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.

Ultramarathon Nutrition and Hydration

Note to the reader: I added and updated version of this post here.

When I get asked about training for an ultramarathon, nutrition is almost always the first thing I mention. The longer the race (in distance and time), and the more extreme the conditions, the more important this topic becomes. It is hard for me to imagine someone moving to the ultra distance -- particularly in any race lasting more than 5 or 6 hours -- without having at least a rudimentary plan. Ultramarathons are sometimes described as eating contests with a little running mixed in! And if you plan to do more than "just finish" at the ultra distance, then nutrition is a key success factor. Here is a step-by-step plan to get you started on deciding how to approach a nutrition plan.

Step 1: Determine what your needs are

The starting point for this process is to determine how many calories you need to consume. From this chart, you can estimate the number of calories you'll need to consume based on the distance you are running. This is obviously just a starting point from which to experiment. In general, the faster you run and the shorter the race, the more you'll need to replace lost carbohydrates. While there is no absolute rule, I recommend considering fat and protein as part of your macro nutrients by the 50 mile distance, and definitely by the 100 mile distance.

Once you have an idea how much you need to consume, the tricky part is deciding on a plan to get to that number and later learning how to improvise when things change. Calories will come from primarily two sources: what you eat and what you drink.  

Step 2: Drinking

There are a variety of beverages out there and which one you pick is all about personal preference. Some runners prefer only to drink water, in which case you can skip to step 3 because all your calories come from sources other than drink. If you chose to use an electrolyte beverage/sports drink, you can choose to pick one that you love or you can just figure out what the race is serving and attempt to train with that. Figure out how many calories come from your selected beverage per serving and per hour.  For example, I prefer GU Roctane Drink, which I know is about 250 calories (59 gm of carbs) per handheld. And, through experimentation, I know that I can consume roughly one handheld per hour under average weather conditions. What's more, I know that a 70 oz hydration pack is roughly 750 calories and a little more than 3 hours of fluid under normal conditions.

Step 3: Eating

Once you have decided on a fluid plan, you should have rough idea of the calorie deficit you need to make up. The common source of carb food is a gel. The trick is that not all gels are created equal. There are three types of sugar and your body handles each one differently. I am currently experimenting with Vi Endurance Energy Gels, GU Roctane Gels, and Vitalyte Chia Gels. All but the Vitalytes give you 100 calories per gel. Each has a different mixture of sugar sources (and a little fat and electrolytes).

There is one primary drawback to gels: you have to chase them with 6 - 8 ounces of water! Gels are dehydrated sugar and are hard on your stomach. Your body needs fluids or it will have to send additional blood flow to your stomach which can lead to GI issues and/or dehydration. If you are not a runner that likes to drink a ton, it can be difficult to find the trade-off between drinking fluids for calories and drinking fluids to chase gels. In other words, if you don't drink more than 20 ounces per hour, then you have to decide how many of those ounces are calorie providing beverage and how many are pure water chasing down gels. Try different things out because you are an experiment of one.

Of course you can try other sources of carbs as well. There are many products on the market that I have tried. Perpetuem is marketed as an ultra endurance product. It is a soy-based drink, so it is kind of grainy when consumed, but it is calories dense with mostly non-sugar carbs and some protein and fat. Perpetuem is what I nursed through a major bonk at San Juan Solstice 50. Another option that I have tried is hammer bars. Like Perpetum, they have some additional sources of food like fat and protein.

Keeping track, I determined in step 1 that I need about 360 calories (90 gm of carbs) per hour to support my 190 lb body during an ultramarathon. (Note that this is just carbs, I try for closer to 400 calories per hour to incorporate a little fat and protein in longer races). In step 2, I figured that my favorite drink will give me roughly 250 calories (59 gms of carbs) per hour. That leaves me roughly a 110 calorie deficit per hour. If I am successful in consuming at least one gel an hour, that should put me pretty close my desired carbs per hour.

Other Considerations

I recommend starting the race with at least 300 - 500 calories of breakfast an hour or so before the race. A couple of good options are a packet of Perpetuem and/or a packet of PocketFuel. If you can get a good breakfast in you, then you can probably go light on the nutrition for the first hour of the run.

I recommend eating some real food near lunch and/or the halfway point of the race. This should help satiate hunger (carbs don't serve that function) and may even settle your stomach a bit. A good option would once again be PocketFuel. They are calorie dense with fat and protein and will "sit" in your stomach to satiate hunger and provide long-lasting energy. You can also eat sandwiches or other race provided options for this.

Post race I recommend following a nutrient timing approach where you replenish carbs immediately following a race or workout and then eat protein and fat as you get further from the workout.


I highly recommend S!Caps. While both are possible, there is generally a more pressing issue with hyponatremia than dehydration at the ultra distance. All things being equal, the slower pace allows you to drink more. But without enough electrolytes, you cannot properly process all those fluids. Even the best products don't usually have enough sodium in them to sustain you in an ultra. Electrolyte calculations can get a little complicated because everything you consume (drinks, gels, bars, etc..) have some electrolytes in them. And that can be a lot to think about on race day. The good news is that it is hard to overdo electrolytes. The safest place to start on this journey is to drink to thirst and use one S!Cap per hour in moderate conditions and two S!Caps per hour in hot conditions. But, beware of any products you eat or drink that provide substantial sources of electrolytes.

Putting it all together

In the past I have tried to stay away from gels, primarily because they don't have fat and protein. I think I was overestimating the value of fat and protein in a 10 hour race. The other reason I have tended to avoid gels is that they are hard on my stomach, probably due to a lack of water. My LT100 plan was for lots of fat and protein from PocketFuel and most of my carbs from GU Roctane Drink. And while I think that worked well, if I could do it gain today, then I would likely try to increase my carb intake even more (and decrease my fat and protein).

All of this planning is just a guiding post to keep me on target. On race day lots of things change. I could alternate back and forth between the several of my favorite products. And some decisions will depend on crew and drop bag scenarios. I will be more likely drink a product like Perpetuem early in the day or late at night when it is cool because I find that the soy-based fluid is easier to drink in cool conditions. As it warms up, I prefer to drink a more traditional electrolyte beverage. And once in awhile I may have a hammer bar instead of a gel. But the one thing I have to keep in mind is that I am always striving for the combination of products that gets me to 360 calories. And I train for several scenarios so that I am prepared on race day.

A couple of disclosures in closing: the first is that I am not a nutritionist. If you have real concerns about specific products and your individual needs, I suggest you consult someone who is a nutritionist. Second, you are an experiment of one. All of this information is just a starting point for you to begin as you train. I recommend trying several scenarios before race day to get a mix that works for you. I don't think I have quite achieved that optimal level of nutrition yet. And I have done about half a dozen different plans so far!

Weekly Training Wrap - 11/19 - 11/25

This week was sort of all over the place. My schedule called for the first set of B2B runs, but relatively gingerly with 12 and 10 for Saturday and Sunday. I was out of town with my family for the weekend, so I squeezed those runs in earlier in the week. Then, I did a bunch of easy running on Thursday: first a warm up solo and then the Castle Rock Turkey Trot races with my kids. Friday was my most enjoyable trail run in some time. We took it nice and easy and just enjoyed the day.

I think I was reaching a point of over doing it early in the week. Tuesday night I was feeling pretty wiped out and unmotivated. After 10 easy miles on Wednesday my outlook changed a lot. I guess the combination of running 21 miles on Sunday then coming back Tuesday early (4:30 am) for 11 hard miles really taxed me. Fortunately some easy running has me feeling 100%, energized and motivated to get going.

Friday was significant as well because I have been dreading trail running since my fall. I suppose it is natural to feel some hesitation after such a nasty injury. It has been four weeks and I still have two pretty sizable, deep wounds on my knee. And, there is a bit of swelling/scaring remaining as my body continues to heal. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to impact my running. But my range of motion is somewhat limited and it has hard to do any kind of exercise or stretch that requires putting my knee directly on the ground.

Next week is back to some hard running, including a super long run!

Day Miles Notes
Monday Rest P90x - Legs, Chest, Ab Ripper
Tuesday 11 GA Run (harder side of easy)
Wednesday10 Easy
Thursday3Turkey Trot with my kids
Friday11 Deer Creek Canyon
Saturday RestRest
Sunday 7 Hill Workout
Total 47 About 5000 vertical feet

Monday, November 19, 2012

Weekly Training Wrap - 11/12 - 11/18

I promised myself I wouldn't consider my return to my old self complete until I ran twenty miles at least once. And at long last -- 3 months later -- I accomplished that feat. On the whole I would say that the run exceeded my expectations, but of course there was a part of me that wished it would come back easier like riding a bike. Not quite, I am pretty fatigued. I forgot how much respect a 3-hour run deserves.  Nonetheless, I am happy with the week. Next week is sort of a cutback in the long run department which is good with so many activities for Thanksgiving.

Day Miles Notes
Monday Rest Cross Training
Tuesday 7 Progressive
Wednesday10 8 x 30 sec Fartleks
FridayRest P90x - Plyometrics
Saturday 7Easy
Sunday 21 Long Road Run
Total 50 About 4000 vertical feet

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Weekly Training Wrap - 11/5 - 11/11

Crazy week. At the beginning of the week, I didn't think I'd be able to do anything for a while because the swelling in my knee was so bad. By Wednesday I was back running and only missed 2 scheduled running days. Thursday was a super hard effort -- probably 9 on a scale of 10 -- that really took a toll on me. It probably wasn't the best idea this early in a training cycle, but it felt good to work hard nonetheless. Saturday was a pretty intense long run and that also served to work me pretty good. I am looking forward to Monday's off day.

The one difficult this week was staying on top of my PT and x-training because the range of motion in my knee is a bit limited from the swelling. Toward the end of the week it got better, but I need to get back on that consistently.

Day Miles Notes
Monday Rest Unscheduled due to injury
Tuesday Rest Unscheduled due to injury
Wednesday7 Easy with Jon
Thursday11Long Hill Repeats
FridayRest P90x Legs
Saturday 15Long Road Run
Sunday 8 Easy
Total 40 About 3000 vertical feet

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Weekly Training Wrap - 10/29 - 11/4

Mixed bag this week. The positive was that I executed a couple of pretty good runs and am starting to feel like my old self. The other positive is that I have stayed on top of PT and x-training and my knee feels like a non-issue at this point. Or at least it did. The one negative was a nasty fall I took trail running on Saturday. I had to cut the run a little short and wound up getting nine stitches in my left knee (the same one that had been injured). It doesn't appear that I did any significant damaged, but I am bruised and swollen. The time needed to recover from this fully is about 10 - 14 days. My hope is that I can do at least some light running in the next 3 - 5 days. The bone in the area is bruised and it is too swollen and painful to do much right now.

Here is my knee after it was cleaned up. I think I gored out enough people already with the before pictures.

Day Miles Notes
Monday Rest P90x Leg, Chest, Ab Ripper
Tuesday 7 Easy with Fartleks
Wednesday5 Easy with my wife
Thursday8Progression Run
FridayRest P90x Yoga
Saturday 10Deer Creek Trail Run
Sunday Rest Unscheduled due to injury
Total 30 About 3500 vertical feet