One of the greatest aspects of ultrarunning is its accessibility. You don’t need much expensive and specialized equipment, and you don’t have to be incredibly fit or talented to participate. That is not to say ultrarunning is easy, because it most definitely is not. However, by structuring training to address eight fundamental areas, I am confident anyone can reach the finish line of an ultramarathon event within the cutoff time, and have fun doing it.
Before we get to the eight fundamental areas training needs to address, let’s back up and revisit the accessibility of ultrarunning. Most races have generous cutoffs, aimed at encouraging more participation. Take the Javelina Jundred 100 in Fountain Hills, Arizona, where the cutoff is 30 hours, or 18 min/mile (a common cutoff time for many 100-mile events). The preferred walking speed for humans is 19:21/mile (Levine and Norenzayan 1999; Mohler et al. 2007; Browning et al. 2006). Let that sink in for a moment. This means that if you observe people walking by, chances are they are walking at approximately 19 minutes and 21 seconds per mile. If you stop reading this and walk to the fridge, you are probably walking at around 19 min/mile, merely 5.6 percent slower than the necessary speed to beat the cutoffs for the Javelina Jundred.
I use this example to illustrate that most people have the fitness to locomote at the required speed for an ultramarathon finish. Just about everyone toeing the line for an ultramarathon has the fitness to run 1 mile, or even many miles, at or significantly faster than the cutoff pace. If that’s the case, why make improving cardiovascular fitness the highest priority for ultramarathon training?
Being as fit as possible gives you the best chance for success. Fitness gives you options and enables you to comprehensively address many of the stresses you are likely to encounter during an ultramarathon. When you are more fit, you spend less time on your feet, finish faster, and reduce the risk of injury. You spend less time between aid stations, are exposed to the elements for a shorter duration, and have the capacity to run faster at certain points to avoid inclement weather. If you are fit, you can afford to spend extra time at an aid station, and you have a buffer against getting lost and losing time; heck, maybe you’ll just have more fun. Simply put, cardiovascular fitness is the key to unlocking your best ultramarathon running.
In order to keep your focus on fitness, it is important that training is oriented toward the fundamentals. Athletes and coaches are quick to add extraneous stuff to training programs. They want to try the latest equipment, experiment with the newest diet, or start sleeping in an altitude tent before actually nailing down the basics of training. But it’s a fool’s errand to chase marginal gains on the fringes while neglecting the fundamental and known principles for improving endurance performance. Don’t misunderstand me: I am a proponent of innovation in training, gear, and nutrition. I use advanced protocols for altitude training and heat acclimatization. But innovations should enhance sound training, not attempt to circumvent it.
To arrive at the starting line completely prepared for an event, you must maintain a tight focus on eight fundamental areas. When I coach an athlete, all decisions about training, nutrition, racing, and equipment are filtered through this list of eight. Simply put, if an activity doesn’t address and enhance your performance in at least one of these fundamental areas, it isn’t going to make you a faster, stronger, or better runner.
1. Develop the cardiovascular engine.
The more oxygen you can take in, deliver, and process in working muscles, the better. The workouts necessary for this (SteadyStateRun, TempoRun, VO2 max intervals) are not complicated or particularly sexy. Some could even be called boring, yet I don’t apologize for that. Gimmicks sell but fade out; sound training principles will never let you down.
2. Improve lactate threshold climbing speed.
You spend a lot more time going uphill than downhill, and that’s where you can most dramatically improve your pace and your race day performance. Lactate threshold is also one of the most trainable aspects of performance, which means that LT work yields the greatest improvements for the amount of effort you put toward it in training.
3. Concentrate your workload.
Training stimulus has to be sufficient to cause an adaptation, and as athletes get more fit, a bigger and more concentrated stimulus is needed. In practical terms, this means creating training blocks and maintaining focus on one area of training long enough to squeeze as much adaptation from it as possible. That doesn’t mean you have to do the exact same workout over and over again, it just means you have to structure blocks to address the same training stimulus over and over again.
4. Train the gut.
The best cardiovascular engine in the world won’t help you if you overheat, fall short on calories, run out of fluids, or suffer from gastric distress. How, what, when, and how much you eat and drink can all be trained so you can supply your body with the fuel and fluid it needs.
5. Do the most specific things last.
Each event has its unique nuances, and preparing for them is important. The most effective way to do that is to start with the broadest aspects of training (aerobic endurance, time on your feet, etc.) and gradually work your way to the most specific aspects, such as event-specific intensity, environmental adaptations, and terrain and grade specificity, right before your event.
6. Race with a purpose.
Ultramarathons are too hard, long and difficult to race on a whim. When the going gets tough—and it will—it is the purpose that will help drive you forward. Why are you doing this? It does not have to be a world-changing purpose. In my experience, athletes with deeply personal reasons for racing are able to better leverage their purpose than those with grander but perhaps less personal reasons.
7. Rest with purpose and intensity.
It is all too easy to run yourself into the ground. Have confidence that past a certain point, the amount of running you can do (hours or miles) does not correlate with an increased chance of finishing an ultramarathon or improving your finishing time. Training is a balance of stress and recovery. Recovery is a part of training, not the absence of it.
8. Comprehensively prepare for all the stresses you will face on race day.
To paraphrase Scottish poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and leave us with nothing but grief and pain.” Some race day stresses are easily visualized and anticipated, like the chill of the night or the distance between aid stations. Others will present themselves at inopportune times and in the worst places imaginable. Such is the nature of the sport. Everyone faces tough moments in ultramarathons, and you have to be prepared to deal with those you can predict and ready to think your way through the ones you didn’t see coming.
Participation in ultrarunning events is growing rapidly, not because ultramarathons are easy, but because they are hard and yet still accessible to wide range of athletes. The challenge is daunting, but everything in those eight fundamental areas of training can be accomplished by an average – or even below average – runner. Ultramarathons really are for everyone.
Jason Koop is the author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” and Coaching Director for CTS. He coaches or has coached many of the world’s top ultrarunners, including 2016 Western States Endurance Run Champion Kaci Lickteig, Dean Karnazes, Timothy Olsen, Dakota Jones, and Dylan Bowman. View information on CTS Ultrarun Coaching and Camps.
Browning, Raymond C., and Rodger Kram. “Energetic Cost and Preferred Speed of Walking in Obese vs. Normal Weight Women.” Obesity Research 13.5 (2005): 891-99.
Levine, R. V., and A. Norenzayan. “The Pace of Life in 31 Countries.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 30.2 (1999): 178-205.
Mohler, Betty J., William B. Thompson, Sarah H. Creem-Regehr, Herbert L. Pick, and William H. Warren. “Visual Flow Influences Gait Transition Speed and Preferred Walking Speed.”Experimental Brain Research 181.2 (2007): 221-28.
Excerpted and adapted, with permission, from “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”, by Jason Koop and Jim Rutberg