Ultra Running: Getting More Bang for Your Buck on Low Mileage Training

Guest Blog: Nancy Shura-Dervin

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.

Tempo runs

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.

Back-to-back runs

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.

Happy Running!

Athlinks Staffhttp://blog.athlinks.com
Posts by the Athlinks Staff are authored by our in-house group of athletes and subject matter experts in the fields of performance sports, nutrition, race organization, and training.

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  1. Great article, I have been doing this type of training for years. My knees couldn’t take running more than twice a week. So I run twice a week and cross train 4 days a week with one rest day. Every 4 week I work in an easy week with about a 35% reduction of training with two maybe even 3 rest days. Thank you for the great post.

  2. Running more miles is one of my NY resolutions. I’m training for a half marathon right now with SportMe running app which calculates distance, pace, time and calories and adjusts running plans to my progress.

  3. I just completed a 65 mile event with very minimal training mainly due to family commitments and basic lack of time to commit.
    I managed 12min miles for the first 50 then 15min mile run/walk for the rest.

    I kept fit by running 2 or 3 times a week for about 4 months. Before my race I completed one 20 mile race about 4 months before and just one half marathon 1 month before the race. Did no where near 30 mile weeks!… More like 15 maximum!

    Focus on keeping fit, eating well and stretching a lot, especially the week before your event.

    Unless you’re hoping for a podium spot or finishing in the top 3rd of the field, concentrate on preserving your body and not injuring yourself with the long miles and short recovery periods.

    Good luck to everyone out there in the world training 🙂

    • thank you for that post! I have been doing minimal for my 50k still 9 weeks out also due to family and work! running 15-20 per week! I am simply looking to finish and if not im sure i will have fun trying!

  4. Good article that reminds me to work in more real tempo runs. On taking days off…Some of us are involved in a running streak where we cannot take a day off. My “rest” days in my streak are when I run much slower and a shorter distance.

  5. Nicely written, but i am not sure if the maths add up – as per Michelly’s question – How did you get to 12 to 14 hours of running per week by only running 3 days??

  6. Thank you for the great article. Have myself been a low mile trainer my entire run life. For my 50 mile run I trained for 25-30 miles/week that included at least 10-15 miles run in the weekend (so 3-4 week day with 3-5 miles/day) . Did one long run (33 miles) 5 weeks before the actual run. I do not follow a rigid training plan but run with general goal of 20-25 miles/week.


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