Choosing an Ultra and Training for It

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So you have decided for some reason to run an ultramarathon. What’s the next step?

Sign up for one.

Wait a second, though, before you commit to something. There are a few things you ought to consider:

  1. What shape you’re in now and how long it would likely take you to get into ultra shape. If you’re in shape to comfortably do a half marathon and you want to run a 100K, don’t sign up for one in eight or even twelve weeks’ time.
  2. Your running strengths. If you’re a hill person, go ahead and find a race with some rollers; if you like running in the mountains, head for that kind of race. Crucially, if you’re mostly a road runner, don’t make your first trail race a 50K. If you run mostly on the flat, flat lake shore of Chicago, don’t sign up for a race with 3,000 feet of climb unless you are seriously dedicated to finding alternative strategies for training hills.
  3. Time of year. Lots of people are better runners in cooler temperatures. Some people are weirdly good with heat. I consider myself to be middle of the road—when I get acclimated, I do reasonably well, but I know the first few runs during a heat wave are going to be painful. If you’re super intolerant of heat, don’t make your first ultra the one in mid-July. Or anywhere in the south. Similarly, if you train for a race, as I did, in 40 degree weather, and then when you arrive at the location find that the temperature is upwards of 70 degrees, you’re going to have a difficult time and have to adjust your goals.
  4. Race reviews. A lot of people write race reports, and I will admit that I spend a fair amount of time reading them to get ideas about race strategy, training, gear, and so on. But I usually read about races I’ll probably never do, like the Western States. It wasn’t until recently, when someone commented on one of my race reports with some questions about the race itself that I realized reports could have another value. (Slow, I know.) If you’ve ever been through a poorly organized race, you know how frustrating it can be. Reading race reports from previous years can help you determine if you want to give a particular event a try.
  5. Location. With a hat tip to Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Motion, familiarity with the location in which you’re going to run is an important, if not essential, factor to consider. Being able to train where you race is very advantageous–but even if you can’t do that, talking to other people who have done the race (and/or reading their race reports) can be very helpful in familiarizing yourself with a course and what you should do to train for it.

Got it? Okay, great. Because now I have about 400 words left to talk to you about…

Training.

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Image courtesy of tim & annette at FreeImages.com.

When I started training for my first 50K, I dug up this plan using Google and followed an abbreviated version of it very faithfully (my longest run was 24 miles). After my first two 50Ks, I ditched the mid-week schedule and kept the long run schedule, more or less, and the 3/2 runs per week. In part because running 20+ miles can be boring, and in part because I was running with some marathon training friends, I did a lot of 18–20 mile runs while training for my third and fourth 50Ks, but nothing much longer. Finally, during the training for my fifth 50K, I was dealing with plantar fasciitis in my right foot, so I ran ten miles every other day, plus a gradually increasing long run (including a few 20 milers) with a full marathon about four weeks before my 50K.

For my current 50K, my schedule has been much more relaxed. I’ve run a few long runs in the 17–20 mile range (I think one 17, one 18, and one 20), but there have been a number of weekends where I had the stomach flu, or had to visit an ill relative, or I was swamped with work, or just other life stuff, and I haven’t been getting the kinds of miles I got in previous training cycles. I think this is okay—once, a long time ago, I encountered the phrase, “If you can run it in a week, you can run it in a day.” I keep up a volume of about 50 miles per week, and try to do some course-specific training, and try to get a lot of miles per weekend rather than just in one long run. I am fully prepared for the fact that June 6th might become a rather long day in the woods, but (after running 25 miles over the past two days as I write this), I am relatively sure that I’ll be able to finish.

A few things that I do strongly recommend, whether you’re choosing a premade plan or putting your own together:

  • The long run sandwich: A lot, perhaps most, of ultrarunners I’ve talked to are really big on this—basically, the strategy is to run two rather heavy days on Saturday/Sunday so as to get used to running with tired legs.
  • Runs per week: I run Tues/Weds/Thurs/Sat/Sun most weeks in order to give my legs a chance to recover occasionally. If you’re used to running seven days per week but feel sluggish, taking time off may be a benefit, even if your total volume drops a bit. Remember (or learn about) the idea of supercompensation—you get better when you rest. There are runners out there who do 100+ mile races running on three to four days per week, and there are people who run twice per day most days for a total of 10–14 runs per week. Find where you’re comfortable.
  • Volume: The plan I linked to earlier has 30–40 miles per week most weeks, peaking at 56. I wouldn’t try to run a 50K (or a marathon, for that matter) on less than 30 miles per week. But then again, above about 65 miles/week, I get injured, so I wouldn’t recommend going too far in the other direction either.
  • Training specificity: If your race is hilly, go run some hills once per week. If you want to run fast, do some intervals. This isn’t rocket science, right? For full disclosure, I have had injury issues associated with too much speed work, so I’ll say be sure to listen to your body, and take some time off if you start to have problems.
  • Time on your feet: If you can spend a lot of time on your feet during the day after your long run, that can be quite good for your training. So for example, follow up your 20 miler with mowing the grass instead of napping on the sofa. You can also measure your long runs by time instead of distance if you want, training up to a long run of four hours or so for a 50K. I’m a little too obsessive about distance to pull this off though.
  • Cross-training: In previous training cycles, I dragged myself out of bed to hit the pool twice per week, biked (and sometimes bike commuted up to 20 miles/day), and lifted heavy weights (up to slightly more than 1x my body weight) several times per week. Now I’m still lifting, but I’ve been pretty light on the rest of it—occasionally I make it to the gym first thing in the morning to watch Doctor Who on BBC America while doing the elliptical for an hour. I do recommend lifting legs (squat, deadlift, lunges, calf raises) and doing core exercises (plank) to help balance your muscles and prevent injury. Beyond that, if you have the energy and want to cross train, or if you are extremely injury-prone but want to up your mileage, go for it. But don’t feel you need to pretend to be a triathlete or something in order to run a 50K. As another caveat, I lift much more like a power lifter than like an endurance athlete, most of whom seem to prefer low weight/high reps to my high weight/low reps strategy. Go with what you’re comfortable with.

If you’re looking for premade training plans, you can find a collection of them reviewed here, or a variety from 50K to 100 mile in Bryon Powell’s book Relentless Forward Progress. Next time, we’ll talk a little bit about some of the more finicky details of ultrarunning, like diet, gear, and the fact that eventually you have to actually go run that race you signed up for.

Emily Lupton is a writer living in Madison, WI. After beginning to run seriously in 2007, she has now finished races at all distances between 5km-50km, plus a few triathlon and duathlons. To read her race reports or her totally cool, not-running-related novella The Joy of Fishes, check out her blog at http://pretensesoup.com.