Spring Cleaning: Early Season Preparation for the Ultrarunning Season

Tips to get you set up for a successful season of ultramarathon training.

By on March 12, 2024 | Comments

Stay the CourseHappy Spring! The temperatures are warming, and, for trail runners and ultrarunners, the roads and trails are beckoning for the rubber on the bottom of your running shoes. And for many of us, those shoes have lain too dormant in the back of the closet.

With both temperatures and aspirations on the rise, it often takes only one nice day — or the click of a race registration button — to thrust a rusty runner into full training. However, those couch-to-full bore runners often wind up on my treatment table a few weeks later.

How do we best prepare our bodies for the healthiest, most sustainable, and most enjoyable return to training after an off-season? How do we best prepare ourselves to launch into an ambitious training plan for our summer goal race?

Here are some field-tested tips from this runner, coach, and physiotherapist.

Foundations First: Mobility and Strength Check-Ins

Before initiating a training plan — be it solo or coach-guided — be sure your body is prepared to accept a new, progressive training load.


Key areas of the body require a degree of mobility — or mechanical capacity — that they must move to produce efficient running without excessive strain. What a runner needs is highly individualized.

A qualified orthopedist or physio is a great resource to help runners determine if all the parts are moving enough and efficiently. But absent professional help, self-assessment is also useful.
Self-test mobility in the following areas:

This is what good hip rotation looks like. Photos: iRunFar/Joe Uhan

What runners need to look for:

  • Does mobility meet minimum health requirements? Can the joint achieve a neutral position? Can it move to a functional end range without pain?
  • Is motion symmetrical, from side to side?

Mobility is relative. Runners needn’t be ultra-bendy. These tests outline what constitutes basic and balanced mobility for a healthy, efficient running stride — with strategies to restore motion.

That’s a low but crucial bar to pass. Once achieved, the odds of injury decrease substantially.


Like mobility, strength is a long sliding scale between basic and super-human. But like mobility, the goal is foundational: are key muscles activating and firing while you run?

Those key muscle areas:

  • The deep abdominals
  • The gluteal, or hip, muscles

These two groups are so crucial, because almost every other mover muscle in the running system relies on their strength for optimal function.

The abdominals connect the trunk to the pelvis and legs, as well as the shoulder blade to the upper trunk. Both arm and leg strength are substantially enhanced by activated abs.

The glutes are both primary movers and stabilizers of the running system. It still amazes me that the gluteals must — in a fraction of a second — alternate between incredible propulsive power and profound leg-on-ground stability. When the brain fails to find and use the glutes, every muscle downstream is both overworked and overstrained in compensation.

Why don’t they automatically fire? Many factors, but the answer lies in neuromuscular inhibition — these core muscles become inhibited when the spinal joints around them lose motion, alignment, or stability, themselves.

Check in with these groups. Early in a new training block, this often requires not only daily activation exercise, but prolonged work, sometimes multiple times a day.

Note that not all ab and glute exercises actually wake up and connect these muscles. Facilitative exercises require a few key components:

  • Running-specific motions
  • Whole-body motions
  • Prolonged holds of at least five seconds, but upward of a minute or longer

Such conditions allow the brain to find the muscle group by feeling it. For example, a burn in that particular group, and an enhanced feeling of strength and connection between the abs and legs as well as between the hip and the rest of the leg.

The diagonal chop and the short and long exercises were devised with this aim in mind, and represent my best tools for neuromuscular activation. Perform them after stretching and prior to running for the smoothest, strongest, and most efficient run.

Diagonal Chop feature photo

The diagonal chop exercise. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Plyometric Training

So often overlooked, plyometric training is a key tool for early season trail running and ultrarunning training preparation. Plyometrics consisting of jumps with instantaneous landing and takeoff simulate the tissue loading and unloading forces seen with every step of running.

Plyometric training can be a huge benefit to early season training by providing small, short-lasting bursts of tissue loading, without over-straining a tender-footed early season runner.

They also enhance both speed and stability, training the joints and tissues to quickly but adeptly land on different surfaces, as well as enhance the speed at which they push off, a key speed metric.

Dabble in some early season plyometrics with these progressive, running-specific exercises.

Move Well: Find and Maintain Your Best Efficiency

If strength and mobility are key ingredients of healthy movement, then an efficient stride is the foundation. The mixing bowl. The baking pan.

It holds everything, and dictates just how we use — and maintain — that motion and strength. It also dictates how fast we run and how it feels.

Efficiency is fluid and more fragile that we realize. A long offseason with less or different activity can create subtle but significant changes to the running stride.

Check in with yourself by asking these questions:

  • How are you looking? Do you look efficient? You needn’t be a biomechanics expert. Trust your gut. Does it look good? This is as easy as looking in a mirror and, with today’s technology, a mobile camera phone set in selfie mode.
  • Do you feel fast? Even if you’re not yet fit and running fast paces, are you positioning and moving your body in an athletic, fast-feeling way?

If either seems deficient, return the foundations:

Then, once you feel you’re in the best position, add athleticism. Enhance your movement system with running drills, which are exaggerations of the ideal components of fast, efficient running that teach the body to move well.

good running posture

A neutral and forward torso for good running posture. Photo: iRunFar/Joe Uhan

Training Tips: Healthy Forward Progress

When working with both post-injury physio clients and coaching athletes, the advice is similar for early season training progression. These recommendations include:


When deconditioned and out of the routine of running, the body absorbs training load in small, more frequent doses. Even if a particular athlete may only run three or four days a week in mid-season training, I often recommend five or six days a week, but in smaller, more manageable doses. Once the body is accustomed to these small, consistent doses of running, frequency can decrease and per-run volume can increase. But early on, start small and frequent.

Grow the Long Run

Once consistency is established, pick one run to lengthen. It might be only one or two miles longer than a mid-week base run, but this is the long run. Grow it slowly as fitness and resilience builds. The length and parameters of the run depend on the athlete and their goals, but the long run can build strength, fitness, and training capacity with less strain than more intense training.

Long run - mesa - Maggie Guterl

Grow your long run slowly. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi

Short Strides, First

An effective way to initiate speed with minimal strain is to begin with short strides. These are 8- to 20-second progressive sprints (at 75 to 95% effort) with full rest (30 to 90 seconds jog) in between.

For many, sprinting seems both wholly unnecessarily, if not risky, for ultrarunning and trail running. But like plyometrics, short strides provide a very small, manageable dose of high intensity that helps condition the body, inside and out, to run both fast and far. They are a terrific precursor to more conventional high intensity running. They are also a way to practice your newly rediscovered efficient posture and movement strategies over a short duration when it is easy to maintain.

Perform these before, during, or after easy runs, two to three times a week for two weeks before initiating other faster, harder running.

Then, Strength Before Speed

The next training progression should be threshold runs. These are moderate intensity runs that lie on the threshold between the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

While there are many great options — over various physiological ranges — with which to do threshold work, my focus is on efficiency and injury prevention. Threshold work is just intense enough to be challenging, while still allowing the runner to maintain stride efficiency. Run medium intensity, with your best form!


The same rings true for higher intensity, interval style training. This seemingly backward style of training — very fast, short distance intervals that one might encounter in 5 kilometer or even shorter race training — may seem out of place in ultrarunning. But these short intervals allow a runner to maintain efficient form over a shorter duration, with relatively less physiological strain. Strength and efficiency can be gained and reinforced without a huge training load.

Start with 1- to 3-minute intervals of fast running with relatively equal rest. As form-specific strength improves, expand the interval workouts to longer interval sessions with 5- to 15-minute intervals.

Speed work - desert road

A runner injecting some speed into her early season running. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi


These recommendations do not represent cutting edge, peak performance training. However, training at a peak level requires key foundations of mobility, strength, efficiency, and progressive loading. This plan is a terrific starting point on that journey. Good luck and have a great running season!

Call for Comments

  • Do you have any steps you take before or as you head into more sustained or intense training?
  • Which of these recommendations are you most likely to add to your early season training?
Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Auburn, California. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100k Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100k, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.