Happy Spring! Well, maybe not true spring yet, but come tomorrow, pitchers and catchers report to Major League Baseball Spring Training. Like ballplayers, ultramarathon runners are now in the midst of their own spring training, laying the foundations for their summer ‘majors.’
Preparing for a major 100 miler like the Western States 100 or Hardrock 100 can be overwhelming, with unlimited wants–mileage, vertical, speed workouts, long runs, terrain, heat training, and gear testing–all on limited time and energy resources. Planning what exactly to prioritize during this build-up phase is key to avoiding overtraining or becoming overwhelmed.
For myself, this is of double importance. Besides coaching my own cadre of ambitious ultrarunners, I will be making my return to Western States for the first time in five years. As such, there’s real ‘skin in the game’ to execute a smart, comprehensive plan.
Below are five of my favorite spring-training workouts for those summer majors:
Nasal-Breathing Easy Runs
But what better metric for truly easy running than our own respiratory governor?
For most, nasal breathing–akin to the nose-only breathing pattern used in yoga practices–can be a major challenge at any time, let alone during a run. But not only does nasal breathing help maintain easy-effort discipline, it has myriad other benefits (that may necessitate its own column) including:
- Developing ‘breath strength.’ It will facilitate a strengthening of the muscles of the breathing apparatus, including the diaphragm, intercostal (rib) muscles, and even muscles in the neck, face, and nose area, used to maximize air intake.
- Improves overall breath volume. Nasal breathing, through its enhanced diaphragm activation, results in greater lung volumes and better oxygen perfusion in the lungs.
- Decreased stress. Nasal breathing decreases nervous and metabolic-system activation. Better than maybe anything else, it keeps our system relaxed.
- Improved running posture. As outlined in our performance-mobility article on trunk extension, the alignment of the neck and thorax impacts the volume and ease of breathing. Good posture means easier breathing; slumped shoulders and a forward head will impair breathing, and you’ll feel it!
In his book, Eat and Run, Scott Jurek talks about nose-breathing run training in his Western States training, and I know of at least one of Western States champion, Kaci Lickteig, who routinely (if not unconsciously) nose breathes through many of her runs.
It can be very difficult, so in beginning this type of training:
- Be prepared to run very easy at first. Go very slowly and try not to get frustrated (which will make it even more difficult!)
- Clear the passages. Sometimes a breathing aid (like a nasal strip) can help open the nasal passage. Sometimes you may even need to trim nose hairs!
- Take it a mile at a time. To begin, commit to a single mile, then take a break. On subsequent runs, add a bit more distance.
Over time, one may be amazed at how quickly this ability develops and how good–and utterly relaxing–easy runs can be with nasal breathing. Best of all, you’re developing your breathing system to be in peak form for when you’ll need it–running all day, at high altitudes, and in extreme conditions!
Treadmill Uphill Hiking
This could be the most logistically easy, versatile, but most overlooked key training concept. Uphill hiking is a ubiquitous experience in mountain ultras: everyone does it at some point. Indeed, for the 100-mile distances, most runners should be hiking up every uphill. It should go without saying that this should be a practiced skill, yet it is overlooked with surprising frequency.
And it is a skill. Proper hiking form, with chest over knees and knees behind toes, utilizes the hips and is integral for quadriceps preservation.
I’m a huge fan of uphill hiking as a standard easy day, or a cross-training effort. My general parameters include:
- 10 to 15% incline (a standard grade for U.S. Forest Service-grade trails)
- x miles per hour, or whatever speed that can be maintained for 20 to 30 minutes, and an aerobic (or nasal-breathing) effort.
Uphill Sprints (and Quick-Footed Descents)
Sprinting uphill may seem out of place for 100-mile trail racing, but the long ultramarathons are a test of extremes. And while all-day, low-intensity running is one extreme, so is short-distance sprinting.
Uphill sprints help develop the neuromuscular strength and stride efficiency for all types of running, including uphill trail running. It challenges the entire kinetic chain:
- Lower leg and foot strength
- Knee and hip stability
- Hip-extension power
- Core stability
- Arm swing
Physiologically, it can help improve VO2max and lactate tolerance (especially if done in repetition). And despite the world of pain that can be crammed into a handful of hill sprints, the total work product (intensity x time) is small and thus relatively low stress compared to a medium-hard, long mountain climb.
For sprinting uphill, it’s desirable to have good, even footing (at least initially), so that focus can be kept on running form. A couple of my favorite workouts include:
- 5 to 8 x 60-to-90-second hill sprints (at 85 to 90% maximal effort) with jog-down rest.
- 4 to 5 sets of ‘long and short’ hills: a 60-to-90-second hill sprint (85 to 90%), jog down, then a 30-to-45-second short sprint (95 to 100%), then rest.
The best multi-tasking involves a quick-footed descent: working on downhill running efficiency. If this can be done on a more technical trail, even better.
Lastly, uphill sprints are, quite frankly, extremely mentally painful. In that way, they’re a terrific way to cram a world of pain into a short amount of time to hone that ‘ultra-suffer headspace!’
Up and Down Plus Fast Flats
Most Western States and Hardrock runners know they must get in the hill training. Many runners will do repetitive up-and-down intervals over steep hills and mountain trails, often racking up several thousand feet of climbing in a session.
But what about the flat running?
Western States, perhaps more than any other 100-mile major, is an ‘up-down-flat course.’ But more specifically, it plays out as:
- First third: UP, down, flat
- Second third: Up, DOWN, flat
- Last third: Up, Down, FLAT
With each successive section, the flat running becomes increasingly important, and veterans of the race will say that late-race flat running is the key to success at Western States: to finish, buckle, or to win. As such, that must be practiced.
My favorite early season workout involves repetitive moderate up-and-down mountain repeats (between 500 and 1,000 feet) followed by a hard-and-fast finishing mile on the flats. This quick mile, as I call it, forces the runner to put away the hill fatigue and hone his or her normal runner stride. As the spring progresses, this flat-and-fast component can lengthen to 2 to 3 miles, and occur at the end of long, heavy vertical runs.
I originally got this idea from Tim Olson who, during one of our spring training runs before his 2013 Western States title defense, would finish a 3-to-5-hour mountain run with 1 to 3 miles at sub-six-minute-mile pace on his treadmill.
If they don’t say this about Western States, they should: always be closing. And speaking of closing…
Placer Point Twos
This was originally a tongue-in-cheek ultra workout that has since taken on real meaning for 100-mile racers of all abilities. Placer-Point Twos are flat, 300-meter intervals run on a track. Like the uphill sprints, their intent is to improve overall stride efficiency by working the top-end speed and running mechanics. And even better than uphill sprints, they’re a great way to ‘bust the rust’ of the stiffening, shuffly trail mileage and long runs, and help maintain that crucial normal runner stride necessary for sustained end-of-race efficiency and speed.
But believe it or not, there’s real specificity to the Placer Point Twos. How many runners each year do we see having to ‘sprint’ the finish at Western States or other long ultras? Indeed, we’ve seen some amazing finishes recently, and, sadly, some near misses.
Just because we’re running 100 miles doesn’t mean we don’t need to know how to sprint! Short sprints like the Placer Point Twos can help keep you mobile, strong, and healthy, and they could be the difference between a buckle and saggy pants!
My favorite workout includes 2 sets of 4 to 6 alternating-intensity 300s: one at medium-hard pace, followed by one very hard (beat the clock!) pace. Rest should be between 80 and 150% of your 300-meter interval time.
For extra speed motivation, imagine rounding that final turn toward the finish line! (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do this each 300-meter workout.)
These workouts should provide some novel, entertaining, and comprehensive early season preparation for your major ultra-distance race. Developing skills, balance, and variety in your training now will set a fantastic foundation for a great season ahead!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What are your go-to early season workouts for ‘busting the rust’ off in the transition to spring?
- Which of these workouts do you think would help you the most right now?