When people come to me for help with running ultras, it’s usually because they can’t figure out how to make the “leap” in training. It seems like such a daunting task to go from training for 26.2 miles to training for twice that – or even beyond. Often, when we transition from running only marathons to running ultras, we stick to what worked for us during our marathon – one daily shorter run (morning or evening), and one weekend longer run. Then, to get the necessary increase in miles needed to successfully run ultras, we usually resort to tacking more and more miles onto our weekend long run. While this is a viable training option, there is a better way.
When clients come to me wanting to race ultras more confidently, the first thing I do is adjust their running schedule to include days of 2 to 3 short runs per day. I think most people benefit from a more consistent dose of mileage rather than an easy week followed by a hard weekend. The best way to do this is by splitting runs into smaller, more manageable segments, and spreading them out throughout the week. For example, when a client is ready to move up to 10 miles per day, rather than have him run one 10 miler in the morning, I will have him run a 6 miler in the morning and a 4 miler at lunch or in the evening. As we need to increase mileage, we can easily add a few miles to the morning or evening run, or even add an extra short run of 2-3 miles.
Split-up, consistent mileage is helpful for many reasons.
1. It allows you to slowly, and carefully, increase mileage without having to tack it all on at the end of the week. While the weekend long run(s) is important to ultrarunning, too long of a run results in diminishing returns. If you have to take time off to recover from your long run, you are not really helping your training. By spreading your miles out during the week, you lessen some of the burden on your weekend long run(s).
2. It allows you to manage your time more effectively while building mileage. When you first start adding mileage, your choices are to make your weekly runs longer (i.e., get up at 3 am or stay out running until 11 p,), or do super long runs on the weekend. Splitting your runs up during the week lets you have better control over your time – you can do an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, which is much more manageable.
3. It is much easier on your body. Splitting runs up into smaller segments during the day allows for recovery between runs, lessening the stress each run has on you.
4. It is much easier on your mind. When you know you have to run for 2 hours every morning, it is hard to get motivated. At some point, it can get overwhelming. If you know you only have to do a quick 45 – 1 hour run at any given time, it is much easier to handle.
5. Shorter runs = less fatigue per run. Two 5 mile runs are much less tiring than one 10 mile run.
6. Because you are less fatigued by the longer runs, each of your runs will be more productive. Some opponents of splitting runs claim that you are just adding “junk miles” to your training log by doing a series of shorter runs. I would argue the opposite. By being fresher for each run, you are more likely to have better form, better control of your pace, and better quality overall.
7. By running at different times of the day (morning, lunch, evening, night) you train your body to be able to run at all hours. All of us have inherent biorhythms, times when we function better than others. The problem is that ultras are not run only in the morning or in the evening – they usually last all day, and often into the night and the next morning. By running multiple times per day, you are training your body to run at any given hour.
8. Running multiple times a day teaches your body how to run after stopping. A common complaint amongst runners is that they can’t get started again after stopping. This can be a real problem in ultras where you are forced to stop many times to use the bathroom, change clothes or shoes, or to receive aid. You need to be able to get your body, and your mind, moving again after these stops.
9. It makes running more of an integral part of your daily life rather than just a huge burden that needs to be tackled at the beginning, or end, or your day. A few miles in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening make running a more seamless part of your life.
10. It keeps your energy steady throughout the day. When you run one long run in the morning, you feel energized initially, but can often feel fatigued later. The reverse is true if you run one long run in the evening – your day starts off sluggish, and often, after your evening run, you are too hyped up to sleep. Running a few shorter runs throughout the day stabilizes your energy levels, and as an added bonus, your metabolism.
Even if you don’t feel like you can split up your mileage every day, try to do it at least a couple of days a week. See if you get any benefit out of it – less fatigue, better runs, higher mileage – and if not, stick with a traditional training plan. Even a few runs at different times of the day can help you adjust to running through the later hours of an ultra. The main idea is to keep it fresh and inspiring while you train in the most effective way for YOU.