Sunday, January 20, 2013

ULTRA MARATHON TRAINING : The long run - one big single Vs back to back runs

Like many others when I first decided that I'd start increasing the distance and go for Ultra Marathon events I began researching as much as I could: training techniques, race and pacing strategies, nutrition, and of course how to prepare yourself to run 50km's, 100km's+.

As expected there was a mass of info out there from millions of sources.  Sadly, the majority was contraticting each other everytime I read something new.  What one blogger would swear by, was wrong according to this study or that trial by who knows who.  So what to go by?  How can I decipher what's right and what's wrong?  All I can suggest here is firstly; keep reading as much as you can and look for any consistencies amongst the material; and secondly get out and try it.  Ultimately you need to find out what works for you.

It goes without saying that running an ultra is all about endurance.  The longevity built up in the legs to withstand running 50kms, 80kms or even 100kms+.  This is what you're working towards.  The stamina to be on the legs for between 6 to 24 hours depending on your chosen distance.  This is something that a typical runners training programme does not prepare you for.

Mixed up in the piles of data out there; one of the most consistent points that most agreed on is that your training is mainly focussed around your LONG RUN.  What is NOT consistent on this is HOW the run is conducted and how often.  Some say weekly, some say twice weekly, while others say 1-2 per month total.  Then others suggest back to back long runs.  So we know now to put attention towards our long run, but how are we going to perform this vital component?

I personally believe this depends on your base mileage you have currently, Vs the length of the event you're aiming for.  Let's say you're running 60km's per week currently and have an 80km Ultra (50miler) coming up in the next couple of months.  There is no point trying to push yourself to run a 40-50km single long run if the longest you've run is around 30km's.  Not this close to the event.  You won't recover in time!  You're better off to be slightly undertrained when standing at the starting line than overtrained!!!!!

Keeping in mind, if you're lining up your first Ultra, your ultimate goal shouldn't be to place in the event, but to finish.  Learn, experience and take mental note how you fared throughout the day.  Take away as much as you can from the experience and use it towards your next ultra.  There is so much uncharted territory for you learn from once you get past 50km's.  How the body responds to running while fatigued.  How to fuel for an event that uses more energy than your body can store and process.  In some events, what gear you need to carry either as mandatory for the event and/or personal preferences.

When I decided to enter my first 56km Ultra, my longest run was 21km's which I'd only done once, 4 weeks before.  Common sense was telling me this was a stupid move (and realistically it probably was) but I decided to enter anyway.  I like to consider myself a strategist of sorts so I figured that while I may not be physically ready for such an event, I might be able to work my way into this through clever last minute prep and race/pacing planning.  I had 4 weeks before the event to get ready.  Which meant if I tried to throw in any long runs of 30km's plus (never done before) there's a good chance I would not've recovered in time for the event.  After some deep thought, there were 3 things I wanted to ensure I had covered by the time I hit the starting line:
  1. How do I respond to running while feeling fatigued?
  2. What is trail running like and how does it differ to bitumen running?
  3. Be as fresh as possible by the morning of the race.
That's a fair bit for an amatuer to work out in 4 weeks.  So what did I do?
  1. Running while fatigued:  Like I said earlier, I wasn't in a position to push myself so far into distances that I hadn't run before due to short lead up time to the event.  So instead of pushing out 30km+ runs I decided that back to back runs would suit me better.  Long runs for 3 days straight, rest 2 and then long runs 3 days straight again.  Keeping this pattern for 2 weeks, leaving 2 weeks after this for recovery.  This gave me the opportunity to build up a few last minute km's into the legs, without overdoing any single session.  By the 3rd day in a row, my legs were definitely tired and 'jelly-like'.  I didn't care about pace, just that I got out and did the 10-12km's (which was my long run distance at the time).  I was also conscious to allow full recovery opportunity by refuelling and replenishing carbs and proteins immediately after each session.  It was afterall only a 7-9 hour targeted race so I did not need to train to run on complete empty like 100km+ Ultra's force you to do.
  2. Trail Running - What am I in for? (Event specific training) Having only run on relatively flat terrain bitumen and pavement courses, I knew it would be a good move to get out on the trails to experience was I was in for.  I'd heard in the lead up to this Ultra that the infamous Blackhill was one to look out for with a long, very steep incline that just keeps climbing; and given that it is positioned at the 50km mark of the course, I didn't want to see what this was like for the first time on the day.  So this must be experienced ASAP.  15km's is my limit for a long run so I charted out 15km's back from the finish line of the course and started there.  This I believe was the smartest move I made in my preparation.  Having known what the final 15km's was like made it so much easier for me on the day of the race.  In fact, that final section was one of the fastest sections I had throughout the day.  (weird since I'd never run that far)
  3. Be fresh at the starting line: Knowing I'd decided to enter an event that I really wasn't ready for, there was little point trying to properly prepare for it so I made the decision that I'd rather be undertrained than overtrained.  As such, there was very little running at all in the final 2 weeks.  Certainly none at any great deal of effort.  With 2 weeks to go I had 3 gentle slow runs, and the final week I had 1 run of about 6-8 km's but walked 4-5 km's almost evey day to stay loose.  Come race morning I was as fresh and clean in the legs as I'd felt for some time.
The mix of these plans, along with a plan to keep the first 30km's as easy as possible, seen me not only finish this ultra, but finish stronger than my only half marathon.  In a time well under the plan and positioned around top 3rd overall.

Again, I'll state that I was not physically prepared for such an event and all common sense should've prevented me from entering, but since I'd committed myself to it, pure strategic planning got me through it on this occasion.

What are the long run options?  In general, there are 2 common types of long run plans: 
  1. A single long run performed on a given frequency.  This run is generally aimed at approximately 1/2 the weekly mileage or as close to.  Carried out at a slow, conversational pace, ideally on similar terrian and conditions to that of the upcoming event.
  2. 2 or maybe even 3 consecutive days at a portion of your long run distance but longer than your normal weekly runs.  For example, if your long run aim id 40km's, you might do either 20km and then 20km, or others prefer to split it and do 25km then 15km.  Whatever you prefer as I don't find much difference with the splits in the outcome.

In short, I've since found in the lead up to other Ultra's that back to back long run training seems to work better for me.  That second session, going out when already tired provides me with a tough session without needing to be out there for 4-6 hours.  It also allows the neurological system and muscle tissue to become accustomed to working beyond their typical fatigue limits.

I can not stress enough the importance however of good solid rest and recovery following your long run session(s).  The concept behind the long run is for CONDITIONING. Conditioning means to stress the body beyond it's normal comfortable operating perameters of which the body then will respond and rebuild stronger to compensate.  If this process of being able to respond is ignored by not resting, the entire session is practically wasted!!!!!  Your body will not become stronger and therefore not be able to build better resistance to distance running.  Make sure you rest...............

Another important and useful tip to throw into your long run sessions is your pre, during and post fuelling and hydration plans.  Test it all out.  Drink what you intend to drink in the race.  Eat what you intend to eat for the race.  DO NOT try anything new here on race day, or you may come to the fate that I did in my first 100km ultra.  Major tummy problems which left me unable to consume anything from 75kms onwards.  No fuel means an empty tank!  Not a fun experience to push out a final 30km while completely empty...........  Try different things.  Write it all down.  Comment on how you felt and whether it was energising, easy to consume, easy to carry and complimented your run rather than complicated it.  You're going to need fuel during your ultra so best to work this out now, not then.

Should you have enough prep time leading up to your next event, aim to have your long run up to approximately 1/2 or preferrably 2/3 of that of the event; without increasing this distance by >10-15% per week.  For example; if your event is a 50km, you would ideally want to be up to running your long runs at 30km to 35km by 1 month out of the event before you begin to taper down.  Trusting in your rest and tapering, you will be well prepared to tackle the 50km.  If however, you are planning a 100km or greater, the opportunity to run a 50km to 75km long run each week as your building up might be difficult and possibly too much stress on the body.  This is a good scenario to try out back to back runs.  Why not in this case do saturday 40km, then Sunday 25km or 30km.  This will give you the mileage you need, but without overstressing the body, and/or making it difficult to fit into your other living/family/work/study commitments.

The LONG RUN........... The make or break component of whether you will complete your first Ultra, or make that step from 50km to 100km+.


  1. This is great information Matt and something I will use for training for my 50K! :)

    1. thanks RunningMy. Is it your first Ultra? Which one is it?

  2. I will try this methods. i have less than 10 days to train for my first 50km Road Ultra. I have a total of 116km ran for the last 2 mos. my 50k run is on May 1 here in the philippines. thank you Matt!

  3. Thanks for posting this Matt. Couldn't have come at a better time. I've signed up for my first ultra (North Face 50km) and am seriously undertrained. Yeah, really fooslish, I know. Up until a fortnight ago I had been doing at least one 20km run each week or fortnight and one or two other runs up to 10km. I've only been running since September 2012 but am really enjoying it. Currently have a slight hamstring strain so I'm taking it easy this week and doing the exercises the physio told me to do. There's less than four weeks to go to the event so I'm hoping to get one more 'long' run in (no more than about 20kms) and some shorter back to back runs. your post has inspired me to not pull out of the race but to do it anyway (DNF or not) and just enjoy and learn from it.

    1. hey that's fantastic Musashi31. Well done. Be sure to take it easy on that hamstring. It's better to be undertrained at the starting line than overtrained. Good luck.

      Should you be looking to do any more ultras, maybe you should look at getting a personalised training programme made. I do them if you want to go down that track

  4. Nice one Matt. I like the idea of back to back runs for a long run. Is there a rule of thumb for weekly distance when training for a certain event? e.g. If you're training for a 50km event, should weekly dist be about double?

  5. The short answer to this Pat is that there is no 'rule of thumb'. By that I mean there are too many variables with ultra running to allow for these types of broad guidelines.

    Ideally, yes, for 30-50km events, double the distance per week is good, on the strict condition that you built up to those distances comfortably at 10-15% increase per week, and 2 that you have allowed to recover/rebuild at regular intervals throughout your growth phase.

    If you were to be doing a 100miler for example, it's not always practical to be looking at double mileage per week. If you were doing a 12km, it's good to be doing around 30-40km's per week ideally....

    Do you have a particular event coming up that you're aiming for Pat?