High mileage is the ultra-endurance athlete’s mantra, whether that’s time on legs or in the saddle.
But Gerda Steyn‘s record-breaking performance at the 2019 Comrades marathon has helped to shine a light on another potential approach – one that promotes quality over quantity.
After Gerda crossed the line in 5:58:53, slashing 10 minutes from the previous up run record, talk quickly turned to how she trains. What the endurance sports community discovered is that Gerda, under the guidance of her coach Nick Bester, follows a less conventional approach.
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The Comrades Marathon storm has settled down a little bit now🙆🏽♀️ and I have had some time to sit down and plan the upcoming months. Some really exciting news regarding my next target races will be dropped here soon!😉💥 For now, I’m busy writing a long overdue @comradesmarathon race report and I will also try to be more interactive again on social!! Have a great weekend guys!!! #nextchapter #runningstories #yayitsfriday
A tried and tested approach
Nick is a former Comrades winner and multiple gold medalist. He’s also a prolific multi-sport athlete, excelling in ultra-endurance events like Ironman and Ultraman, and attained provincial colours as a cyclist and canoeist.
He now manages the Nedbank Running Club and coaches a select group of elite athletes. He explains that his approach is based on his experience over his career.
“As a multi-sport athlete, I only focused on Comrades training for three months a year. The rest of the time I focused on triathlons and duathlons, and this cross-training approach really works for me as it reduced the damage that high running volumes impose on the body.”
Less can be more
Nick believes that most athletes run too many “junk miles”. “What’s the purpose of an easy run with no specific objective? These lower intensity, higher impact runs simply damage soft tissues and joints, which adds up over time and can cause injuries.”
That doesn’t mean you should kick up your feet and hit the couch, though. Nick ensures that Gerda does at least four quality run sessions a week, mixing up speed sessions with hill work and testing long runs. “Every run has a purpose. There are no junk miles.”
On the other days, Gerda remains active with various but less jarring, lower impact activities, as Nick did as an athlete.
“Between sessions, Gerda does lots of walking, hiking, riding and swimming. She also does strength work in the gym to lower her injury risk.”
This strength is particularly important for races like Comrades asserts Nick. “Comrades is all about strength. In the last two months before the race, Gerda only performed one speed session a week. The rest of the time we focused on hills and strength work. That’s what gives you the power to break records and finish in the top 20 overall.”
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Cruising on all cylinders today trying to keep up with camera man Ross💥 I forgot what it feels like to run without oxygen after spending some time at sea level but now it’s back to the grind!! Great start to the day and looking forward to spending the rest of the day with a new sponsor woohoo!! Hint: #yougoingtolikethisone Have a great week everyone! #tracktuesday #bluesurfaceblueface #800sforbreakfast
Nick also emphasises the importance of the nutritional and psychological elements needed to become a great ultra-endurance athlete.
This approach includes an adequate protein intake for ultra-endurance athletes, particularly females.
“They tend to lose more muscle than men over time, so we focus on preventing excessive muscle loss with quality protein sources and effective supplements.”
“Gerda adds Biogen Amino Power to her Cytogen drink during fast races like marathons, or to Carbogen during ultra-distance runs to replenish lost glycogen stores and limit muscle damage. She also uses Gozo gels when needed.”
Nick also likes to include Biogen’s high potency multivitamin and mineral supplement, Multi Vitamin Plus to make up for potential nutritional shortfalls.
The mental element
The final element in Nick’s coaching arsenal is his 40-point checklist. “It’s a vital element in our plan for mental preparation. This list covers everything from ticking off every training session and meal to getting enough sleep, a weekly massage and taking your supplements. When we get to a race with every box ticked, we know we’ve done everything we can. This gives Gerda a great deal of confidence knowing she has done everything right. The only thing left to do then is run!”