Guest blog by Helen Russell,
Preparing for an Endurance Challenge
Many of us will take on some kind of endurance challenge, such as an ultra-marathon, cycle sportive, mountain walk, kayak marathon, or lake swim. Sometimes it’s the result of a New Year’s resolution made whilst still under the influence of champagne, a testosterone fuelled dare with a mate, an effort to defy the aging process in a significant birthday year, or to raise funds for charity.
For some reason, I’m drawn to pushing my body to the perceived limits to see what’s physically possible and raise money for charity along the way. In 2015, I rode the entire route of that year’s Tour de France route, one day ahead of the professionals, for Cure Leukaemia and this year I cycled up Mont Ventoux three times in one day for The Air Ambulance Service.
Whatever the motivation, sporting challenges take a lot of effort and preparation to complete. Here are my five top tips for successfully ‘ticking-off’ your own personal challenge:
Once you have decided on your particular challenge, the first thing to do is some research on what it entails.
Once you register you should receive official information on the route, timings and event support but it always pays to do some extra detective work! If your challenge is an annual event there will often be photos from previous years where you will be able to look at road quality, what people wore and the equipment participants used.
This year, I did the British Quadrathlon Championships (swim/kayak/bike/run) and a few weeks before the event had a look at the photos from the previous year. At my kayak club we always get into the kayaks with the landing stage on our right, facing upstream. I noticed from the photos that the kayak entry was the opposite way, entering the kayak with the landing stage on the left and heading off downstream. I had only ever done this entry once before and almost ended up in the water! Luckily, I had enough time to practice this type of entry a few times and whilst the athlete behind me fell in, I was able to have a smooth entry into the river!
Discussion forums are also a useful source of information on events where you can find out how people prepared and their post event analysis. Whilst lots of events provide you with maps, Google Earth is useful to get a good view of the route, landmarks and terrain. Often when doing endurance events the weather is as much of a challenge as the distance or obstacles.
Make sure you look at the average temperatures for the year and then closer to the event, the near range forecast. The temperature on my Mont Ventoux ride reached almost forty degree Celsius, which was much hotter than expected for the time of year but luckily I had looked at the forecast and this helped me to develop an appropriate nutrition plan and pack suitable clothing.
Once you have done some research on what the challenge entails, you will be able to develop an appropriate training programme.
Start conservatively at first, as too many people get injured by doing too much training too soon.
You probably won’t cover the distance of your challenge before the event. Aim to be able to do about two-thirds or three-quarters of your event by the end of your training.
Whilst training for a marathon most runners will do one run of about 20 miles but never run the 26.2 miles until race day. Try and replicate parts of your challenge in your training, for example if you are doing a hilly event, try running, walking or riding hilly routes. If your challenge is in the UK then you could go and try out part of the route, maybe the hardest part, which will give you a big psychological boost. In the final few weeks before an event many people will start to worry that they haven’t done enough training and start to ‘panic-train’. This is one of the worst things you can do!
In the run up to an event you should ‘taper’, which entails reducing the amount of training so that you start the event rested and feeling fresh rather than fatigued or injured! Some events will have their own training programmes or you can often find distance specific plans on line, both of which are a great idea for beginners.
The first thing you should do is find out what food and drink is offered by the event organisers during the challenge. In endurance challenges, there are often food-stations with a variety of energy products and drinks but sometimes you have to be self-sufficient.
The most important thing with regards to nutrition and fuelling, is to make sure you eat and drink enough. Not consuming enough carbohydrates can result in depleted glycogen, causing low levels of blood glucose and ultimately hypoglycaemia, more commonly known as ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’.
The body can only store sufficient glucose for about 90 minutes of exercise so if you are exercising for longer periods then you will need to take on board glucose for the body to keep going. I love to make my own snacks and get lots of great ideas from the Lucy Bee recipes. My favourite is the Refined Sugar-free Flapjack with Cranberries or the Lucy Bee Energy Balls (click on the recipe titles for the full recipes).
If your challenge is likely to be in warm weather then it will be important to replenish sodium, which is lost when we sweat. It is a good idea to have a drink which contains electrolytes – these are salts which contain not just sodium but also magnesium, potassium and calcium. On long rides, I will take some energy drink powder and electrolyte tabs that I can mix with water en route. You can buy a lot of powders in sachets – perfect for your cycling jersey pocket. As it was so hot on my Mont Ventoux challenge I kept my sodium levels topped up by also taking Salt Sticks – small tablets that you take about every hour or 30 minutes, depending on temperatures.
Don’t wait until the day of your event to try out new products. Try them out whilst training so that you know if any cause you any digestive problems.
Your initial research will give you some ideas as to what type of kit you will need on the day, for example I decided to change the sprocket on my bike prior to my Mont Ventoux challenge so that I had a few extra gears for when the gradient was particularly steep! This definitely helped me complete the challenge. Also, by checking out the weather forecast I knew what type of clothing to take and how much sunscreen to decanter into a small container, which would fit into my cycling jersey pockets.
Don’t leave it until the day of your challenge to try out clothing or shoes as they may rub and prevent you from finishing. As mentioned before look at photos from the event the year before and see what kit people wore or used during the event.
5. Mental preparation
Whilst everyone will physically train for an endurance challenge, not many people will train their mind. However, what you tell yourself before and during an event can be key to whether you succeed or not.
At the start of the year I like to write down a number of main goals and then smaller process goals that will help me achieve the main goals. For example, 3 x Mont Ventoux was one of my main goals and a smaller process goal was to complete a hilly sportive in the spring. By crossing off your process goals you are showing yourself that you are prepared, which helps mentally.
Music can be a big motivator and so I have specific songs that I play in my warm-up that gets me in a positive frame of mind- these include Lady Gaga, ‘Edge of Glory’ and Katie Perry ‘Roar’. Some events allow you to listen to MP3 players and whilst I prefer to just listen to nature and my body some people find that a good set-list helps them around an event.
Positive self-talk is really powerful and many pro-athletes have specific mantras for an event and mini-mantras for specific parts of a race. If you have done your research you will know which sections of your challenge will be particularly difficult and can have a particular mantra for this section that helps you get through it!
Some people find that being accountable in some way is an added incentive to finish an event. This could be just telling people what you are planning, or raising sponsorship. Not everyone will like the added pressure of having to tell people whether they were successful or not but for some people it provides extra motivation to cross the finish line.
So, whatever your personal endurance challenge, let me wish you “Good Luck”. Often the hardest part is just getting started, so by entering something and reading this blog, you are half-way there!
Helen is the current British Quadrathlon Champion and former age group World and European Duathlon champion and European Triathlon champion. In 2015 Helen was part of the One Day Ahead team, which raised £1m for Cure Leukaemia by riding the entire route of the Tour de France one day ahead of the pros. You can follow her on Twitter via @helengoth.
You can read other article by Helen here: Cycling Rites of Passage, Six Steps to Recovery From Your Workout, Triathlon Transition Training, Winter Training for Summer Results, Training Holidays with the Kids on Board, Take the Plunge – 5 Tips for Open Water Swimming and Fuelling on Long Bike Rides.
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