British ultrarunner Anna-Marie Watson has competed across Ironman triathlons and ultras for more than a decade and has a running resume that counts the CCC, UTMB and Marathon des Sables amongst its race highlights. She has a wealth of ultra-distance wins to her name, including Oman by UTMB, and most recently came second woman at the Coastal Ultra Xtreme. (Watch Anna-Marie in action at the CUX via Endurance Sports TV’s documentary The Ultra Mindset.)
Anna-Marie is a professional performance coach and in this interview, she provides insights into the mental side of racing, while revealing which elements of her former military career she carries over into her ultra race strategy and preparation.
You’ve run some impressive races with your father who was a fell runner when you were growing up. Did his running inspire you to take part?
That’s a resounding yes! During the 80s and 90s the majority of my weekends were spent in the Lake District waiting for my dad to finish the Borrowdale fell race, Langdale Horseshoe, Coniston fell race, the list continues… and the May half-term holiday meant the annual pilgrimage up to the Scottish island of Jura for the fell race. The Watson family calendar revolved around the fell racing season where my mother, my younger brother and myself were self-appointed cheerleaders. Several of these events had Junior races so it was natural my brother and I joined in the fun. It was far more preferable to waiting for my dad to finish!
Whenever I headed back to Newcastle from Germany where I was based with the British Army, heading out along the River Tyne from Newburn to Wylam with my dad and Juno our black Labrador was a favourite pastime. One of my fondest running memories was finishing the Everest Marathon together in 2007. We first visited Nepal as a family when I was eleven years old and I’ve returned several times lured by the call of the biggest mountains on earth.
When did you run your first ultra?
I’ve always believed my first ultra was the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) in 2008, though during a recent lockdown inspired clear-out I discovered my finishers certificate from ‘The Tour de Trigs’ 50-mile event in 1998. Looks like my ultra-running journey started ten years earlier than I remembered!
How has your training, fuelling and race strategy changed since then?
I’ll openly admit during the early years my approach to training was minimal, fuelling meant eating everything on offer at the checkpoints, and race strategy involved brute strength and determination to simply finish within the allotted time. Fast-forward to the Marathon des Sables in 2015, my entire approach to training and racing had transformed to become far more focused and race-specific.
During these interim years, I’d started working with Danny Moore from Moore Performance, to support my efforts to qualify for the IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon World Championships. It’s amazing how much a tailored training programme and advice from a coach can improve your development as an athlete. I see this repeatedly with my own athletes who are determined to improve their abilities and achieve specific goals.
My race strategy has developed from ‘simply finish’ and I’ve equipped myself with an arsenal of ninja mindset tricks gleaned from my coach training and from devouring books on performance. These mindset strategies are artfully combined with data accumulated from thousands of hours of training cross-referenced with previous races to create pacing charts. For my ‘A’ races I’ll endeavour to train on the route in the lead in to the event, building on the phrase from my former military career: ‘Time spent in recce is seldom wasted’.
How do you approach fuelling for an ultra these days?
Fuelling before, during and after an event is one of the fundamentals to success during endurance events. I believe it’s all about nourishing yourself as ultra-running places an enormous amount of stress on the body. In addition, the female physiology is an area which is often overlooked and I love the quote from Dr Stacy Sims’ TED Talk ‘Women aren’t small men’ which I’d recommend every female athlete and coach dives into to support their training.
I stick to ‘real’ food as much as possible and an avocado is regularly found in my drop bag during races.
You’ve raced highly technical races, such as Oman by UTMB, which you won. Are you a fan of technical running?
I simply adore technical running though there’s usually a tipping point which frankly terrifies me! Rock hopping is a skill which amplifies the fundamentals of running; strength, endurance and flexibility multiplied with confidence, courage and determination. Oman by UTMB took ‘technical’ to another level with chunks of scrambling interspersed along the route.
I’m grateful for the skills amassed from my childhood roaming the Lake District, adventurous training in the British military and Mountain Leader experience which means I’m generally comfortable in a range of different terrains. It’s all about respecting the environment and moving through it as gracefully and gratefully as possible.
You’re a performance coach. What techniques do you use to help clients develop resilience?
Resilience is the baseline state which can be developed to ensure we’re able to tackle and bounce back from whatever challenge the world metaphorically throws at us. I encourage clients to turbocharge their resilience ‘boosters’ and minimise their exposure to ‘breakers’ which are classified into four different categories: physical, mental, emotional and social.
These boosters can range from implementing proactive non-negotiables into your life around sleep, caffeine consumption, nutrition, hydration, exercise, dedicating time for meditation or journaling, practising gratitude, spending time in nature, listening to music, connecting with family and friends, developing a greater emotional linguistic framework, minimising distractions, implementing daily self-care rituals and giving back to the wider community, amongst other ideas.
There will undoubtedly be times in life when you’re feeling battered, bruised and resilience levels hit a low. It’s possible to navigate these wobbles with the ideas above and, unsurprisingly, I find popping on my trainers one of my default solutions.
You’ve run everything from desert ultras to multi-day races, long ultra trail races and triathlons. Which race was the most challenging and why?
The Diagonale des Fous which translates as the ‘fool’s crossing’ (!) currently sits as the most challenging event I’ve endured/enjoyed! The 100-miler snakes south to north across Reunion Island through dense jungle and ancient volcanoes where temperatures hit mid-30 degrees before plummeting to below freezing overnight. The route is extremely isolated with endless knee-buckling steps and gnarly tree roots to test the legs and keep you alert.
This ultra is my current nemesis after my first ever DNF in October 2019. I’d hoped to return to banish this monster in October 2020 though this goal has shifted to 2021 courtesy of COIVD-19 disruptions.
What mental strategies do you personally use in ultra-distance events?
I find ultra-distance events mental from the offset in many different ways! Simply looking at the distances involved in ultra-distance events can be overwhelming. I find breaking everything into manageable chunks makes the perceived impossible possible.
The lead into an ultra-distance event from a physical training and mental strategy perspective is equally important. If you focus exclusively on one dimension something slips. I sanity-check everything including my race strategy, kit, nutrition, hydration and the weather, against an exhaustive list of ‘worst-case scenarios’ then work through Plan B, C and D solutions. My advice is to spend time fleshing out your race strategy. Crunch the data whether it’s pace, distance, HR, elevation or a combination, take into account technical terrain, checkpoints and climate. Familiarise yourself with your key numbers, whether it’s pinning a copy on your fridge door, next to your computer or on your phone. On race day stick to it… BUT always be prepared for last-minute changes.
What do you do during low or difficult race moments?
During a race I’ve got my full arsenal of mindset ninja tricks; the counting game, eating, running 1km sections interjected with 100m walks, eating a bit more, various time, distance and speed mathematical equations to wishfully transport myself further along the route, eating again, positive mantras, another mouthful of food, the emotional power sob, a moment to appreciate the scenery and unsurprisingly the consumption of more food. Repeat. And repeat again. At some point, ultra-running morphs into a form of torture. Yet a beauty lies in the hardship and process strips back everything to the bare bones.
You were an army captain and completed three operational tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you take aspects of your army experience into your approach and prep for ultras?
The ‘7 Ps of wisdom’ from CSgt Marriner, our tough Parachute Regiment Sergeant who had the honour of accompanying Zero Platoon through our officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, will be forever etched on my mind. I remember his gruff and direct manner as he uttered the words, ‘Ladies, remember the 7Ps in every situation and everything will work out. Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents P** Poor Performance’. Sound advice which I’ve followed ever since.
Multi-stage racing is ALL about admin; both during the lead-up and then during the event itself. The running could be seen as secondary to looking after yourself. Time and time again I’ve seen runners DNF multi-stage events due to blisters, dehydration, broken or missing kit, tiredness or inadequate nutrition. The key is to be the admin queen or king with everything ‘squared away’ so you’re able to rest, relax and recharge before the next day’s running adventure. I’ll admit Arctic warfare training with the Marines in Norway – think ice-breaking drills, patrolling in camouflage whites and digging snow holes – where temperatures regularly hit -30 meant my admin became exceedingly organised and fast.
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
My weekly training programme is carefully crafted by Coach Mike from Purple Patch who I’ve been working with since the end of 2019. Despite this year being somewhat disrupted from a racing perspective, my weekly sessions have remained fairly constant; it’s the focus, volume and intensity which switch things up.
We’ve been on a cyclical progressive programme kick-starting the week each Monday with a light spin and strength session. Tuesday is time for speed, followed up with a midweek endurance run on Wednesday. Thursday is designated ‘tree day’ where I help out a friend with his business, Friday is back to strength work before easing into the weekend which generally involves longer bike or run sessions. Unfortunately, my swimming has taken a back seat in recent months and I’ve literally headed up to Cotswold Lake 31 or Farleigh river a couple of times.
What kind of running do you do in training?
Coach Mike is a firm advocate of mixing up the full smorgasbord of running including speed work, hills, tempo, endurance, form-based and the most important – aka recovery. Running is only a part of my training programme with a healthy dollop of time on my bike, plyometrics, yoga, strength and conditioning, swimming and rest. I find runners (including myself!) can be guilty of simply running in the ‘grey zone’ which is too slow for quality training and too fast for recovery, or neglecting essential strength and conditioning work, but Coach Mike keeps me on track.
What races or challenges are left on your bucket list?
I’m currently realistically optimistic about how 2021 will unfold with hopefully the Mozart 100, OCC (I’m aiming to participate in the entire UTMB French series!) and Diagonale des Fous – Part Two: The Return. If restrictions make overseas travel too tricky, I’ll continue to explore the world on my doorstep in Wiltshire with more personal FKT projects.
Looking further ahead there are so many running adventures around the world; I’d planned to return to Nepal for the Mustang Trail race which was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19 in April 2020. I’ve never raced in America before and would definitely be open to exploring some of the trail races over the Atlantic.
What are your favourite items of kit for training and racing?
During the winter months, I wear the WAA Long Sleeve Ultra Carrier Top 2.0 in Princess Blue most days for training. There are five pockets around the base which are perfect to hold food, nutrition, phone, gloves, and lightweight windproof jacket. It’s a really unique running top and means I don’t have to wear a backpack.
WAA Skort 2.0 – the re-vamped 2019 summer season skort has been designed in a lighter material, with a wraparound skirt with integrated shorts and three pockets. The paradise pink colour definitely brightens up any momentary trail wobbles.
Are you sponsored by anyone at the moment?
I’ve been fortunate to partner with several brands in recent years who support my passion for heading onto the trails; the French ultra company WAA (What An Adventure) ultra has been my principal sponsor for the last five years. I love being part of their global community and I’ve participated in the Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura and Trans Gran Canaria Ultra alongside fellow WAA athletes.
In addition, La Sportiva kindly provides trainers to keep my feet comfy, I find the current Mutant and Kaptiva styles work really well on the trails for me. I’ve been fuelled by tasty Veloforte bars, kept hydrated and salt levels kept balanced courtesy of Precision Hydration and the 33fuel Chia gels topped up with water, coffee or coconut water always give me that extra boost.
You can follow Anna-Marie via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/rfmcoaching and www.twitter.com/rfmcoaching. To read Anna-Marie’s blog and find out more about her coaching visit www.rfmcoaching.com.