Ultramarathon Training Volume

Training volume is the ultrarunner’s top concern. Without a solid endurance foundation those 50-mile, 100k, and 100+ mile races will be extremely difficult to complete. However, overdoing the miles can quickly lead to our undoing in the form of injury, chronic fatigue, and poor performance. The goal is to develop an approach that will challenge you, but create only positive training benefits.

Volume Is Good

It’s true! Increasing weekly mileage brings increased performance. If we do nothing else but simply add to the time we spend on our feet each week, several beneficial physiological adaptations begin to occur due to this new accumulated volume.

  • The body will become proficient at burning fat, its optimal fuel source.
  • Muscle and liver glycogen, the major forms of stored carbohydrates in the body, will be more effectively amassed and utilized.
  • The size and number of muscle capillaries and mtochondria, the blood vessels and cellular factories that facilitate aerobic energy, will increase.

We’ll tangibly experience these internal gains in these ways:

  • What once were long runs become shorter runs.
  • Faster recovery after running up steep hills.
  • Desire to race farther.
  • For those new to the volume increase, personal records in ultra distances.

This is great stuff! We’re seeing improvement, our confidence is high, and we’re doing things we never thought possible. Yet it is here that our unbridled enthusiasm may lead us into trouble if we continue to add mileage without an appropriate plan.

Adding Mileage Sensibly

Keep yourself in check and increase your mileage successfully by following these guidelines:

  1. Increase your weekly volume by 10–15% for two to three weeks, take a recovery week, then increase 10–15% again for two to three weeks, and repeat. For example, an injury-free runner that has been averaging 50 miles per week or 8 hours per week for a month might do this:

Week

Mileage or Time/Week (in hrs. and mins.)

1–3

55–58 or 8:45–9:15

4 (recovery week)

50 or 8:00

5–7

60–67 or 9:30–10:45

8 (recovery week)

55 or 8:45

 

  1. Increase the length of the runs that you already have scheduled before adding more runs to the week. An hour run is aerobically more beneficial than two 30-minute runs. However, see this article on two-a-days if your schedule or injury rate makes this scenario impossible.
  2. If you’re inexperienced with this newly added volume, avoid racing and high intensity workouts while you ramp up. Keep your efforts and paces primarily within the endurance-based training zones. Temporarily crossing into stamina-based training zones is okay and sometimes unavoidable on hills and during the final few miles of your longer runs, but be sure to recover well and take it easy on the following days’ workouts.
  3. Run on soft surfaces.
  4. Do not run in worn out shoes.
  5. Once or twice a year schedule three to four weeks of low-to-no mileage or just cross train.
  6. If you’re injury prone or enjoy cross training use the elliptical, cycling, cross-country skiing, or another aerobically challenging sport to build your endurance capacity in place of a running workout.
  7. Remember that volume can be measured in time or distance. If you spend the majority of your time on rough terrain it can be relatively slow-going, so running for time alleviates the pressure of having to cover a predetermined distance.
  8. Implement and maintain a simple but running-specific core routine. Here are a few exercises you can try at home.
  9. Keep a training log. Keep track of weekly volume, workouts, and how you felt during each of them.
  10. Keep the mileage of your longest runs in line with your goal race distance, but within realistic parameters. Adjust the length of the long run to gel appropriately with your most recent (roughly the last ten weeks) training load. This iRunFar piece on Endurance-Based Workouts will provide you the basic information on the different types of long runs. For back-to-back long runs, cut 25–50% off the first day’s mileage or time in order to determine the length of your second day’s run. For example, if you run 4 hours on Saturday return on Sunday with 2 to 3 hours. Because back-to-backs are time-consuming and tough on the body and mind, schedule them every two to three weeks. Experiment with their lengths and occasionally challenge yourself by including fast finish long runs on one of the two days. Here’s a chart that details optimal long run distances relative to popular ultra race lengths.

Race

Distance/Time

Back-to-Backs

Road 50k

16–26 miles (on the roads)

Not necessary

Trail 50k

3– 4 hours (on the trails)

Not necessary

Road 50M/100k

20–30 miles (on the roads)

Yes

Trail 50M/100k

4–5 hours (on the trails)

Yes

Trail 100M

5–6 hours (on the trails)

Yes

 

  1. You can utilize shorter distance events to help you prepare for your goal race. I’ll discuss this training technique in my next iRunFar column, Racing Yourself into Shape.

Reaching the Ceiling

Though the human body is well designed for running, it wasn’t built to run all the time. Even if you’ve been smart and patient with your volume buildup, there will come a point at which you can add no more. Once you go beyond 60–70 miles per week or eight-to-ten hours per week, depending on your age, genetics, and past running experience, you begin to walk a fine line between what is beneficial and what is harmful. You are your best barometer. Here are some signs and symptoms to watch for that indicate you’ve neared or surpassed your personal training volume ceiling:

  • Injury – Knee, hip, foot, back, or bone issues appear more regularly after you reach a certain volume.
  • Decrease in performance – Finishing significantly slower than recent race times or others you normally compete with finish far ahead of you.
  • Consistent soreness or fatigue – Running should be invigorating.
  • Lack of motivation – You should look forward to your runs, not be looking for excuses to skip them.
  • Significant weight loss or gain and sleep disturbances – Overtraining can disrupt cortisol (a hormone released by the adrenaline glands in response to stress) levels that may cause rapid shifts in weight and changes in our sleeping patterns.
  • Increased resting heart rate – Higher than normal resting heart rates (best when taken upon waking in the morning) can indicate dehydration, the need for rest, or impending illness.
  • Unable to honor work and family commitments – For 99.9% of us running isn’t a means of subsistence. Don’t ignore your responsibilities in favor of more time on the trails or recovering from that added time. We’re doing this for fun!

In the mildest of cases, a few days or weeks away from running will help you get back on track. However, in severe cases, it may take months or years before a runner can returns to the sport. If you catch these symptoms early enough, take a recovery week or two. By cutting your volume by 50% for 7–10 days you’ll lose no fitness but will reap the benefits of restored energy and health. Other healing protocols can be found in my recovery article. Use this time not spent running to focus on your nutrition, sleep, family, and friends.

The Next Level

What happens once you’ve reached your volume ceiling? Are you done? The answer is: Absolutely not!
Up to this point you’ve only been increasing your volume though endurance-based workouts. You can now experiment with other types of training. Start by introducing hill workouts, stamina-based steady state runs, and improve on your form and running efficiency with strides and drills. In a month or two you’ll be stronger and able to challenge yourself with tougher tempo runs and speed-based workouts. Because we can’t all run 100+ mile weeks we must make the miles that we do cover count.

References

Pfitzinger, Pete. Essential Ingredients II, Runner’s World & Running Times. Running Times, 4 Apr. 2006.Torrence, Ian. “The Dream Season.” TrailRunner Apr. 2013: 40-49.

There are 42 comments

  1. Jay

    Ian –

    More important to reach a volume level, first, then add "quality" workouts? Or is mixing in quality and then building up volume just as effective?

    1. Ian Torrence

      Jay –

      Very good question! I didn't cover the topic in this piece because I think much of how you approach your volume vs. quality will depend on your race's distance, your goals, and the timing of the event. In general, it best to build your volume (some easy-moderate stamina work added in, in the form of hills and steady state runs, is a good thing). When you begin to add the quality (as you close in on your event) your volume will lower due the necessary recovery needed. This doesn't mean you lose the length of your long runs (which must stay if you're an ultrarunner), but simply that you'll have a few more days during the week where you'll be trimming mileage in order to recover from, for example, a long tempo run or mile repeat session so you will be ready for that tough long run on the weekend.

      Clear as mud I know, but it's tough to generalize on questions whose answers will vary so much from individual to individual.

      Cheers!

      Ian

      Ian

  2. Brian J

    Great article, Ian! I think there is a lot of wisdom in there that can benefit those of us who have a difficult time mixing in rest or even easier recovery weeks. Thanks!

  3. SJ

    Hello Ian,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us all. This is definitely a timely article for me and where I am currently at in my training cycle.

    I had a specific question regarding those easy recovery weeks, as I have been struggling to determine my mileage for them. I have been following a 2 weeks hard, 1 week easy schedule with my hard weeks spiking above the 100-mi mark. I have been reducing my mileage of those easier weeks based on feel, but still in the 80s.

    Do you have any recommendations? Thank you in advance for taking the time to answer our questions. Cheers. -SJ

    1. Ian Torrence

      Hi SJ –

      Look to those indicators I list under "Reaching the Ceiling" in this piece. If you find yourself a victim of any of these it could be time to change things. If not, then your system is working. That recovery week you throw in there is key. I will caution that doing this kind of volume all year round can make you stale. This is great if this is your build up to a goal race. However, you could "run" into trouble if you're just doing this repetitive high mileage just to see how long you can maintain it.

      Cheers!

      Ian

      1. SJ

        Hi Ian- thanks for your reply… So far my system seems to be working, and I am actually gearing up before a couple of weeks of taper for an April 50M, followed a few weeks later by a 100K. I was just not certain as to how much I should decrease my mileage on those easy weeks. I'm staying injury-free and I'm fired up to get out there every day. Thanks again. Cheers.

  4. Daniel

    Ian,

    I am on my way to my first 50K, Leona Divide 50K at the end of April. I wish this artivcle came out in early January it is a little late for this race but I have been following the same ideas for the build up of mileage. I can say I have reached the burnout phase 2 times so far but I think that was from not fully recovering from a last 2012 Ironman and jumping into an Ultra plan.

    Can you provide an example of a journal/log that you keep? I have tried to keep a log in the past but it never sticks. I do track my mileage and time but thats about it. Do you have a book you reccomend or a format you use?

    1. Ian Torrence

      Daniel –

      Have a great race at Leona! Great event and good times!

      On my shelf in my office I have a row of training notebooks that date back to my high school cross country and track years. The pencil notes are faded, but still legible. I can look back to any day starting back in 1987 and tell you exactly what I did, where I ran, who I ran with, and how I felt. Now-a-days, with the rise of the google button and interweb I've since switched to Garmin Connect. I still label all my workouts, where I was, who I was with, how I felt, splits, etc…

      There are tons of ways you can keep track of your workouts. If pen and paper work that's great. If you prefer a program like Garmin or Training Peaks, that's fine too. Make sure you'll use it religiously, make sure it's easy/simple to access, and make sure it's in a place where you see it everyday. It'll be important to refer back to it as the years pass so you can look back and find out what's worked for you in the past.

      You can color code your day's workouts: Green (great workout), Yellow (okay workout), Red (awful workout, should have stayed in bed). Over time you'll be able to see trends you'll want to perpetuate and trends you'll want to avoid. Mileage, time, splits (if applicable for a "quality" workout), the color code for how you felt, if you ran solo or with others, weather, and the route are all good things to include. Tally your weekly time or mileage at the end of each week too.

      Perhaps others can chime in with what they deem important?

      I hope this helps.

      Ian

  5. Anonymous

    Thanks, Ian, hardly a week goes by when someone doesn't tell me how wrong I'm doing things, I usually don't say too much in my defense, but now I'll just point them in the direction of this article and let it speak for me…

    JV in SD

  6. John

    Just to say, all my PR's came when I was undertrained. My best 50 mile I prepared for with an 18 mile run, and my first 100 involved only a 30 mile run. When I actually tried to run a high volume, I got injured and DNF'd a hundred. I think that unless you want to compete with the elites, being undertrained and healthy is better than being burned out and injured at the starting line.

    1. Ian Torrence

      Hi John –

      Right! This isn't a piece about high volume and you are an example of who this article is targeted for. You're a perfect illustration of why we must listen to our own bodies and not get sucked into the what most ultrarunner's believe; that being that more is better. Sounds like you found your volume ceiling. So for you, you weren't undertrained for your best 50 or 100. You were right where you needed to be! Somewhere along the way you decided that higher volume than what you currently were doing would be better. Clearly this didn't work for you. Hopefully you've returned to your old volumes, PR running ways, and are ripping it up!

      Cheers!

      Ian

      1. Anonymous

        Your article concurs with my experience in ultrarunning. Just giving an example of how some people are meant to run less. At the moment have been running on the same injury for 4 months, so going to have to take off. The next 100 I do will not be involving crazy back to back runs though. Thank you for tips on how to make mileage more effective, although I wish I could run the volume some people can.

          1. Ian Torrence

            John –

            I wish you a fast recovery lad! Remember that it's not a bad thing to PR off of less mileage. In fact, that goes a long way in demonstrating just how much of a runner you truly are :)

            Cheers!

            Ian

  7. Rene

    Thanks for the chart with optimal long run distances. What is the optimal weekly volume in distance/time for these distances?

    1. Ian Torrence

      Hey Rene –

      Again, a great question. However, my answer is short: Optimal weekly mileages will vary depending the individual's past running experience, age, injury history, available training time, goals, etc…These numbers will vary greatly across the board.

      Cheers!

      Ian

  8. MikeC AK

    Hard to apply this to real mountain running. I struggled for a long time. So now I just do next morning feel. So far this keeps me injury free.

    My morning decision matrix:

    –If any joints or tendons/ligaments are stiff, I don't run that day, usually bike(mountain or road).

    –If my heart rate is elevated(cardio fatigue) and joints are stiff, I go climbing(if the weather is nice) or play golf(excellent recovery if I walk).

    If joints and heart are good, then I'm off to the mountains for some fun!

    1. MikeC AK

      I also don't consider this 'training' I guess. It's just recreation. My day job is too stressful to allow the mental space for training.

      I sign up for races occasionally to just give myself an excuse to skip out on unimportant social events and to lay off the weekend booze.

  9. Alex

    Consistent volume yields consistent results, in my experience. Not that quality sessions and the long run aren't important, but I think they can be overvalued a bit. A certain stimulus is achieved with a certain amount of work, after all, so why go too far beyond that? That is to say, 20X400 is not 5 times better than 4X400, nor is a 50 mile long run twice as good as a 25. Perhaps, those shorter sessions are as good, and perhaps even better, when you consider the relative ease with which you could recover from them. Put another way: I consider myself more fit when I can run 7-10 miles ever day, than when I can nail any specific workout.

  10. Eric S

    Hi Ian,

    Another very informative and timely article — thanks so much! A quick question if you have a chance: currently training to just finish my first trail 50k — according to my schedule, I'll get in 4-5 runs that are between ~3-4 hours, but of those runs, the longest run mileage wise will be 22 miles. Your optimal range is 16-26 for road; 3-4 hours for trail — do you think this is sufficient to just safely (no injury) finish the race? If I tried to do a 24-26 miler it would take me closer to 5 hours and this seems like it'd be too much strain prior to race day.

    Thanks!

    1. Ian Torrence

      Eric!

      You bet! This sounds like training that will safely and effectively get you the finish you're looking for! I always trust my gut instinct and you should too: If a training run or workout sounds like it might be too much…then it probably is. Save that kind of effort for race day!

      Cheers!

      Ian

      1. Eric S

        Thanks so much Ian — I really appreciate it! Also thanks to Bryon for hiring you to write this column — it's been very helpful and interesting.

  11. OOJ

    Another great resource, Ian, thanks!

    I just purchased my first heart rate monitor; that gives some insightful information, as well, on training volume and tolerance.

    My brief experience has been, when my volume is high and I'm overly fatigued, my heart rate will be consistently higher at the same pace/distance; OR, my heart rate will climb and climb at the end of a long run, despite significantly controlling/slowing pace. Both are indicators that it's time to:

    – rest: to finish for the day, or to not add any further mileage to the day/week

    – NOT increased intensity

    – take a recovery day or week.

    Thanks again!

    -OOJ

  12. Hone

    My problem is that I am always injured so every time I get healthy I have to disparately cram in as many miles as possible before my next injury!

    Great article!

  13. Kev

    being primarily a walker, i noticed something neat when i started running a lot. i went from 50-60 miles a week walking to 50-70 running, then when i went back to walking again, i shot right up to 80-90 with just a few runs a week. 90 really seems to be my limit right now (24 hours/week), so i may go back to running to bring down the time on feet. i don't race, so there's no need to push it too much. i just thought it was cool how much running improved my walking.

  14. Jonathan

    Hi Ian,

    I'm training for my second attempt (DNF'd the first) at a 60 mile ultra in September and I'm currently designing my training plan.

    I want to avoid overtraining and have in my mind a limit of about 70ish miles per week at peak, but I can't decide on the length of my longest long run, I ran a couple of 30 milers last time but felt this wasn't quite enough, so am undecided between doing more frequent 30-35 milers or a max effort of just over 40, but I'm thinking the 40 might be too long and take too much out of me, but then again is 30-35 enough for a 60 mile race?

    I'm also trying to add some speed work (1 x interval and 1 x tempo) session per week, but am beginning to think that this might be a mistake on top of increasing the mileage at the same time, should I increase overall mileage (and include some tempo runs) before I add some specific speed work, or just focus on distance and tempo runs and forget intervals all together?

    Regards,

    Jonathan

    1. Ian Torrence

      Hi Jonathan,

      I think it is important to determine the reasons for the first DNF. List the factors that drew your race to close the first time around. These are your weaknesses and what you need to work on. It's hard to determine, from what you've provided, if it was truly the length of your long training runs that lead to your DNF. 30 mile run long runs are pretty solid efforts. Might there have been an issue with your nutrition, equipment, pacing, etc…at the last race that lead to your DNF?

      If you aren't used to stamina work (tempos) or speed work (intervals) then I'd introduce it slowly and in small amounts to your program. Start with one quality workout a week. That and your long run might be all that you need in order to see improvement. In your case, I'd be apt to prescribe the stamina work over the speed work at this stage of the game. Also remember that hills (long and short) are an excellent way to work all the systems. Though they can drop you to your knees, they aren't as impactive as, say, interval work.

      I hope this helps.

      Cheers!

      Ian

      1. Jonathan

        Thanks Ian, appreciate the help.

        The DNF (at 41 miles) was due to a tendon strain on the front of my feet, I believe it was due to the terrain being more undulating than I had trained for, so will address that with more focused training this year.

        Will also add one speed session per week to begin with as suggested and do a lot more hill work.

        Cheers

        Jonathan

  15. Dom

    Evan "I'm just going to run 125 mpw for january, race until SD100 in june, and then stop running for the year since I'll probably be injured" Hone

  16. rjackman

    Ian,

    You list the long run distances/time for each race distance. What is your opinion of how far out your run your last long run at that distance should be before the race?

    Thanks!

    1. Ian Torrence

      rjackman –

      I like 3-5 weeks, depending on the individual. For those running 50M-100M races the back-to-backs would cease at this time as well. 2 weeks out I like to throw in a fast finish long run: a run that isn't taxing in distance, but challenging in effort. One week out, it's time to chill…90 minutes or 8-12 miles easy-efforted, depending on the race and individual.

      Cheers!

      Ian

  17. KenZ

    Thanks for another great article. One side comment: increased resting heart rate. This is an OK way to track overtraining… usually. However, endurance athletes can sometimes fall victim to parasympathetic overtraining, in which case your heart rate can be the same or even lower. AND, standard heart rate increases in the morning can lag overtraining/sickness by a few days sometimes. Heart rate variability is a better and more reliable method, albeit really rather biohacking/data intensive, for determining overtraining. If anyone is interested, I can point you towards a few options for tracking.

  18. Slowbie123

    Hi – hope this post is still going! I am training for a trail 58k – total ascent 600 metres. I'm looking to finish in the cutoff time of nine hours. I have 11 weeks till the race. I'm looking at your optimal long runs and other people's to decide whether I am ready. What concerns me is that I'm very slow and new to being fit let alone running (longest race was 16 miles at end of April – total ascent 650m) – so for the likes of me – would 3-4 hours be enough as I only cover 10 to 12 miles in that time – that's a third of the distance! I don't know if the training plans and advice I have read applies to a back of the pack runner. I am only managing 30 miles a week – this translates to about eight hours a week running. They are quite high intensity with speedwork and tempo runs as I want to run only four times a week and not going to be a high volumne runner. I do a session of indoor climbing and also kettlebells once a week. I do back to backs as it take so long to cover the miles. My longest run last weekend has been a back to back of a 10k (plus a mile warmup) and a 4 and half hour run covering 13 miles with a total ascent of almost 800m through bog. I feel great after this and not tired at all. What are your opinions on my readiness (providing if I stick at my plan of course- I do aim to increase the miles to about 45 at training peak)? I appreciate you wouldn't want to give an opinion as you have no idea of my history, but I'm in a quandary and would appreciate some advice or pointers to judge my readiness. Regards.

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