When we think about ultra runners, what usually comes to mind (besides “crazy”?) is a lot of high mileage training and running. While it’s true that ultra marathon races do involve high mileage races, goals to finish these races can actually be achieved on low mileage training, remarkably.
More miles may not be better
Frequently, non-elite runners training for ultra marathons will run five to seven days per week with mileages ramping up to over 100 mile weeks. More is not always better however because high mileage trainers don’t necessarily have higher finisher rates than their low mileage counterparts; they just finish their races faster. Having said that, high mileage trainers more often fall victim to overuse injuries and over training syndrome, a serious metabolic illness that results from an imbalance in the cycles of effort to recovery in training.
Another side effect of high mileage training for ultra marathons is the difficulty of keeping balance between training, work, sleep, home and family. It’s really simple math; if more and more time is spent training for ultra marathons, less and less time goes to other important areas of one’s life. The good news is that you can train for ultra marathons without selling your soul to the ultra gods.
Let’s look at the priorities of training for ultra marathons. The staple of the ultra marathon training plan is the weekly long run and you only need one of these; the key word being “weekly”.
- 50K races aren’t much different from the marathon, so your weekly long run would build gradually to peak at about 25-miles or 4-6 hours.
- For 50-mile races, your long run would peak at about 30-miles or 6-7 hours.
- When it comes to 100-mile races, less is more. These long training runs would also peak at about 30-miles.
Mimic your ultra race
When I trained for the Badwater 135 Ultra Marathon, I peaked my long training runs at 25-30 miles each. It is just not beneficial for non-elite runners to extend training runs over 30-miles; the potential risk far outweighs the potential benefit. Specificity of training is important when it comes to the weekly long run. Your goal is to mimic the race as much as possible with regard to pacing, terrain, climate, hills, hydration and caloric intake. Be sure to use these long training runs to test new products or foods and drinks you might want to race with.
The next priority in ultra marathon training is the mid-week tempo run. The tempo is of huge value because it increases your lactate-threshold allowing your body to run at a faster pace without fatiguing. The benefit for ultra runners is improved overall pace and if you’ve ever chased cut-off times in a 100-miler, you will appreciate this. Your tempo run should have a 1-mile warm up, followed by tempo miles, ending with a 1-mile cool down. If your race goal is a 50K, your mid week tempo will peak at about 6-8 miles. 50-mile to 100-mile training plans will max you at about 12 miles. Tempo is an intimidating term for some runners but it’s really easy to interpret. Tempos are best performed on a flat course and the perfect tempo pace is described as “comfortably uncomfortable”. What this means is you run your tempo miles as fast as you can run without slowing down (somewhere between 10K and half marathon pace, for most of us). If you find yourself slowing down at all, it means you ran too fast. If you finish feeling like you could keep going, you should run faster next time.
The third most important training run for the longer distance ultra marathoner (50-mile to 100-mile runners) is the back-to-back second day run. While people can and do finish 100-mile races without doing back-to-back training runs, most ultra runners agree that back-to-back runs offer a huge advantage both physically and mentally. The rationale here is that the runner gets out to train again before recovery is complete so a few of these back-to-backs are important for endocrine adaptation to longer distance running. Psychologically, these runs are important for teaching runners to endure through bouts of fatigue that will surely come in very long ultra marathons. The second day of your back-to-back runs would be about half the distance of your long run. An example would be a 20-mile long run followed by 10-miles the next day. Always take a full day off after each back-to-back cycle and once you peak your back-to-back runs at say 30/15, it’s a good idea to take two full recovery days.
3 days a week
The runner training for a 100-mile race can be well prepared by running only the aforementioned three days each week and this represents about 12-14 hours of running for most athletes. Adding a couple of extra days of running each week is a great way to break up the hard efforts, but remember to keep the runs short and fun. Beyond the three most important runs you do each week, the others are just to add volume to your overall weekly mileage. But quality is more important than quantity, to a certain point, never forget.