Your Bag of Tricks: Essential Elements of Successful Ultramarathon Training

It’s the day before your ultramarathon. Equipment, clothes, powders and gels are spread from wall to wall. You painstakingly divvy up these supplies among drop bags, knowing when and where they’ll be most beneficial during tomorrow’s race. You understand that these bags and the supplies they contain are instrumental in getting you to the finish line.

Were the components of your training as precisely placed in a running schedule as those drop bag items were across the race course? If you were to hold one of your drop bags and training bag side by side, would you find that they are comparatively similar in size and weight?

During my high school and college running career, I always had a coach who told me what to do and when, and I never questioned the workouts or the coach’s logic. I ran year round; cross country season melted into indoor track season and outdoor track followed soon thereafter. My coaches even had a fairly rigid summer training schedule to follow. The system worked and my race times consistently improved during those years.

However, once I graduated, I found myself struggling without a coach’s guidance. I ran and raced how I pleased, without rhyme or reason. I relied on a loosely based interpretation of training to barely carry me through many races—a rut in which many talented ultrarunners find themselves. They may be experienced at the ultra distance but their race results don’t reflect that.

After several lackluster performances, I decided to return to what worked in college: structured workouts. Within six months I was challenging the frontrunners and even winning a few races. Training with clearly set goals and workouts with a specific purpose were the key to improving. Unfortunately, a lot of ultrarunners skip this crucial step. It’s certainly the time on your feet but, more importantly, how you spend that time that will get you to the finish line.

You should think of your training as your other bag of tricks. The regimen you follow to prepare for your next ultra should be just as organized as that drop bag you sent to Foresthill, Brighton or Winfield. The components of this schedule should be taken as seriously as each item that constitutes your indispensable drop bags. A balanced, varied training schedule will provide you with confidence, accountability and motivation. Let’s take a brief look at the elements of a well-rounded training program.

Endurance-based runs, like the extra clothes in your drop bag, make up the bulk of your ultra training and bag of tricks. There are three types of endurance runs:

  1. Long runs, or runs over 90 minutes in length, improve your endurance and prepare you for ultra distances.
  2. Easy runs are shorter in duration and allow you to maintain aerobic fitness before an upcoming key workout or event.
  3. Recovery runs are short jogs done at a very slow pace after a hard race or workout.

Stamina workouts act like your reliable race-day foods. They develop your ability to hold a steady pace through the latter stages of an ultra. The point of this type of workout is to run farther at a given pace rather than faster. Steady-state runs, tempo runs, tempo intervals and progression runs are examples of stamina development workouts.

Speed training acts like your favorite cup of coffee or caffeinated beverage. The fast pace helps you push to your red line when you’re racing. The goal of speed work is to spend time at one’s maximum aerobic capacity (or VO2 max). The distance of these kinds of workouts is relatively short when compared to those mentioned above. Training at this effort level improves the body’s ability to work at its highest capacity for longer periods of time.

Running-specific strengthening exercises and cross-training comprise the lining of your bag. Both of these activities, if done correctly, can reduce your chance of injury and enhance your fitness. Core work focuses on the stabilizing muscles of the spine and pelvis. Biking, the use of an elliptical trainer or swimming offer a break from the constant impact of running without compromising aerobic fitness.

In subsequent columns, you will discover that the training tools at your disposal that can make you a better runner are as diverse as they are numerous. You’ll learn the specifics of each of these important elements and how they can be integrated into your running program.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
  • What do you consider the essential elements of ultramarathon training? Why?
  • What aspects of preparing for or running an ultramarathon are you most interested in learning about?

There are 22 comments

  1. Patrick Stewart

    Ian, good info. I'd definitely be interested in hearing how you incorporate all these types of runs into a training program. How do you structure a training week/block to get the most benefit out of all of your specific workouts? (i.e. alternating key workouts with recovery days) How does the training schedule change during the course of the season leading up to a race? Do volume and intensity increase, or does the focus shift from volume to intensity?

  2. Michael Owen

    Ian, I would be interested in your take on the reason to do speed work before 100 mile races. Take the Hardrock 100 – is it necessarily beneficial to have training stints at V02 Max when during the race you are never "pushing the pace?" Is it more of a physical or physiological benefit or a mental benefit (in terms of having variety in training), or both?

    Ultra's (100's in particular) are inherently different than 50k's and lower because nearly all of our training runs are faster than the race pace. Hypothetically, if your goal race pace for 100 miles is 9:54 per mile (16:30:00), all of your training runs are faster than that, and could be looked at in being speed work in itself relative to the race.

    The justification could be if we train with some speed workouts at say, 6:00 pace, than 7:30 pace during the race is going to feel a lot easier. However, 7:30 pace, at some point during a 100 is going to be a struggle, and as history shows, nearly impossible to sustain for an entire 100 miles.

    When it comes down to it, the most important training advice I have heard for ultra races is to train with race specification. Flat ultras deserve more speed work than mountain ultras where strength and mentality dominate success. This is very different than road marathons as it is crucial to run speed work no matter the course (much less specifics are taken into play, albeit some).

    1. olga

      I read a lot of justification on speed work in ultra-training, and I am sure Ian and other big name coaches will chime in, but what I do know is when I don't do it – I suck big time, and my 100M finishing time is much slower, all other things being equal (mileage, long runs, fueling, etc.). So, I stick to them.

    2. Steve Pero

      I'll throw in my 2 cents here, too, which is based on experience.

      In the mid 90's I was a regular sub 3 hour marathoner, this was based on mileage and speedwork, which got me there. I ran a 100 (Vermont) in 1998 and using that same way of thinking, that all my training was/is faster than my 100 mile pace, so therefore I didn't need speedwork anymore.

      10 years later I ran my first road marathon since Vermont and I struggled to run sub 4 hours. I'm now attempting to get "some" of that speed back and it isn't easy….I wish I never stopped.

      As far as not pushing the pace at Hardrock? I think my HR is near maxed out on some of those late climbs at 2 mph…Speed will help me push that VO2 line higher and hopefully let me walk at 3 mph! ;-)

      1. Ben Nephew

        Good point, Steve. I was actually thinking that HR would be an example where speedwork might not be very relevant, but the V02 max isssue is the key. Whether you are doing hill repeats or 400's, it's an effective way to increase your max V02. You can improve your performance at longer races by either increases the percentage or your max V02 effort you can sustain, and/or by increasing your max V02 pace so that 80% of your maximal pace is faster. With most training programs that include speed, you are likely to be improving both aspects. When omitting speed, your are only working on trying to maximize your sustainable pace, and your max V02 pace may very well be slowly dropping, which you and many others have observed as they get further and further away from regular high intensity workouts.

        I think this issue is a significant problem for runners who train on inclines that are not that steep, but then try to race events with much steeper climbs. Compared to others more similar with the terrain you may be at 85% on an incline when they are at 80% effort.

        The other issue that is relevant is the fact that flat ultras are likely to be a very consistent pace and effort where mountain ultras will involve much more variability, probably too much for the vast majority of runners as it is hard to run even effort over variable terrain. In addition to the fact the a slow uphill may involve a high V02 effort, the downhills will be much faster than flat ultra pace. Without speedwork, you won't be as efficient and comfortable with a pace as fast as a similar runner who has been doing speedwork. You will be expending more energy at the same pace, which is never a good thing.

      2. Randy

        Ill throw in my 1 cent worth,agree Steve.Before Ultra's,i ran good paces at all the faster Mountain races,PPM,Imogene,Kendell,La Luz,etc.,so first few years i just used my faster mountain training to do ok in ultras,than i started training more for ultras,longer,slower,quickly losing the faster turn-over that i had just a few years earlier,so i could hang on good in ultras,finishing no problem,but alot tougher and slower.So for alot of people,i would say keep trying those faster mountain races,and don't neglect the faster training,like Steve said,it's crazy hard getting speed back.

  3. Chris

    Ian, thanks for the article and good to hear there's more coming.

    As far as the VO2 max training, do you literally mean spending time at your maximum heart rate? (That sounds reeeeally hard, like trying to break the sound barrier or something…)

  4. Tony Mollica

    I am looking forward to this series. I swim in the shallow end of the ultra pool doing 50K's, with an occasional 24 hour race thrown in.

  5. Fernando N. Baeza

    Ian,

    Very nice article. I received very good info. Im glad Im not the only nut out there, and I mean that with the utmost respect. It is appreciated that elite runners such as yourself give free advice and specifically on how to improve our own workouts. I agree with your running repetoire about incorporating speed workouts that push the VO2 max to the threshold. The body is a very intelligent organism, it remembers everything so wisely; and it recovers accordingly. Runners such as Speedy Spaniard Kilian have an incedible VO2 max (around 92 I believe!) and thats amazing. He incorporates hours of training at high intensity. The philosophy is the same for any runner, experienced or not, you want extreme results; you train extremely. :D Thank you for sharing! -Fernando Najera Baeza-

  6. KenZ

    A coach is the top level in my bag of tricks.

    I agree that a structured workout schedule can definitely help improve performance and keep you on track. This is why I hired a coach who sends me weekly schedules and gives really good advice, from training to race scheduling to race tactics. Not because I NEED a coach, but because I enjoy my training more with one. He helps keep me going, it's someone to whom I'm accountable every week when I send in my actual training accomplished vs. the plan for the week.

    I got a coach when I first started running because of an article I read here, on irunfar. See: http://www.irunfar.com/2008/11/ultramarathon-coac

  7. Tim

    I would also like to hear more about core strength as Ian mentioned (ultrarunner podcast) that a large number I think 80%+ of running related injuries can be avoided with a core strength programs.

  8. Ian Sharman

    Training needs to be specific to the race but I'm a firm believer that speed training helps make everything easier. The easier 6 (or 7, 8…whatever pace) minute miling feels, the greater your efficiency will be at slower speeds too.

    But it's still only one part of the training. For something that's all about steep climbs (like Hardrock/UTMB etc) the speed work might be in the form of more specific workouts by running/power hiking the race's style of terrain much faster than you would do it in the full race.

  9. Jeff Faulkner

    Ian, I am also looking forward to your series of articles on ultramarathon training. I am training for my first 100M (Jan. of 2013) and it's a flat and fast course so I could, potentially, finish AND have a decent finish time. Thanks!

  10. Glenn Steckler

    I would also like your thoughts on training race specific, but in how it relates to mental and emotional training, and character. Although it may sometimes risk injury, I think it can be important to run tired and depleted in training to duplicate race conditions late in a 100 miler. To go out on a Sunday for a long, hard run after a long, hard Saturday run, proves valuable to me when I am at mile 70 of a 100 mile race. Duplicating that feeling of not being able to go any farther but moving ahead anyway, so I don't experience it for the first time in a race, I find helpful.

  11. Jim Skaggs

    My two cents worth. Speedwork works for 100's. Several years ago I trained for a marathon with the goal of a Boston qualifier. I did that with a interval session and a hard tempo run once a week every week for about 3 months. I ran a marathon PR and qualified. I was amazed at how effortless maintaining that speed during the race was. Two weeks later I ran Kettle Moraine 100k and have never come that close to either winning or that time since, two weeks after the 100K I ran Mohican 100 mile. While I have come close to matching that time, it was in a 24 hour race. Still I knew that my speedwork was the key to those performances. I've incorporated speedwork into my training this winter and spring and the speed is increasing while the effort is going down. It is working again. We'll see what happens at the realtively flat Salt Flats 100 in a few weeks. I'm hoping for another 100 mile PR at the ripe old age of 53. Meanwhile, I'll be keeping up the interval training this summer while I incorporate a lot more climbing in anticipation of Speedgoat and Wasatch.

  12. Ian Torrence

    Thanks to everyone for chiming in. Great responses and questions!

    Many of your queries will be answered in subsequent columns, so I won’t cover all of them now, but know that I am taking notes.

    These include:

    1) Patrick’s request as to how to fit all these elements into a proper training schedule with appropriate recovery and seasonal periodization with suitable volume and intensity cycles.

    2) Tim’s interest in core strength exercises.

    3) Glenn Steckler’s comment is a great segue to the next installment where we’ll investigate the long run, including those tough back-to-backs.

    4) Michael Owen’s interest in the purpose and need for VO2 max sessions and how to make them appropriate and specific for the ultra race you’re training for. Sharman, Pero, and Nephew were spot on with their responses and I’ll elaborate more on what they said when I discuss speed work in a future installment.

    I do think we should clarify for Chris (and others) what VO2 max training is. VO2 max is a measurement of how efficiently your body utilizes oxygen during exercise. The higher this measurement the more oxygen you can make use of and thus the more energy you can create during intense exercise. Training to improve VO2 max depends entirely on one’s current fitness level. For example, someone who sits on the couch all day every day will improve his/her VO2 max by simply walking around the block three times a week. However, an elite Olympic runner will elicit VO2 max gains during frequent and intense workouts at his/her maximal heart rate. For most “trained” marathoners and ultrarunners, VO2 max improvements occur after workouts structured around reps of one to seven minutes with intensities equal to that of two- to five-mile race pace or where heart rates reach roughly 90 to 100% of maximum. The bouts of intensity are repeated several times and the recoveries between should be roughly as long (time-wise) as the repeat.

    VO2 max alone doesn’t indicate performance. Age, environmental factors, fatigue, biomechanics, technique, and equipment, to name a few, also come into play. But what we do know is that the higher your VO2, the better off you’ll be at performing and recovering from tough training sessions that will allow you to race at a higher effort for longer periods of time.

  13. Seamus Foy

    Great article and great post-article discussion! iRunFar just keeps getting better! I love that we not only get elite ultrarunners writing the articles, but elites like Ian Sharman and Ben Nephew responding.

  14. Mike B.

    I would like to hear more about weight lifting. I have been lifting weights this year (because my coach told me to) and my knees feel much better than last year. How many days per week and what types of exercises do you recommend? My coach prefers I use lighter weights and do high reps. I have also read some articles about doing just the opposite (low reps, high weight). Is variety the key? If so, how often do you change up your weight routine?

    Thanks for the article Ian. Very interested in future installments.

  15. Dan

    In an effort to reduce incidence of injury I've mostly eliminated long road runs, with my training consisting of tempos, intervals, and trail runs. So I'm definitely looking forward to your later posts on speed work and its relevance in trail/ultrarunning.

  16. Dan B

    relative newbie ultrarunner here, and at age 53 not one of the fastest, but my experience with Ian's approach (via his training plans crafted for me) tell me that it works. If nothing else, it's fun going fast at least once in the week, just turning on the afterburners and letting it fly. As a result, an even faster than normal trail pace seems a bit more of a cruise… and the distance at which pain begins pushes out a tad further…

  17. Dana Rikli

    I am new to ultrarunning and am currently training for my first 50 miler. It is very educational to read columns like this. Looking forward to future postings with more advise for beginners. Keep up the good work!

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