Running a marathon is a huge accomplishment, so deciding to take the step up to ultra-running – turning a marathon into just a training distance for you – is a decision not to be taken lightly. Just like marathon training, there is going to be a big emphasis on well-structured training (both in the gym and on the road), nutrition, and planned recovery in macro and micro-cycle phases. In contrast to the marathon, where there are many who finish, very few individuals will successfully complete an ultra-distance run.
Whether it is the Jordan Ultra of 360 km, the Badwater Ultra of 135 km through the hottest place on earth (where your shoes will literally melt to the road) or the You Yangs ultra of 100 miles, your body is going to go through hell to finish. That hell will take a lot to conquer, but if you arm your body to cope with its demands, the joy and reward of completing one will never be forgotten!
Training for ultra-running requires a high volume of training, so planning is vital to ensure you can fit it all in alongside other life commitments such as family, friends, and work. We highly recommended that you seek the advice of an experienced Performance Coach before you just head out and pound the pavement aimlessly, to ensure the time and work put in is effective for you.
Strength and Body Balance
Any slight imbalances in your body’s strength, flexibility and joint range will quickly be exposed as the volume of training increases, so preparing with a structured strength training program to address any issues will help to ensure you remain as fit and healthy as possible throughout your training and ultimately race day. Stronger muscles, joints and connective tissue will allow you to safely perform and cope with the required volume for ultra-running training.
As important as it is to remain injury free, we all want to put in a good performance too. In a study by Paavolainen, Hakkinen, Hamalainen, Nummela, & Rusko (2003), it was shown that when approximately one-third of the endurance training was replaced by resistance training there was a significant improvement (8.1%) in running economy. So strength training will not just save you some overall time in your training, as the volume of running required will be far lower (vital to those who are not full time athletes), but will also make you faster on race day by saving you energy, leaving you more in the tank for the last few miles.
It should be noted that your strength training should not negatively affect your run training, so be careful not use excessive volume of high reps and sets. You train for endurance on the road, not in the gym. Once a stable strength base is built your reps per set should be no more than 6-8 and preferably lower than that if you have good lifting experience. Ideal strength range training is 1-6 reps per set, as going too far beyond that will only add excessive fatigue and potentially cause unwanted, non-functional muscle hypertrophy. 3 sets of a Squat/Deadlift pattern, push pattern and pull pattern exercise supplemented with some hip and core stability exercises will have you heading in the right direction. I know you’re a runner, but don’t forget that upper body and posture will dramatically affect how efficient you are running, and that arm drive is vital. Just try running with them held to your side and see what happens!
Ensuring your program focuses only on the necessary movements required for your sport and your individual needs (e.g. imbalances, weakness, injury history) will save you a lot of time and energy. An example, very basic, generic strength session is below, ideally performed 1-2x per week, with an additional session per week encompassing a focus on hip and core stability and balance. Key to any program is pre-screening by an expert, as it must be specific to your needs.
Warm up Example:
Individually focused hip/glute stability work and dynamic movements for movement preparation. Include things such as single leg balance work such as hop and holds.
Cool down: Individually focused stretching program
Below is a great flow chart on Adaptive Mechanisms (Modified from Paavolainen et al, 1999) which demonstrates how strength training feeds into endurance training performance.
Obviously, the running side of training is the most important aspect, and everything else you do should be aimed to work with this, not inhibit it. When training for an ultra-run, the weekly training schedule won’t vary hugely from a marathon training schedule – you still need your speed work, your interval and tempo sessions. The only big change comes from including one slightly longer run mid-week, and of course that ever-increasing long run on the weekend.
It is vital that you build up the time on your feet. You need to adapt to spending long periods of time on your feet and moving forward. Longer runs (>4 hrs) can be broken up with walking breaks spaced throughout when you require them, as learning to walk and then start to run again is key to success in ultra-marathons. It is important to realise that being able to run for such a long time is a rare feat for a human to achieve, but spending time walking and recovering between run sections is far more achievable. Do not think this will be bad for your overall performance; it is common to see the athlete trudging along trying to run the whole race through stubbornness, refusing to walk and recover, and ending up being slower overall than athletes who intersperse the run with periods of walking. This is due to the poor running economy which occurs at such slow shuffling paces.
Recovery: Short and Long Term
It is all well and good to have the perfect training plan to follow, but if you are not recovering between heavy sessions, heavy days and heavy weeks in the overall plan, then all your training will be in vein. The body improves when it is rested, not when it is constantly in a state of overreaching. Number one for recovery is sleep. For the training volume you will need to do, if you don’t get 9 hours of sleep per night, then you are already behind. 8 hours of sleep is for people not running 50-100 miles plus a week.
The macro planning for recovery is most important, and that is the scheduled rest through smart periodisation of your program. Ensuring lower load weeks, tapered weeks, and easier days throughout will help you to cope with the training load and improve performance, not to just get through it. Basic periodisation of gradually increasing volumes over 3 weeks, followed by a recovery week of lower volume, is a good place to start (see below), but is a very general suggestion and individual needs vary greatly.
The micro side of the recovery is what you do after each session, such as ice baths, contrast baths, massage, nutrition, and stretching. These will aid in individual session recovery, ensuring you are ready to go for the next bout on the pavement.
In the same way that you would when running a marathon, you must go through a period of carbohydrate loading leading up to the race as well as generally consuming a greater amount of carbohydrates due to your training load. On race day, you must only stick to what your body knows – it is not the time to experiment with new supplements or food. Find out what will be available throughout the course, and if you haven’t tried what is available before, then bring your own.
Where the ultra-distance running differs from the 3-5 hours of marathon running is the increased need for proteins and fats, to not only help with providing energy but to help decrease the muscle breakdown that will occur during the extended training and racing time. There are many stories out there of these ultra-marathon guys being delivered pizzas somewhere while out on a run for a whole day or 2, and that is not too far from what the body will need. You will be in a state of extreme calorie deficit and you just can’t meet the calorie requirement from eating salad, fruit, and gels, so the calorie-dense food is a good choice.
As I mentioned previously, you must have tried and experimented with your options before race day, so maybe pizza isn’t your best option. A good choice for getting in the protein and fats quickly is through nuts (even salted), as this will also replace some of the salts lost through sweat. It will be a nice change from all the sweet tasting gels and drinks for you too. Depending on how ultra the running becomes, the food you need may just become too much to carry. This is where having a support team driving/cycling along with you is key. They will not only be able to carry the fuel for you, but also make sure that at regular intervals you are eating and drinking. This is something you may be able to keep track of early in the event, but as those miles and hours tick on the mind can wander, and it can only take 1 missed fuelling session to end your race.
As always, fluid replacement is key. Additionally, making sure that you also cover the loss of electrolytes is of equal importance.
This is just a brief outline on where to start when it comes to ultra-running and how to prepare the body to cope with the demands. Far more detail beyond the scope of this article is needed for each individual plan on all aspects of your training; strength, body balance, speed work, tempo work, long runs, nutrition, recovery, footwear, clothing and potentially a support team. Spend the time to do this and you will give yourself every chance of not just completing an ultra-running event, but competing.
To find out more on how you specifically need to prepare from marathon to ultra, or any endurance events such as Around The Bay Cycling or the Melbourne Triathlon, then come on in to see the expert team at Absolute.
Written by Head Performance Coach David Smith
- Paavolainen, L. et al. “Explosive-Strength Training Improves 5-Km Running Time By Improving Running Economy And Muscle Power”.Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 4 (2003): 272-272. Web.