Going Ultra! Part 2: Training Tips for the Ultramarathon
This is the second article in a series for the beginning ultrarunner. Many people who regularly read Trail and Ultra will find the information valuable. If you are one of those people, leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.
Training for an ultramarathon is a process which takes patience. The body adapts quite a bit slower than our advanced human mind. Of course, adaptation depends on the individual experience of the athlete. For instance, an Ironman triathlete will adapt faster to ultra training than a short-course road runner because of the aerobic conditioning required for that distance of triathlon. Also, years of mountain climbing will prepare the body well for ultrarunning. It will pay dividends to let go of any concept of “minimal” training necessary. For instance, we often get asked the question, “How far should my longest run be in preparation for a 50k?”
There is no magic number and try to let go of concepts about “minimum” anything. In order to train your body, you have to be patient and let your body adapt over time to durational stress. You have to recover from physical effort with nutrition and rest, so you will be ready to hit the trails again and continue improving. You can only make forward progress if you are absorbing the training, avoiding injury, and motivated to continue physical training. A rookie mistake is to push through injury rather than rest and recover…as is the case with any endurance sport. Very often, less is more.
A while back, I spoke about the concept of going from the marathon to the 50k in this article, “Marathon to 50k: Training for Ultra”. If you are finding success in managing your training and merely need those common questions answered about adjusting marathon training for a 50k, take a look at that article. I think it will help you guide your training and point you to the finish line of your first 50k.
I strongly suggest measuring your long runs in time, or duration, rather than mileage. If you run a flat 20 miles around a lake, you are not getting the same training as 20 mountain miles with 5,000’ of elevation gain. If you consider duration over intensity, you are better preparing your body for ultrarunning. Pace is also not that important or discussed very much in ultrarunning. The phrase you will hear thrown out by experienced ultrarunners is, “Time on Feet”. This translates to the hours one spends on the trails and not the pace or effort of the long run. If you are training for your first ultra, consider hiking the hills and jogging the flat and descents. Do this while eating and drinking your endurance nutrition and rest as needed or desired. Let go of pace or strenuous effort as a measurement of your long run. This will help you make the transition to the long days on the trails of ultra events. Oh yeah, don’t forget to have fun!
Keeping in mind the things above about duration, you can see why weekly mileage can really vary.
There is no magic number. You might cover 50 miles of really challenging terrain and do it often. This would most likely be great training for 50-100 mile mountain races. On the other hand, you might be running 120 miles a week on flat terrain and doing it with a speedy pace. This is likely going to prepare you for certain types of events but not others. I’d emphasize doing your weekly training on terrain very similar to that of the race you are preparing for. This becomes most critical in the 2-3 months before the event.
Everyone has a different schedule and training regime. I’d encourage new ultrarunners to register for their key event and work on consistency for 5-6 months leading up to the event. In the 3 months before the race, train on whatever surface you will be facing at the venue. Illustrate your long runs as similar to your key race as possible, with respect to weather, footing, nutrition, and effort. It’s very important you use the same pack, bottles, nutrition, etc… Through your training, you will discover little idiosyncrasies about your equipment and/or nutrition that need adjustment. Modification of these little things is what will make the difference for you in that upcoming race. Have no question in your mind on the day of your event…be confident you rehearsed your successful finish many times over.
This is a recommendation you won’t hear from too many other coaches. In developing your hydration plan, I suggest using a digital scale. Take a digital scale with you to the trailhead or wherever you are starting your run. If the trail loops back through the same location, take note of your weight (with the same amount of gear). This will give you a clear indication of your hydration. If you are losing weight, you will need more electrolyte fluid. If you do this, you will learn a great deal about your needs and what adjustments must be made in various weather conditions.
At many 100 mile ultras, the “medical checks” at various points require a weigh-in. This is the easiest way to evaluate the hydration management of the runners. If an athlete loses too much weight, they are at risk for more serious medical conditions. As the athlete, you can learn to manage your hydration long before the race by using the scale in this manner. Adjust your intake to keep your weight from dropping more than a couple pounds. You can learn about the risks of dehydration and/or hyponatraemia through a Google search. Most importantly, become an expert on your physiology. Know your needs.
Preparing your body and mind for an ultramarathon is a personal quest of self-improvement. I applaud you for taking up the challenge. The mere fact you have chose to learn and develop makes you unique. Always remember that getting to the starting line is the most difficult challenge of all. Believe in yourself and never give up.
In the next post in this beginner series, I will discuss endurance nutrition, common mistakes, and recovery. If you are enjoying Trail and Ultra, share with others!
Run long and prosper.