Ultrarunning Training For Busy People

How to train for ultramarathons if you have a limited amount of time.

By on March 14, 2017 | Comments

Stay the CourseFor years I’ve been telling people, “Coaching got me into physical therapy, but physical therapy has kept me out of coaching.” But not anymore. This month, I began coaching again: real, in-person, high-school track-and-field coaching, at a small school just outside of Eugene, Oregon. It’s been a blast, but it’s also had its challenges. Not unlike most of us working-professional trail runners, my runners are busy. They are student-athletes, and school comes first. Moreover, in a high school with under 200 students, most of them are multi-sport athletes, meaning that few of them ran much before that first rainy afternoon meeting at the end of February. Yet, in just over three months’ time, some will be shooting for the state finals at Hayward Field.

How do you get them there, from hardly running to peak track speed, in such a short period of time? To prepare these athletes to run far and fast, avoid injury and burnout, and balance running amongst their lives as students and children? Therein lies the challenge–and the fun–of optimizing preparation when resources such as time, energy, and ability are limited.

Trail and ultrarunning coaching is a growing industry, with many coaches (including many who are athletes themselves) hanging a virtual shingle in the running marketplace. Because many of these companies are run by current and former elite, semi-professional athletes, I often wonder how many of these services utilize a ‘professional training approach,’ a philosophy where time and energy are seemingly infinite, or at least not taking into account that their average client must balance running with the rest of life.

In elite-professional training, emphasis is often placed on precise energy systems, prolonged periodization cycles, and long, robust training build-ups that may last for months or even years. These training systems might advocate multiple hard workouts in a week, and push running volume to hours per day, similar to how a professional athlete–whose priority is running–might train.

Yet it would seem that even the most serious competitive adult ultrarunner has more in common with my high-school runners (in fact, they could be their parents), with their busy careers, families, and relationships. That is, they have real and important limitations to their training and racing. Despite the demands of real life, we all still wish to train and race. Isn’t that what makes it fun? And who can’t relate to the classic movie plot where the athlete protagonist races against the clock to prepare and triumphs against all odds?

Training and racing with limited resources can be done, and it can be done very well. The key is in tactical preparation.

Unlimited Wants, Limited Resources: Tactical Preparation in Trail and Ultra Training

In devising a balanced training plan for my high-school team, this was the approach I took.

Working Backward

When time and resources are limited for a focus race, it’s best to begin by working backward. What key preparation must occur between now and race day? And how much time do you have? If you’re accustomed to six to eight months of preparation, it could be a daunting task to compress training into only three months. But once you accept your limitation, you can balance and prioritize the key training components in the allotted time, and simply make do!

Work back from race day, plugging in key long runs, training races, and skills-development experiences so that training is balanced with adequate rest and recovery. It will undoubtedly be less than ideal, but nonetheless, it will be a balanced, sustainable plan.

Volume is only a Multiplier

Once you’ve come to grips with the calendar, allow yourself to mourn the loss of the time and energy that you would, in an ideal world, devote to training and preparation. The world and our lives are seldom ‘ideal.’ Recognize reality, allow yourself to despair for a moment, and then move on.

We all have this idea of what it takes to run our best, and it often is far more than what is truly necessary for success or even peak performance. And while a finite amount of training is required for success, overall training volume–miles, vertical feet, hours (or minutes)–is only a multiplier of preparation. A huge volume of training is not the be-all, end-all. Rather, successful performance is about the specifics, the ‘big rocks.’

This past week I was running with friend, a former professional soccer player, who is now coaching a youth club soccer team. We both lamented the lack of time and energy for strength and conditioning, but recognize that–with time and energy limited–how we promote skills development is the most important priority for our athletes. Extra time for fitness would be a nice luxury, but would only serve to multiply the kids’ skill level.

Big Rocks First: Specificity and Skills Development 

With the goal-race timeline in place, what specific preparation is necessary for successful performance? The operative word here is ‘successful,’ not necessarily ‘peak’ or ‘your 100% best.’ Here we define success as doing your very best in the context of your limited resources.

For long, mountainous trail ultramarathons, your preparation may include key elements such as:

  • Long runs
  • Hill climbing and descending
  • Terrain and environment rehearsal runs (heat, cold, nighttime)
  • ‘Race-pace’ efforts

With those specific elements identified, the next step is to ask yourself a few questions. How many of these key elements can I fit in between now and then? Which are most important? What is the ‘cost’ of doing those key elements, in time, energy, and stress?

Weigh those variables, and then schedule and vehemently defend them! The specific training is the most important race preparation! These elements provide the key experiential preparation that often make or break successful performance. So plan those workouts and defend these ‘big rocks’ against the assaults of other (often less important) obligations and desires.

For our track-distance kids, these specifics include crucial workouts designed to learn paces (based more on perceived effort than hard-and-fast pace standards), how to accelerate (or avoid slowing down) mid-race, and how to finish strong in the last portion of the race.

Efficiency First

When time and energy (and, arguably, gross fitness) is limited, it is even more crucial to be maximally efficient, to get every drop of speed per unit of energy expended. For trail runners, the focus should be on stride efficiency over the host of focus-race-course conditions–ups, downs, flats, technical, and road. Efficiency-building strategies–especially those that are time and energy efficient–should be built into as many sessions as possible. But above all, no work should be done that isn’t ‘form-focused.’

For the high schooler, running-form drills are performed every day. We have a full routine that takes under 10 minutes to perform, with little energy expenditure. It’s a great warm-up and priming for efficient running.

On top of that, for each macrocycle (two to four weeks) of training, we have a specific general form cue. These range from ‘Tall and Forward,’ to ‘Strong Arms.’ Having a singular form focus, initially, allows them plenty of time to practice, get comfortable with, and integrate each form concept.

Knowing our time and energy for training work is limited, this efficiency focus is designed for runners to not only extract maximum speed, but also improve recovery and avoid injury. Efficient running results in less wasted energy, less stress absorbed by the legs, faster recovery, and injury prevention–truly crucial elements in a resource-limited situation!

Renewable Resources

Besides drills and form techniques, there are other strategies that can multiply fitness in less time and energy cost than simply running more. This is especially salient for injury-sensitive runners whose running volume is limited.

Strength training is an outstanding option to improve fitness, strength, and running economy. Bodyweight core and hip strengthening is easy to do at home, while conventional Olympic-style weightlifting at a gym can provide another dimension of ultra-specific strength–all of which is often less taxing than even long, slow mileage.

Heat acclimatization is another strategy, whereby simply sitting in a hot sauna for short periods can improve performance in hot race conditions. Moreover, emerging evidence is showing that consistent heat training can improve performance in all conditions.

Such strategies can be considered ‘renewable resources’–training options that improve performance, without the heavy cost and finite budget of long and hard running.

Beyond simply running every day, working on specific hip, arm, and core strength for our high-school runners will help promote performance without overtaxing their limited time and training capacity.

Training Races

Once again, in an ideal world, we can all race several times a year in peak performance, pumping up our UltraSignup.com rating and working for those Ultrarunner of the Year votes! But when time and energy are limited, how you schedule and execute build-up races is extremely important.

Training races are a double-edged sword. If well-executed, they can provide crucial specificity training for the goal race. But raced too aggressively, they can become overly costly, resulting in burnout, injury, or otherwise impeding development.

Choose wisely the events between now and your focus race. What events best facilitate preparation? And how? Most veteran ultrarunners use training races as preparation, yet they are very careful of how they run those events, choosing to run shorter events at focus-race ‘goal pace’ or using much shorter events to work on a hard-finishing effort. Whatever you choose, be aware of and avoid the temptation to simply ‘race,’ unless such an effort is both feasible and in your best interests.

For our team, we have a multitude of small, low-key ‘triangle’ (three-team) track meets. Rather than race these meets all out, our strategy will be to enter races with specific objectives, such as running a 3,000-meter at a threshold pace for the first two thirds, and then closing hard. Or, racing a 4×400-meter relay for vital speedwork. Both strategies focus on skill development, saving the maximum efforts for the focus meets later on.

Plan for and Defend Against the ‘Black Swan’

Once a good plan has been devised, plan for the worst. Namely, think about what elements of your training or life are most likely to cause problems or derail training. It could be a pesky injury sensitivity or illness, or it could be external factors like work or family obligations. No one wants to accept that the worst-case scenario, that rare-but-possible ‘black swan’ event, might happen. But mitigating that risk in order to preserve training and overall health is paramount.

After I’d devised our training schedule, my distance assistant, a talented post-collegiate runner, asked me, “Where are the tempo runs and fartleks?” I replied, “There are none. We don’t have time, and they’re too risky.” Indeed, long, moderate-intensity runs can be a huge boost to fitness, but for unconditioned athletes, they pose a major injury risk, and in our case, must be avoided.

Identify your ‘black swan’ sensitivities, and avoid and defend against them. Stay healthy, keep work balanced, negotiate with family well ahead of time, and get everyone on the same page to keep your training plan consistent and sustainable. Limit the surprises!

In a world of unlimited wants and limited time, energy, and resources, we simply have to do our best. Organizing and executing the training may be as much of a challenge as race day. But if life is a journey, then so is running. Planning and executing your training on a limited ‘budget’ can bring great results, as well as great satisfaction in the process.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are your limiting factors in training for trail races and ultramarathons? Is it the actual time it takes to do long runs? Is it susceptibility to injury? Is it commitments to family or school? Something else?
  • Think about your current goal race. What are the ‘big rocks,’ as Joe Uhan says, or the key preparation elements that you need to prioritize in your limited opportunities for 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.