Training Points and Lessons Learned for Ultra-Marathons

My intent with this document is to post some major points, ideas and lessons I’ve learned as an average Ultra-Marathoner. This is made up more of general training principles and ideas rather than hard and fast training doctrine and monthly, weekly and daily training schedules and guidance.

There is a significant amount of literature available on this topic online, in hard cover, and in monthly magazine publications. For a couple of examples, I really got a lot out of Bryon Powell’s training book, Relentless Forward Progress, available on WWW.IRUNFAR.COM, as well as from an article written by Ian Torrance and published in JAN-FEB 2011 Running Times on marathoners training for and running 50Ks and 50 Mile ultras. I highly recommend those sources to anyone. Along this line, there is a lot of literature and online websites with a lot of ultra-marathon race and training information.

I’ve had the good fortune and opportunity to complete seventeen 26.2 mile marathon-distance events and 30 ultra-marathon distance races, and an arrayed combination of 31 majors in the past 24 months since February 2010. I am certain that any individual that does not have major health issues and has the fortitude to spend 10-15 hours of physical training time per week can complete a 50 mile Ultra-Marathon in 10 to 14 hours.

Training. Simply put, the training mileage you put in directly correlates to your ability to finish any ultra-marathon; the more mileage that you put in on your feet increases your endurance fitness, your mental toughness and your ability to complete ultras and complete them comfortably. I’ve found that no matter how hard I train or how much mileage I put in, I hit tough spots once I go over three to four hours in any event. I’ll struggle at, roughly, 22-24 miles, recover, stick again at 27-29 miles, recover, 33-35, and so on. Eventually I developed some training consistency and some training mileage beyond 25-35 miles per week and got consistent long runs into my schedule. Then, those tough spots, those “walls” weren’t as bad as they used to be. They were manageable. Ultimately, we’re all an experiment of one, but I’ve developed some major training points in the 4 seasons I’ve been running Ultra-Marathons.

1. Register. The idea of running a marathon or an ultra-marathon is a great idea and will result in a life-enhancing experience that you will never forget as you cross that finish line. I am addicted to crossing finish lines. The requisite hours and effort you put into training, the physical fitness and resiliency you develop along the journey, and your individual race experience are priceless, especially you’re first. So, Sign Up; identify a race and register. Until you do, it’s really easy to push that idea you have, that concept of running a 26.2 or an ultra, back another six months or another year until another reason develops to put that idea off. It’s isn’t a real goal until you’re signed up.

2. Training Mileage, Intensive Training Weeks (ITW), and Intensive Training Cycles (ITC). I think that if you want to complete an Ultra on your terms, where you’re still moving forward consistently towards the finish line, rather than being dominated by the terrain and finishing in a death march, you’ve got to build your weekly training to the point where you peak. I refer to this “peak” as an ITC or at least one Intensive Training Week where your training mileage either equals or exceeds the length of that target race.

In my estimation your ITC or ITW should span 5 weeks to at least 3 weeks from the race date. The difference between an ITC and an ITW is the Intensive Training Cycle consists of 2 to 3 Intensive Training Weeks of peak training and mileage incorporating long distance events.

For example, you’re scheduled to run the JFK50 on the 3rd weekend of November as JFK always is scheduled. You should execute your ITC from the last 2 weeks of October through the first week of November where you’re running at least 50 to 60 miles per week. If your target race is a 50K (31.1 miles) then you can adjust your ITC to 30-40 miles per week.

The more quality training you have in your weeks leading up to your event, the more endurance you will build. Tempo runs, hill training, maybe track/lap intervals, and most importantly, longer runs, should be part of your ITC schedule.

3. Long Runs. You’ve got to get long distance into your running schedule if you want to finish an ultra-marathon comfortably. Most coaches and trainers will design a schedule for their runners that include a long run once per weekend that increases exponentially as their schedule progresses. The longest “training” runs I have ever done have been 20 and 23 miles. I just don’t like to be out on the road on the weekend instead of with my wife and family more than 2 hours at a time.

Secondly, I get bored running long distance unless I’m in an event. So, I learned that I need to enter a lot of shorter races toward a target race of 100K or 100 miles. I’ll find and sign up for and run a local 50K trail race to help me develop towards a 50-Miler, 100K or 100 miler that’s 2-3 months down the line in the calendar. This way, I know I’ll get a long run in, and since it’s a race, I’ll push that run harder; the race turns completely into an uptempo event instead of some nondescript long training run I just worked my way through. This is the main reason I’ve run in 30 major races since February 2010. I use races as training events.

4. Training Distance. Collapsing the amount of rest time between your runs is also a facet of ultra-training. There are other means to get longer miles on your feet besides a standardized long run.

  • a. Doubles. You can build mileage, reduce rest time and develop resiliency by building two runs per day into your schedule. I commuted on foot to work no less than 4 days per week for most of AUG 2010 to AUG 2011. I ran to work and then ran home. It wasn’t that hard to build into my schedule as I was a geographical bachelor during the work week, so I took advantage of that. The morning run was almost always only 3-3.5 miles, but I’d expand my routes home to the point where I was averaging 8 to 12 total miles a day.
  • b. Back to back runs. Instead of running one long run on a Saturday or Sunday, try to incorporate a couple of fairly long runs on back to back days. Maybe that includes mileage from a double run on one day and a longish run on a second day.
  • c. Walking. Mileage counts, even mileage with walking built into it. Most runners will find themselves walking at points during an ultra of any distance, especially uphill, so building running-walking-and resuming running again into your workouts is good preparation.

5. Quality. The more high intensity mileage you have the better able you will be to Run Farther Faster (RFF) during your targeted race. You should work to get at least a couple of higher intensity workouts weekly.

  • a. Hills. Train on uphill and downhill grades weekly.
  • b. Tempo-uptempo. Once or twice a week pick up the pace during your run. We like to have hard-fast schedules so we know, for instance, that Tuesday night is our Tempo night-that night where I’m running 7-8 miles and the 5 miles in the middle are as hard as I can hold them. But, I don’t always feel like running hard on Tuesday night; so those nights were I feel good, I just pick up the pace. Listen to your body.
  • c. Intervals. Track intervals expand cardio capability and mental toughness.
  • d. Run Farther Faster. The more you insert the RFF principle into your training, the better you will perform and ultimately prevail in the second half of your race. In training for the JFK 50 in November and Hellgate in early December, I ran the Freedom Marathon and the Blue Swan Lake 50K on back-to-back days the first weekend in October 2010, as hard as I could run them both. Blue Swan Lake turned out to be a 50K PR for me at that time. I did struggle during the middle thirty to thirty-eight miles during JFK, but was able to run well the last 8 miles of that 50 miler for the first time ever.

6. Training surfaces. You should spend at least a significant amount of your time running and training on the same types of surfaces that you will be racing on. I spend time training on roads, trails, snowmobile trails, firebreak-dirt roads, anything.

7. Train as you Race. If you’re racing at night or early in the morning it will be tough for you during the race if you have not trained during those periods of the day or night. If your upcoming race has a lap course, like the five-lap Mendon Ponds 50K, you should incorporate laps into your training. The Strolling Jim 40 course is rolling hill course on asphalt roads; the hills and ridges in the eastern Finger Lakes are a perfect training ground for S.J.40.

8. Training Partners. I’m a lot more likely to get a good workout in when I meet someone for a run. I have seldom had a true training partner but in those periods where I have, my training has been high-quality physical fitness; good miles at a good pace and good conversation.

9. Man’s Best Friend. Canines also make excellent, highly dependable training partners.

10. Cross-Train. I recommend 2-4 workouts a week on upper and lower body strength and conditioning. I use TRX exclusively for this, but the intent is to develop your upper and lower body enough to fight the lactic acid pains you’ll be feeling towards the end of the race. The other side of cross training is that you continue to develop towards your fullest physical potential as you continue to increase your endurance through strength and core training.

11. Music. I never used to train or race with music and now the only time I don’t run with music is when I have my dogs running on the road with me; I want to hear the traffic. Besides just listening to music while running is nice. I use music to my training advantage. I’ve built Playlists by tempo to include long steady songs for long running and more uptempo for faster-paced running. I even have a “Let it Rip” playlist that I train with on all my fastest runs. I listen to steady music during the middle part of most races, and then when I start my kick in the last few miles of the race, I turn on Let it Rip and there’s a positive degree of response no matter how tired I am. I almost never start a race playing music either. I wait until I’m a couple hours into the race and then turn on the music and it’s always a whole new, refreshed race for at least a while.

12. Learn to run “tired.” Earlier I made the point that you should listen to your body and this contradicts that to a certain extent. I get tired in long races and it’s been important for me to learn to train through tiredness when I’m able, or at least to run when I do not feel like running. I cannot remember too many ultras or even marathons when I did not hit points where I did not want to run anymore. Being tired isn’t necessarily a reason not to train, rather to pay more attention while you are training.

13. Eating and re-sustainment. One of the bigger challenges in ultra-marathons is finding the food and fluid products that will work best for you in terms of re-sustaining yourself during a long event. And then learning to train with those fluids and foods. It is never a bad idea to review the race website information to see what the race will have available at aid stations and then get used to eating and drinking it. Or, have a solid drop bag plan.

14. Incorporate Family. Find ways to incorporate your family and significant others into your training and into your events if they want to participate. Running partners, crew members or just well-informed spouses or significant others are all helpful in your mission. I tie training runs to day-to-day errands. If we have to leave the house for some of life’s more mundane errands, I’ll set out running ahead of the errand schedule and the Spouse picks me up in route. These have often turned into pretty good Tempo runs where I try to get as much distance as I can before the Sherriff picks me up. It’s also somewhat interesting for her; she sees the effort and the improvement, or lack of it. Ultra-marathons are successful due to the efforts of the volunteers who almost always have family or friends running in the event.

15. Volunteer to work at an Ultra. You can learn a lot seeing how racers handle an event.

16. Time. We all have the same amount of hours and minutes in our days. You may work a lot and feel that impacts your training. If that is the case, then it is not a question of your time, but rather what you are doing to better organize your schedule so you can train enough to accomplish your Ultra goal(s).

17. Tapering. Tapers periods for the final one to two week period leading up to the race are for reducing your mileage but still maintaining training. Less and less mileage as you get closer to the race but also maintaining uptempo running and shorter -distance intensity levels.

18. Rest. Make it a point to get to sleep early every night during the week leading up to the race.

19. Recon. Recon the race course if you can. Walk or run the last few miles of it if at all possible.

20. The Race.

  • a. Enjoy the Experience. First and foremost, enjoy your event. It’s going to be challenging at points but that’s the part of the experience you will gain the most from in the long run. Run Your Race, enjoy your event.
  • b. Tactical Patience. What I mean here is do your level best not to start thinking about the finish line, or trying to figure out your finish time too early in the race. Assess your training, and go into the race with an honest, solid idea of what your finishing time & goal is, and then push that out of your mind for at least the first half of the race.
  • c. Falling. It is not rare or even unusual to fall running in a trail ultra-marathon, or even just during trail running.
  • d. Equipment. The only two points I am bringing up here are try not to overdress even if you have to be somewhat cold at the start. Once running, I find I warm up quickly and always need a lot less apparel than I originally thought. I had to learn to buy shoes a half size larger than I would ever wear; my feet (and most ultra-marathoners fall into this category) really swell in an event over 26.2 miles.
  • e. Aid station to aid station. This goes back to 16b. It’s easier on newer ultra-runners to mentally break the race down into aid station segments rather than thinking about big chunks of race course left out in front of you. That will mentally wear you out.
  • f. Motion. Keep moving forward; minimize aid station breaks.
  • g. Aid Station etiquette. I like to run into every aid station no matter how tired I am if at all possible. I do not want to give some volunteer the idea that he or she is wasting their time because I’m dragging myself up to their tent. Race workers are volunteering their time so you can enjoy this challenge.
  • h. The Challenge. Do not be afraid to challenge yourself during the race; while “finish the race” is often the most important aspect of most ultra-runner’s events, you are in a race.

21. Post Race. One of the best aspects of the Ultra-running community is all the terrific people; their stories, their families, and the always ongoing discussion about previous and upcoming events.

Get some pictures, you at the finish line, receiving your race award and there are usually pictures taken on the course.

Enjoy the fact that you’ve trained for an ultra-marathon and then went out and completed it. That is a rare achievement indeed.

Timothy L. Hardy
January 11, 2012
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  • R.Oaks II

    A massive thanks for this post Tim. Prior to my ankle snafu, the thought of breaking into longer runs had been on the table, so to speak. Got a few 1/2′s planned,1 full and a tentative 2nd by May, set as stepping stones to the 1st (light) ultra in September. Which-I am in the midst of altering my training plan, to make possible. (just haven’t decided whether to start with the 50k or 50 mile) Along the way, I’ve also got a plethora of 5k’s on the board as well, as I get bored of running alone on the shorty-like a new pair of shoes when I was a kid…it makes me run faster. Anyway,I had been meaning to pose a question to you, or other ultra-runners on the probability (wise or not) of going from my max 1/2 to a 50k or even a 50 mile race before the end of this year. I know the 50k is attainable. I also know that the 100 mile Virgil Crest Ultra WILL be on my 2013 plate. Wow,I babble. My point is, this post answered a portion of questions I had, and even answered 1 or 2 that I hadn’t thought of-IE family station volunteers. Before closing,I do have to tell you. Reading your race reports, you make it sound so easy. But I checked the competitor lists at a few ultras at 50 and 100 miles, and I was amazed at the cut-offs-the DNF list basically. For instance-the VCU 100 mile from last year…22 hrs and change was the finally dropout. The finishers ranged in the low to mid 30′s with a cutoff of 36 hrs. What got me, was that there were more dropouts or pulls than there were finishers. Wow ! “Consider the talent”,”Consider the newness of this particular race”….I know, but still, wow. This will be the 4th year I believe. So anyway, your insight is appreciated. As a wannabe future ultra fan, your reports are liquid gold.

  • Dean G

    Thank you so much for taking the considerable time to write this up. As a guy who has also decided to get into running later than most, I am trying to balance my natural impatience against the desire to run long and run well. Reading your blog (this entry especially ) is incredibly helpful.

  • Bruce Anderson

    You must be reading my mind…. I just started training for the 2012 JFK, my first ultra. This post has been really useful. Thank you very much.

  • Kevin Leathers

    Great insight. Thanks!

  • Marjorie Gosling (@marjiegosling)

    I have to say, from someone new to ultrarunning, this blog post is a breath of fresh air. My mouse may have accidentily clicked this link but I am going to bookmark it and re-read it many times before my next event. Thank you so much

  • Andy

    I am about to run/walk 52 miles for charity, here in Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA, this fall, by myself starting at midnight, my first ultra of any kind, this will help me prepare, thanks !