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Experienced ultra-distance runners know that performance is improved by a reduction in body temperature. Or, cooling your body with water in the heat will make you run better. This practice has become a priority for long-distance runners.

Science has proved: that heat hurts endurance performance, even when it’s not very hot.

There are many studies on major marathons*. The findings agree that rising temperatures hurt performance – much earlier in a run than we realise. Reducing body temperature improves speed and is likely to reduce the effects on your health from ultra running.

How do we cool our bodies? Some of the following will give you an immediate advantage in your next race.

Keep your body wet, ideally with cold water. Don’t just drink at water stations. Spray yourself with the water. Focus on your head, neck, core and hamstrings. Male runners should tape their nipples securely. It may be loosened by water and become a bloody mess. When you wear compression socks, keep water away from them as they may pool water at your feet.

Light, reflective clothing keeps your skin surface temperature cool in extreme heat. Running vests are generally much better than shirts under extreme conditions.

Apply ice or water to your body using your clothing. Grab some ice at a water station and use your cap, buff, sleeves or pants to keep it near your skin. Stuff it wherever possible. You may have pockets you don’t use at some point. I use my buff to hold a broken water sachet on my head.

Apply cold water to your skin and head before the race on hot days. If core temperature increases in hot conditions, it is difficult to lower.

Remember to test the above in training to see what works for you.

* Studies were sourced from PLoS One, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Sports Medicine and the British Journal of Sports Medicine – from 2010 to 2019

foto: Daniel Reche

New research from La Trobe University suggests there is no evidence that changing a runner’s strike pattern will help prevent injuries or give them a speed boost.

In a bid to avoid shin splints, sore knees and other injuries, many runners have adopted a toe-to-heel trend, running on the balls of their feet. This is often encouraged by coaches and health professionals.

However, in research out this week in Sports Medicine, La Trobe injury researcher and physiotherapist Dr Christian Barton found there is no evidence to suggest running on the front of your feet reduces injury risk or improves performance.

The comprehensive review suggests that telling someone to run on the ball of their foot instead of their heel may make them less efficient, at least in the short term. Additionally, there is no evidence either way on whether running on the balls of your feet reduces injury.

Dr Barton said switching your running style shifts the body’s loads but doesn’t make them disappear.

Running toe-heel might help injuries at the knee, where loads are reduced. However, it may cause injuries to the feet and ankle, where loads are increased.

Put simply, when it comes to running style: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

It starts with the nipples. You’ve laid out your racing kit the night before. If you are a male runner this includes some surgical tape for your nipples. Even the most hardened endurance runner sometimes find that his nipples start to bleed, because of the friction created by the movement of the running shirt.

Stick to your regular race day diet, but try to eat 3 to 4 hours prior to the starting gun. Also make sure you drink something before the start. This may be water or your own pre-race mix, but it’s not a bad idea to add an hydration agent.

There are studies to support the physical and physiological benefit of caffeine use by athletes. Stay off coffee 3 days prior to a race to heighten your sensitivity. On race day take 3 to 6 mg of caffeine for every kg of bodyweight prior to the start. There are still some differences in opinion about how long before the race. Opinions range from 30 minutes to as long as 6 hours. Make sure you take some water with the caffeine.

One approach I have considered is to start the day with a cup of coffee, because of the amount of caffeine required, and then take some more caffeine in capsule form closer to the start.

On this topic it is also important to note that energy drinks must be avoided, because of the high amount of concentrated caffeine they can contain.

The final word on coffee; it also improves the working of the the small arteries, which includes slowing the occurrence of inflammation.

Check the weather report to see if it is cold. If so, take some old clothing with, something which you can throw away. Just before the gun goes, toss your clothing over the side fences, or run with it for a short distance to help you warm-up. Never throw your clothes on the ground, you might end someone’s race prematurely.

Be early at the start of the big races. Especially if you are a novice, you are more than likely to find unexpected traffic, no parking and a long line at the toilets.

When the gun goes KEEP CALM. Focus on relaxing your neck, shoulders, arms and hands. Where the hands are concerned; imagine gently holding a chip between your thumb and forefinger. If you find yourself tense up, shake out your hands for about 100 meters to help you relax and recover.

Don’t follow the frenzied masses. Start slow, be disciplined and stick to your race plan. This includes NOT weaving in and out of the crowd of runners, wasting energy in the process. If you execute your plan well you will start passing runners in the latter part of the race.

Always keep going forward. Never go backwards, sideways or spend time at a water point. This can cost you the race – especially in an ultra.

Your race feeding normally starts 45 to 60 minutes into the race. NEVER TRY SOMETHING NEW ON RACE DAY. If you have not experimented with this you will begin by calculating a high end and a low end to yield a range for appropriate hourly carbohydrate intake. The range should be adjusted in time based on individual differences and effort level.

The high end is determined by bodyweight x 1.0 = grams of carbohydrates per hour.

The low end is determined by bodyweight x 0.7 = grams of carbohydrates per hour.

Remember to take some water after feeding. An hydration mix with water somewhere in your race can also be beneficial.

Don’t eat or drink during the final 5% of the race – unless you feel you really need it.

If you are on the road for more than 2 hours, make sure you have a recovery drink within minutes after you finish. It should include protein and carbohydrates … and drink some water.

Last but not least, enjoy it. Don’t make yourself miserable in the pursuit of a personal best time, rejoice in your ability to run.

The best coaches in my area, most of them close to retirement, confirm that they can not train the modern athlete with techniques from 20 years ago. The modern person’s lifestyle constantly differs from his or her ancestors. Our lifestyle creates inflexibility and weakness, which is reinforced when running. Changing our ways requires better focus and frequent repetitions.

Not that we have to discard all we know. Rather, we have to be conscious of how the knowledge base change and align it with the changing needs of the runner.

What follows is a few tips for both novices and experienced runners.

General form
Good form will not only make you a beter runner, but also less injury prone.

  • Keep your head and chest upright. Relax the neck, shoulders and upper body. The upper body should be stable, but not tense.
  • Practice belly breathing. This will strengthen the diaphragm, which in turn aids running economy.
  • Relax your hands – imagine you are holding something precious between your thumb and forefinger. Clenching your hands will make you tense and tire your arms.
  • Work your arms – swing from the armpits to the hips in the direction you are going. No crossing over of arms or a boxing motion / chicken wings, this halters your momentum.
  • If you catch yourself clenching your hands or swinging your arms across your body, shake out your hands for 100 meters to fix it.
  • To improve posture and balance, run on a line in training, feet on both sides.

Speed training should be restricted and well balanced for endurance runners to restrict the buildup of ion molecules in the muscles. Failure to do so will result in enhanced levels of fatigue in races.

Too much speed training will also increase the proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow-twitch muscle fibers (Jansson, Esbjörnsson, Holm & Jacobs, Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 1990), to the detriment of your endurance ability.

When you do speed training focus on your posture. Keep your head up, arms swinging in the direction you are going and hips extending and driving. Focus on eliminating unnecessary movements and maintaining balance and control.

Do not mess with your natural stride. Research shows this results in loss of speed (Brigham Young University study, International Journal of Exercise Science, 2017).

Be careful not to overreach in your stride. You will only hasten the onset of fatigue. The feet should strike under your center of gravity, with the hips extending and legs moving well out behind the center of gravity. Drive from the hips.

Improving energy storage and utilization
This is done with the long run in training.

  • Do not eat or drink before your run – this helps the body to improve it’s capacity to use fat. You should now and then experiment with staying off carbs for 12 hours before a long run – only if you had a good rest day before. Some French research suggest this not only improves energy utilization, but also boosts endurance performance by increasing aerobic capacity. Please note that for this to work your general diet should contain enough high quality carbs. You should also take some food during the run, otherwise it will effect the quality of the run and your metabolism may slow due to this semi-fasted state, resulting in fewer calories burned.
  • Do not start too fast or run too slow on the remainder. Start at recovery pace for the first few kilometers and then increase your speed to maximum 20% slower than marathon pace, moving to 10% slower than marathon pace, sometimes finishing at marathon pace. Make sure you cool down if you ran at marathon pace.
  • Do not eat, or drink carbs over the final 8 kilometers, only water – this also improves the utilization of fat.
  • Take a rest day before and a day after a long run – generally, not always.
  • In addition you can now and then run twice on one day on normal training days.

Running Economy
Running economy is typically defined as the energy demand for a given velocity of running, and is determined by the consumption of oxygen. In other words, the less oxygen you consume at a given velocity, the better your running economy.

You improve this ability by gradually increasing distance over time. This also helps your fast-twitch muscle fibers gain the positive characteristics of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch muscles enable our endurance abilities, such as distance running.

To improve your intake of oxygen, keep your head up and practice belly breathing.

Inhale and exhale smoothly and continuously through both your nose and mouth at the same time while running. On average you will inhale for three footstrikes, exhaling a bit faster, but this depends on your speed.

If you have trouble breathing during a race: lie down, relax, inhale slowly, fully expanding your lungs on the inhale, breathing from the belly, not pausing before you exhale. Do this a few times while focusing on staying calm and relaxed, because sometimes our problems with breathing is a result of race anxiety. A warm-up before the race also helps to stem that anxiety.

Strength Training
Strength training should be included at least twice per week in base training and should always be preceded by a gentle aerobic warm-up.

Do about 200 kilometers in new shoes before you use them for a race. This should include at least one long run.

Race preparation
When preparing for a race you should try to mimic the goal race topography on some of your routes.

Do not race more than once every third week – never longer than a half marathon.

The week before a race you should remember to hydrate properly.

During the race, stick to the racing line as far as possible. The racing line is the shortest distance between two points, as measured from the start.

Race nutrition is a matter of personal preference and you should experiment with it in long runs, not during goal races. General guidelines include eating 7 – 8 g of carbohydrates for every 1 kg of body weight in the week prior to the race and taking fluid and carbohydrates at certain intervals during the race. Try not to drink anything after the 40 km mark in a marathon.

(Thoughts on endurance running, form and technique first appeared on