How to Succeed in an Ultra Challenge Event

With the Ultra challenge event season approaching, we thought we’d take a look at some key strategies to implement if it’s your first time or if you’re seeking to improve.

Regardless of the overall distance you’re travelling, there are a number of elements that will make a big difference to the way you perform, from the gear you take to your approach at feed stations. It’s easy to get swept up in the occasion and atmosphere but if you’re Sport Walking you should always keep your objective firmly in mind – you’re there to get the best time you can. 

Yes the people you meet along the way and the atmosphere in the feed stations will enhance the memories you take away but, ultimately, the thing that will stay with you the longest is your time and whether you achieved your goal.  It’s unlikely that your goal will have been to have a lovely time, make lots of new friends and eat lots of cake!

That’s not to say that enjoyment should be bottom of your list, on the contrary, it should be top but the right sort of enjoyment. Enjoyment of your performance, enjoyment of the landscape, enjoyment of the feeling you get topping out a climb ahead of that bloke who’s been in front of you for miles, enjoyment of your ability to overcome difficulties.  

This is sport and in sport your reward is succeeding and performing to the best of your ability. If you reach the finish line several hours later than your potential, fresh from lots of rest stops and with an address book full of new contacts, then you’ve not realised your potential!

So, the first tip is to set yourself a realistic goal based on what you’re capable of, not what you feel like doing. If you just want to go steady and enjoy the route and camaraderie then you’re not Sport Walking, which is fine but then this article probably isn’t for you!

1 – Set goals based on your ability

When you enter a challenge event, you’ll be asked to give a time prediction. If you’ve not got an accurate idea of your comfortable long distance Sport Walking pace then you might want to hold back until you do. Once you do have an idea of the sort of pace you can carry for a long time though, make it your benchmark or ‘safe time’ for that event.

You should always have at least three goals, one of which involves no calculations at all – it’s just to finish! The other two goals should be firstly your ‘safe time’ and secondly your ‘ideal time’ – the time you’d really like to do if everything goes well and you can press on at speed. You might have a cheeky little ‘dream time’ in mind but unless its grounded in some sort of reality, it’s only going to mess with your head so don’t go there!

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Your ‘safe time’ is basically the comfortable fast pace that you know you can hold for at least 20-40k. If you can hold your pace for that distance, its a fairly safe bet you can stick to it for 100k. Let’s assume you can walk at a speed of 6kmh for that sort of distance (that’s 10 minutes per kilometre pace).  Just divide the distance of the event by that speed – so lets say 100km divided by 6kmh = 16.6 hours. If you then add on time for breaks (2 hours is over generous but let’s use that) it would give you a rough ‘safe time’ of 18 hours. 

This may either be slower or faster than you anticipated but it’s based on a pace you can actually achieve, so it’s accurate.  The time spent having breaks then is the first variable factor that you can work on to reach your ‘ideal’ time. It’s not unrealistic to only need a maximum of 30-45 minutes for stops during a 100k Sport Walking challenge and that brings us on to the next tactic.

2 – Don’t be seduced by feed stations

A really big mistake that many people make in Ultras is to invest too much in feed stations. Too much time, too much meaning, too much emotion. They see them as rest stops rather than places to deploy planned actions – to take on new fuel supplies, to change clothing or shoes, to connect with your support crew and adapt strategies or to get help with a problem. Feed stations are like an oasis in the desert and can suck time from you without you realising.

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Always a warm welcome but don’t get too comfortable

It’s not a bad approach to actually view them as an adversary. Something that’s been sent to taunt you and test your resolve! That may sound a bit extreme but If you adopt this view, you’ll only stay as long as you need and only take what will fit your nutritional plan.

Feed stations are undoubtedly a great service for Ultra challenge events and you will need to take breaks but when you walk into one, you can be greeted by a very attractive vibe – people taking time out, chatting, eating, sitting down and resting. No, just no!  If you’re not in need of help then take what you need, have a quick breather and press on.

Your achievement in a challenge event will not be measured by how much time you spent munching coconut balls or melon on a deck chair next to a Portaloo.  It will be defined by what you lay down on the trail and the less time you spend in feed stations the less time it’ll take you to complete the challenge and the greater your achievement!

3 – Go Light

This is a key part of our motto at Sport Walk but it’s also there for a good reason.  Travelling light is not just about the overall weight you need to carry but it’s also an approach to the task itself. You can save weight in so many different ways but in addition to the physical weight of the kit you carry, also look very closely at your own mindset around equipment. 

Walkers are historically very good at deploying the ‘just in case’ method and for good reason but when you’re in an organised challenge event with access at regular points to staff who will help you if you get into difficulty, you can trade some self sufficiency for weight saving.

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Strip your kit back to the bare minimum

Start with your shoes – are they the lightest trail shoes or heavier approach shoes?  Then look at your pack. You’ll need about 10-15 litres capacity at most but are you using a lightweight running vest or a heavier rucksack? How much kit do you really need to take and have you picked the smallest, lightest options? 

If you would normally take a highly capable cag and over trousers, ask yourself if that’s really necessary or whether a light waterproof running jacket would be enough. Much depends on the environment and the location but as a fundamental rule, challenge everything you consider to be a given about kit and look at whether there’s a smaller, lighter option that will meet the minimum requirements for the event.

The most important thing to remember with kit is that you’re seeking to be as unencumbered as possible so you can move as fast as possible. If you take something that’s not on the compulsory list, challenge your reason for taking it and make sure that it’s only there because you really need it or because it is a tactical choice that will aid your performance.  Carrying a bladder with liquid fuel as well as soft flasks is a really good example.  You would save weight if you only had flasks but you’d then need to replenish your drink more frequently.  

By carrying a bladder as well, you can go further before needing to replenish fluids, so it could be argued that this is more efficient and saves you time, despite it being heavier in weight.  This theory needs to stack up for you personally though and if you intend to only fuel from the feed stations rather than picking up fresh supplies from a support crew then the more frequent stops could make taking a bladder less effective.  The key thing is to be ruthless with your kit and make sure that whatever you choose to take, whatever you choose to leave behind, you’ve made the choice for a performance gain only. 

4 –  Use nature’s loo when you can

This may be a controversial topic but we all need to go sometime and if you hold in your need for a pee until you reach a feed station, you could well lose a lot of time. Most feed stations will be well equipped with Portaloos but these will often be well equipped with queues, especially in the early stages of an event. If you can safely, discreetly and without causing offence or concern to any other trail users, relieve yourself in the bushes at the trail side then go for it and save yourself on Portaloo queues big time. Of course if you need to invest a little more time in your comfort break (that’s the politest way we can put it) then you should definitely wait until you reach an official Portaloo but if you just need to water the plants… well, you get the picture!

5 – Don’t wait until you’re thirsty or hungry

If you’re feeling thirsty or hungry during the event you’re too late! Remember that nutrition takes time to be absorbed by the body and turned into fuel, so if you’re feeling weak and need some energy you’ve left it too late.  Yes, a gel will get to work pretty quickly but you don’t want to be fighting fires, you want to be fuelling your effort continually in advance.  Get the energy into you before you need it, so take on board energy fuel regularly and frequently (unless you’re trained to fuel on fat stores which is a whole different article).

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Eat and drink little and often from start to finish

A good tactic for Ultras is to consume fluid that contains both fuel and electrolytes, as this will ensure that you’re continually topping up your energy stores and won’t have a sudden slump. You might also then take on board solid fuel (energy bars etc) every 10k or so and also graze on ‘treats’ (crisps, nuts, melon, cake) at feed stations. You can eat sandwiches and ‘normal’ food but consider how easy it will be to digest when you’re working hard and moving fast. We love the combination of ‘Tailwind’ fluid with ‘Zipvit’ bars for our basic fuel, both of which are configured to minimise gastro intestinal problems. We then just top up with any salty snacks for variety at feed stations.

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Whatever your strategy, it’s also good to adopt it in training before the event with at least a month to go, so that you know your stomach is OK with the fuel you’re planning to use. If you plan to fuel with the event feed station offering only, make sure you know what will be provided and then try to replicate that yourself in your training.

The simple rule though is to be taking on energy fuel little and often from start to finish.

6 – Don’t listen to the voices

There will come a point in the event when you’ll question your decision to do it, your sanity and your ability to finish but remember, you’re just doing what humans were designed to do. There are lots of potential triggers along the way that can trip you up. When you pass 50k if you’re going for 100k and you see some competitors pulling over to finish their day or maybe even their race.

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Night time on an Ultra can be a tough point

When night falls and you lose the view to distract you and your whole focus is the dimly lit trail ahead. Chances are that however far you’re walking a great many people have run or walked a lot further in one go. You’re not going out on a limb and you’re not doing something crazy.  You’re just walking for 50, 80, 100km or more non-stop and it’s just simply a question of staying the course and keeping moving, which leads us to our last tip…

7 – Just keep moving

You will need to take breaks and you should take breaks but try your best to keep moving, even during these breaks.  Avoid sitting down for more than a few minutes, unless you’re changing clothing or need to make adjustments to kit. Essentially, avoid sitting or standing still unless you really need to.

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The further on you go, the greater the chance that you’ll seize up and at the very least you’ll find it harder to get motivated to carry on as you proceed further into the event if you sit down and relax at a rest stop. Just keep on your feet, move around slowly a little, shake your legs out and take your rest standing. Make rest a time of just not walking, rather than a time to sit or lie down. The more you can keep moving and the less you stop and sit, the better condition you’ll be in later on.

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The easiest tactic to remember – just keep moving!

So there you are, a few tips to help you get the most out of your challenge event.  If you train smart, walk smart and eat smart, you’ll be amazed what you can achieve.

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