Dean Karnazes Trains for an Ultramarathon

Dean Karnazes Trains for an Ultramarathon

Dean Karnazes is simply unstoppable. He has run across Death Valley in 120-degree heat and completed a marathon to the South Pole in 40-degree below zero temperatures. He ran 50 marathons in 50 days in all 50 states, as well as 3,000 miles across the country—averaging 40 to 50 miles per day. Daunting as some of these feats may be, they are only a few examples of his exploits.

It might make the rest of us mere mortals feel better to think of Karnazes as a sort of superhuman—someone we’d never be able to catch up with even if we dedicated single every aspect of our lives to distance running. That may be so, but his ability to constantly shatter personal bests in various aspects of his endurance give us a clue into the limitless potential of the human body.  Karnazes is living proof of the body’s ability to strengthen itself and eventually adapt to whatever training we put it through. You probably won’t polish off a few marathons a week after reading this, but hopefully Karnazes’ inspiring accomplishments will help get you out the door and running for the hills. Here is some insider advice from the man himself on how to do long distance running.

Take Baby Steps

You may be wondering how someone could ever get to a point where they can keep running for hundreds of miles at a time, or run marathon distances every day for weeks. Well, aside from the obvious methods of hard work and steadfast dedication, Karnazes remembers making his first move toward the lifestyle he leads today. In that respect, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that he was a late bloomer.

“I used to love to run, but I sort of gave it up when I got into college,” Karnazes says. “After that, I got a great job at a Fortune 500 company, but I was so miserable. I hated going to the office, sitting in front of a desk. On my 30th birthday I was in a bar with my buddies, doing what you do on your 30th birthday, and I was just like, ‘I’m leaving.’ They were like, ‘where are you going?’ I said ‘I’m going to run 30 miles to celebrate my  birthday.’ They were like, ‘you’re so hammered, and you’re not a runner.’ I said, ‘Yeah I am, I’m f*cked up, but I’m still going to do it.’ So I walked out of the bar and ran 30 miles.”

While we don’t advise that you get tanked and run a marathon, everyone has to start somewhere.

“It all starts with baby steps,” says Karnazes. “Begin at the ground up by investing in a good pair of running shoes. Get them professionally fitted at a specialty running store by a knowledgeable staff member. Then set a goal for yourself. It might just be a 5K or 10K to start, but sign up for an upcoming event. Having a future goal will help provide the motivation you need to keep going when you’re feeling lazy or demoralized. Who knows, a marathon might follow that first event—or perhaps even something farther.”

Find Your Focus

With emails and texts clogging our inboxes as we scroll through our Facebook feed to kill some time at work, many of us suffer from unfocused minds. “Just to focus on one thing is almost zen-like,” Karnazes says of his longer races. “It’s a huge, lofty goal, and it’s all encompassing. But to run 200 miles, you really need to tune into it.”

Karnazes doesn’t believe in tuning out to his iPod. “I’ve found that music can be distracting at times when things get really tough. Instead, tune in to the moment and try to be present in the here-and-now, rather than trying to preoccupy yourself with diversions from the task at hand.”

The sentiment works well for any fitness enthusiast, but it can also apply nicely to other aspects of life (think: work, friends and family). Focus on the task at hand, do your best in the moment, and then move on to another goal. Start to eliminate the distractions that hinder whatever progress you’d like to make.

Gear Up

We asked Karnazes for his two cents about which products are the best to have for some of his more taxing runs. 

  • Water bottles. “I run with a hydration pack that has a drinking nozzle and an internal bladder filled with electrolyte replenishment fluid to keep me hydrated,” he says.
  • Fuel. “Depending on how far it is in between aid stations, food is also key. I’ll typically carry some energy chews, gels packs, a protein bar or two, and some nut butter packets.” Indeed, snacking during endurance runs can improve performance. Also check out pre- and post-workout nutrition for runners.
  • Sunglasses. Shades let you enjoy your surroudings while protecting your eyes from harmful UV rays. “I really like the ones that are monochromatic so they change with the light,” he says. “Being able to see the rocks, contours, and everything else is key.” 

Protect Joints and Prevent Injury

Believe it or not, Karnazes does not stretch. Still, he doesn’t want that to mean that you shouldn’t stretch, since he realizes how helpful it is to other runners. For himself, he points to cross training as a key method in protecting his joints while maintaining—and even improving—his strength.

“I do a lot of cross training because I think it’s key to injury prevention,” he says. Running isn’t all in your legs: Core and upper body strength are essential. “The more you can use your upper body strength to propel you; the bigger load you can take off your legs.”

Every muscle helps you go a little further, so don’t neglect them if you’re a guy who tends to just want to run and hit the shower most days. Karnazes also makes reference to the ElliptiGO, a sort of bike that allows the user to propel forward while using a fluid, running-like motion—something that splits the difference between cycling and running. Needless to say, Karnazes loves going hundreds of miles on it during his “off” days from slapping the pavement.

Don’t Stop When Nature Calls

Be ready to master the skill of peeing while running. Going off the trail and finding some bushes will just add precious seconds, even minutes, to your overall times, and could break the rhythm you’ve established. If this is something you have to worry about, congrats – you’re just one bizarre skill away from matching up with some of the best long-distance runners in the world. Karnazes admits to being freaked out the first time he saw another runner do it on a long race, but he has found his form over his past ten years of marathon running.

“It’s a fine art to not get any [urine] on your shoes,” he says. “Some of the runs I do are like 150 miles.” If you stop to pee, you’re wasting precious time in the bushes.

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