Pursuing The Patient Path

Bryon Powell explores the importance of resisting the urge to train too hard, too soon before a far-off focus race.

By on February 1, 2017 | Comments

With the growth of ultrarunning, it’s increasingly common to enter an event more than half a year in advance. Those long lead-time races also tend to be the ones to which we attach more aspiration, anticipation, and inspiration. In short, they are our focus races. These attachments are also why it’s so easy for our focus toward those races to be too shortsighted. Instead, it’s often more appropriate to temper initial (over)enthusiasm and lay out a prudent plan for the entirety of the time between gaining entry and a focus race itself.

A few weeks back, I found out I got into this year’s Leadville 100 and I’ll admit that plenty of the usual training temptations arose. In the weeks since, I’ve caught the following thoughts and more floating through my mind.

  • Maybe I should bump up my weekly mileage by five or 10 miles a week. That’s not much. It’ll be easy.
  • I had a huge mileage week last January. Maybe I should log one this January.
  • What if I add in some speedwork, while I’m building out my long runs? I can manage that.
  • Hmmm… I wonder if I can find a nearby 50 miler in the next month?

Some red flags should go up. What’s more, more than a few hands would probably rise, too, if I asked who’s had similar thoughts after getting into a temporarily distant race about which they’re psyched. Such thoughts are normal when we’re excited about a race or any other meaningful project we take on, for that matter.

So, why would we want to temper our enthusiasm? Because our enthusiasm, along with our body’s ability to train, are limited. We need to mete out our physical and mental exertion throughout our training. If we go all gangbusters seven months out, will we still be psyched when three months have passed and we’re still four months from race day? Will we still be injury-free and energetic enough to really go after our peak training a month or two ahead of our big race? In my mind, the answer to one or both of these questions is too likely ‘no’ if we step on the gas much more than half a year before our focus race.

Now, if you think you’ll never run out of enthusiasm, that might very well be the case. However, I’d suggest that you might need to take all the more care on the injury/burnout side of things.

If you’ve been running for a couple years and are coming off a rest break (that wasn’t abnormally long), half a year is more than enough time to train for nearly any ultra, 100 milers included. Heck, if you’re coming off an ultra or have been consistently at your baseline training mileage for a month or two, there’s a good chance you can be ready for that ultra in four months. Personally, I aim to have my mileage take a slow, general trend up through a six-month training season rather than just bang out the same 40, 70, or 100 miles per week throughout. Of course, this includes an easier training week every couple weeks. I’ve also come to embrace a couple-week down period two-and-a-half or three months out from my focus race to reenergize, both physically and mentally, before a concerted peak training push of four to six weeks. Often, ‘training races,’ i.e., races that aren’t the focus of one’s training, can provide an interim goal, a useful training outing, and a reason to rest, all rolled up into one!

That said, life happens and my own training is currently far more irregular and opportunistic than it was when I worked an office job. For example, I had a huge mileage week last January, nearly six full months before running Hardrock, my focus race, as I found myself a kid in a candy shop for nine days on New Zealand’s South Island between two intense work weeks during which my training was naturally limited. On the other hand, work travel and home renovations greatly limited my running last March and I accepted that as an early rest rather than stress about it. However, on otherwise neutral weeks, the trend started from consistent, lower-milage weeks building toward a peak a month before Hardrock. I was more than happy with the fitness this provided me on the start line.

While I’ve not jumped the gun in training for Hardrock the past two years, I’ve not always properly restrained myself. The most flagrant example I have is in training for the Western States 100 in June 2011… which I started in late September 2009. I was freshly out of lawyering and newly living in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada. Because of a fire year at Western States as well as its old two-time loser lottery rule, I knew I had an entry into a race that was nearly two years away… and, dang it, I was going to make the most of it! I jumped in and quickly ramped up to 70-mile weeks on unfamiliar hilly terrain. It took less than two months for me to end up with a case of plantar fasciitis that would hobble me for most of the next six months. Yeah, lesson learned on that one. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to recover and reengage with a much more reasonable six-month training plan leading up to the race that yielded my fastest 100 miler to date.

So, for the time being, I run consistently, but with the patient path toward Leadville in mind. Does that mean I’ll flog myself for that unplanned 30 miler last Wednesday? Nope. But it does mean I took it easy for the rest of the week rather than piling on the miles for a big week in January.

Call for Comments

  • Have you ever gotten over eager in training too hard, too early for a far-off race?
  • How do you temper your enthusiasm when you want to do your training before the appropriate time?
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.