Although ultramarathons are, by definition, very long events compared to traditional running events, athletes rarely extend their long-range training plans accordingly. Instead of considering one year for long-range planning purposes, ultrarunners are better off working from a 3-year plan. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ long range plan. However, athletes with a multi-year vision are often more successful in terms of injury prevention, addressing weaknesses and maintaining higher levels of fitness over the longer term.
Higher levels of fitness
Fitness is cumulative; it builds on itself over time. From structural adaptations to cardiovascular improvements and metabolic optimization, training for ultrarunning is best done with a steady, continuous approach.
Ultrarunners achieve the greatest physiological gains by stringing together multiple training blocks throughout the year, and from one year to the next. Of course, there should be set aside for recovery and rejuvenation during the year. Short recovery periods should be scheduled between training blocks. A longer period of transition should be included at the end of a competitive season and before the build up for the next.
However, stepping away from training completely for too long can essentially nullify opportunities to build fitness from one season to the next. Let’s say your last event is in August. Your fitness is probably at or near the highest level for the calendar year. And there are still many months of pleasant weather, accessible trails. You have opportunities to shift your focus to different modalities, dial back the intensity and explore trails via hiking, fastpacking or even cycling.
This approach provides enough activity to maintain most adaptations created over the prior months. However, the decreased structure and intensity also allows the body to recover physically. It’s also a good time for a mental reset.
At the other end of the spectrum are athletes who hang up their shoes and barely exercise after achieving their season goals. This athlete is at high risk for detraining. Ultrarunners who completely drop out of frequent, consistent training will be at a major disadvantage compared to athletes who simply change gears, stay active and remain engaged in their sport.
Athletes who have an overarching plan of how, why, and where recovery time fits into their multiyear schedule are more likely to avoid significant detraining. This means they begin each subsequent build period with more fitness. Over time, those build periods reach incrementally higher levels of peak fitness.
Increased likelihood of finishing events to earn entries in future race lotteries
With fitness that grows incrementally, season upon season, ultrarunners will be more likely to complete qualifier events. Some race finishes contribute points toward prestigious event entries, like UTMB. Others award lottery tickets for highly sought-after races such as Western States and Hardrock. Finishing qualifier events is key to accruing points and lottery tickets. Runners who DNF leave empty-handed. While lack of fitness is not cited as the main reason for not dropping out of ultramarathons, the reasons that are listed arguably come under the umbrella of being undertrained. You can read more about this on pages 72-73 of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”, by Coach Jason Koop, or in this article.
Some regional 100-mile races also require athletes to complete a 50-miler in advance. Requisite fitness to finish preliminary events is a steppingstone to your long-term goals. The key is a steady and consistent approach to training that goes beyond the single year approach. This is even more true for athletes that may be chasing time cut offs. If that’s you, then continuing to make small and meaningful gains from one year to the next is crucial.
Lower physical and psychological stress
Athletes who embrace a very long-term process experience lower levels of injury, acute psychological stress and burnout. The longer the long-range plan, the more gradual the ramp rate (how quickly fitness is gained and how heavy the training load is per day/week/block). As a result, athletes feel lower levels of acute fatigue during each training block. In addition, training blocks can typically be longer and include more high-quality workouts.
All of this equates to more total work completed within a calendar year, and from one year to the next. A very long runway typically reduces anxiety, as well, because the sense of urgency is lower. There’s no need to cram and squeeze every ounce of performance from each workout. In turn, athletes develop positive psychological connections with the process, which can lower stress levels.
We know the mind and body don’t operate in separate vacuums, so what’s good for the mind is good for the body. Athletes who experience lower psychological stress by training consistently are less likely to suffer injuries that will sideline them. Over time, a cyclical process emerges: fitness levels increase, mental stress decreases, which allows the body to handle a heavier training load, which leads to additional advances in fitness, and so on.
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Larger buffer for unanticipated interruptions
Building fitness year upon year creates a more robust barrier against the unpredictable circumstances. Life happens, and even the best training plan needs to accommodate for unexpected changes and interruptions. Starting with an overall higher level of fitness, athletes can absorb disruptions caused by schedule conflicts, illness, or minor injuries and still stay on track for ‘A’ events.
In the opposite scenario, athletes relying on 3- to 4-month event-based training plans are under pressure because there is less room for error. The cost of being pulled away from training is more severe. Planning ahead lets you stay ahead with your fitness.
Multi-Year Long Range Plan Example
Let’s see an example of what an ultramarathoner’s multi-year approach could look like. We’ll assume this athlete is new to the sport within the past ~2 years. This athlete wants to prepare for a mountainous 100-mile race. They live in a relatively flat area and their longest event to date is a 50k race. And qualifying for their goal race requires completion of a 50-mile event within the previous 12 months.
Increase total training load by 3-5% for each block of training. At the same time, introduce increases in elevation gain. This can be accomplished via limited treadmill and travel to hilly areas 2x/month for the first six months, then weekly for the last six months of the year. Athletes should also start training their gut to increase tolerance for digesting and utilizing more calories per hour. This is also a good time to experiment and establish a broad pool of training and racing foods. Complete one or two 50k events, with specific performance and process goals for each race.
Integrate higher intensity training to build speed into endurance paced runs. Continue accessing hilly terrain and/or utilizing a treadmill. Increase the elevation gain per week compared to the last six months of Year One. If the athlete’s goal 100-mile event features hot conditions, they should learn about heat training protocols and try one to gain an understanding of how they may respond to the stress. Complete one or two 50-mile events with specific performance and process goals for each race.
Training should become more event specific during the first six months of the year. The emphasis on elevation changes increases to twice per week. Practice with trekking poles if they will be used for the goal event. If the heat training protocol was deemed successful in Year Two and will be beneficial for the 100-mile event, utilized it as needed. Possibly complete a 50– to 65–mile event, at least 6-8 weeks before the 100-miler, and ideally with the support crew and pacers for the 100 miler. Following the 50–65-mile event, training should become increasingly specific to the demands of the goal 100-mile race.
This is a broad sketch of what an approach may look like. The variations from the example above are endless. However, the purpose is to highlight the steps and advantages of a methodical, gradual build up to a challenging goal event. You are more likely to be successful because of skills, knowledge, resilience, and durability created over multiple years. It would be nearly impossible to squeeze all the objectives and achievements above into a single twelve-month period.
The phrase “slow and steady wins the race” is cliché for a reason. It contains a kernel of truth. Designing multi-year, annual, quarterly, and monthly goals lead to greater achievements compared to less consistent, on again-off again approaches. You will experience fewer injuries, less stress and likely, more joy in the process. It’s not too soon to begin mapping out your own ultralong-term plan.
By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach