Training for ultras can and should be as varied and wide as the sport itself. There really is no ‘right’ way to train for running ultras; there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ training plan for 50km, 50 mile, 100 mile and multi-day events.
How could there be? You could be running a 50km like Speedgoat that is at altitude and records 11,000 feet of elevation loss/gain, or you could be running the Royal Parks Foundation 50k that is run through the relatively flat and benign parks of London.
You might be training to run a 50 mile in the middle of summer in the heat and humidity of South East Asia; you could be training to run a 100 mile in Alaska in winter! You might have to navigate, you might not. As for multi-day events they can throw anything and everything at you over the course of 3, 6 or even more days – you may have to carry all of your own food, you may have to set up your own camp at night, you might be at altitude for some or all of the event, you might be traversing a desert or crossing the Italian Alps.
Anyway, you get the point – ultras cover all types of terrain, in all kinds of weather and under all kinds of conditions. This article isn’t meant to be a ‘how to’ because clearly there is no one way to go about this. Obviously, you need to research your race and train specifically to deal with the conditions you might find as best you can, with what you have but in general what you need to run an ultra of any kind, anywhere is strength, determination, an endurance base and the mental toughness to say ‘This will not beat me today’ (sometimes over and over and over again for 50 or more miles!).
The basics of training for ultras, without race specificity, are pretty simple and will be familiar to anybody who has run a marathon, competed in triathlons or been involved in adventure racing:
- Hills, hills and more hills. Up and down, up and down. And…repeat!
Hill repeats are great for strength, power and endurance and they are also great for mental training – it’s hard to keep motivated when you’re running up and down the same hill section over and over! Good, because it’s hard to stay motivated to keep moving at mile 40 of a 50-mile race when the aid station looks so comfortable, well stocked and inviting! Ultras often have hills and often they can be fairly long ascents – it’s good to know you can keep your legs turning if you’re feeling good but it’s also good to have practiced the power hike, if the going gets tough or it’s too steep to run then lean forwards put your hands on your quads and get moving. Also, what goes up must come down and often in races this is going to happen over and over and over again – Ultra Trail Mont Blanc or Western States are good examples – if you’re not used to running downhill then you really should start practising because when your quads blow it makes the remaining miles that much harder!
- Round and round you go.
Intervals are great for building speed and an endurance base. You don’t have to use a track. A looped stretch of road or trail will do just fine or even an out and back. The more you do them the more confident you’ll feel to push it later on in a race – you might be racing for a certain time or you might be racing to see where you can place but when you’re tired it’s good to know you have a bit of extra speed saved up.
- Run far. Find a route, take your gear and off you go.
A staple of anybody’s training plan be that for 10km or 100 miles. Long runs are particularly important for ultra training. They are a great way to test out what works for you when it comes to kit, hydration and nutrition and they are also good indicators of fitness and endurance levels. Long runs don’t have to be super long either, if you’re training for a hundred miler then maybe 35 to 40 miles in one shot could suffice but then again maybe that’s not for you – in that case back to back long runs could be the way to go. For instance, you might run 20 miles at above race pace on Saturday and then on Sunday you’ll go out for another 20 miles but this time your legs are going to feel tired and heavy and you might find it difficult to go the distance mentally – good! This is how it may feel at mile 80 of your 100-mile race or on day 3 of 5 at your multi-day stage race.
- Do you even lift bro? No? Well, you should. Not much but enough to strengthen the core and the legs.
Good runners don’t just run. They look after their bodies and strengthen those parts of it that are likely going to take a sustained battering during the course of a racing season. You don’t have to do too much; you’re not looking to bulk up! In fact, you’re pretty much looking to tone what you have. A strong core and strong legs will help you to keep good running form as the miles (or days) go by. A 50-mile race is often tough on the mind and it will be tough on the body, but with a decent strength and conditioning program, your body will feel so much stronger and less battered than it might without. Take up a gym membership, even if it’s short-term, just to get advice from somebody who knows about strength and conditioning and then either keep on gyming it or apply your learning at home.
- That’s right, not only should you be strong but bendy too! Take up yoga and/or pilates.
Flexibility is important when it comes to avoiding injury. Flexibility and strength through yoga and pilates can really help to loosen and lessen tight hamstrings, hip flexors or any of the associated aches and pains that come with racing often and training regularly. The best thing is you can do it from home and it is great to practice on rest days or during down time – not only does yoga and pilates increase flexibility it can also help to relax the mind and give it a rest from worrying about training and, indeed, life in general. Both yoga and pilates are great for core strength too.
- Enter races of varying distances; it’s good to be diverse.
Don’t race an ultra or endurance based event every weekend – that would be unsustainable for most mortals. Instead, pick an A-race or maybe two or three spread throughout the year and then add in a few races prior to that. For instance, you may pick a 70 mile as an A-Race at the end of July and to train for it you could enter a 55km race at the end of May that is over similar terrain and then a five-mile race about a month before, again over similar terrain – the idea is to keep the mind and body in racing shape. Not only that, let’s face it, going to races is fun! It’s a chance to go somewhere new and to hang out with people who have similar interests.
- Cross train…or cross race.
Running is great for the mind and the soul and to some extent, it’s great for fitness. But sustained training and racing can and likely will impact on your body over time. A lot of ultrarunners have come from an adventure racing or Ironman/triathlon background and it’s safe to say that their varied focus in training for these particular events promotes longevity in the sport of running! Once in a while, it’s good to mix it up – variety is the spice of life after all. Build in some kind of aerobic/cardio cross training either as part of your weekly workouts or maybe on a less frequent basis. Take up swimming, hit the trails on a mountain bike, visit your local climbing wall or commute to work on a road bike – it’s all good training for strength and endurance and it keeps things interesting.
- Listen to your body – it’s always talking to you and it has a lot to say!
This really is a given. It’s a standard piece of advice given to everybody who starts training seriously for any kind of endurance event. Don’t delay, take up the advice today. The consequences of not doing so could be many and varied: mental burnout, constant tightness in your muscles, trapped nerves, stress fractures! If your body is giving you signs that it needs a rest, some massage or some time away from running then listen to it and focus on the area that needs attention.
- Experiment with what works – talk to other runners, make friends but go your own way!
This article is not a ‘how to’. It’s a guide. What works for one person may not work for another but it is good to experiment and find out what does work. Change it up and explore a bit. Read articles, read blogs, talk to other runners but don’t take anyone’s word as gospel! There are training plans out there for ultra-distance races but often they are too rigid and formulaic for a sport that is so fluid and diverse! Some people choose to train on feel and through trial and error, whilst others might like the rigidity of a set plan – give it a go, see what you think. The same can be said for shoe choice, pack choice – any kind of choice from gels to socks, water bottles to bladders, sunglasses to hats. Try different things, experiment in training, experiment in your races (but don’t try anything new on race day!) and enjoy the learning experience.
- HAVE FUN! ENJOY LIFE!
If you want a sport that will constantly challenge you, give you experiences and opportunities then ultrarunning is the way forward, it’s a sport for life. You’ve got time to find what works for you; you’ve got time to learn from others and from your own mistakes and you should embrace this side of it. Don’t rush! Ultrarunning is certainly not about instant gratification – it’s about the joy of movement, of being outside, of seeing new things, meeting new people and pushing yourself to your physical and mental limits. It’s about redrawing your boundaries year on year.
Written by Alistair Flowers, Founder of Flowers Endurance & Fitness!