First of all, a massive thank-you to everyone that took part in and answered our brief survey around your preparation for the North Face 100. Each year we take a look at different aspects of the race from a runner and brand perspective and in this our third year, we decided to look at some of the things you felt you got either right or wrong on the day, plus what you could have improved. We also asked the all important question of whether you thought the course was any tougher than previous years, given the changes made for this edition.
All up, we had 275 of you answer our survey (just under 20% of the field), which we think is a pretty damn good hit rate given that we ask you to give your time for free – for that we’re extremely grateful. We didn’t ask you to split across either the 50 or 100kms, instead we focused on nine simple questions to make it as easy as we could for you to give us your thoughts.
Taking the results, what we’ve then done is to not only produce an overview of what you said as a whole, but also look to offer some further advice to ‘the masses’ based on what you said from some of one of our regular contributors and experts, Andy DuBois from Mile27. We’re going to split the report into two articles, of which this is the first one that will focus on your training and mental preparation. Andy’s been through what you’ve said and in conjunction with my good self, and here’s what we found.
Did you train effectively for The North Face?
This question like many of the ones we’ve asked can be slightly subjective, based upon what you define as ‘effective’. Ultra runners tend to be quite an honest bunch and we think this has shone through in this instance as the overriding answer here is that over half of you feel that you either didn’t train effectively (21.5%), or that you could have done things better (36%). But still on a positive note, 42% of your felt that your training was effective. The key to this question however is to look at it in context of some of the other questions and this is where some more of the detail becomes apparent, and perhaps some more realisation that not all was how it seems.
What training would you do more of in preparation for The North Face?
Given that 42% of people in the question above said that their training was effective for TNF, you’d think that there wouldn’t be such a high proportion of people answering the next question about what you’d do more of next time around. Our sense is that people think they might be training effectively for TNF, but when you really think about it more could have been done, which is what this question highlights and something which our expert, Andy DuBois from Mile27 agrees with:
“For me the message this survey gives me in regards to training is the majority need more help to train effectively for a race like TNF. If, as the survey shows, only 8% needed more specificity in their training then the other 92% must have been doing lots of stairs, hill repeats, downhill repeats, on course specific trails – clearly that isn’t the case when 57% said their training could be more effective.”
So just how do you train effectively for a race such as TNF? Well for the most part, the answer is in the results that you provided. Overwhelmingly, the two biggest areas people said they needed to work on was stairs (37%) and hills (23%) – this comes as no surprise as it’s a very common thing we see across many races and preparation for them.
Andy continues, “The biggest problem for most people year after year is not training specifically for the course – there is probably over 2500m of elevation change in stairs alone – how many people would have racked up that kind of vertical on stairs in training. Yes going up and down a set of stairs doesn’t seem like fun – but you’ll enjoy race day so much more with some decent stair sessions in the legs.”
So just how do you go about approaching the dreaded stairs? Many people will use stairs training as a way to increase the strength in their legs as well as it being an awesome short, sharp intense cardio session. What’s great about stairs training is that you can use it in a variety of different ways according to the type of training you wish to do.
If you’re seeking to build more stamina in those legs, then simply walking up and down stairs can help with this, as the emphasis is more on taking the strides up at a pace that doesn’t put too much pressure on your heart rate (although you’ll still get a good workout from it!). This is probably one of the most vital sessions you can do if you’re training for the North Face 100.
Andy adds, “Be aware there is a big difference between running up stairs and walking up stairs. In the TNF almost everyone will be walking up. 20 minutes of stairs is plenty to begin with. If you aren’t used to them they can play havoc with your knees. As you improve you can add a pack or do a couple of sets at the end of a long run. I think you should wait until you are relatively proficient at stairs before you start adding them at the end of a long run though since doing stairs with already fatigued legs has the potential for more injury.”
As well as being a strength session, you can turn it into a cardio session.I call these sessions, ‘death training’… and the reason for this is of all my training, running up stairs pushes my heart rate further than any other kind of training I do. Generally you should look to run up stairs two at a time (uneven stairs where possible) and then coming back down one at a time, but as quickly as you can. Part of the reason I do these sessions is that I can gain the greatest amount of elevation over the shortest possible distance and keep my heart rate at near enough full whack for 30-35mins. It’s also a great session for those who don’t have a lot of time on their hands.
If you’re looking for more information on training specifically for TNF, Andy has a great article here.
How many hours a week did you train for North Face?
While there are no hard and fast rules here as to what constitutes an effective amount of training, what’s interesting here is to see the split of how much people do, purely from a voyeuristic sense! BUT, if you’re training is between 0-4hrs (9% of you), you’re probably not doing enough, particularly for the 100kms. If you’re doing over 20hrs a week (5% of you), then quite simply you can’t have a day job! Again, all very dependent upon what you’re able to fit in, but the sweet spot for many will be somewhere in the range of 5-15hrs if you want to train effectively for a race such as North Face, and of course based upon your own expectations or desire to achieve.
That said, you can train for 100kms on relatively low mileage. I trained last year for the Glasshouse 100kms on an average of 65kms a week, which equates to roughly 6hrs a week training. Admittedly, I do have six years worth of ultra running experience behind me too, but it can be done- you just have to use your time wisely and effectively.
Did you feel mentally prepared for the North Face?
I have to admit, the answer to this question surprised both Andy and myself with a resounding 84% saying they did. Again, the devil is in the detail here with regards to how the question is asked, but here’s some further insight from Andy:
“What really surprised me was that 84% said they did enough mental prep – In my experience, I don’t think many people at all would have done ANY mental prep let alone enough – but my definition of mental prep and theirs is different. In this instance, I think that mental preparation to many that answered the survey means planning a few dropbags, thinking about race strategy that kind of thing, which is fair enough if that’s how it is interpreted.
“I think the percentage of runners that would have defined mental strategies in their training runs to develop mental toughness in the race would probably stand at less than 10%. How many people can honestly say they went out in training and practised different mental strategies for dealing with fatigue etc…? What this question probably tells me is people don’t understand how mental ultras are and how training the mind can have a big impact on the body and your overall performance.”
So how can you prepare mentally? Aussie trail runner and Salomon athlete Matt Cooper pays a lot of attention to this as part of his coaching initiatives, he comments, “In the last few weeks of race preparation the doors are all but shut physically, but mentally they have never been open wider. In fact, it is this week that you stand at the fork in the trail. What you tell yourself this week about your race ‘preparation’ will have a great influence on your results.”
Anyone can engage in a few simple practices which will ensure their mindset is also in an optimum state, matching their already superior trained bodies. Many runners may already do this, but the final week before race day is a great time to become very clear on the visualisation of crossing the finish line. Take time to close your eyes, relax, breath and focus on creating that amazing picture – the end goal.
Picture the finish… if you haven’t seen it before yet, check out the race photos of previous years or ‘Google’ it. Picture seeing yourself there… Think of the smiles, the applause, the emotion of knowing that you have completed such an amazing feat, the support crew and the organisers and volunteers.
Hear the sounds that you will hear, the cheering of your own support, the stillness of the moment, the internal praise of what you are saying to yourself “you did it”. Feel all the feelings that come along when you say that to yourself, the tingles, the overwhelming sense of achievement and pure dedication and know that you have now grown to a place that you never would have been before had you not put this vision in place and trusted in your own amazing ability.
Another simple practice for runners whilst out on the trail in those times when you catch your thoughts of not doing enough preparation, is to simply become aware of where you are right now. Grab a leaf from a tree (there’s plenty out there) or rub your hands in the dirt – bring your focus and energy back to the only place energy can ever exist – The Present. Smile, laugh or even cry and accept that it is purely only through thought that you can be defeated today, as without thought there is no energy loss or pain and you have all the re-sources you could ever need to complete a 100 miler/100ker. If you’re looking for more information on mental strength, Andy DuBois has another great article on this topic over at Mile27 too.
That concludes the first part of our TNF Runner’s Survey. Stay tuned for the second part which will be with you in a few days. If you’re looking for some more information and advice, a couple of months ago we produced a very comprehensive article on preparing and training for your first ultra, of which many parts are relevant for all of us. You can find it here, part one and part two.