Endurance Skating

Training, Racing & LCHF Fueling For Skating And Endurance Sports

Thoughts on Nutrition, Training & Racing for Marathons vs Ultra

ultramarathon_decalI was recently asked what I thought were the main differences between marathons and ultras, and how “shorter” races fit in with my diet and penchant for longer/ultra distance events. Hmm, actually, I’m not sure that’s exactly how it was worded, but that’s what I’m going to write about.

Let’s first take the diet….

In short, I would not change much here at all. I’m very happy with what I eat, and believe that it works best for me in terms of health, which underpins everything I do in training and racing.

I’m not really sure, nor do I much care what “label” I fall under these days. In terms of everyday food, I guess that I still mainly identify with LCHF, and in terms of race nutrition I would say that I try to implement the OFM (Optimized Fat Metabolism) protocol which aims to develop a highly fat-adapted base metabolism and combine it with strategic intake of carbs pre/intra/post- race depending on the specifics of that race.

Generally speaking, I do eat tonnes of vegetables and have also increased my fruit intake more recently. I would estimate that at least >60% of my calories come from fat, maybe 20-25% protein, and 15-20% carbs. And I still view all variants of sugar and refined carbohydrates like they’re arsenic.

One of the big questions asked about fat-adaptation is “do you lose top end when you become more fat adapted…?” Do you give up that lung-busting redline performance level that is required for short/middle distance racing?

Empirically, some studies have shown this to be the case, but you have to be careful with how these conclusions have been drawn. Correlation does not mean causation as I continually point out, and a loss of maximal power may just as easily be explained by a shift in training as much as a shift in diet; athletes who pursue long term fat-adaptation are generally doing so for the purpose of ultra endurance events, and it stands to reason that they will tend to structure their training to reflect this. We know that maximal performance markers such as VO2max will suffer a detraining effect within just a few weeks of disuse, yet doing so will push you out of fat-burning and into sugar-burning mode, which is the opposite of what ultra athletes are trying to achieve. Therefore it becomes a chicken/egg question – have they lost their top end because of the diet, or because they don’t really need it and so rarely train it? For me, the jury is still very much out on this.

While being highly fat-adapted may not offer a competitive advantage from a metabolic perspective for short & middle distance events, I still think that it’s an entirely optimal state to be in even if your races are generally 1-2hrs or longer… I refer you to Tim Noakes who has given many great interviews since his high fat epiphany, but this one from Marathon Talk is probably the best of the lot (starts at 47mins).


He gives a mention to running icon Bruce Fordyce, who specialises in ultra-marathons but has also vastly improved his 10km times after eliminating processed sugar and increasing his fat intake (10k pace is generally above the Lactate/Anaerobic threshold, ie zone 4-5 for most people). Now admittedly, I think the improvement is almost entirely down to the weight loss effect rather than the metabolic effect of high fat, but it is more anecdotal evidence where the wider benefits of high-fat for shorter races have outweighed the disadvantages… if indeed there actually are any. Of course, in running you are heavily penalised for carrying excess weight, whereas in non-weight bearing sports such as skating and cycling you can get away with it more (unless the course is very hilly). Nonetheless it is still a factor to consider… especially if you plan on tackling Dunlop Hill 100+ times.

I agree strongly with Noakes too about genetic predisposition; the outstanding athletes at shorter (glycolytic aerobic) distances are necessarily those who are genetically predisposed to be highly carbohydrate tolerant, but that is probably only 20-30% of the population. If you are carbohydrate intolerant (as I, Noakes, Fordyce & most of the general population is) then you will simply be disadvantaged in all event distances until the lipolytic aerobic system is dominant, which, depending upon your personal individuality is usually between 3-5hrs. Going [very] high carb won’t make you a better 5k runner if you are carb intolerant, it will just make you fatter and less healthy.


The truth is that for the vast majority of people I think training the top end is incredibly over-rated. My disdain for “quality” (God, I hate that term) training may well be pathological.

Training discussion amongst inline speed skaters in particular is notorious for this because skate races are largely decided by pack dynamics – fast starts, mid-race attacks, hills, etc… a large part of classic inline training tends to place an emphasis on track-style workouts such as sprints, intervals, pyramids, ladders workouts etc to reflect these race dynamics.

My take on this is that only the front of the elite pack is really raced this way, and even then I don’t really buy the argument that you have to do lots of interval workouts in order to cope with race shenanigans. It’s just an illogical leap in assumption to suggest that age groupers should be training the way that the elites are racing. What we really need to ask is “what is the best way to improve?” and the answer is not by emulating how Bart Swings skates during 10km eliminations races.

In Swimming and Long Track Ice the culture has shifted from doing a high amount of threshold work to a polarized high/low intensity mode. It’s amazing how much work they do aerobically in these sports and how little real speedwork (less than 10%, including races) they do – it is not atypical for young elites to spend a couple of years (not weeks or months) training exclusively in zone 1 and focussing purely on form… and then only adding quality work once the basics have been highly honed.

What does this have to do with Inline marathons and ultra-endurance events? Alan Couzens puts it most eloquently when he writes:

“So, what does all of this mean to me, as a competitive Iron-distance triathlete looking to fulfil my athletic potential? It is the author’s opinion that one of the negative effects of the ‘trickle-down’ of advanced periodization concepts to the general masses is that, while annual periodization is an effective way to change the program of an elite athlete to prevent plateaus, rarely does an age-group athlete get anywhere close to a plateau of their foundational systems before (for the sake of variety), they decide to add more advanced training to their program.

If 2 years of training, with the bulk of it below a heart rate of 150, is good enough for young elite swimmers, whose event typically lasts 50 seconds – 2 minutes, surely it is good enough for you as a sub-elite long course athlete (whose event may last 10-12 hours).”


Read that carefully again – he is saying that unless you are an elite, then in training like an elite you may be shifting your focus away from the basics that will reap far greater overall returns in terms of overall performance.


The beauty of training and racing longer races (3hrs+) is that it affords you the fitness to jump in and do “shorter” races thanks to the large base that you’ve built up. For sure, because I don’t specialise in shorter races (which I would class as between 1-2hrs) my performances in them won’t be quite as strong as they might otherwise be, but I would say they’re probably not “suffering” more than 2 or 3%. That’s OK – specialising at one type of event necessitates giving up a little in other areas.

It may seem ridiculous to a sprinter or short/middle distance guy, but from an ultra perspective, these marathons and half-marathon length events act as useful “speedwork” for the longer stuff.

Physiologically speaking, the %HRmax and %LT that we can hold falls the longer the distance. While a 1-2hr race can be raced within a few % of the Lactate Threshold, a 6hr race effort would be far closer to the the Aerobic threshold (AeT) and over the course of a 24hr race you may even struggle to reach the AeT as muscular fatigue becomes a big factor.

A big difference between marathons and ultras is the differences and overlap between training and racing pace. If your focus is on shorter races (lets says races between 1-4hrs) you should generally train slower than you race. However for ultras (let’s say 6hrs – 24hrs) your race pace will be increasingly aerobic and more reflective of your training pace.

Anyway, the really nice thing at the moment is that I’m still getting better and faster at all distances as my aerobic base continues to get stronger… all ships go up with a rising tide.

Race Execution

What matters most in Ultra distance?

Let me state that, provided you are prepared to do the training, then I believe the least important aspect of ultras is outright speed/technique. The fact that plenty of less speedy athletes beat the zippier ones over longer races should be enough to convince you of this. While speed and technique do ultimately matter at all distances, they don’t matter nearly as much the longer the race goes. Scott Jurek has a marathon PR of 2h:38 – yes, fast by age group standards, but it wouldn’t get him anywhere near the elite marathon pack – yet he regularly destroyed his “faster” competitors at Western States and other ultras for nearly a decade where other factors came into play.

Fitness & endurance trumps outright speed & technique in ultra-distance in my opinion. In a 2hr event you can expect to be approximately 70:30 glycolytic:lipolytic. Stretch the duration to an 8hr event and you can expect that ratio to flip around, ie 30% glycolytic & 70% lipolytic. Stretch that even further to a 24hr event, and it is clear that your rate of maximum fat oxidation is perhaps the greatest real-world limiter in ultra endurance. This is sometimes termed “metabolic fitness”, and I think it’s an apt description. It is a lack of metabolic fitness which causes many athletes to break down around the 3-5hr area as the rules of the glycolytic-aerobic model of energy production start to fall apart. I can categorically say that a lack of metabolic fitness has undone many better technical skater than myself over the course of a 24hr race.

Ultras become an exercise in restraint, which then eventually develop into an exercise in psychology.

The restraint aspect comes in the form of pacing judgement, which becomes exponentially more important the longer the distance. I really can’t emphasize this enough. Setting off too fast in long events is like writing a cheque that your body just can’t cash. The general rule that “in a marathon, every minute you run too fast in the first half, you will lose double that in the 2nd half” can be extrapolated with each doubling of time/distance – so in a 50 mile race you might lose 4mins at the end for each minute you start out too fast, and in 100 miler/24hr race you can lose 7-8 minutes for every minute you set off too fast. At the marathon/4hr distance I view anything above a +2% positive split as setting off too fast, and at the 100 mile/24hr distance anything greater than about a +7% positive split likewise (adjusted for changing terrain/condition, of course). I believe this is true in all forms of racing.

The psychology aspect of ultra is simply the will to keep going when the tiredness and fatigue. It is everything. We can, of course, write entire books on this… or entire blog posts at least… which we will do… on another day.


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This entry was posted on August 20, 2015 by in Endurance, Nutrition, Training and tagged , , , , , , , .

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