How Top Endurance Athlete and Coach Anna-Marie Watson Trains for International Ultra-Running Races

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

Hello Mighty Goods Community. Lovely to virtually meet you – I’m Anna-Marie. I generally switch up my strapline introduction dependent on who I’m speaking to, it’s either “Hello, I’m an endurance athlete passion for coaching; or performance coach with a borderline endurance sports habit/obsession; who approaches work and life in line with my business name and underpinning ethos “Reach for More”.

Over the last few years, I’ve successfully completed various international ultra-running races with my top highlights, the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (7th lady, 5th Brit and 93rd overall) and Marathon des Sables (finishing 2nd lady in 2015 and in the top 50) alongside competing twice in the IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon World Championships in Las Vegas, USA and Mount Tremblant, Canada.

In 2015, I founded my business Reach for More where I combined my passion for performance coaching and the great outdoors. I love taking my performance coaching clients outdoors for walking and talking sessions as I find it deepens our conversations together, boosts creativity and encourages resourcefulness. It also has the added bonus of some gentle exercise and getting some fresh air. I’ve also developed a series of netwalking events with a friend that takes networking outdoors and provides a platform for like-minded entrepreneurs to connect and share ideas. Netwalking definitely beats making small talk in a stuffy conference room over a cooked breakfast or warm glass of wine every time!

After growing up in the northeast of England, I’ve been a certified global nomad for the last 15 years living and working on five continents after spending time in the British Army; then working in the Middle East and Australia. I’m currently living in southwest England with Ben, my husband though I suspect there’ll be another move in the pipeline in the next few years. I’m a bonafide fair weather athlete and the British weather can be pretty miserable. In my spare time, I enjoy rustling up tasty healthy treats in the kitchen, reading (predictably usually running or coaching related!) and heading out to explore my local area.

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

How and why did you get into ultra-running?

My immersion into the running world has been a gradual journey that can be traced back to the early 2000s when I dappled taking part in a few 10k and half marathon races. I have to admit during school I’d actively avoid PE lessons and remember my sports teacher writing to my mother with a warning to stop scheduling my piano lessons during PE lessons. Despite this lack of interest in school sports, I loved being active and outdoors; I was a proper tom-boy with the nickname “George” amongst close family friends. Weekends and school holidays were always spent camping in the Lake District, Scottish mountains or French Alps and I enjoyed taking part in the Cadet Force (the fact it was organised with the local boys’ school that might have helped my interest!) and Duke of Edinburgh Scheme.

I completed my first marathon in 2004 collapsing across the London Marathon finish-line after minimal training and wasn’t until 2010 where I officially upped the distance and “went ultra”. Working in the Middle East, the Dead Sea Ultra Marathon (50km) in Jordan seemed an obvious choice, especially since the profile was all downhill and there was the opportunity to relax in the Dead Sea afterwards. I found the challenge moving beyond the marathon distance pretty daunting and genuinely didn’t know what to expect physically and mentally after hitting the 42.2km mark. I remember a mixture of trepidation, fear and excitement in the lead up to the event; it was definitely an emotional moment crossing the finish-line and celebrating over a glass of wine with my friends later.

Since the Dead Sea ultra, I’ve been lucky to take part in some amazing ultra-running races around the world. It’s difficult to pick my favourite with The North Face 100 in the Blue Mountains in Australia, the Marathon des Sables in Morocco, the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc crossing through France, Italy and Switzerland and more local races such as Round the Island in the Isle of Wight and the Devil’s Challenge along the South Downs Way in England. I find ultra-running the perfect excuse to travel, experience new cultures and you’re guaranteed to meet like-minded people. I particularly enjoy being part of the WAA (French endurance equipment company) global ultra-running community and find inspiration from other people’s adventures that I follow on Instagram or Twitter.

I like to diversify my training so cross over into the triathlon world and have completed Challenge Roth and several IRONMAN 70.3 distance events. I find the different disciplines (swim, bike and run) provide excellent cross training and spice up my training programme. My husband is an avid triathlon enthusiast and certified IRONMAN triathlon coach; we have a “pain cave” in our home where the turbo trainer and mini gym lives. We try to plan some of our training together and take part in adventure races, orienteering, duathlon, local ParkRun – basically any event where you can head outdoors, meet like-minded people and most importantly looks good fun!

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

Why is ultra running important for you?

I love the sense of freedom and empowerment ultra-running gives me; when everything slides into place and you experience that fleeting moment of flow during a training run or race. There’s honestly nowhere else I’d rather be in the world as time stands still and you feel like you’re floating on air. I admit there’s a fine line between passion and obsession though I always think back to Vincent Van Gogh’s quote, “I would rather of passion than boredom”.

Ultra-running has gradually influenced all areas of my life in a positive manner; I’ve gained self-confidence, courage and adopt a more holistic approach to my work/life balance. I find the ultra-running community can be extremely positive and supportive of each other, which I find is a refreshing change to some of negative cultural and social messages that are portrayed through mainstream media.

I think it’s incredibly important to head outside and plan my work/life balance so I spend some time outdoors every day. I love to take my performance coaching clients on walking and talking sessions instead of meeting in their office, coffee shop or hotel lobby. I find the outdoor space particularly invigorating and my clients’ feedback illustrates how valuable they find spending time in the fresh air.

How do you train and become better at ultra running?

If I’m left to my own training devices, I sometimes have the tendency to “go rogue” so Coach Danny Moore from Moore Performance injects an element of specialist expertise to pull everything together and adds an element of accountability. There’s a danger endurance runners can get caught in the quantity over quality trap accumulating high volume junk miles with no time for rest and recovery. I’ve learned so much about myself from a physical and mental perspective working with Danny; it’s a healthy balance between listening to your body and interpreting the data. I love to vary my weekly programme with speed sessions, hill reps, my local ParkRun, swimming, cycling, Bikram yoga, weighted vest walks, body weight and strength sessions. I find this variety minimizes any chance of injury and keeps my programme interesting.

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

What are the hardest parts of ultra running?

The Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc earlier this year was particularly tough physically and mentally; just looking at the race statistics gives an indication of the challenge involved. The 170km route with over 10,000m ascent usually takes hikers ten days to complete and the race has a 46.5-hour window with strict cut off times along the way. On Friday 1st September, 2,537 participants set off from Chamonix at 6pm and only 1,686 made it back through the snow, rain and endless mud in time. I’m found these conditions difficult to work through and was delighted to finish after 28 hours 37 minutes and 16 seconds placed 7th lady, 5th Brit and 93rd overall. The post-race hot shower and a cup of tea where sheer bliss!

Sometimes I find the distances involved in ultra-running are simply too big to comprehend so I divide the race into manageable chunks with mental check points along the way. These can be the next summit, aid station when I’ll catch up with my support crew, town and if it’s really getting tough the next step. Food is always a pleasant relief so I always have a tasty treat tucked away in my backpack that makes the world better place. If I’m out on a long training run or stood at the beginning of an ultra-race everything boils down to the present moment.

How do you prepare for events/races?

Rest and recovery from both mental and physical perspective are so important when you’re placing your body under a certain amount of stress from ultra-running. I’d strongly recommend everyone hunts out and make friends their local sports masseuse. However, knotted and tight my poor muscles feel after a decent massage the lightness and improved movement is amazing.

I’m a bit of a book worm and my shelves are packed with running and coaching genre books as I believe you can gleam so much information and knowledge from other people’s expertise. I’m usually reading a couple of books at once and some recent favourites are “Running Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly that delves into how achieve and sustain peak performance, “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall, and “Finding Ultra” by Rich Roll.

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

How do you eat and sleep?

Eating and sleeping are two of my favourite pastimes! Both are so important to support the additional stress ultra-running places on your body. Nutrition-wise, I work with Kim Ingleby who is a DNAFit nutritionist. It’s been a fascinating process tweaking my diet in response to my genetic preferences and observing the improvements in my ultra-running performance. The range of the nutritional advice available can be confusing and I firmly believe in a balanced diet with real food. Everyone is different and your nutritional requirements change over time. There is no “default perfect diet” for anyone and I believe it’s an area everyone should explore to discover what works best for them.

I’m a total duvet monster and I’m usually tucked up in bed by ten o’clock; ideally after a cup of chamomile tea and magnesium bath to relax. The eight-hour rule for sleep is sacrosanct in our home as anything less means I turn into a total sleep-deprived monster! Sleep is super important for recovery and I’m a bit of a data geek tracking my sleep with the Sleep Cycle and HRV4 Training app. The data clearly demonstrates how a quality night sleep supports recovery and prompts high performance; and conversely operates the other way. I’ve integrated a mindfulness exercise (Headspace) as part of my morning routine for the last couple of years as I find it helps focus my mind, improves my breath control and sets me up to enjoy the day.

I’ve discovered any form of travel impacts on my training negatively and with flying (even short haul) has the greatest effect. I work with Danny to schedule less intense sessions during or immediately after travel and if I’m racing plan sufficient time to travel before or after to rest and recover.

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

How do you balance normal life with ultra running?

The concept of “normal life” makes me smile as my husband and I definitely don’t have a “normal” life in relation to what the general public would consider. We generally coordinate our year around major races and any key family weddings, christenings etc. then arrange our monthly training cycle. It can be a real challenge trying to fit everything in and sometimes you have to decide what’s more important; though with an element of planning in advance and determination you can generally fit an early morning run before a family gathering, or book a Bikram yoga session after a client meeting in London.

My race calendar has a mix of A, B and C races though the actual number depends on the distance involved. Over the last couple of years, I’ve cut back on the number of races I enter due to a couple of factors; I find it mentally challenging to only “participate” in a race; opposed to “compete”, the recovery period after an ultra-race is substantially more than a 10km, half-marathon, or marathon and the cost/time involved in racing adds up once entry, travel, kit is taken into consideration.

I suppose I miss out on a lot of what is classed as “normal” yet I have no desire to watch Love Island or another series sat on a Friday night, head into town shopping on a Saturday afternoon or throw alcohol down my neck on a Saturday night. Sorry that I’m probably being slightly flippant but I genuinely enjoy the work/life balance I’ve created with Ben.

Work-wise with my business I have an element of freedom to fit my ultra-running training around client coaching sessions and meetings throughout the day. I’m most productive early in the morning so ideally I’ll have completed a couple of hours work before the “normal” working day starts; this means I can then head out for a training session during the day and catch up with work in the evening.

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

What kind of running shoes and clothes do you use?

I’ve been supported by the French endurance company WAA since the beginning of 2015 and really enjoy testing out their technical equipment. I particularly like the design of the WAA ultra-carrier top that has several useful pockets and the colourful skirt/short in mint and coral adds a lovely feminine touch. I’m a total fair weather athlete so with the approach of autumn I wear lots of layers and gloves before I’ll venture out the front door!

I’m not 100% sure how many pairs of trainers I own if you count all the different types; I suppose it’s similar to a high heel or handbag fetish! I do find it frustrating when I finally discover a model that fits perfectly; then the following season the drop, grip or fit has been altered. A couple of my current favourites are Innov-8 Roclite that were perfect in the endless mud of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc and Saucony Peregrine for hitting up the trails around Wiltshire whilst training.

How do you bring things with you?

My decision behind what backpack to wear depends on the distance/time involved and whether I’m supported or unsupported. I’m a bit of a midget size-wise so find it challenging to find kit, which fits properly and doesn’t rub/chaff. After a lot of experimentation, I’ve found these models work for me:

  • WAA Ultra-carrier top for shorter distance races & training sessions;
  • WAA Ultra-carrier top with 3L UltraBag Pro for anything up to 50km;
  • Salomon S-lab 8 litre vest in XS for longer distances up to and over 100 miles. This fits like a glove!

What has been your best sport purchase below $100?

  • WAA ultra-carrier top: I know I’ve mentioned this a couple of times in previous questions though it definitely fits this answer as well. Great value!
  • Foam roller: Part pain; part pleasure to cajole life back into my battered leg muscles.
  • Sports massage: Over the last year, I’ve treated my poor legs to an hour sports massage with Gemma Prior from Team Bath once a month to support recovery and improve performance.

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

What other favorite gear do you have?

My Garmin Forerunner 920XT has accompanied me on every run, cycle, and swim over the last two years. I’m a bit of a technical data geek and avidly record all my sessions through Training Peaks and Strava. This is partly so Danny can monitor my training and update my plan from afar; he’s based in Sydney and I currently live in the southwest England. I’m about to invest in the newer Garmin 935 and undoubtedly it’ll be learning curve to work through all the settings.

My Black Diamond Carbon z-type poles were essential during my training; then during Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc in September 2017. British runners can sometimes be dismissive of using poles though I’d definitely recommend trying them out if you’re planning on tackling steep mountain ascents and descents.

Compress sport calf guards (ideally in pink!)

What is your best advice people new to ultra running?

You can talk yourself in or out of anything and I meet a lot of people who have ultra-running aspirations then immediately recite a list of reasons why they couldn’t possibly train or race. Most excuses boil down to a deep-rooted fear and it’s a personal choice whether you listen to your self-imposed limiting beliefs and fabricated justifications. Ultra-running is hard work; though with everything in life without sounding like a total cliché you reap what you sow. It takes discipline, perseverance, and determination though over time the results speak for themselves. Everyone has training sessions and races that don’t go according to plan; then it’s how you choose to respond, which makes the difference. Pick yourself, dust yourself off and try again. I’ve been tears of frustration, tiredness, and joy along the way and you can draw comparison from ultra-running as a metaphor for life.

Ultra-Runner Anna-Marie Watson

What will the future bring?

This is a really tricky question at the moment!! In my entire life, there have only ever been two races in the world, which undividedly captivated my attention; the Marathon des Sables and the UTMB. Having completed both these races the question “What’s next?” inevitably crops up. For once, there isn’t another BIG challenge on the radar; although admittedly a few smaller adventures are planned for the remainder of the 2017 season (Half Marathon des Sables in Fuertevetura, Questars 2-day adventure race, the 50th Original Mountain Marathon Long Score and representing Wiltshire, my local county at half-marathon level). Usually I’d be scared of an empty void and the unknowingness of the future; but for once it’s not about rushing to plan ahead and fill 2018 with races. I know something will fall into place and most importantly it’ll be fun.

Happy training and racing.

Anna-Marie xxx
#GetOutside #MoveMore #reachformore

Follow Anna-Marie Watson on her website, Twitter, and Instagram


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