The growth of ultra trail races over the last 5 years has been exponential. Most of us are spoiled for choice in terms of the vast number of races available for competing in each year. However, more is not necessarily better. The human body simply can’t, month after month and year after year, compete to its maximum potential in ultra races. This is something some of the elites are starting to learn — unless your name is Kílian Jornet, racing often and hard is simply unsustainable. But even Kílian has an off-season, during which he hardly runs at all. Surprisingly, taking such a break is not something many other elites do.
For the majority of us competing at a major race like the UTMB, UTMF, or the Translantau is a major commitment, so it makes sense to prepare oneself to be in the best possible shape for these events. Naturally, every race has its different set of demands, so in order to perform well, training needs to be tailored to the race. In fact, the more races you do, the less specific your training will be, as you cannot train effectively for different races at the same time.
First of all, choose your major race. From then on, everything will revolve around the specifics of this race. Whether you choose a race that suits your abilities or one that challenges your weaknesses is a matter of personal preference, but always be sure to select a competition that really excites you.
Every race has different challenges to overcome. Therefore, the first step to performing well during a race depends on working out what those challenges are. Your approach should always assess the following:
Vertical – How much verticality is there and how is it derived? Does it result from big, long climbs or many short ups and downs? How steep is the overall climb? Is it runnable or do most people hike it?
Terrain – Does the terrain consist of a road, bike path, wide groomed trail, or a single track? Are there sections that are very technical? Does the stretch contain mud, stairs, sand, snow, or scree?
Weather – Will it be hot or cold?
Aid stations – Is the race well supported with stations or is the support very minimal?
Time of day – Will the race involve running during the night, and if so across what kind of trail?
The next step is to assess your strengths and weaknesses in relation to the specific demands of the race. The result of this will drive all your training so be realistic about your abilities.
Even though your main focus for the year may only be on one particular race, that doesn’t mean you can’t compete in other races. Choosing races that replicate some aspects of your main race will help better prepare you both physically and mentally for your main event. Races that target your weaknesses can be very challenging for the ego but very beneficial in shaping your condition. Conversely, there is no point participating in a road marathon if your goal is the UTMB. Training races should be at most every 4 weeks and should never be raced at 100% of your efforts. Focus on the bigger goal and leave your ego behind.
Many of us live in places that are very dissimilar to the landscape of the race we are training for and access to trails and big hills is often very limited. But if we want to perform to our full potential we need to make the training as specific to the actual characteristics of the race as possible. How well you can utilize what’s around you can have a big effect on your final performance.
If you don’t have big hills nearby, consider doing successive repeats on any smaller hills you do have access to. And if your vicinity is completely flat, having no hills whatsoever, then stairs may have to feature prominently in your training. If training trails are not accessible during the week then make the effort of driving to the nearest ones on the weekends; come race day, your trips will definitely have been worth the effort.
The building blocks of any successful training program will consist of long runs, recovery runs, hill repeats, speed sessions, tempo runs, stair sessions, skill sessions, as well as a number of other sessions. Which of these will be most relevant to you will depend on your particular strengths and weaknesses, and the characteristics of the race you are preparing for. Now, before we look at how to put together an effective training plan, let’s consider all the major components that should make up the bulk of your training program, and furthermore, how to progress them throughout the year.
The long run is the foundation of an ultra runner’s training. It should gradually increase throughout the year up to a peak around 4-5 weeks prior to the main race. The length of these runs will depend to a certain degree on the distance of the race, but more so on what your body can handle. There is no golden rule on how far you should run, as there are a number of variables that you can always adjust. The main thing to consider when deciding on the distance is that the long run should be completed at a pace that feels comfortable. The all too common mistake is running too fast. Consider that you shouldn’t need more than a day’s recovery before being able to resume normal training. If you need more than that then you have ran too fast or too far.
As the race approaches, the terrain of your long run should be increasingly more similar to the one of the race. Work out how much vertical incline there is per 10km of the race and aim to simulate the same amount in your long run training. For example, the UTMB has a 9600m vertical incline within the distance of 164km. That works out to be 580m of vertical slope for every 10km, and so that’s what you should aim to imitate during your long run. If the race you are training for involves a lot of hiking, as does for example the UTMB, then you should incorporate hiking into your long run.
Skills like running technical trails, during the night, through mud, sand, snow, and scree need practice to be developed. The best way to improve any skill is to start at a level you are comfortable with and gradually increase the difficulty. Running is no different. Find trails that are on the edge of your comfort zone and repeat them until they feel comfortable, once this has been achieved, find more challenging trails. This form of training should begin at a slow pace and be increased as your competence develops. While keeping in mind the race you are training for, make the trails you practice on relevant.
Strength is an important aspect of any running program. A good strength routine can increase running economy and speed, decrease the risk of injury, and improve your climbing and descending condition. Many runners are reluctant to incorporate strength training into their program as the resulting muscle soreness can affect the next day’s run. By starting your strength training early in the training program, when the running is easier, you will allow your legs to adapt to the exertion before the harder running begins.
A good strength routine for runners should consist of exercises such as one-legged squats, lunges, and step-ups. Dynamic exercises such as jumps and hops also prove to be very beneficial for runners. Aim for 2-3 sessions per week in the early stages, dropping down do 1-2 sessions as the training volume picks up. Lighter weights and higher reps are better suited for the exercises, so aim at 15+ reps and 2-3 sets.
Although speed training is something that many ultra runners shy away from, thinking that it isn’t relevant, it is no coincidence that the best ultra runners are also the fastest at shorter distances.
Speed training has many benefits including better running economy, increased leg strength that helps in handling larger volumes of slower running, greater dynamic flexibility, fatigue resistant legs, and of course the ability to run faster across all distances.
Start speed training early in the training season; begin with tackling shorter distances while working towards gradually increasing the lengths as the race approaches.
As running faster places a higher physical demand on the body, proper speed training should be eased into, so that in the first 4-6 weeks the sessions won’t actually be all that hard. As your body adapts, the intensity and volume should be increased. To begin with, try 5-10 repeats across 400-800m at a pace that is fast but comfortable. As your legs acclimatize, intensify the run to the maximum speed that you are able to sustain over the session.
Look to build this workout to 4-5 repeats of 1km, then to 1 mi. Once your body has adapted, introduce tempo runs to help build up endurance. A typical session might consist of 2 x 30min or 4 x 15min sets of hard running. If you find it hard to push yourself during training, 10mi to a half marathon races are a great way to execute your tempo runs. In the final month before the race reduce the volume but not the intensity, meaning that your speed sessions will return to 800-1200m repeats.
Hills are a part of any trail race, which means hill training must become an essential part of any appropriate training plan. The key thing to remember with hills is that the down hills load the legs far more than the up hills, and if you don’t train your legs to specifically handle the extra load, you will find yourself wanting come race day.
Due to the additional strain involving the increased load, we need to ease our way into downhill running. Initially, hill training should focus on developing strength, power, and fitness by running uphill, using downhill portions for recovery. As your strength develops, you can increase the speed at which you run down the hills; the aim is to eventually be able to run both the ups and downs of hills at full speed.
When you start hill training even the up hills will load the body more than running on flat terrain, so it is important that the increase in the amount of hills within your program be gradual. Fortunately, when fitness is low, you don’t have to run that fast uphill to feel your heart and lungs working. As your fitness improves, your muscles and tendons will resultantly adapt, giving you room to push increasingly harder.
Hill training should vary throughout the training year, becoming increasingly more race specific. If, for example, your race will involve lots of hiking up hill then you will need to practice that aspect in training.
Initially, shorter hill repeats of 3-5min with easy down hill recoveries will build base fitness and strength. Aim to be completing enough repetitions for them to total about 20-30min of up hill running. After 4-6 weeks you can start to increase the pace during the down hill runs, trying to run quickly but comfortably, minimizing the landing forces impacting your legs. In the beginning, you shouldn’t be pushing the pace down hill yet, let gravity help you along. Over time, hill sets should increase to 5-7 repeats that take about 5-10min to complete. As such, you’ll be covering around 45min of up hill per session. This will mean the pace on the up hill run will be reduced slightly as the volume goes up.
After another 4-6 weeks you can turn your attention to the down hills and start pushing the pace in that area of training. If the race involves long climbs, you can focus your attention on your hiking abilities, or if it consists of a number of shorter climbs that you feel will be runnable, continue practicing running up hill. For races with long climbs choose longer hills, 10min or more in length, hiking up them as fast as possible and then running back down fast, repeating this for 1-2h. For races with lots of short climbs, sessions of running continuously for an hour up and down a shorter hill at your full speed, is great training.
During the final month prior to the race you will want to reduce the load on your legs, meaning that you will need to decrease the down hill component of your training. Return to sessions which were similar to your hill training in the first month: shorter reps, higher intensity, and easy down hills.
Stairs place a different load on our legs in comparison to hills. Whereas hills allow us to choose our own stride length, stairs force us into a fixed one. When we are tired during hill runs we can shorten our stride length, thereby reducing the load. Stairs don’t afford us that luxury. If your race has a significant amount of stairs then you will need to train on them.
To begin with, your stair sessions should consist of hiking up two stairs at a time and running back down easily. 20-30min of this is enough to get you started, and the intensity should be relatively easy, giving your legs the necessary time to adapt.
After 4-6 weeks you can start to increase the pace and volume by pushing your speed on the ups and extending the total time to 40-60min, split into sets of 15-20min. For example, 3 x 15min sets followed by 2min of recovery. To make hiking the ups purposeful, complete them as quickly as possible without breaking into a run.
The next stage of progression involves adding load by wearing your race pack filled with approximately the same weight amount you’ll be carrying on race day. As your descending skills improve you can begin to quicken your down stairs pace — but keep safety in mind, face planting is not fun!
In the final month before the race significantly reduce the amount of stairs, and in the last 2 weeks give your legs a rest from them altogether.
This is the most important part of training, without recovery your body won’t have the time to adapt itself, and thus won’t fully capitalize on all the hard training you have been doing. Paying attention to what your body can handle, factor in a recovery week every 3-5 weeks of training. Aim to take an easy week to avoid exhaustion or injury. You should be striving at a maximum of 2 high intensity sessions per week, avoiding making big jumps in training volume or intensity. Sleep, good nutrition, stress reduction measures, and hydration all play an important role in recovery, and the harder your training, the more you need to balance that with adequate recovery.
The final month before your major race is the time to start backing off the training. Your long run should drop around 25% each week in the last 4 weeks; likewise speed and hill training should decrease in volume. Many runners like to keep the same frequency of running up rather than having more days off as the race advances, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, provided that the volume is drastically reduced. Remember, fitness wise, there is nothing you can gain in the last 7-10 days.
Allocating 6-9 months to fully prepare for a race gives enough time for the body to adapt to the training load and get you to the start line in the best shape possible. Remember, the more races you participate in during this time, the more time off you will need for recovery. Training races are for training and should never involve 100% of your efforts. This means you can resume normal training within days, rather than weeks, after the race.
If you want to excel at one or two races per year then your training needs to reflect that and be specifically designed for those races. When, beating all expectations, you cross the finish line, all the invested effort will be well worth it!
Article by Andy Dubois, mile27.com.au
Original article Asia Trail, November 2014