How to Play the Long Game in Ultrarunning

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

I have met two distinct types of athletes in my coaching career. Those who play the long game and those who do not. With athletes who play the long game, I usually have the opportunity to coach them for many years and many events. Athletes not playing the long game do an event and then call it quits for a few months. Then, some other event will strike their fancy and they will reengage with a training program, while wondering what happened over the last few months and how they let themselves get so far out of shape. That cycle will then repeat again and again. While I monumentally enjoy coaching both types of athletes, there are some lessons to be learned from the long and short gamers.

Consistent work, over long periods of time, and repeated over months and years is always a winning recipe for success. While athletes can be successful going from event to event, athletes who play the long game are more consistently in a better position to succeed. Here’s why I think it’s important to play the long game and how to do it.

Think of yourself as a year round athlete

Athletes who play the long game are always training. They might train more in some months and far less in other months, but they do a minimum amount of training each month. If you want to play the long game, keep your training up, even during down times. This might mean reducing your volume by up to 80%, running with little or no intensity, and doing various forms of cross training. It does not mean copious days of zero time spent moving. A little goes a long way, and I find that sometimes when athletes reduce their training by more than half, even for a few months, they still only lose ~10% of their overall fitness from peak form (which is totally fine).

Don’t cram

Athletes who play the long game don’t cram for races because they don’t need to. They won’t panic 2 weeks out and ask themselves if they have done enough vertical or speed work or long runs. Because they think of themselves as a year round athlete, their fitness is always generally good and they don’t need to spend massive amounts of time digging out of a fitness hole created by a long layoff. They don’t push a panic button because it doesn’t exist.

Athletes not playing the long game are always shoehorning training into the nooks and crannies of their week. Because they always have mileage to ‘make up’, each and every week consists of a never-ending series of attempts to extend this run and that training session. They will continually ‘round up’ their mileage by running around the parking lot to get to the next even number or run around the soccer field while the kids practice. While it’s easy to poke fun at these types of mileage make ups, the real flaw is the psychology of being in a constant state of catch up. You know that feeling at work when a bunch of projects pile up with scarce time to complete them all, same thing exists in running. That mindset weighs on athletes and holds them back from clearer thinking on their training.

Avoid injury

Athletes who play the long game will generally be less injured than those who do not. This is ironic because the long gamers accumulate more total mileage within a year have bigger peak mileage weeks and longer long runs compared to their short game peers. More and more research is starting to show that when it comes to preventing injuries, training load ramp rate (how quickly you ramp up volume or intensity) is more important to control than overall volume or volume of intensity. Meaning, it’s OK to do high volumes as long as you build up to them slowly. The long gamers can do this easily.

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Athletes not playing the long game have a tendency to have their training cycles dictated by their injury cycles. They take time off, decide to train, cram (see above), the dramatic increase in volume creates some injury, athlete has to take a rest phase, and then the whole cycle repeats itself until the event. So, if you are a short gamer, resist the urge to do too much too quickly. The good old 10% rule of thumb (keep your mileage increases to <10% per week) can apply in most cases.

Avoid the hacks

Athletes who play the long game are not interested in the latest hack. They don’t care that the cryotherapy chamber is closed on Tuesday or if a cup of coffee might ruin their 18 hour fast. They don’t care because they are confident in the fact their training is enough to complete the task at hand. That confidence stems from consistent work over many weeks and months (see all of the above).

In an effort to achieve the greatest amount of improvement in the least amount of time, the athletes playing the short game are obsessed with these trivialities. They want to know what supplement will get them to the finish line faster, if an altitude tent or sauna will help more, or if those puffy compression boots actually work. If you are interested, the answer to all of the above is a big, fat maybe. More importantly, what would provide a more meaningful impact is simply more consistent training.

Focus on the entirety of training

Athletes who play the long game have a bigger picture focus on their training. They talk about training over weeks and months and how much time and vertical gain they have accumulated over those months. They relish the entire process of training, rather than merely one workout or the outcomes of that workout. When the race approaches, they look back at their training and say, “Look, I have done all this work over all of this time! I’m going to have a great race!”

Athletes playing the short game focus on one key (in their minds) workout. “How long is my longest run?” is a common question from these athletes. Those workouts become ‘make or break’ scenarios (once again, in their minds). Get it right, and somehow it’s magic. Get it wrong, and somehow they are doomed. When their race approaches, they look back at their training and say, “I did this one 50k long run, I think I’m ready.”

Athletes: play the long game! It’s good for the body and the mind. Regardless of whether your season is winding down or just starting up again, you control the choice to have a long or a short game mindset!

Comments 8

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  3. I’m pushing 66. Eat, sleep and train consistently, I’m all in. Thanks for another great article, as an older ultra runner I’ve found your advice to be spot on.

  4. Wonderful article Jason and I’m no ultra runner. I’m 60 in a couple of months and I train ‘for life’ 12 months out of the year varying my intensity, workouts, events and activities. For me training is all about – longevity. Best!

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  6. I’m 67 and for the last few months I have wondered if my training is doing anything but keeping me from falling behind faster. That is not a bad thing. So what if my PRs are all in the past? I keep running because it feels good!

    And then today, for reasons I have no clue about, I took off for my Tuesday easy run with strides and I felt fast out of the gate. And, lo and behold, I was fast, for me! I did 6+ miles a full minute a mile faster than any run in the last couple of months.

    I felt strong, my breathing was fast but effortless and the miles screamed by!

    I guess a couple of long endurance runs on the weekend paid off. I don’t know, but what I do know is I love it! I have lots of days where it is just plain work to get through the training runs in the time and distance allotted.

    But, today, oh my, it was bliss!

    (Thanks, Corrine, for listening to me whine and Koop for your great articles! CTS rocks!)

  7. After moving away from Tucson, a nearly year-round place to stay active outdoors, to the forests in Oregon, flanked by cougars, snow, and rain, I have stepped back big-time (5years). I truly want to take your suggestions to staying in the long game to heart. I’m not “gettin old”, I’m being ill.

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