By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
A few weeks ago would have been the 7th edition of our staple Memorial Day Ultrarunning Camp. What was once a low-key camp I held with only a few select athletes had grown into an event sold out months in advance. We hold the camp out of my home in Colorado Springs near the base of the Pikes Peak massif, starting and ending each of the runs from my doorstep. I relished the opportunity to play host, coach and tour guide at the same time, while showing off the trails in the area. For the evening meals, we would pack ourselves into my undersized dining room for a family style meal served by our partner in crime, Real Athlete Diets out of Boulder. The shortage of personal space mattered little as the meals provided a communal opportunity to reflect on the day and what is to come. Obviously, 2020 is different. The prospect of bringing a group of 50 people into my modest home, which once brought so much joy, is now not an option. Not holding the camp this year left a bit of a hole in my calendar and in my heart, and I know the athletes feel the same way.
I learned a lot through those camp experiences over the years. Athletes come to the camp in all shapes and sizes. Yes, some of the elites will join in the fun. But so too will newbies and back of the packers. Regardless of experience, age or stature, the athletes would leave the camp tired, yet better prepared. The intentionally induced fatigue would eventually build into fitness. Tips and tricks on downhill running, nutrition and mental skills would round out the experience. All of which would be practical lessons athletes could use later down the line.
You don’t have to come to a formal camp to reap the benefits of a dedicated training weekend (although we would love to have you next year). And, if I were taking bets, solo and small-scale training adventures are going to become more common in the next 18 months. Below are some lessons we have learned over the years about how to set up and execute a successful training camp.
Keys to Designing a Great DIY Training Camp
You have to want to do it
I know this sounds a bit obvious, but you actually have to want to take on the challenge of a high mileage weekend. Just like a race, you’re not going to have any fun doing it just ‘because it’s there’. So, pick a location and routes that are intriguing to you. Maybe there are some routes with a particular amount of vertical gain or that go from a special point to point. Maybe it’s a connection of trails and bike paths that you have not linked up before. In any case, make sure the planned runs mean something more to you than just a bunch of random miles.
You should treat it like a race
Since the weekend is going to be big, take advantage of some well-earned recovery beforehand and schedule some rest afterward. We find that most of our athletes at camp run between 2 and 3 times their normal amount of weekend volume. Normally, this abrupt increase in training load would be ill advised. But, the combination of some rest before camp, some attention to detail on recovery between runs, and a few days of easy running after the camp, makes the whole experience both manageable and fun.
Have a purpose other than running
Going big is one thing, but adding in some additional purposeful activities enhances the experience and breaks up the running into more manageable chunks. The two things we focus on for our trail running camps are downhill skills and on the run nutrition (click the links for how we do those during camp).
Maximize training stimulus
During the 2019 Colorado Springs camp we ran for 17 hours over three days and completed 60 miles with 15,250 feet of elevation gain. That’s about two weeks’ worth of training packed into 3 days. Do I recommend you do that every week? Certainly not. But as a means of creating a massive training stimulus, a training camp is hard to beat.
Balance your stressors
In order to complete two weeks worth of training workload in four days – and not get injured – you have to eliminate as many other stresses as possible. No one was trying to balance work with training. I encourage athletes to even limit their time on the Internet, social media, and telephone. Eat, run, rest, sleep, and connect with the people around you. Again, checking out of the real world to go run in the mountains isn’t something you can do on a weekly basis, but a few times a year can make a big difference in your running.
Recon courses during daytime
It can be very beneficial to arrange a DIY training camp that includes reconnaissance of the course you will be racing, if possible. One of the biggest benefits of course reconnaissance training camps is the ability to see the entire course in daylight. Inevitably, during an actual race you will cover some portion of the course at night. But during a recon camp you can break the course into chunks and run each one in daylight. This helps with orientation and provides an understanding of the terrain. In some cases it can be useful to anticipate the portion of the course you’ll be running at night and recon that section in the dark as well.
Dial in your habits
Multiday running camps are great for dialing in your nutrition, hydration, and recovery habits. Without the outside variables of the “real world” you can focus your attention on trying out new strategies or dialing in what works.
How to Build a DIY Ultramarathon Training Camp
While I would love to see everyone take advantage of the support and educational opportunities available at professionally-run training camps, athletes can derive great benefits from a DIY Training Camp. In fact, I think training camps are so beneficial I encourage anyone who can’t attend an organized camp to build one of your own. Here how to do it:
Carve out 3-4 days
A long weekend is a great way to create a training camp. Arrange to take a Friday, Monday, or both off from work. These 3-4 days need to be entirely devoted to your training camp. Don’t go halfway and commit to running in the morning and doing housework or checking in with work later in the day. Remember, it’s not just about spending more time running; it’s about immersing yourself in all aspects of your sport for a few days.
Make the arrangements
All training camps require some negotiations around family time and career priorities. Especially with family, be clear about your intentions, your plans, and the reasons behind them. These 3-4 days are going to be all about you, and that means you have to make sure you reciprocate with time and effort that is not about you. Acknowledge and respect the sacrifices you are asking of your family.
Fit your camp into your training
You can’t just lump two weeks’ worth of training load into four days without making some accommodations within the rest of your training schedule. For a 3-4 day DIY Training Camp, plan to take 3 days easy before the camp and another 3 days easy afterward. If you’re still tired after those three days, be conservative and take another day or even two.
Don’t kill yourself on Day 1
One big mistake athletes make during DIY Camps is to go out and run hard, fast, and long on Day 1. It feels great, but then your body is trashed by Day 3. Your goal should be to have great runs on all 3-4 days of your camp and finish strong, not wasted. Energy burned on Day 1 is energy you can’t get back, so be conservative in the beginning so you can maintain the quality throughout.
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Sample itinerary from our Memorial Day Camp
Below is the exact itinerary we would have used for this year’s Memorial Day Camp. I hope you find it as a good template should you want to create something similar. If you are curious, yes, we are planning on having the camp next year. Information and registration should be available later this year.
7:00 AM- Meet at Koop’s House
- Camp registration- A light breakfast with cereals, oatmeal, bagels and coffee will be provided
- Athlete and staff intro
- Depart for run- ~15-20 miles, 2500 feet of climbing ~3:00-4:00 hours w/ 3X 10 min tempo intervals
6:00 PM- Dinner provided by Real Athlete Diets
- Location- Koop’s house
- Training topic- ultra endurance nutrition
8:00 AM- Meet at Koop’s house
- ~20-25 miles, 4000 feet of climbing, ~4 hours Section 16, 666, Columbine loop
Focus- Steep and technical running. Application of ultra endurance nutrition. One aid station will be provided approximately half way through the day.
Post run debrief- Run nutrition analysis
6:00 PM- Dinner provided by CTS at Koop’s house
- Training Topic- How to ADAPT when things go wrong during an ultra
8:00 AM- Meet at Koop’s house
- 25-30 miles or ~6:00 hours St. Mary’s falls/Mt. Rosa loop
Focus- Long run nutritional strategies
Afternoon- Clean up and athlete departure