noting especially considering that it is diametrically opposed to what most people think the human body is capable of.

And yet other researchers have suggested that it is exactly this adaptive capacity that played a fundamental role in our survival. According to University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble and Harvard University Anthropologist Daniel Liebermen, “Running has substantially shaped human evolution. Running made us human – at least in an anatomical sense.”

For Bramble and Leiberman, running isn’t just one of the most transformative events in human history, the emergence of humans is uniquely tied to the evolution of running. Of the 26 traits Bramble and Leiberman examined for their study, relatively few were needed for walking. On the other hand, the majority aided running. Leg and foot tendons and ligaments that act like springs, foot and toe structure that allows efficient use of the feet to push off, shoulders that rotate independently of the head and neck to allow better balance, and skeletal and muscle features that make the human body stronger, more stable and able to run more efficiently without overheating, all combine to give a functional understanding of how the ability to run – and particularly long distances – developed.

The reason that humans were bestowed with traits that support exceptional endurance and not sprinting, was precisely because the ability to sustain long distances aided survival. Bramble and Lieberman note that scavenging – which requires traveling long distances and covering a broad area – is a “more reliable source of food than hunting”, which requires outrunning prey that is likely much faster than you are.

What we can learn from studies like this is that back to back long distance training follows an evolutionary pattern of adaptive response underscored by the words of Batchen, “Your body is very smart and adapts to what you do to it.” So what is the difference between running one marathon and several in a row? Well you might just experience that “no distance limit” that Uwe Schutz refers to. And you might just run farther than you thought you could.



References:

Schultz, U. et. al. (2012). The Transeurope Footrace Project: longitudinal data acquisition in a cluster randomized mobile MRI observational cohort study on 44 endurance runners at a 64-stage 4,486km transcontinental ultramarathon. BMC Med. 2012

Bramble, D., Lieberman, D. (2004). Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature. 2004; 432:345-352.





Claire Dorotik-Nana, M.A. regularly writes for several professional organizations including Professional Development Resources and International Sport Science Association, and also pens the popular blog, “Leveraging Adversity” on Psychcentral. Her first book, Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards is now available on Amazon.