Physical fitness is an essential prerequisite to military service. The ability to conduct tasks under arduous conditions is more readily achieved by members who are physically and mentally prepared, therefore high standards of health and physical fitness are key elements to Army’s readiness.
Several years ago I decided to challenge myself by training for an ultramarathon. This article highlights what I learnt from the experience and what I got out of it. I hope that the lessons I have learned will help others to take that first step on what, for me, was a challenging but enjoyable fitness journey.
One of the reasons I decided to challenge myself to train for an ultramarathon was the fact that I now had the time. With all my children having left home, I had plenty of time to get out and train.
The goal I set myself was to complete an ultramarathon at around the one year mark. The event I chose was the Margaret River Ultramarathon. This is a gruelling 80 km run along the spectacular but hilly coastline in the Augusta/Margaret River region of WA. The route is predominantly along the Cape to Cape Trail on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge. The trail has visually stunning coastal and forest scenery. There are plenty of cliffs, caves, headlands, sand and rock formations.
Prior to starting my running regime, as an Army Reservist, I underwent a medical check-up with my GP. Then I visited a cardiologist in case there were underlying health issues that I needed to be aware of. Thankfully, no issues were found.
While I had run previously, I had not done huge kilometres, mainly training to pass BFA runs, and five and ten kilometre runs for general fitness.
I started my training regime and built up the running time and distance slowly, trying to avoid injury.
The type of terrain I chose was important in reducing the likelihood of injury. It mainly consisted of running on soft beach sand, coastal trails and forest tracks, with some road and path training.
One of the main things I picked up from ultramarathon runners was to spend time on your feet, build a strong foundation to cover the distance, and increase cardiovascular fitness.
My weekly training regime looked like this:
- Monday – Base run
- Tuesday – Rest day
- Wednesday – Tempo run
- Thursday – Repeat hill runs
- Friday – Intervals
- Saturday – Long slow run
- Sunday – Fast 10 km cross country run
A mixture of easy, moderate and hard runs was used in training. It is important to vary the running otherwise your fitness will plateau. Weekends were used for the long runs. These took a few hours, and recovery time was available.
Every few weekends I ran different sections of the ultramarathon track so I knew what to expect and prepare for. I often ran with other runners who were also preparing for the event. We started with shorter distances and built up to 30, 40 and 50 km runs.
Other types of fitness training was also undertaken, such as weights for strength, cardio, walking and bike riding.
My training runs lasted from 40 minutes to several hours. To pass the time while training I listened to podcasts on topics such as military history, current events and ultra-running.
Tracking the training
A sport watch is helpful to monitor your training. Garmin and other similar watches provide useful metrics on your performance and suggested training runs. Programs like Strava and Training Peaks can be linked to your watch. They provide a good record of what you have completed, fitness analysis and performance level. You can also share your runs with others who are training for the event to support and encourage each other.
Threats and hazards
The main threats and hazards considered when planning the training and event were:
- Heat stress during hot weather
- Snake bite
- Mosquitoes (Ross River Virus area)
- Fast moving 4WD vehicles on tracks/beaches
- Cold weather
- Night running – cool weather and trip hazards from small protruding rocks and tree roots
- Injury management
I carried the following gear to mitigate the risks:
- Vest with 1.5 litre water bladder
- Snake bite bandage
- Bright coloured, high visibility running shirt so I could be seen day or night
- Legionnaire style hat to provide shade to face and neck area
- Lightweight jacket for cold/wind
- Mobile phone
- Snacks and endurance fuel such as Tailwind
- Sun cream
The main injuries and issues I encountered during the lead up were:
- Plantar fasciitis – caused by ill-fitting running shoes. This put my training back considerably. I eventually required treatment from a podiatrist and four weeks of no running to recover. This was difficult as I was keen to train hard. It required a high level of patience to resist the urge to recommence running too soon.
- Hot spots on bottom of feet
- Damaged and bruised toenails. I learned toenails need to be kept short and you must wear correctly fitted running shoes.
- Chafing: use Glide or similar product.
Good quality shoes are a must for long distance running. For ultramarathon training, I found that three different types of shoes were beneficial:
- one pair for beach running
- one pair for trails
- one pair for hard road and path surfaces.
The shoes I used for the longer distances were a size larger to allow for my feet swelling around the 20-30 km mark. The shoes I bought all had plenty of cushioning.
Seeking out information
Most of the books I found on distance running were quite old and out of date. Online running forums, magazines and podcasts seemed to have the best and latest information/advice. Talking to runners who had completed the event was very useful. I was also able to connect with individuals and groups that had run the event. I arranged to run with these people. All these runners were generous with their time and information.
I joined the local runners club. I ran with them early Saturday mornings for a 15 to 20 km run, asking questions of those that had run the event before. I also joined a Cross Country Runners club which ran on Sunday mornings.
Hydration and nutrition
Getting hydration and nutrition right was probably my most difficult task in preparing for the event. Differing ambient temperature, humidity, terrain, distance covered and speed all feed into how much a person sweats. It is critical to try to work out what your body loses and what you need to replace. Too little or too much hydration can cause issues. The literature states that runners should ‘drink to thirst’ rather than try to replace all fluids that are lost. With an easy run lasting an hour or less, just drinking water is fine. A long distance runner can burn hundreds of calories per hour and some of these calories need to be replaced by consuming 200–300 calories per hour. This is near the maximum our bodies can digest. For most runners this means eating and/or drinking 80–100 calories roughly every 20–30 minutes. Primarily, this is in the form of small carbohydrate-rich snacks like gels, chews and sports drinks. The exact number of calories depends on several factors, including the length and intensity of your run and your body type.
On the day of my ultra-event, the weather was sunny and much hotter than any of the training run days. This made hydration and nutrition even more important. I started off far too quickly, getting carried along with the other runners. At around every 20 km point there was an aid station to top up on food and water. The 20 km sandy beach stretch was quite gruelling and had several water crossings to contend with. At around the 55 km point I was struggling but I wasn’t prepared to give up. Mentally I knew I could get through. I had the training under my belt to keep going. I dug deep and made it to the next aid station. I had a rest, and some food and drink, and then pushed on. Once night came, it got very cold and windy. My nutrition plan kicked in and I started feeling good; finishing the run strongly within the time I had set myself. I was exhausted but more than happy with the result.
The benefits that I found from the long distance training over this period were:
- Gained and maintained a high level of cardiovascular and respiratory fitness
- Increase in VO2 max
- Lower heart rate and blood pressure
- Better endurance and an ability to work at a higher rate for longer periods of time
- Weight loss down to appropriate racing (or running) weight
- Better rest and sleep patterns
- Higher energy levels
- Better mental health
- Mental strength to continue on through adversity
- General feeling of wellbeing
The running training has led me to a healthier lifestyle and diet. It has also allowed me to keep up with the rigours of the infantry and the role of sergeant. I face fitness tests, training exercises and deployments without any fitness issues.
Since the Margaret River Ultramarathon I have kept up the training regime and gone on to participate in a number of 20, 25, and 50 km events.
Within Defence there is the ADF Running and Athletics Association (ADFRAA). This is a great organisation that supports Defence runners of all standards in each state. ADFRAA provides assistance, mateship and sponsorship for some events throughout the year.
Distance running and ultramarathons are an enjoyable way to enhance fitness. You meet a community of likeminded fit and motivated people, similar to people found in the ADF. I encourage all those with an interest in ultra-running to give it a go.