Your Bag of Tricks: Essential Elements of Successful Ultramarathon Training

Apr 4th 2012

It’s the day before your ultramarathon. Equipment, clothes, powders and gels are spread from wall to wall. You painstakingly divvy up these supplies among drop bags, knowing when and where they’ll be most beneficial during tomorrow’s race. You understand that these bags and the supplies they contain are instrumental in getting you to the finish line. Were the components of your training as precisely placed in a running schedule as those drop bag items were across the race course? If you were to hold one of your drop bags and training bag side by side, would you find that they are comparatively similar in size and weight? During my high school and college running career, I always had a coach who told me what to do and when, and I never questioned the workouts or the coach’s logic. I ran year round; cross country season melted into indoor track season and outdoor track followed soon thereafter. My coaches even had a fairly rigid summer training schedule to follow. The system worked and my race times consistently improved during those years. However, once I graduated, I found myself struggling without a coach’s guidance. I ran and raced how I pleased, without rhyme or reason. I relied on a loosely based interpretation of training to barely carry me through many races—a rut in which many talented ultrarunners find themselves. They may be experienced at the ultra distance but their race results don’t reflect that. After several lackluster performances, I decided to return to what worked in college: structured workouts. Within six months I was challenging the frontrunners and even winning a few races. Training with clearly set goals and workouts with a specific purpose were the key to improving. Unfortunately, a lot of ultrarunners skip this crucial step. It’s certainly the time on your feet but, more importantly, how you spend that time that will get you to the finish line. You should think of your training as your other bag of tricks. The regimen you follow to prepare for your next ultra should be just as organized as that drop bag you sent to Foresthill, Brighton or Winfield. The components of this schedule should be taken as seriously as each item that constitutes your indispensable drop bags. A balanced, varied training schedule will provide you with confidence, accountability and motivation. Let’s take a brief look at the elements of a well-rounded training program. Endurance-based runs, like the extra clothes in your drop bag, make up the bulk of your ultra training and bag of tricks. There are three types of endurance runs: Long runs, or runs over 90 minutes in length, improve your endurance and prepare you for ultra distances. Easy runs are shorter in duration and allow you to maintain aerobic fitness before an upcoming key workout or event. Recovery runs are short jogs done at a very slow pace after a hard race or workout. Stamina workouts act like your reliable race-day foods. They develop your ability to hold a steady pace through the latter stages of an ultra. The point of this type of workout is to run farther at a given pace rather than faster. Steady-state runs, tempo runs, tempo intervals and progression runs are examples of stamina development workouts. Speed training acts like your favorite cup of coffee or caffeinated beverage. The fast pace helps you push to your red line when you’re racing. The goal of speed work is to spend time at one’s maximum aerobic capacity. The distance of these kinds of workouts is relatively short when compared to those mentioned above. Training at this effort level improves the body’s ability to work at its highest capacity for longer periods of time. Running-specific strengthening exercises and cross-training comprise the lining of your bag. Both of these activities, if done correctly, can reduce your chance of injury and enhance your fitness. Core work focuses on the stabilizing muscles of the spine and pelvis. Biking, the use of an elliptical trainer or swimming offer a break from the constant impact of running without compromising aerobic fitness. In subsequent columns, you will discover that the training tools at your disposal that can make you a better runner are as diverse as they are numerous. You’ll learn the specifics of each of these important elements and how they can be integrated into your running program.