How to run the UTA100: a few ideas

Photo: Lyndon Marceau

Photo: Lyndon Marceau

This interview was originally posted on Nicky Redl’s website: 

Lithuanian Andrius Ramonas, who has been living in New Zealand for the past year and a half, is a sports and exercise medicine physician doing his PhD in exercise physiology in Auckland. He’s won and set course records for The North Face 50k in Australia (now the Ultra-Trail Australia), and the The Hillary 80k and Tarawera 50k races in New Zealand. He has frequently placed in the top ten in many other ultras and came 5th this year at the Ultra-Trail Australia 100K. Here Ramonas shares how he prepares for running in the Blue Mountains where the UTA 100K distance features accumulated climbs of over 4,500 metres with many, many stairs.

How do you specifically train for this race compared to other events?

The UTA is not very technically difficult, it’s really runnable race, therefore running speed is important. And of course, the race has many stairs and training for that should be considered in the build up for the race. What I did to prepare was that last month, I changed from doing lots of off-road and slow trail running to doing more sessions on the road, and even introduced track running sessions just to increase my speed and improve my stride.

To tackle the stairs (and in general, be better in uphills) over the last few months I concentrated on doing more core stability and glute muscle strength sessions. That allows to have more power in running uphill and almost means that many of those stair sections could be run. Racing in the lead pack usually forces to be flexible on being able to change running pace quite often and quickly, and good foundation in musculoskeletal area helps to achieve this. As we saw today, two runners (during UTA22 race) were just 20 seconds apart, meaning they were fighting on those stairs. So if you can run them, you have a huge advantage.

Finally, my preparation covers a good look at the gear I will take with me, because the list of mandatory gear for the UTA100 is really extensive, so making good choices makes gear more lightweight and compact. Sometimes it’s easy to stick to the same items (if you are used to them), but there are a lot of new things coming out on the market and it is always worth trying new things. 

With a race that has to many stairs, do you have to train on stairs or are there another ways you can prepare?

That’s an individual choice I think. One way of training for stairs is to think about what elements in your body support running uphill and upstairs. To name a few – correct running form, core stability, well “firing” glute muscles. If you focus on those elements it’s possible to avoid excessive training on stairs, and still be good at running them. A few approaches could be used to strengthen those muscles – bodyweight exercises and exercises using additional weights, like barbell, kettlebells or other tools. Some exercises that I like which do not require additional equipment – single-leg squats, squat-jumps. Exercises with weights that improve running-specific strength are – deadlift, front and back squats, kettlebell swing, hip thrust. A few of my favorites. I do not avoid training with really heavy weights, because the aim is not only just build muscle endurance, but power and strength.

When I use actual stairs in my session, I mainly focus on running form rather than intensity of that session. By saying “focus on running form” I mean the essential elements of running uphill – maximally engaged core muscles (that should feel as tight abdominal muscles, but not lower back tightness or pain), relatively straight body (bending too much forwards will “switch off” glute muscles, which are the most powerful muscles to propel us forwards whether we run uphill or flat), relaxed arms and good rhythm or pace. The main criteria that I use to finish stair training session is when I start feeling that those above-mentioned elements start to fail. In that case, no matter how many steps there are on the staircase – it is not a number of repetitions that guide session but a quality.

How are you preparing in regards to nutrition?

The exercise intensity, even in 100 kilometer race is usually not light, therefore I base my race nutrition on carbohydrates. However, in a recent years I have reduced my race carbohydrate consumption due to gastrointestinal symptoms I was experiencing during races. Cutting carbs I had to become a better “fat burner”. For that reason, I regularly use “train low” sessions (when energy beverages are not consumed during the session) lasting up to 5-6 hours. That helps me to be more energetically flexible and maintain energy levels during races. During the base training season I also reduce carbohydrate consumption in the overall diet, which also helps to improve body’s ability to burn fat-based fuels.

However, in the race I usually stick to energy gels, mainly because with energy gels it is easy to count the amount of energy consumed. In very long races, I would probably mix in some savory foods as well, but in races up to 10 hours, I usually just stick with sugar. Simplified race nutrition leaves more space for other things and saves time in the checkpoints. 

Eating simple, uncomplicated foods, the ones that were tried before also helps to avoid any food related issues before the race. I am also careful not to overload too much in the days ahead of the race. It’s really easy to underestimate how much athletes eat, especially in the last week when the training load is much lower and eating habits remain the same. Additional body weight not necessarily will affect race performance (especially in ultra races), but can influence the body sensation.