Back Story: Bernadette Benson

Bernadette Benson, 47, Kelmscott, WA, first female finisher at the 2016 Yukon Arctic Ultra (483km), Canada and an ambassador for Udo’s Oil

+ For the full story, see page 28 in our July 2016 Runner’s World edition

Q. During an ultra race, how do you keep motivated?

A. I usually have calculated splits that help keep me going. I run section by section, so I get fairly constant rewards. You’re also then not just waiting for the finish line. Then, if I fall off the pace, it’s okay, because it’s only one “section” effected – I still have all the others to reward myself for. If I need to slow down for the rest of the race, due to something like extremely hot weather or sooner-than-expected fatigue, I make a new race plan in my head, so then I can start rewarding myself again, rather than beating myself up the rest of the way.

Q. What’s your most important session when training for an ultra/long distance race?

A. It would have to be the long run – to improve my endurance and increase my aerobic capacity. Running around 60 – 65% of max heart rate, the body also becomes better able to use fat to fuel itself, rather than carbs/glycogen. This means less fuel has to be taken on board during a race, which means less chance of a stomach upset. Mixing in a few surges towards the end of a long run, including perhaps a hard hill climb, can help improve running efficiency too by building strength (leading me to use less oxygen when running).

Q. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt about racing ultra events?

A. I’ve learned in the past couple years how critical speed/hill climbing work is as well as the importance of strength training at the gym. I used to think as an ultra-runner that I didn’t need to do speed-work, but my performances really started improving when I started going to the track. Adding strength-training also completely changed my form and I don’t slump over during very long events anymore. This keeps me run more economically and keeps me from compressing my diaphragm. I think that upper body strength really makes a difference to an ultra-runner.

Q. How do you prepare your body for both varying terrain and elevation?

A. I do a lot of training on hills and trails. I love the surface and I think the hills provide a great training stimulus. I try to do long runs that mimic the same amount of elevation per 10km as an up-coming race. For example, for Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in 2015, I felt I needed to improve my downhill speed, so I specifically did one session per week of downhill reps, where I’d run easy uphill and down hard, three to five times. Sometimes I used a 1km steeper, more technical trail and other times I used a 1.8km less rugged trail.

Final thoughts …

Be clear on your goals

Know why you’re running the event you’ve chosen. When it gets hard, you need to be able to fall back on the importance of your goal. If it was just because your mates goaded you into it, you’ll probably find it pretty easy to quit partway through. You might also find it hard to get out for the training sessions. Choose an event you find interesting, beautiful, and/or challenging – whatever suits you.

Incorporate recovery

More running means more recovery – you’ll need to allow time to ice, get massages, foam roll, and sleep. Use words like “recovery day” or “consolidation day” instead of “rest day” if you need to stop yourself from over-training.

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