Thursday, 4 October 2012

Stuff you need to run an ultra

I'm pretty new to this whole ultra running malarchy, but one thing that I seem to have done quite well with in my short time running is my kit. More so than with shorter distances, choosing the right kit for you is incredibly important if you want to complete your run in the most comfortable and safe way possible. If you've ever had a blister, you know how annoying and painful it can be. Now imagine running 90 miles on it (yep, I've done that). But blisters don't have to happen if you find the right combination of footwear. Ever been caught up a mountain in shorts and a t-shirt and it starts snowing (yep, I've done that too)? Should probably have prepared for the weather turning. 

I often see the same questions being asked by people looking to get into the sport; "Which shoes/socks/bag/jacket/etc. should I use?". In my opinion, the answer to all of these questions is very simple; "Whatever works for you". Everybody is different and what works for one person may not work for another. I have bought several items on the recommendation of people telling me they were perfect for what I needed, only to find that they really did not work for me. But it's no biggy - I just tried something else. Eventually you will find something that does exactly what you need.

Personally, I am generally something of a frugal (read "stingy") runner, so I try and find cheap equipment that does the job where possible. Also, once I find something that works I pretty much stick to it; "If it ain't broke..." and all that. I thought that I would do this post to go through some of the kit that I use, but concentrate more on my reasons for choosing the kit that I use (which hopefully will help if you are trying to decide what you are looking for), rather than what I actually use. 



What you wear to cover your body is quite important. Apparently. Personally, if not for the "beautiful" British weather, I would be running in nothing but a pair of shorts every day (much to my neighbours' horror). But my proclivities towards nudity aside, it's probably a good idea to find some clothes that you feel comfortable running in.

For your bottom half, you have the choice between shorts or tights (either full length or 3/4 length). Personally, I always wear shorts. I have always worn shorts for everything, even in the middle of winter. I think it's my northern blood. I still get funny looks at work when I turn up in shorts and a T-shirt in the snow. You'd think they'd be used to it by now! However this is a personal choice and you should use what works for you.

Your main consideration here is going to be chaffing. This could be due to friction between your thighs as you run, underneath your arms as you swing them, or friction on other delicate... bits. I can't speak to how things are for you ladies, but I can safely say that somebody dropped the ball (pun intended) when they designed the male anatomy.

I wear Nike Drifit shorts, for no other reason than you can get them cheap from Sports Direct! They have a little pouch for your iPod and keys, and have an internal mesh which is very good at wicking away moisture, which is about all I was looking for really. I also wear a pair of Nike Pro Combat base layer shorts. These are quite tight (think cycling shorts) and so do well for me at minimising chaffing since they limit skin-on-skin contact and again are designed to control moisture levels.

For your top half, you again want to consider chaffing, but also you want to choose something that keeps you dry. I sweat a lot, so I want running tops that are efficient at wicking away the moisture. The wetter clothing gets, the worse the chaffing will be (and the colder you will get when the sun goes down). All running-specific tops will be designed like this - as long as you don't wear cotton T-shirts you'll be fine! Chaffing points to consider are between the arms and torso as you swing your arms, and most importantly the nipples. Nobody wants to worry about bleeding nipples, and this is the main reason I prefer to run topless. Just the thought of it makes me shudder!

I once bought a cheap More Mile running top from a running expo, and liked it so much that I now wear their tops exclusively. A couple of cheap short sleeved and a couple of long sleeved tops is all I've ever needed. I do also have some Nike Pro Combat base layer tops (long and short sleeved) which I will use if it's particularly cold. If you require anything warmer than this, there is a large amount of warm weather gear that is available. 


You can go very Gok Wan with accessorising your running ensemble, but really you just need a couple of bits and pieces:

A decent pair of sunglasses, preferably designed for use in sports like running and cycling, is probably a good idea. I don't like wearing metal frames so prefer the plastic frames in things like Oakleys (other brands are also available...). Also, I find that some pairs have a habit of steaming up from your breathing as you run which isn't great. Just look for a pair that are comfortable and don't steam up and you'll be fine. I find that pulling the glasses about half an inch from my brow helps the air to circulate and stops it condensing inside the eye pieces. Frankly I hardly ever wear mine as I prefer to be as unencumbered as possible.

Also, a baseball cap can be useful. Again I tend not to wear mine as I find it gets in the way, and I don't want to have to deal with it if I change my mind and have to cram it in my bag. But they can be useful for keeping the sun off you. Or in case 80s fashions ever come back in. Word.

A warm beamy hat is probably essential if you plan on running in cold conditions, or for overnight sections of races where the temperature can really drop. Just something to cover the top of your head and your ears in the cold of winter. You can look for something like morino wool, which is lightweight and warm and has an impressive ability to not smell despite all that sweating. But I tend to just wear a cheap Karrimor one I got from Sports Direct, which is nice and light and keeps me plenty warm enough.

Similarly with gloves. I have a couple of cheap lightweight pairs that I wear in the winter, and a more expensive waterproof pair that I use for mountain running. I tend to avoid using them as much as possible, and really the only thing I look for is for them to not affect my dexterity too much. As long as you can open your water bottle and a gel packet, that's fine. But don't let your fingers get too cold, or you may find it difficult to perform even the most simple of tasks. I once got home from a winter run without gloves and my fingers had gone so cold that I couldn't undo the clips on my bag and get to my keys.

Also I would thoroughly recommend getting some Buffs. Buffs are great. They are lightweight and incredibly versatile. You can wear a buff like a beanie hat, a bandana, a ski/ninja mask, as a neckerchief, or you can just wrap it around your arm for wiping your forehead with. I almost always run with one on my wrist, and will often put one on as a bandana as well, for that true sense of white trash chic. 

A lot of people also wear compression socks and calf guards, although personally I don't use them. The idea behind these is that they may help with recovery, so some people also wear them after runs to aid with muscle recovery. There is a bit of a debate about whether or not they actually do anything, or if they're just an expensive boob tube for your legs. They were initially designed for people with lymphoma and have had a lot of success in this area by improving circulation and preventing blood clots, so the idea is that they can potentially do a similar job at improving blood flow and thereby clearing the crap out of your muscles after your run. However, there seems to be as much research saying that they do work (e.g. Jakeman et al Eur J Appl Physiol (2010) 109:1137–114) as says that they don't (e.g. Sperlich et al Journal of Sports Sciences, April 2010; 28(6): 609–61). Most studies are very small however, and the Sperlich paper was the first to focus specifically on endurance athletes. The jury is still out on their utility, but I know a lot of people that swear by them, and you only have to look at some of the top runners that use them like Killian Jornet to see that there could be some benefit. Even if it's just a placebo effect, who cares if it works for you right? 


I live in Great Britain. One of the greatest things about Britain is the amount of rain we get. If, like me, you live in a wet and miserable part of the world, investing in some waterproofs may be a good idea. To be fair, I very rarely wear waterproofs, preferring instead to rely on the natural waterproof qualities of skin. But if you're out for a long run, it's best to have the option to avoid the elements. For a long run, this is sensible. For many ultra races, it is required. For mountain races it is essential.

Many races require you to have a waterproof jacket, so this is really an essential purchase. Some races, such as UTMB, Lakeland 100, and oddly (as I just found out) the Norfolk Ultra, require you to also have waterproof trousers. Waterproofs run the gamut from: heavy to light; not-so waterproof to incredibly waterproof; cheap to expensive. Typically these three scales are highly correlated. I went for the Montane Minimus jacket and trousers, mainly due to the fact that they are incredibly light and take up only a small volume in my pack. I also wanted a jacket where I could comfortably run with the hood down, as I have found that with other jackets the hood just gets in the way (it can be rolled up out of the way  in the Minimus).

The best advice is to try some on and see which feel comfortable to move around in. You probably want a hood that can be moved out of the way when not in use, but also remains fixed in place and doesn't flap about when you need it. You also should be careful that your waterproofs are waterproof enough. I thought "waterproof" was a fairly binary facet of clothing, but there are actually different levels of waterproof-ness. The important things to look out for are "waterproof" rather than "weather proof", taped seams (waterproof taping along the seams inside the garments), and sealed adjustable cuffs.


When doing ultras, you may occasionally be required to run. It's an unfortunate fact of the sport. Since you'll be spending a large amount of time on your feet, it's a good idea to make sure that you treat them right. Shoes and socks can have a big effect on your comfort throughout a run - getting it wrong can lead to blisters, lost toenails, and injuries.

There is such a huge scope for finding your perfect combination of footwear that it is impossible for me to give any specific advice. As the late, great Micah "Caballo Blanco" True once told me, "it doesn't matter what you wear on your hooves". The best advice that I can give is to be aware of all of the possibilities, try a number of alternatives, and once you find something that works - do that! Here are the main types of shoe that you are likely to come across:

  • Barefoot running - Okay, so not exactly a shoe this one. Exactly as it sounds, this involves running with no shoes whatsoever. This can encourage good efficient running form (light and controlled running on the forefoot or midfoot) and allows for improved proprioception and feedback from the ground. However, barefoot running is likely no good for races with tough terrain (I certainly saw no barefoot runners at UTMB).
  • Minimalist shoes - These are shoes with very little cushioning, such as Vibram 5 Fingers, which give the benefits of barefoot running but with a little more protection. I would personally think twice about using these for really long races and races with tough terrain, although many people do use them.
  • Low drop shoes - These shoes are slightly more cushioned but have only a minimum differential between the heal and the forefoot (typically around 4mm). Once again, this encourages a good forefoot/midfoot strike, but these shoes typically have a more significant depth of cushioning and more grip. I have a pair of New Balance Minimus Trail 110s which are about the minimum that I would want to use for any long or technical races. 
  • Neutral or motion control shoes - These are your bog standard running shoes, and different shoes suit different people. Typically this is based on how you run, with motion control in place to correct for over-pronation (more of a problem if you are a heel striker). These typically have a heel to toe drop of around 10 mms and favour a heel-to-toe strike pattern.
  • Maximal shoes - Hoka One Ones take the opposite approach to the minimalist movement and give you a massive amount of cushioning to protect your knees from the rigors of long-distance running. I didn't get on so well with these, but I know a lot of people that absolutely swear by them. Interestingly they still have a minimal heel drop of only 4mm, although I found that they favour a heel strike motion to get the full effect of the toe rocker.
For trail running you will want a pair of shoes with some grip to them. The level of grip (based on the size and distribution of the lugs on the sole of the shoe) is dependent on the terrain that you will be facing. I use the Salomon Speedcross which are a good all round trail shoe, and I have found to be suitable for most terrain types that I have tackled. If you are doing fell running, you may want something sturdier (typically fell shoes are stiffer to stop you twisting your ankle when plowing through the bracken) and with some deeper lugs to give you additional grip and wet and slippy rocks.

You will also want to use a pair of socks that keep your feet dry and clean and free from blisters. Some people prefer to run without socks, and some shoes (such as the New Balance MT 110s and the Salomon Sense) are actually designed with comfortable sock-free liners. Some socks are thinner to prevent over-heating, others are thicker to offer more protection for tough terrain. You can get twin-lined socks which aim to prevent blisters by allowing the twin liners to rub against each other rather than against your feet, thus preventing friction. Different socks are made of different materials, some of which are better at wicking away sweat than others. I used to use 1000 Mile Fusion twin skin socks, but have recently started to use Drymax Lite Trail socks which are much lighter and incredibly good at keeping things dry.


If you're going to be running for hours at a time, you're going to need to carry water with you. The main options here are to use a hydration backpack, a waistpack, or to carry a hand-held water bottle. All have their own pros and cons, and the decision for which one to use may well depend on the distance and what type of event you are doing:
  • Backpack - Pros: Can carry more equipment for longer races and leaves your hands free. Cons: May be too heavy and bulky and can cause overheating and chaffing on the back and shoulders.
  • Waistpack - Pros: Can carry a small amount of equipment without becoming too over-burdened, and leaves your hands free. Cons: May bounce around and cause chaffing.
  • Hand-held bottle - Pros: Allows you to remain unencumbered. Cons: Limited to how much fluid you can carry, you can't carry any additional gear, and you're stuck carrying a bottle for the entire run.
Realistically, you will probably want one of each (and potentially more than one...) so that you can pick and choose the optimum method for each race that you do.

As with everything, finding the perfect pack for you is so dependent on your personal needs and preferences that it is best to try a few and see which ones work for you and which ones don't. But speak to other runners to find out which packs they would recommend and which ones they wouldn't. Have they found any particular problems with the pack, even subtle little things that you may not notice until you have been running for a long time with the bag on your back? Was anything missing? Did they like it?

The main thing that I would look for in any bag is comfort and fit. Are there any potential chaffing points (shoulder straps, lower back, under the arms, etc.)? Does it sit on your shoulders comfortably (is the weight distribution comfortable, do the shoulder straps dig into your neck, etc.)? Does it move around when you run (a bag repeatedly bouncing up and down on your back is going to get seriously annoying and will likely cause chaffing issues after a while)? Does the waist strap provide adequate lumbar support and help to distribute the weight?

Next I would look at the utility of the bag. Are there enough pockets and things for everything that I will want to take with me? How easy are these to access on the move (if possible I prefer everything to be accessible without having to stop and take the pack off, so having some easily accessible pockets for gels, somewhere close at hand to keep my waterproof, and somewhere to keep a map handy if necessary is essential)? If you are using a bladder, how easy is it to fill (I personally find Camelbak bladderss a bit of an arse to fill when I am racing)? Is it big enough for what I need? Unless you are doing a multiday event where you have to carry camping equipment and all of your food, you shouldn't really need a bag bigger than 15-20 L, and generally I would say that unless you are doing an unsupported run or are in the mountains and need a lot of extra kit just in case, then you only really need about 10 L.

I would also look for any design flaws in the bag. Is everything within easy reach or do I have to do some form of yoga to access the side pockets? If I use water bottles, are they in a really stupid place (for instance, think about how your arms swing when you run - are you likely to hit them with your elbow? This would be annoying once, never mind several thousands of times!). Are there any annoying toggles or straps that might flap at me in the wind or chafe me?

These sorts of questions are very difficult to answer without the experience of actually running with the pack, fully loaded, for a good few hours at least. For instance, I had heard fantastic things about the OMM Ultra 15 L pack, which is designed by ultra runners for ultra runners. However I found that I just cannot wear it for more than about 10 miles without getting severe chaffing where it rubs on my lower back. It now sits on my cupboard gathering dust. So with any bag look out for how it fits and try to imagine what that will be like after 50 miles of running. If possible try them out, ideally with the sort of kit you are likely to be using and for the sorts of distances that you are likely to be running (easier said than done, and much easier if you have other ultra running friends whose kit you can raid).

This is one area where I have not been particularly frugal, and I decided to use the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab hydration pack which comes in at around £100. However, from personal experience I can safely say that it was well worth the money and I have gotten a lot of hassle free use out of it. I like it so much that I actually have 3 now - two of the 5 L packs for general racing and training (one is held together by gaffer tape and safety pins so I recently bought a replacement), and one of the 12 L packs for races like UTMB where a bit more kit is required (although with a bit of effort you can fit the required kit for UTMB and Lakeland into the 5 L pack). The main thing that I like about it is how comfortably it sits on my back, and the design of it means that the load is spread across your chest rather than on your shoulders. Also the bladder (which I don't really use - I prefer a bottle as it is quicker for refilling at the checkpoints) is top-filling and easily accessible, which means that it can be filled easily at the checkpoints without taking the bag off (providing there is a nice person to help you out). I have trimmed a few loops and toggles off and shortened some of the straps just to make it more comfortable, although out of the box there is very little to complain about. About the only negative is that the material for the bottle holders on the front (which incidentally are perfectly placed - they're high enough that you're arms miss them, but low enough that they're not right in your face while you run) is a little flimsy in the first generation models. By which I mean that after a year and a half of pretty intense use there are some rips in them - they still hold bottles, but you wouldn't want to put your phone in there. But they have improved this on the newer models so hopefully I shouldn't have that problem again.

I don't use waistpacks, so I can't talk too much about these, but the same sort of thought process will apply. Try them out and see what works for you.

Some people, particularly elite runners, will typically prefer to run with only a bottle. This is much easier than carrying a lot of gear in a pack, and is much quicker for refilling at aid stations, but of course it does mean that you can't take much else with you. For many races (assuming that there is no mandatory kit list which may mean that you will have to use a bag), there are so many aid stations that you may be able to rely on just a bottle quite happily. Also, I would say that if you have a support crew who are transferring your gear, or you are running a "washing machine" route (where you run multiple loops of, say, 10 miles), then just using a bottle will be fine because you have access to your kit at regular intervals, so if the weather turns you only have to survive a short time before you can change into something more suitable. However, this is going to depend on your abilities and experience, and on the particular characteristics of whatever run you are doing.

Typically runners use bottles with handles, rather than gripping the bottle the whole way round. This can be anything from one of those "0"-shaped bottles where you can grip through the middle, to a bottle with a glove-like attachment that you jam your hand through. Some will also have pockets allowing you to take a couple of gels and your phone. I use an UltraSpire Isomeric Pocket handheld which I find very comfortable to run with. Generally if I am running a longer event, I prefer to use a very light pack with my essentials in, and a small 500 ml water bottle which I can either carry or put in the shoulder mounted bottle holder. This gives me the speed of using a hand held for refilling at aid stations with the hands-free utility of running with a pack. 


The most obvious gadget for the discerning ultrarunner is the GPS watch (Garmin have kind of cornered the market, but other brands are also available). For those that have never used one, this is essentially a fancy stopwatch that uses GPS to track your movements and is able to give relatively accurate readings of your speed and distance as well as your time running. This can be useful for training to track your progress, and for racing to make sure that you are not dropping off the pace that you had set. You can also use a heart rate monitor if you want to work out your optimum intensity levels for different training sessions. Also, some watches also have altimeters which can be incredibly useful for navigation, or just for judging how close to Douche Grade you are currently running. Some people are incredibly geeky about their training stats and will keep a log of every run that they have ever done, looking at their splits and comparing one race to another. Given my usual geeky nature, and the fact that I am a statistician by trade, I am surprisingly unbothered by tracking my progress in this way. I do use my watch for races (to make sure that I am sticking to my pre-race plan), but not for training. One useful feature is the ability to put course maps onto the watch (I may do a post about how I normally go about doing this as a few people have asked), which can be very useful for navigation.

I use the Garmin Forerunner 305 which is a good compromise on functionality and cost. You can get one now for about £100-£150, and the only real negative things I can say are that it is a little bulky, and the battery life isn't fantastic for ultras (~15 hours or so). Other than that, it does everything you could possibly want from such a watch, and more - there are loads of functions I have never touched! However, the battery life is really a problem for all such GPS watches, even much more expensive ones. Your only option if you want something that can last you 20+ hours is to go for the lovely looking (but bloody expensive) Suunto Ambit with its 50 hour battery life, or wait for the (also bloody expensive) Garmin Fenix.

Another (potentially very important) gadget is some form of mp3 player. My brain doesn't cope so well when left to its own devices, so I typically require something to focus on. For this reason, I typically run with an iPod. Sometimes I will listen to music, but most of the time I will listen to either podcasts or audio books. There is an amazing amount of free content available on iTunes, including the fantastic (and incredibly informative) Ultrarunner Podcast and Talk Ultra. I also listen to a number of different audiobooks, and have already finished the Song of Ice and Fire series, the Millennium trilogy, and am currently making my way through Stephen King's back catalogue. At 30ish hours a pop, these are a fantastic way of spending a long run! If you are going to wear an iPod, be sure to stay aware of those around you. I only ever use one headphone, try to listen out for people approaching from behind, and always take my headphones off when crossing busy roads.

If you are going to be running ultras then you are likely to need a head torch. Whether you are trying to squeeze a late run in, or you are training in winter, or you are running a 100 miler and will be running overnight, a head torch is essential; not only to see where you are going but also so others can see you and you don't get hit by a car or something. You can buy some extremely bright torches these days, and typically the stronger torches are bigger and heavier. Comfort is of course of prime concern here, with weight, size, brightness and cost being other factors that may influence your choice. I use a Petzl Tikka Plus 2 which is a good compromise between all of these factors. It's not the brightest, but sometimes bright isn't actually that useful. If you are racing, you don't really want to be showing off how far behind/ahead of your competitors you are by lighting yourself up like a Christmas tree. Also, as the temperature drops you will find that it becomes quite difficult to see as the light from your torch bounces back off of your condensed breath. In these cases, a less bright torch may actually be more useful. One good tip if this ever happens to you is to wear your head torch around your waist rather than on your head, or alternatively use a handheld torch instead (which some people prefer to use anyway). I tried out the Lenser H14 LED headtorch at UTMB. It's very bright, but I actually ended up putting it on its lowest setting. I probably would have been fine with the much lighter and smaller Petzl, but it was probably a good idea to have the extra power available if necessary. 


Nutrition is an incredibly important part of any ultramarathon. If you want to keep the fires burning bright, you need to feed the flames with fuel. There are two options for fueling. The first is to use real food and rely on things such as flapjack, cake, fruit, cheese, biscuits, sandwiches, crisps, etc. to carry you through to the line - the spread laid out at most aid stations is usually a smörgåsbord of delights. The second option is to rely on manufactured products such as energy gels and bars to fuel you. These have been "scientifically engineered" to offer the most efficient fuel for athletes, and have the advantage of requiring minimum digestion to get the energy out. Whichever method you choose, the important thing is to try things out in training to see what works and (more importantly) what doesn't work before race day. Practice fueling on the move - eating while running can be unpleasant if you are not used to it. Most people use a combination of real food and gels, which gives the fast acting benefit of gels, but give you a little more variety to stop you getting bored with food. If you have never run a 100 miler before, it is difficult to explain how difficult it can be to eat later in the race, and it can reach a point where you are having to force it down. And it won't necessarily stay there!

There are lots of different kinds of gels to choose from, and they all come in a variety of flavours. I recommend trying them out to see which you prefer. I have been quite lucky and have found that I can pretty much eat anything when I run. Typically I use mainly GU gels in races. I choose to rely mainly on gels as these are a much faster source of fuel than having to digest a pork pie say, and typically I use GU gels as they are a lot thicker and less sticky than other varieties. If you are not used to them then it can take a little time to get used to the difference in texture (a little like I imagine wallpaper paste tastes), and some of the flavours are somewhat interesting (vanilla bean is incredibly sickly for instance), but frankly I don't really pay any attention as I squirt them into my face.

Another thing to consider is caffeine. Some people "do" caffeine, while others don't. I don't drink much caffeine in my normal day to day life, but it can be incredibly helpful in an ultra. Shane Ohly (Race Director of the recently resurrected Dragon's Back race) recently said to me that he found caffeine to be so useful that he almost thinks it should be a banned substance! You can buy gels that are infused with caffeine which can give you a real surge of energy, and Coke and Pepsi have quite frankly magical properties. Alternatively, you can take a packet of caffeine tablets such as Pro Plus with you. One thing to be aware of is that with any caffeine high, you will eventually hit a caffeine low. You either need to save it for the latter stages of the event when you are likely to be flagging and need a boost, or else be taking it through the entire race.

Finally, an incredibly important facet of your nutritional strategy is in maintaining your electrolyte levels. Sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium ions are essential for maintaining the fluid balance in your cells. When you sweat, you lose not only water, but will also lose electrolytes (hence why your sweat tastes salty). If you drink water to replace the lost sweat, you create a system where the fluid levels stay constant, but the salt levels in your blood diminish. This results in a dilution of the electrolytes, upsetting the osmotic gradient between your blood plasma and cell interiors, leading to increased uptake of fluid into the cells. If this situation gets bad enough, it can result in a rather nasty condition known as hyponatremia (literally meaning "not enough sodium in the blood") resulting in headaches, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, and potentially death. In fact, almost all deaths reported at marathons (other than those related to pre-existing conditions) are attributed to hyponatremia. Conversely there have never been any deaths from dehydration. 

It is therefore important to replace not just the fluids lost from running, but also the electrolytes. To do this, you can buy sports powders with added electrolytes which you can mix with your water to replace both at once. You can buy these products in either a powder format, or alternatively as small effervescent tablets in tubes which are a little easier to carry with you. High 5, GU Brew, Science in Sports (SiS) Go, and Nuun are all good products to look at. Try them out and see which one you prefer. Alternatively you can target the lost electrolytes directly by taking Succeed S! Cap salt tablets, Elete concentrated electrolytes, or even just packets of table salt. I tend to use either GU Brew throughout the race, or else use water and have a hit of concentrated Elete every so often.

As an aside, the recommendation used to be for people to stay well hydrated at all times so that your urine is a clear colour, and that if you started to feel thirsty then you are already dehydrated. However, the clinical recommendation seems to be switching more towards drinking to thirst, due in large part to the research of Dr. Tim Noakes in his contentious book Waterlogged. The idea is that our bodies have developed a good way of avoiding dehydration over the years, with an internal system known as "thirst" which has served us perfectly well for millions of years. By overdrinking to avoid ever feeling thirsty, we exacerbate the problem of hyponatremia. I'm not a doctor (well, actually I guess I am, but not the useful kind), so I am in no position to recommend anything for you. My suggestion is to read the research, make up your own minds, and work out your own hydration strategy. Knowledge is power people!


My ultra running bag of tricks contains various other essential bits and pieces:

Some kind of lubricant is essential to limit chaffing as much as possible. There are several possibilities here, with Vaseline, Sudocreme, Lanacane, and Body Glide being commonly used products for lubing up. I personally find Vaseline and Body Glide to be a bit too sticky. Typically I use Lanacane which I find to be very effective. The only downside is that it is quite expensive, so I limit it to only the most prone areas (nipples and undercarriage). Some people also use talcum powder, but don't try mixing this with a liquid lubricant. 

I also usually run with a little pack of Compeed blister plasters, which are fantastic for emergency blister repair. They can also work as impromptu nipple guards in a pinch (although they may stick a little too well...). 

If you're doing anything where navigation is likely to be an issue, it may not hurt to have a compass with you. It is also worth investing in some navigation training so that you have some idea of what you are doing with it. If you're running along the Thames Path, then this is perhaps not so important, but if you're in the middle of the mountains then it is a good idea to be able to judge which way you want to be heading.

Some people use hiking poles for running steep ascents such as UTMB. In fact, most people running UTMB used poles. Somebody made the point that you could spot the Brits and Americans, as they were the only ones not using poles. I don't use "cheating sticks" personally (as Caeser's Camp 100 mile Race Director Henk van der Beek calls them) - I would rather get by on my own legs as long as I can. But they definitely make a big difference when you're climbing. I do have a pair of Mountain King Trail Blaze poles, but have yet to actually use them. If you're going to get some, make sure they are the correct length for you, make sure that you have a suitable way of carrying them when not in use (swinging arms, fully extended poles, and crowded trails do not mix), and make sure you know how to use them. Take them out with you for some sessions to get used to the feel, and remember that you are going to feel it in your shoulders more than usual. You may also end up with chaffing on your hands where you are gripping them. 

Many people swear by Ibuprofen - or Vitamin I as some people call it. The use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen is very common in ultramarathon events. The stress put on the body in a 100 mile run is high, and inflammation can arise following muscular damage. In particular, it is common for runners to use NSAIDs following more acute injuries, such as sprained ankles and the like to allow them to continue. In some regards NSAIDs are a good idea, since they reduce the swelling and allow you to continue to run without altering your gait (which itself may cause more problems). However, pain is your body's method of telling you that something is wrong, and if it hurts then you probably shouldn't be doing it! It is up to the individual runner whether they are willing to risk further damage in exchange for being able to continue to run. However, there is a large amount of research connecting the use of NSAIDs to renal problems. Intense prolonged activity (such as, say, running 100 miles) can lead to a build up in the blood of myoglobin, a protein released into the bloodstream from damaged muscle tissue. If this occurs, reduced filtration can be disastrous, as myoglobin may build up in the kidneys leading to rhabdomyolysis and potentially kidney failure. Also, the use of NSAIDs may increase the chances of developing exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), which may further increase the chances of developing rhabdomyolysis. In case it's not obvious, this is bad! Whilst these studies are typically quite small, it does suggest that we probably shouldn't be popping them like sweets. I would suggest that taking 1 or 2 in a race to get you to the end is probably okay, but I really wouldn't take them constantly through the entire race. I usually have a couple with me in case of emergencies, but haven't used them since my first ultra (South Downs Way 100) last year. 

I also usually have a couple of Immodium Instants with me, just in case I start getting stomach issues along the way. All those gels and jiggling around aren't great for the constitution... If possible I would rather hold on until the end, but sometimes you might get caught short - in which case it's probably worth having a little bit of toilet paper with you as well. I tend to have a few sheets in a little plastic baggy, and you can use the baggy to clean up after yourself. Make sure you either dig a hole and bury it, or carry it with you. It's not a pleasant topic, but these are things I wish I had known! If you're a delicate sort of person, you may also want to think about taking some antibiotic hand gel or something with you as well. Most people don't bother. Think about that the next time you grab a handful of M&Ms at an aid station...

Final Thoughts

I hope that this has been useful, and if you have any further gear suggestions then please let me know. I don't in any way claim to be an expert, and am always learning! The main piece of advice to take away is to make sure that you test things out in your training. Try new things to see what works. Make mistakes and learn from them. Work out exactly what you want from your kit by looking at what doesn't work in what you currently use. Make sure you have your kit, your hydration and your nutrition figured out before you hit that start line. And most of all enjoy it!

Useful Resources

There are a lot of places these days where you can buy kit for all of your ultra running needs. Here are a few of the ones that I have used over the years:


  1. Great post and very useful. I agree - ultimately people need to find what works for them as there is no one all encompassing approach that works for everyone.

    Regarding electrolyte replacement - a single banana typically has more potassium than a nuun tablet and a pinch of salt - or a slice of bread and butter - has plenty of sodium. And flat coke, as well as providing that caffiene hit, can work just as well as dioralyte or similar in that respect too.

    Also, caffiene *was* a banned substance until 2004 and even now it's on the WADA monitoring list for abuse.

  2. Great post! Incredibly useful and made me chuckle :)