Sunday, November 25, 2012

Training For Your First Ultra

I often get asked about training for an ultramarathon. If you have been training for at least the marathon distance, then training for an ultramarathon won't be much of a change except in a few areas outlined below. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to assume you've trained for at least one marathon and have completed at least one 18+ week cycle averaging 30 or more miles per week. If you have not, then you may still be able to train for an ultra, but I would recommend reading the book Relentless Forward Progress for more advice.

Weekly Mileage

Runners are creatures of habit and we often run to specific mileage targets, believing that the secret success lies in pounding out lots of miles. And, while I will concede that generally speaking more miles is preferred, this is not universally true. There are may considerations, including running history, injury history, natural running talent, and life factors. I know several runners that have done well at the ultra distance training on 30 miles per week, including one friend that finished the Leadville 100. Most runners can comfortably run an ultra training with an average of 40 - 70 miles per week. The key is to shift those miles to target the specific types of training necessary for success at the distance.


Specificity refers to training like you plan to race. If your race is a trail ultra, then a portion of your training should be done as long trail runs. If your race is hilly, train and practice running uphill and downhill. If there is a significant amount of elevation gain, then practice running, walking and hiking big climbs. (This can even be done on a treadmill). Also train for as many environmental conditions that you may face as possible: heat, altitude, rain, etc... And be sure to experiment with your nutrition and hydration plans.

However, I would caution you against doing to much specificity training. First of all, it isn't always the most practical idea to train specifically on every run. I live in the city and I cannot often get up to the mountains to train. Trying to do too much of this type of training becomes a stress point for me and my family. And it can often require setting up special circumstances. The second reason is that specificity training can be very stressful on the body. Training runs that are beyond 4 hours, at altitude, in the heat, or with big vertical will take additional recovery time. The key is to do enough of this to be prepared, but not so much as to be over stressed. I don't have a hard rule to give you, but I can say that I had only run about 150 miles on trails before completing my first trail ultra. And I did pretty well.

Nutrition and Hydration

I wrote a separate post on nutrition and hydration. But I think the important thing to say here is that you need to train with a nutrition plan in mind and practice executing it. Once in a while I run into a runner that thinks running to the point of depravation is key to understanding what it may feel like on race day. And I suppose there is some merit in doing a little bit of this. However, I contend that it is better to never let yourself get to that point in a race. Learning to execute a nutrition plan is paramount to success. Now, I certainly don't treat every run like a nutrition practice run. But I do practice nutrition on nearly every long run. On shorter long runs, I will often just lower my calorie targets a little bit. Nonetheless, I am constantly experimenting with nutrition, teaching my body, and learning from my body. And, I believe that executing a nutrition plan on a training run will also help to aid in recovery.

It is not uncommon for me to mix a bunch of products in the spare fridge in my garage and just run 5 - 7 miles out and back loops from my house. In this way, I treat my house like an aid station so I don't have to carry a hydration pack on every 25 mile run.

The Long Run

If you plan to run an ultra, then you must run a long run just about every weekend. Assuming your ultra is at least 40 miles in length, I recommend trying to accomplish two to three hour runs most weekends and at least a four or five hour run two or three times. It is preferable that your long run mimic race conditions, running on the actual course if possible. But I certainly do my share of long road runs even when I am training for a trail race. There are also a wide variety of techniques you can try, including: run-walk patterns, heart rate target training zones, and even back-to-back long runs. The main thing is to run the long runs at a comfortable pace. You are far more likely to run too fast than too slow, particularly if your ultra is 50 miles or more or if it is on trails. In fact, your first ultra is quite likely to include some walking, meaning there is a good chance that almost all your training will be faster than race pace.

Back to Back Long Runs

Many runners and coaches believe in the back-to-back (B2B) long run as a way of practicing while fatigued. And I completely agree they are an essential training tool if you have the time and your body can handle the miles. B2B runs can be just about any combination of distances on back-to-back days where both runs are at least 10 miles. More commonly, it is often something totaling 30 or more miles, such as: 18 and 12 (on the easy side) or 22 and 20 (on the harder side). I liken the B2B as similar to the 20-miler for a marathon runner -- aim to do about three of them that are moderate or long in length per cycle.

Caution is once again warranted here as overuse of B2B runs is an easy mistake to make. I think doing significant weekend mileage (30+ miles) is only necessary a couple of times per training cycle. And, if you don't plan to run 60 or more miles, then doing B2B runs too frequently is not adviseable. Your mileage needs to be spread out throughout the week.  If you attempt to run 30 of your 40 total weekly miles on the weekend, it can creates a excess stress on your body.

Training Plans

I have seen several sources where the idea of a "training plan" is thought of in a negative context for ultra runners. It seems to me that this line of thinking assumes that all marathon runners are watch-oriented, obsessed individuals and all trail ultra runners run by feel and just enjoy themselves. This is an unfair distinction to make. I am a believer in a training plan primarily as a guide post toward your goal. The reason that we put our bodies through training cycles is to provide the right mixture of stress and recovery to provide growth and recovery in our bodies. Training plans help to put that mixture into concrete terms. Only the most seasoned runners can do this without either over or under training. Another benefit of a training plan is to ensure that the you are getting a good mixture of workout types to be a well rounded athlete and runner. I frequently mix in things like Fartleks, hill sprints, marathon pace miles, speed work, walk-run patterns, and more into my plans. I also include cross training into my plans as a reminder to myself.

All that said, I rarely go through an entire week without at least some small modification to my training plans. And I have never gone through an entire cycle without changing some significant aspects of my plan. I don't believe plans are carved in stone. Again, their purpose is to be a guide through a training cycle. Each day you should execute what is on the plan understanding that it is the best thing for your body that day. Sometimes the best thing for your body is rest. Sometimes it is running hard. Sometimes it is running easy.

Here are a few plans to get you started:
  • The book Relentless Forward Progress (RFP) has several good examples (easy to advanced).
  • UltraLadies (moderate to advanced)
  • Runner's World (advanced)
I have personally used the RFP plans and the Runner's World plan with great success.

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