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 9 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.

  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. 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

  6. 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…

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