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Running Your First Ultra

So you went and did it. You’re signed up and/or thinking about your first ultra-marathon. You either hate your toenails, love to eat, or a combination of the two. Whether you are new to running in general or have been running for a while and decided that a marathon wasn’t enough, a huge “congrats” is in order.

Now, once you overcome the inevitable “What’s wrong with you?” and “I don’t even like to drive my car that far!” comments from friends and family, it’s time to start planning and prepping for the journey. As the saying goes, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). Likely, the only person known to ever whimsically run an ultra without a plan is Forrest Gump; and unless you’re also an international ping-pong champion and have mooned the President while receiving the Medal of Honor, I suggest you have a plan for your first ultra. There’s a lot that goes into a “successful” ultra run. (Insert your own definition of success here.)

Whether you plan on signing up for an “official race” or just want to hit the trails for some long mileage, I think most ultra-marathoners would agree that it is a pretty liberating feeling to see your GPS watch intentionally click past the “26.2” mark.

COMMITIf you truly want something, the time is now. If you are comfortable running consistently and don’t shudder at the thought of a double-digit mile run, you can build off of that base and get your legs in “ultra-shape”. Give yourself about 3-4 months to build a healthy training plan (or hire a coach) and jump in; don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Sign up and put your money where your mouth is, put in some consistency and you won’t regret it.

It takes about a month to develop a new habit, so plan on the first 3-4 weeks feeling out what works best and when to run throughout the day and week. Plan on having some recovery days but don’t skip out on a run just because you’re “not feeling it.” 

DISTANCE IS NOTHING – Rather, distance is what you hype it up in your mind to be. Don’t forget: 26.2 is a completely arbitrary number that was arbitrarily dubbed “marathon” back in the day and people agreed that it was a long and impressive distance to run. Do you think your body knows actually the difference between 26.2 miles and a 50k or is it just in your head?

RECOVERY IS EVERYTHING – Listen to your body early and often. Injuries and overtraining symptoms whisper before they scream. Whatever plan you decide to use to build mileage up and prepare, your body should be the ultimate gauge of health and fitness. Don’t go out and hammer more miles if your body can’t take it or you feel like you are forcing things. It will sideline you inevitably. Invest in some mobility tools like a foam roller or a muscle rolling stick. Keep yourself nice and supple; if you can hit a yoga class once a week, even better.

The key here being sore muscles vs. hurting body parts. If your leg muscles are just a little  sore from your last run, you can rub some dirt on them and they will be fine with some easier miles the next day. But if your joints are actually hurting, or you are in pain, or your running form is affected, you should get yourself checked out by a professional before going out for more miles.

HAVE A PLAN – Consistently follow a training plan or invest in a coach (there are any number of options out there) to build mileage wisely, and listen to your body. The key words: “Plan” and “consistently. “Slowly you will realize that the miles just start to flow and peel away week by week. A general rule of thumb is to increase weekly mileage 10-15% for 3-4 weeks then take a week or so to recover, drop mileage a little, let your body adjust, and repeat.

Long runs should also follow this pattern to avoid overtraining or overuse injuries. If you cannot get at least one “long run” in per week you can use two-a-days or back-to-back medium runs to build mileage on tired legs.

A “long run” will depend on your distance goal. I would suggest trying to fit in 80-90% of the goal distance over a day or two. Furthermore, in my experience, this is best done 3-4 weeks before “race day.” So, if you want to tackle your first 50 miler, a 40mile weekend is a great prep for the race. There are a couple ways to do this: 1)You might be able to find a 40 mile race that lines up nicely time-wise. 2) You could plan a 20mile run on Saturday then another 20miler on Sunday. 3) You could also do 10miles Saturday morning, 10 more Saturday night, another 10 on Sunday morning, then 10 more to finish the day Sunday night.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS – Whatever race or trail you pick, you should do some research on the course and terrain that will be served up to you hot and fresh. Nothing should surprise you on race day. If the course is hilly, you should be hitting hills of similar grade to prepare the specific muscles you will be working. If the course is super technical trails, you should find some similar types of trails to train on or you should at the very least be working to strengthen your ankle stabilizers and prepare accordingly. Study the course, too. Lastly, find out what nutrition will be offered (if any) on race day and train with the same type of food/drink. It will pay off to get into the specifics.

CHOOSE YOUR WEAPONS WISELY – There is a lot to be said about the “perfect” running shoe but I think “perfect” is defined completely as personal preference. Run in what feels comfortable to you. The same goes for running socks, shorts, tops, and hydration packs. Chafing is a common joke amongst the ultra community but if you do some planning ahead and find the right equipment it could make a huge difference in your race. The key here being that you should choose what works for you based on… surprise… YOU! Not because so-and-so uses it.

ENJOY THE RIDE – An ultra-marathon is not only a physical battle with the unrelenting ground below you, but also a mental, and emotional journey as well. It is an “out-of-body experience” as much as a “this-hurts-my-body experience.” You probably did not sign up for it thinking that it’d be easy. Take some time to enjoy where you are, wherever you are. I can guarantee you will want to quit at some point. Stop and take a deep breath, smile, then take one more step.


a)If the race permits crews/pacers and you like running with people, choose your crew wisely. Surround yourself with positive and supportive people who have preferably run ultras or crewed before.

b) Hike the hills. This being your first ultra, trust me on this one. If you think the hill is steep, just hike it. You won’t lose much, if any, time going up and will save a ton of energy.

c) Brace yourself for unadulterated conversations about poop… No further explanation needed.  It is inevitable in your ultra-running career.

No matter how serious a competitor or recreational runner you are, always remember that it is supposed to be a fun experience overall. Don’t let the small things get to you down before, during, or after the race. The ultra community is one of the most welcoming in any sport. There is camaraderie in all the suffering out on trails. Remember that, chances are, you will be seeing these same people again at the next race. Have a cold one afterwards, laugh and joke about how miserably fun it was, and make friends. So with that said… welcome to the club and enjoy the journey! Before you know it, you too will be salting your potatoes with the dried up sweat crusted onto all your running clothes.

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Cadence Counts

There’s obviously a lot to consider when improving running performance and it is super easy to overlook some fundamentals while digging into the endless (and growing!) offerings of data from all of the new technology and watches. One of crucial fundamentals on my mind for this post is step rate, also known as cadence. Running with a high step rate, or a faster turnover of steps per minute, offers numerous benefits that can enhance your running experience and overall fitness. There’s a lot to consider in each individual’s optimal cadence but on average, a “healthy cadence” is typically considered to be around 170-180 steps per minute. Marathon world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge, averages around 185 steps per minute for the distance.

1. Injury Prevention:

One of the most significant advantages of maintaining a high step rate is injury prevention. When you increase your step rate, your feet spend less time on the ground with each stride. This reduces the impact forces transmitted through your legs and minimizes the risk of injuries such as shin splints, stress fractures, and knee pain. A faster cadence promotes a shorter, lighter step, which can be gentler on your joints and muscles.

I compare it to lifting weights. Imagine lifting a 5lb weight VS a 50lb weight to do a certain amount of total work. Lifting the 5lb weight ten times would feel a lot easier, relatively, than lifting the 50lb weight once.

2. Enhanced Efficiency:

Running with a high step rate can lead to improved running efficiency. By taking quicker, shorter strides, you reduce the vertical oscillation of your body, meaning you waste less energy going up and down with each step. Obviously, some movement up and down is necessary for everyone while running, but if you can reduce this up and down motion, you’ll use more energy moving where you want to go… forward!

To use another extreme example, let’s say you were the fictional superhero, Superman, and as legend has it you could “leap tall buildings in a single bound” except you are the runner version, where you could “run” a mile in just two steps. You would also have to bound pretty high off the ground to accomplish those steps. The height you travel is all wasted energy because it’s not moving you FORWARD.

3. Increased Speed:

For those looking to boost their running speed, a higher step rate can be a game-changer. When you increase your cadence, you naturally run faster, as your body adapts to the increased leg turnover. Your feet don’t move while they are on the ground! Less time spent with your feet not moving, is more time, again, MOVING FORWARD!

4. Better Running Form:

A high step rate often encourages better running form. When you aim for a faster cadence, you tend to land with your feet closer to your body’s center of mass, reducing overstriding. Overstriding can lead to inefficient biomechanics and an increased risk of injuries. A faster cadence promotes a midfoot or forefoot strike, which can be more efficient and less injury-prone. This also forces you to engage your core more without you even knowing it, I call it “running with your whole body, not just your legs.”

5. Reduced Fatigue:

Running with a higher step rate can help you delay fatigue during your runs. When you run at a slower cadence, your muscles have to work harder to generate the force needed for each stride. By taking quicker steps, you distribute this load more evenly, which can help you feel fresher for longer.

This also goes back to the weight analogy – you will inevitably get more tired, quicker, trying to move heavier weight.

6. Better Cadence Variability:

A high step rate allows you to adapt to different running conditions more effectively. Whether you’re tackling hills, running into a headwind, or dealing with uneven terrain, the ability to adjust your step rate allows for greater flexibility in your running mechanics, reducing the risk of injury and optimizing your performance.

My favorite way to play with cadence while running is with music. A quick Spotify search for “Running at 180” and you’ll find a bunch of pre-made playlists of all music varieties. Hit PLAY and you’ll notice your feet will more naturally move to the rhythm of the songs playing. I suggest checking out what your natural cadence without the music is (most watches track this and can display it) and then trying to bump it up just a little faster over a few weeks. (Don’t try and change it dramatically right before the big race!) Also, if you aren’t the music type, some watches have a metronome built in that will either beep or vibrate to a programable rhythm for cadence practicing.

You’ll feel lighter on your feet in no time! You’ll be less prone to injuries, and have the satisfaction of seeing improvements in your performance over time. The reduced risk of injury also means less time off from running, allowing you to stay consistent with your training.

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An Ode to the Treadmill

In a state where the allure of outdoor adventures beckons, the treadmill often finds itself cast aside, perceived as a monotonous and uninspiring tool for fitness. However, beneath its unassuming appearance lies a powerhouse of potential, offering a plethora of benefits that can transform your fitness journey.

For those mornings where your winter legs and spirits aren’t rising early enough to suffer the steeps of the Nosedive Headwall on skins, or you’re tired of suiting up with 3 layers and 2 headlights for your morning run, we delve into the often-overlooked advantages of running on a treadmill and explore how this indoor running companion can be a game-changer for both beginners and seasoned athletes. Whether you’re a dedicated outdoor enthusiast or someone seeking a versatile and controlled environment for your workouts, here’s some workouts to mix things up and keep it interesting if you’re stuck indoors.


Instead of increasing the speed to a run as you get warmed up on the treadmill, continue walking but crank the incline up to 12-15%. Keep this up for anywhere to 30-75minutes and make sure to bring an extra towel. Focus hard on each stride and engaging the rear leg muscles while keeping your torso as upright as possible. It doesn’t seem like much by description, but you will undoubtedly access some core and posterior muscles (glutes, hamstrings, lower back/core) while getting a killer cardio workout. It is the perfect because it is the same muscle pattern or running without the impact or eccentric movement of going back down the hill.


If you have ever seen someone doubled over while pushing their knee down with their hands to take another step along a trail or incline, you know how miserable and tiresome it looks. To avoid being worn down and hunched over at the waist, hit  this series of exercises to get your body and lungs ready for the inclines that await.

Walk or hike at an incline on the treadmill (or even stairmaster) for 5-10minutes to get the heartrate up a bit but don’t go over the top – you shouldn’t be gasping for breath.

Set up a mat next to your machine. After the 5-10min interval get on the mat for 10-30 “Supermans” (laying prone, flex and engage your lower back, hamstrings, and scapula muscles, like you’re flying)

After that, grab a bar or just a PVC pipe and crank out 5-15 “Good mornings”

Repeat this 3-4 times. Not only will they 45-60min fly by but the workout will hit the essential muscle groups needed to get you up to the top of the mountain without bowing down to it.

If a day on the trails has ever left your calves screaming in soreness for the following few days, you are not alone. The descent from the peak back to the trailhead is a completely different animal than getting up to the top. Gravity is on your side when it comes to lungs/cardio work but it comes at the cost of the muscles in your lower leg (think ankle stabilizers and calf). Going back down the mountain leaves you more sore in these muscle groups because stepping downward is an “eccentric” movement. This means you have to work to keep the muscle from elongating. 

Get ready for the trek back down the mountain and prep your ankles to avoid injury with this routine:

10min on the treadmill either with no incline or a slight decline if the option is available. Set it to a speed that warms you up but doesn’t get you drastically out of breath. Instead of walking or running, exaggerate a tip-top stride. Try not to let your heels touch the treadmill and really push off your toes.

Get off the treadmill and do 10-20 single foot toe hops. Again, stay off the heels if you can. You can do this with a jump rope or just on your own.

After the hops, perform 10-20 calf raises. You can do these with your chest up against a wall or for an added bonus on a stability half-ball. This will help prevent rolled ankles by improving balance and stability, especially while you are tired from the tip-toes and hops.

Repeat this series 3-4 times. 


If you want to mix some faster paced stuff into your workout while also getting more hiking-focused try this one on for size. Guaranteed to give you a great workout while distracting you from the awfully slow treadmill timer.

Start off, as mentioned above, at a slower pace on 12-15% incline for 10-15min 

Then switch it to a bit faster pace while reducing the grade to 5-8% for another 10-15min.

Repeat as desired. Keep it a power walk or switch to a slower jog up the lower gradient. It will target all sorts of different leg muscles while also incorporating a great cardio workout.

Mixing things up helps to take your mind off the dreadfully slow timer on the treadmill. These routines also help to improve your muscle movement while you are cardiovascularly fatigued. It will also keep your mind on the exercises and focusing on what muscle groups to engage.

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Hitting the Hills (Better!)

Want to improve your efficiency and up your running confidence? Head for the hills.

Here’s a few tips to become a little more “vertically inclined.”

There’s obviously no shortage of hills here in the Green Mountain State but aside from just bragging about vert, you can actually use the hills to improve running on the flats too.


The pitch of the ground will naturally make you want to bend forward at the hips. Coaches often instruct runners to “stand tall” but a better thought might be to imagine you have a lasso around your waist and someone is tugging you up the hill from your waist. This will keep your glutes engaged and “un-hunch” your lower back. There is a lot of sneaky core work here that will prove beneficial on and off the hills!

Keep your neck straight. Look forward. Not at your feet.


You can use hills to naturally improve stride efficiency. It is (almost) impossible to over-stride while running up hills unless you’re really trying. If you’re a runner who’s prone to injury due to over striding, (like some knee joint pain or IT band syndrome that often sidelines you for a bit), you’ll be able to get used to what proper form feels like even on a one- to two-percent incline. As the road or trail gets even a little steeper, your stride naturally shortens, and if you’re taking shorter strides, you’ve got to take more of them to keep your pace where it was before the hill.

PACE = stride length x stride frequency (cadence)

Running hills will teach you naturally to keep your cadence nice and quick.


Running up an incline properly requires a hip drive, which means that you should use your hip flexors to drive your knee straight up and forward (instead of off to the side) and then power thru the bottom of the stride with your glute muscles. These are the biggest (relatively speaking) muscles you have, so accessing them is key.

Sometimes to start off, it is necessary to actually focus and think in your head, “Use your glutes.” A cue I often use is to think about trying to scrape off a wad of gum from the bottom of your shoe on each stride. You’ll be able to feel the difference when you are accessing the right muscles. It’s a really good kind of “pain in the butt!”


Staying upright will also keep your chest open and allow your lungs to expand fully as opposed to slouching into the vigorous huffing and puffing. Having a mantra or mental cue to use while running up hills. A deep breath, a big hand clap, or even a phrase to tell yourself, as you start up an incline can keep your mind in game and minimize the fear of a hill. Breathing deep and staying calm is key to conquering hills, as opposed to gasping for air and going up reckless abandon.


If you are training for a specific race, it is important to practice similar type hill lengths and grades as the race terrain. Doing this will have you mentally prepared for how to handle yourself and what to expect. Be prepared and know where the hills are; you should study the elevation chart and know the course you are about to race. If the hills are at the beginning or middle of the race it is probably best to run them by keeping your effort steady. Don’t go too crazy and leave your legs crushed for the rest of the race. It will help immensely if you practice consistently and know how your body will feel at each point before, during, and after the hill.

As you hit an incline your cadence naturally starts to quicken, your heart pumps faster, and your lungs beg for more oxygen. The bottom line? There’s nothing you can do that will make hills the easiest part of the run, but if you can keep good form and stay mentally focused, you’ll conquer them in no time!