By Ryne Anderson,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach
Training for an ultramarathon takes months and in some cases years of diligent and focused preparation. Most athletes are attracted to endurance sports because they have a love for the process. In the grand scheme of things, the race itself is minor in comparison to the hours, weeks, and months of preparation. A detailed long-range, event-specific plan is essential. To create one, here are the three questions I ask, or that you should ask yourself:
- What are the demands of the event?
- What is your current state of fitness?
- What assets do you have to work with?
Demands of the Event
The reason standardized and reliable training plans don’t really exist for ultramarathons is because the distance, duration, terrain, weather, and elevation gain/loss create more variables than a static training plan can account for. There’s no ‘longest long run’ or weekly elevation gain that’s going to work for everyone and every event. Therefore, your first step for creating a long-range plan is to identify the demands of your goal event. We must define what physiology and skills are most important to anchor training around.
Key components to identify the demands of the event include:
- Expected duration, including start-to-finish, time between aid stations, etc.)
- Terrain (technical trails, runnable trails, pavement, etc.)
- The rate of climbing and descending per mile
- Environmental conditions (heat, cold, humidity, changes in weather, altitude, etc.)
You want your preparation to address all the demands of your goal event. However, there’s commonly a mismatch between the event demands and the training tools/environments athletes have available. For instance, you might be training for a mountainous ultra while living in a pancake-flat location. At this stage, don’t let these limitations influence the identification of event demands. We’ll handle that in Step 3 when evaluating the assets you have to work with.
Current State of Fitness
The demands of the event determine the end point of your preparation. To design a pathway that ensures you’re ready for your goal race, we must also define your starting point. It’s important to accurately evaluate the current state of your fitness (not what you wish it was) so you establish the appropriate workload from the beginning. Overestimating your current fitness can lead to an inappropriately high training volume or workload, which can contribute to injury risk. Underestimating your current fitness is less risky in terms of potential injuries, but your progress will be slower than necessary.
The beginning of training should never be an automatically- or arbitrarily-generated number of hours or a specific type and volume of intervals. Training must always meet you (the athlete) where you are.
Key areas to evaluate:
- Training volume and frequency of intensity over the past 1 to 2 months
- Strengths and weaknesses with respect to the goal race
Let’s say it’s the middle of May. Two athletes are training for a 50-mile race in August with 6,000k feet of gain on runnable trails. Athlete A successfully completed a 100-mile race with over 20,000k feet of gain on technical trails in 28 hours at the beginning of May. Athlete B just ran a 3:15 marathon to qualify for Boston at the beginning of May.
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To prepare for their 100-mile race, Athlete A did a high amount of volume and low intensity. To start training for the 50 mile race, Athlete A would benefit from a 4-6 week block of high intensity and lower volume for a new stimulus and to prepare for the shorter and faster race.
Athlete B did a medium amount of volume with a priority on high intensity throughout training. Their training did not prioritize any sort of elevation gain or descent. Athlete B would benefit from working on increasing their volume and running on hilly trails to prepare for the changes in surface and terrain.
Each athlete is preparing for the same race. But their recent training and current set of strengths and weaknesses will dictate how to best individualize their training.
Available Training Assets (Time, Terrain, Elevation, Camps, etc.)
To some extent, available training time is a limitation for all runners. Even if you’re a pro, there are still only so many hours in the day and you must also sleep, recover, eat, etc. Training volume is an important component of ultramarathon preparation, but “high” and “more” training volume are going to be relative for each athlete.
I work with athletes who have the availability to train more than 15 hours per week, but the sweet spot for most athletes I work with averages between 7-10 hours per week. My time-crunched athletes who get anxious about volume are always shocked by that statistic. Training doesn’t need to fill all available time; it should be planned based on the volume that’s going to be most effective, allows for great recovery, and enables athletes to manage lifestyle, career, and relationship priorities with minimal stress.
Available terrain is another issue for some athletes. Just because an athlete does not have access to 3,000-foot climbs and descents does not mean that they cannot sign up for mountain ultras like The Rut or The Bear. It would also be disingenuous to say that an athlete will be just fine without access to terrain that addresses the specific demands and variables of their goal race. But there are strategies to employ that will get an athlete prepared when limited by terrain.
One example is an athlete who is training for a mountain 100 with an extreme rate of climbing and descending. If their typical training grounds do not match the rate of elevation change per mile, they will be best served to plan one to two training camps in the final phase of training that match the demands of the race. Selecting dates and locations for the training camp months out and in the beginning stages of the long-range planning allows the athlete to plan around busy times of work or family demands. An athlete who neglects to plan around life commitments months in advance may fail to find the time needed to get away as the ideal window of time for the training camp draws near.
Utilizing a treadmill to recreate long climbs is also effective. Athletes preparing for a hot-weather race can execute a heat protocol in the final three weeks of training. You may not be able to compensate for all limitations, but realistically evaluating your options – and their consequences – can help you set realistic expectations and goals.
Once you have answered these three questions, the next step is to put pen to paper and start filling out your Long-Range Plan. CTS Ultrarunning Head Coach Jason Koop describes the step-by-step instructions in this article. The long-range structure and daily workout design does not need to be complicated, nor will it be set in stone, but starting with a plan means you’re more likely to reach your destination in great shape!