Can luxury improve sporting performance? Highland Kings Ultra founder Matt Smith explains how the next generation of premium endurance event offers more than just extravagant extras.
Endurance events have traditionally been grassroots affairs. Whether it’s buddying up sharing tents, eating soggy sandwiches or enjoying a celebratory satsuma at the finish line, it’s safe to say events such as trail runs and ultramarathons have historically been anything but extravagant.
However, a divide within the running community is growing with the emergence of a new breed of premium endurance challenge catering to athletes who enjoy testing their physical and mental capabilities to the limit while also appreciating luxury, comfort and world-class aftercare.
Purists fear the gentrification of their beloved sport could spell the end of it as they know it, while athletes who prefer home comforts and elite-level support argue this kind of event offers something new, opening up the sport to a new audience.
But while the debate continues to grow, one key aspect remains unresolved: Can enjoying some of the added benefits of luxury events actually improve performance on race day?
Here, Matt Smith, a former Special Forces member and founder of Highland Kings – the world’s first luxury ultramarathon – discusses how choosing opulence over tradition could mean the difference between success and failure.
As we all know, a good night’s sleep is absolutely vital to our daily lives. Sleep has a massive impact on cognitive function, energy levels and even well-being.
While sleeping in crowded tents with snoring competitors in freezing conditions is a great way to develop camaraderie and team spirit, from a sports science perspective, it’s not necessarily the best way to prepare for a tough day of running.
According to leading sleep and nutrition expert Dr Greg Potter, getting more high-quality sleep can “acutely improve practically all determinants of exercise performance, including endurance.”
“Research shows that runners who get more sleep going into ultramarathons complete them faster than their peers,” he said.
“Relevant to multi-day races, sleep creates an internal hormonal and metabolic environment that supports the restoration of body tissues such as the musculoskeletal system, making it key to recovery during events.
“This may help explain why people who sleep more seem to be less likely to get injuries and infections. Then there are the effects of sleep on brain function.
“When we’re well rested, we tend to make better decisions, which might be key to effectively navigating the kinds of unpredictable or challenging scenarios that occur during ultramarathon running.
“Longer sleep also seems to support mood during ultramarathon running.”
To help our athletes get the best possible sleep, we offer private accommodation within a purpose-built athlete village, which features relaxing double beds, fine linens and optimal heating systems.
In fact, many of our athletes who took part in the inaugural Highland Kings in April said having their own private accommodation and getting adequate rest at night during the four-day, 120-mile event was one of the main reasons they signed up.
While a tin of beans cooked on a camping stove and homemade sandwiches are a cost-effective way to boost energy levels, a personalised nutrition plan prepared and cooked by a leading sports performance chef will ensure an athlete is properly fuelled for what lies ahead.
Dr Potter said, “Nutrition is so important to ultramarathon running that nutrition-related issues can literally prevent runners from finishing races.
“Over half of ultramarathon runners report severe digestive issues during races. There is a large variation between people in how they respond to foods and meals, necessitating a personalised nutrition strategy if the goal is maximal performance.
“Nutrition strategies should be ‘periodised’, meaning that nutrition varies from day to day to support performance.
“For example, shortly before a race, carbohydrate intake should increase to ensure muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) stores are replete on the start line, in turn delaying fatigue.
“The best high-carbohydrate items vary between people, though. For instance, some benefit from “low-FODMAP” items to keep digestive issues at bay.
“By doing so, they might be able to better match food intake with energy expenditure, which could lead to faster race performances – or even be the difference in making it to the finish line or not.”
To ensure our athletes maximise their nutritional intake during our events, we work with Michelin star-winning performance chef Alan Murchison, who has been developing personalised strategies and preparing meals for elite sportspeople for nine years.
Alan, who is a respected duathlete in his own right, is on-call 24/7 to ensure participants get whatever they need at any time of day so they are well-fed and in prime condition to tackle a 30-mile run the following morning.
We also provide the best fuelling and hydration products from leading consultancies that work with some of the biggest names in world sport to help mitigate issues such as fatigue and cramping.
These are just some of the many reasons the world’s best athletes and sports teams employ professional nutritionists.
It’s inevitable that multi-day events such as ultras will leave athletes suffering from severe aches and pains.
While these are part and parcel of an endurance athlete’s life, they can have a devastating effect on whether participants can complete a race – never mind, perform at their best – if they are not managed correctly.
For this reason, all Highland Kings athletes are looked after by renowned physiotherapists Alison Rose and Mark Buckingham, who have supported numerous elite athletes competing at the highest level internationally. They are used to working with athletes to get them to the start line and through events, sometimes against all odds.
Alison said, “Endurance athletes can significantly improve physical performance and reduce the risk of injury with regular physio sessions.
“Physiotherapists working in sport have the knowledge, skills and experience to help athletes improve their technique, to become more efficient and protect against injury, especially when preparing for something as challenging as an ultra. They are able to advise on specific strength and conditioning work, to help the body cope with the training before the event, as well as the event itself.
“Physiotherapists can assess muscle flexibility, strength and motion to determine whether an athlete is primed to perform well and identify risk factors and therapies to treat injuries quicker.
“Massage also helps to improve recovery and enable participants to get through the event as healthily as possible. Mark and I are supported by soft tissue therapists, who are invaluable in helping the runners cope with the day-to-day toll on the body of this type of event.”
While some athletes still compete in endurance events without physiotherapy, the evidence of the benefits it delivers is unquestionable. It’s a huge risk to take on something as physically demanding as an ultra without at least considering professional physio support.
It’s incredibly rare to find an elite athlete today who doesn’t incorporate physio into their training and event programmes.
Will a premium event make you a better athlete?
While premium events such as Highland Kings aren’t for everyone, these added extras, such as support from some of the world’s leading sports professionals, deliver a wealth of sporting benefits.
There will always be a need and demand for endurance events that suit everyone’s idea of what they feel their sport should entail – and we very much want that to continue.
However, as we have seen from athletes who have taken part in – and are signing up for the next – Highland Kings, there are some who want to be tested to their absolute limit but also enjoy what many in the sport consider to be relative “luxuries”.
There are clearly good arguments for both approaches – and a healthy debate is always welcome.
But what is clear is that world-class support can deliver proven tangible benefits when it comes to taking on multi-day endurance events and helping athletes reach their full potential.
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