The basis of this post is what I have learned from more than two years of ultra training. I will disclose that I don't know it all and that training should always be fit to the strengths (and weaknesses) of the individual. But, I think I can definitively say that I was doing more work than I needed to for 2011 and most of 2012. And, I was not a balanced enough runner, which has likely contributed to my recent run of injuries.
Here are the stats compare my 2013 Old Pueblo 50 and 2011 Leadville Silver Rush 50 and prove my theory*:
|Old Pueblo||Silver Rush|
|Avg Miles Per Week||49||62|
|Max Weekly Miles||58||80|
|# 20+ milers||7||13|
|# 22+ milers||4||7|
|Avg combined B2B miles||30 miles||40 miles|
* Note that according to RealEndurance.com these races are similar in difficulty (a factor of .95 +/- .02)
I think the table speaks for itself. Other than vertical gain, I trained significantly less for the 15 weeks leading up to Old Pueblo and ran 1 minute and 40 secs faster per mile. Astounding. I will agree that some of my gains from 2011 to 2013 are not explained by the variables above: factors like lifetime mileage/base and better nutrition and hydration. In fact, I would say a better understanding of nutrition and hydration alone made a significant difference in my results. The point is that I trained less and ran a much better race in 2013.
- Somewhere not far beyond 50 miles there is a diminishing returns to training UNLESS you can handle huge weeks, like 100+ miles. Once you reach that point of diminishing returns, talent matters more than training. Followed closely by nutrition and race day execution.
- Even at the ultra distance, intensity matters. Once you have an aerobic base in place, you get fitter by running harder. (Of course, you should still follow the hard/easy principal.)
- Proper recovery is essential to continue to making fitness gains. And to run harder, you need to allow for more recovery. Recovery includes sleep and downtime, not just short, easy runs.
- Most weekend warrior runners do not have enough time to balance 80 miles per week plus life plus cross training and still recover properly.
- More well rounded runners make better ultra runners. If you improve any pace from the mile to the marathon, you are improving your ultra times as well (assuming an adequate amount of specificity).
- You can overdo specificity training. Most marathon programs only have you do about 3 twenty mile long runs. Likewise, you don't need to do B2Bs on the trails every weekend to be ready for an ultra.
- You can supplement specificity with creativity -- do eccentric quad workouts to prepare for long downhills, get on the stair master or a steep incline treadmill to prepare for long uphills, etc...
- Think of yourself as an athlete, not just a runner. Train all aspects of your body and in all planes of motion.
The specific things that I did for my Old Pueblo training cycle included:
- Lots of MAF/base-building runs where I ran by a HR of 145 - 150. The pace of these runs dropped from 9:15 min early in my cycle to around 7:50 by race time.
- Lots of "light quality" in my base runs -- strides, progression, etc... (See Brad Hudson's book)
- Fewer, more intense long runs. I did most of them in progressive fashion where I would start in Zone 1 for 60 - 90 mins, then Zone 2 for 60 - 90 mins, and end up in Zone 3 or 4 by the end.
- I alternated between hard road runs (like the above) and then specific slow-distance runs on the trails
- More 2 - 3 hours runs instead of 3 - 4 hour runs
- Speed work (intervals, hills, tempos) every 7 - 10 days, again after an adequate base is built
- Lately, I have also been using the bike more to keep an aerobic base with out the stress of the repetitive motion of running.
- Add some tempo runs on the trails, specifically going hard uphill. I think I get a little too comfortable hard hiking hills. Similar to alternating between hard long runs and easy long runs, I would alternate between hiking hills and running hills (in different workouts) to get trained for both.
The bottom line for me is that I am not elite. Nor am I twenty five years old with a lifestyle built around running. I don't have a team of people -- nutritionists, physical therapists, chiropractors, etc... -- looking after me on a regular bases. I only engage these people reactively when something has gone wrong. So why the heck would I try to train like someone with that profile?! I believe the content of this post will serve most runners well. It is unconventional logic to those that believe more miles equals more success, but it should be seen as good news. You can train smarter, not harder.