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Creative Cross-Training: Pickup Ultimate

All photos by Tyson Stevens

When it comes to run training, all work and no play is a sure recipe for burnout. You could try throwing in a few Farleks or intervals to break things up, but sorry, that’s still work.

One way to mix things up, possibly gain a little speed, and, most importantly, have fun at the same time, is to inject some play into your routine with some Ultimate Frisbee. Usually referred to as “Ultimate” for fear of attracting unwanted attention from certain corporate attorneys, the game involves elements of soccer, football, and basketball. Physically, you can expect a lot extremely aerobic running around chasing a plastic disc, with plenty of short, intense sprints (serving as interval training, a great shortcut to speed) and side-to-side movement (good for building functional strength). It’s fun, it’s different, it’s a perfect cross-training pick-me-up for a stale workout schedule.

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You’re a lot more motivated to run fast when you’re chasing plastic.

For the best workout and, not coincidentally, the most fun, it’s best to hook up with people who know how to play rather than thrashing around with a few friends and a plastic disc (the official regulation disc is the 175-gram Ultrastar manufactured by Discraft). Established pickup games, some of which have been running for years, can be found all around the country and, indeed, all over the world. You can find a list of regular pickup games here. You can also track down the local or state organization  for more up-to-date information on pickup games and adult summer leagues you could join. (One caveat: although some regular pickup games have been running for decades, you might want to contact the organizer to make sure the information about days, locations, and times is up-to-date).

With any luck, there’s a game going on relatively close to you. Follow these simple rules to ensure that you’re welcome when you turn up.

Rules for Ultimate Pickup Success

The basics

You don’t need to be an expert thrower to get started. Even if the disc wobbles and flutters like a dying quail coming out of your hand, as long as you can keep your cool under pressure and throw it a distance of five feet, you’ll be fine. The technique will come with practice.

But it wouldn’t hurt to be a little familiar with the rules of the game, since Ultimate, even at the highest amateur levels (yes, there is pro Ultimate), is a self-officiated game. But don’t worry, this is just pickup, and USA Ultimate has boiled down its surprisingly long rulebook into Ten Simple Rules that are an excellent start. If you’re confused, don’t be afraid to ask; you’ll find most of the pickup game regulars are happy to answer questions. In fact, you’ll find that many specialize in unsolicited advice, and lots of it.

And speaking of self-officiating … the thing that makes it work is one of the prized tenets of Ultimate, the “Spirit of the Game.” It’s the concept that the rules and everyone on the field are to be respected and that there’s no place for a “win at all costs” attitude—essentially, good sportsmanship. In real life, every pickup game has its problem child in this respect—but don’t make yourself one of them, especially as a beginner.

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Athletic women, even beginners, are always welcome at pickup games. And don’t worry, most guys are pretty careful about avoiding collisions.

Dress right

Don’t fall for popular perception of Ultimate—don’t show up looking like a hippie. Going barefoot is frequently associated with playing Ultimate but, unless you’re playing on a warm spring day on a college quad … don’t. Aside from the obvious safely reasons (slipping on grass, stepping on pointy things, getting your toes stepped on, etc.), you’re at a serious competitive disadvantage against cleated players. Soccer-style cleats are best, but if you aren’t ready to make that investment anything lightweight, low-to-the-ground, and grippy, like minimalist trail running shoes, will do.

For that same reason, do not under any circumstances show up in tie-dye (ditto Grateful Dead and Phish T-shirts). Cotton is okay, but keep in mind you’ll be sweating buckets; the Patagonia Capilene 1 T-shirt is a favorite of Ultimate players for its light weight and wicking properties. One beauty of Ultimate is that it is not at all gear-intensive, so it won’t divert cash from your other outdoor-equipment needs. And be sure to bring both a light (white) shirt and a dark (black, navy, etc.) shirt, since pickup games are very often organized into ‘light’ and ‘dark’ teams.

As far as shorts go, you’ll find that baggy, lightweight athletic shorts are the standard uniform on the fields. However, if your hamstring is feeling at all delicate (or even if it’s not, Ultimate is notoriously hard on hammies) you might want to layer the shorts over some compression shorts. Trucker hats are also popular with Ultimate players as a cool, lightweight means of keeping sun and distracting strands of hair out of eyes.

defensePlay hard

You may be a black hole on offense, and nearly every time the disc gets anywhere near you a turnover ensues—but if you run your behind off on defense, there will always be a place on the field for you. Pickup Ultimate is heavily populated with players who may be skilled but for the most part can’t be bothered with playing D. If you’re willing put out the energy to stay within an arm’s length of the person you’re covering to prevent them from catching the disc, you’ll be a star. Just remember, Ultimate is a non-contact sport and you don’t want to take anyone out with overly aggressive, out-of-control play. Pickup players are out there to have fun, not to get their ACLs trashed.

Good D!

Take turns

Disc hogs are never appreciated, and few things are more universally disliked than a newbie that won’t leave the field when there are a number of people waiting on the sideline for their turn to play. Play hard for two points, and then get out and let someone else in the game. Chances are you’ll need a break, anyway. Also, take care not to hover around the disc because that seems to be where the action is; you’ll just shut down the offense. If you’re not sure where to go, retreat downfield and eyeball the situation from there.

Bring liquids

You’re going to be running around a lot and sweating up a storm, so make sure to bring plenty of water or, even better, an electrolyte replacement drink. A bottle for yourself at minimum, or even a gallon to share with anyone who runs out of their own.

Now that you’re all set, get out there and play. There are killer workouts to be had and lots of new friends to be made.

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Seven on the line.

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