Like anything in life, there is no one size fits all to training for an ultramarathon. However, I want to share my experiences over 13 years of running, and what I am currently doing to begin my training for an ultramarathon based on past experiences, my research, and what feels right for my body in my own context. Yes, I’ve never run an ultramarathon. But since you’re reading this, my assumption is that neither have you. So like High School Musical, we’re all in this together.
First off, you have to get to a place you are physically fit enough to start your training. For already existing runners or those looking to start from scratch, I’m of the belief that if you find yourself in a place where you’re running 60-70k a week, you’re ready to start training for an ultra. But at the same time, if you’re consistently doing cardiovascular exercise that equates to about 7 hours a week (at the right intensity), you’d be in a relatively similar state of fitness to start. I have quite a few friends who cycle or cross-country ski at a high level, who could easily go out and hold pace with me on a run, with little to no actual running in their training regimen.
Further research also suggests that about 60-70k per week is an excellent starting place to work yourself up toward, before you start actively training for an ultra. Throughout that time, your training should be focused on building endurance rather than out-and-out speed, and should increase no more than 10% per week. This is the golden rule for avoiding injuries, the most common of which occur from “overtraining”. This includes shin splits, runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, and tendonitis. These are the types of injuries that are usually quickly recoverable. But you’d be better off continuing your training without battling through any injuries.
You should also be building your flexibility through yoga, pilates, and occasional strength training. Easygoing cycling training is a great way to develop muscular capacity in the legs, without taking away from your ability to run. HIIT training on the other hand can be great for muscular capacity, but limiting in what it does to your body the next day. Like we’ve said in the past, it must all be a balance. But prioritizing your flexibility and strength will also help you to avoid those common running injuries.
Shin splints can happen for a variety of reasons, all the way up to the type of shoes you wear. But the others generally won’t happen if you follow the 10% rule and focus on fostering flexibility and strength.
So now you’ve gotten yourself up to a place where you’re running 60-70k weeks, and raring to go. So where do you start?
Well, remember what you are training for here. You’re training for an ultra, where you’re going to need to be capable of running long (and probably pretty slow). So speed work is not overly helpful in the actual quest of running long, even if it might help you to run those long distances faster. Instead of speed work, you need to be running long distances, at a pace that feels right for your body in the moment. Running experts recommend running at what’s been termed your “running heart rate” (RHR). There’s a bit of debate in the running community (and in research papers) surrounding the exact formula to accurately predicting “running heart rate”. I air on the side of caution, and use the easy formula that can be found by subtracting your age from 180. For me, my RHR would be 155. If I’m over that limit on a long run, I’m probably pushing myself too hard. But if I’m running under that limit, I’m comfortable, and have room to pick up the pace if the rest of my body feels ready.
If you don’t already have a watch or a device that tracks your heart rate while you run, this isn’t necessarily essential, but will help you. You shouldn’t be focusing on your heart rate throughout a run, especially since that’s a recipe for only increasing your heart rate. But if you periodically check in with yourself, especially when you feel it beating (or feel the pain coming in), you will have a more successful running experience.
Those who come from backgrounds where they’re less experienced in running often speak about how this helps them to recognize their own limits. We all want to go faster when we start to get into that flow, but this is only setting ourselves up for injury and disaster if it’s above our limits. Staying on top of your heart rate will allow you to actually enjoy the experience, and make it less about running to see how fast you can go, and more about running to see how far you can go (while remembering that 10% rule).
So in the beginning stages of your ultra training, you don’t need to do more than 2 speed workouts per week, and it’s important to remember that speed work will always force your heart rate to be higher than your RHR. This isn’t a bad thing in the development of speed and muscular endurance, but it’s not the type of running that you will actually be doing on race day.
For my own training regimen, I run six days a week, with one workout and two long 20k+ runs factored in. Before I was running that 60-70k a week, I was only doing one longer run a week, and I worked my way up to a place where I could do back-to-back long hauls comfortably. Or at the very least – comfortably enough, without injuring myself.
Then as you become more familiar with those back-to-back 20k+’ers, you will naturally develop a feel for how fast and how far you can push yourself within your 10% bumps, and become more comfortable both during and after the run, as your legs recover. It’s inevitable that the legs are going to be sore, probably even from start to finish on that second long-run. But the more you do these back-to-back runs, the more you’ll start to feel at ease when running both the first and second, and the more you’ll be able to cover greater distances in quicker times. You’ll suddenly be hitting 4:35 per-kilometer at your RHR, rather than 5:35. This is a wonderful feeling, but it’s important to still stay within your limits and boundaries. I’ve gradually worked my way up to this point through being cautious and careful, even if I’m running obscene distances that make my non-running peers shudder.
Here’s the exact method of what I’ve done in the first four weeks.
|5:30 per/k||Easy||4:55 per/k||5:40 per/k||5:30 per/k||4:30 per/k||4:50 per/k|
|5:20 per/k||Easy||4:55 per/k||5:40 per/k||5:30 per/k||5:00 per/k||4:55 per/k|
|5:20 per/k||Easy||4:55||5:40 per/k||5:20 per/k||4:45 per/k||4:45 per/k|
|5:20 per/k||Easy||4:50 per/k||5:50 per/k||Easy||4:50 per/k||4:50 per/k|
As you can see from my training, there’s a gradual increase in both distances and pace. I’ve stayed to a consistent routine, helping to get into the flow of my training. This includes the longest run taking place on Saturday, and another long-haul taking place on tired legs the next day. I then shake out and recover my legs on Mondays, before taking Tuesdays off. This has stayed consistent regardless of if I’m feeling good to get out there, ensuring I’m giving my body time to recover. On Wednesdays I’m then ready to jump back into action in a speed workout, which helps to build my ability to go faster over those longer distances.
The total kilometers I’ve listed on Wednesdays include a warm-up and cool-down, and the type of workout I conducted in between, showing an overall pace that encompasses all three parts. Thursdays or Fridays end up being slower to cope with what I’ve done to myself on Wednesdays, and properly prepare for those long runs on Saturdays and Sundays – the two that matter the most in my training.
My plan is to continue to work my way up on those long runs both in distance and pace, while feeling my way through the runs and not putting any pressure on myself to go farther or longer if I don’t feel up for the task. I’m also participating in a 5k Spartan Race with friends next week, which will mean I adjust my schedule and properly prepare by only doing one long run that week. I think it’s important to plan ahead and be aware of life events that may impact your normal routine. If you have a stressful day of work ahead, you may want to consider taking time off from the run, and giving your body an entire day of recovery. This won’t do you any harm. In fact, your body will thank you. The day after I did this, I ran the easiest and breeziest 24k+ long run I’ve ever had in my life – hitting a 28k at a comfortable 4:50 pace. My RHR stayed around 150-155, and I stayed in control of how my body and mind were feeling the entire time. Had I chosen to run the day before, under the stressors of work, I likely wouldn’t have been able to put in such a valiant effort the next day.
My training regimen won’t work perfectly for you and your schedule, but you can easily use it as a template to understand how you can train within your own context. Maybe taking Fridays off makes more sense for you, giving you a full day of recovery ahead of your back-to-back long runs. Maybe Monday is a better day for you to take off for the same reason, allowing your body to rest up after what it went through over the weekend. Maybe you don’t even want to incorporate a speed workout, or maybe you want to run four days a week with two speed workouts factored in alongside your back-to-back long runs. This will all work for the purposes of training for an ultra, so long as it works for you, your schedule and your life.
But I definitely encourage you to develop some kind of action plan, aiding you in your cause to stay motivated and get out there to run. You shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to stick to an exact formula if it’s not going to work (like my Spartan Race example). But getting into a routine will help you to stay motivated, and in your quest to track your progress of pace and distance improvements over time.
So with that, let’s now talk about diet, and how to stay healthy when running these obscene distances.
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