To be an ultra runner you have to run 160km a week, minimum. You need to run for at least 20h in those seven days, and sleep is for the weak. What a load of rubbish.
If you look at Strava, Instagram, or Facebook it seems everyone is out for 7-8h every day, in the mountains or on the track, doing 500 sprints. This may work for some, but they do seem to post more pictures and race less when they have stress fractures or overtraining syndrome…
Having recently trained for a pretty successful IAU 24 Hour World and European Championships, on an average weekly training time of 8-12h, I know you don’t need to run so much that you lose all your friends to get yourself to that finish line. Maybe just find some running buddies so that you can socialise and train at the same time to avoid that too.
There is no set amount of mileage you need to have done before you get to that start line — you just need to be fit and healthy. Maybe a little bit strange too.
Remember, this is supposed to be fun as well, if you stop enjoying it because you’re always tired, then something is wrong.
Quality not Quantity
Focus on the quality, not quantity, of your training. Each session should have a purpose, be it a tempo session trying to raise lactate threshold, a hill session aimed at building strength, or a recovery session to get the blood flowing through those muscles and help them repair themselves.
If you are just going out, day in, day out, plodding round at one speed, then you are not making the most of your time. Instead, running at different speeds will keep the body adapting and growing stronger, even if it is just adding a fartlek session in each week.
As little as 10h of properly structured training, with quality sessions, is worth much more than 20h of plodding around — so instantly we have a way of becoming ultra runners in less time.
Concentrate on Recovery
You don’t overtrain, you under recover. How much work your body can take is very dependent on how well you recover, which boils down to a few factors.
How hard you work, what sessions you do, how often you run, how well you manage your nutrition, and how often you really think about recovery. A great book worth reading is “Training Food,” by Renee McGregor, which looks at what you should eat, when, and how much in order to make sure that you optimise your food to get the most out of your body.
Avoiding back-to-back hard sessions, such as hills or tempo sessions, allows your body to recuperate and grow after you have put it to work. If you feel like you can do a hill session two days in a row then I’d suggest maybe you didn’t work hard enough during the first one!
Make sure that you are doing sessions that are relevant to your race ahead and you will get twice the benefit (and thus only need to do half as much work). If your race has lots of hills, then add hills to your long run, if it has a fast flat finish, then add that in too. If you’re going to be hiking up and down stairs, then do your hill work on those. Any way of adding value to your run will make race day easier.
Run Long — But Only Once a Week
In an average week, I will rarely go over 3h of training on my long run, which is once a week, usually on a weekend. Long runs are tiring and will knacker out your muscles if you do them too often.
Doing 90min to 3h means you can get all the benefits of the longer efforts without tiring your muscles so much that you can’t hit your midweek sessions like a rocket.
If you want to feel what it is like “to run on tired legs,” like many admit they do when asked why they do huge back-to-back weekends, then add a marathon pace effort in the last 30min of your long run. That’s how it feels at the end of a race.
Try practicing your hydration and nutrition, as well as get to know your new shoes, before race day, as these are ways to make sure you are getting the most out of the time on your feet. Then get your legs up afterwards and make rest an art form, with some good books or a walk with the kids.
Organisation Makes Time
Time is a valuable commodity, so use it wisely. If you struggle to fit your running or recovery in then look to tweaking a few things in order to keep your other half happy. A healthy life outside of running means a healthy runner too!
Have recovery food ready for when you are back home, and you will recover quicker. Adding three 30min runs to your week, on an empty stomach in the morning, adds as much as 90min of a fasted run at the weekend without the big block of time and much less potential tiredness.
Many run to commute to work, and you may be a bit sweatier when you get there, but it is scientifically proven to increase productivity in the workplace. I often used to cycle or run to work in London, had a quick wash and changed my clothes and smelled better than most of the people who took the Tube to work!
Run Less, Grow Stronger
It’s when you rest that you grow stronger — training stresses the body to produce growth but is itself nothing without rest.
Add strength work into your week, either with professional advice or a wee circuit once or twice a week, as something is better than nothing and having a strong core will keep you be efficient in the second half of your ultra.
Ultimately, though one 300km week may seem like a good idea, if as a result you have to take five weeks to recover, then six 60km weeks are already a better idea. Consistency is key.
Just concentrate on how fit you can make yourself — not on how others are doing on social media — and get yourself as fit as possible on race day. Fitness is only one aspect of running ultra marathons, with pacing, nutrition, kit, strategy, and mental toughness all mattering more and more as the race gets longer!
Train smart, rest hard, race easy.
By Robbie Britton
Robbie is a British ultra runner who believes you don’t have to train long to run long. He has run 261km in 24h to prove this, but dreams of being an 800m runner. He is sponsored by Profeet.