3 Steps for Creating Your Ultrarunning Long-Range Plan
By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Ultrarunning season is here and many athletes are curiously looking at their Ultrasignup page trying to determine if their 2020 race entries rolled over, if there was a new lottery, or if the race they had their eyes set on is still TBD. If you are scratching your head and confused about all of these moving pieces, you are not alone. There is still some uncertainty in the air around when or if some races will be held, if the format of the race will change, travel restrictions and the like. I think we’re all trying to be optimistic, and that outlook is catalyzing athletes to start thinking about their long term plans and training objectives. For this week’s article, I am going to take you though how I plan out a season for athletes using a format that I refer to as the Long-Range Plan.
The Long-Range Plan (LRP) is a 30,000-foot view of the ebb and flow of the season’s big picture themes, like intensity, volume, race nutrition planning, etc. It is not a static, day-to-day training plan with individual workout details. This LRP workflow can be used regardless of if you are training for a 50k, 100k, 100m mile race of beyond. The Long-Range Plan can be deployed once major races have been ironed out (or in this year’s case penciled in) but I prefer to only draw it out for about 12 months. Multi-year strategies can be useful, but don’t need to be as detailed as an LRP.
To organize the LRP, I use a simple spreadsheet format you can find here. I take zero credit for creating this format, as you will find similar layouts from various coaches across endurance and team sports. The power of the LRP is that it is a season at a glance. You can look at and quickly visualize when periods of high volume or high intensity or specialization will happen, and see if you have enough time to do all the things you want. The LRP also helps you organize what will be most important to success, and perhaps leave out things that are least important. Perfection is not the goal, as you can only predict so far into the future. So, your focus during your long-range planning should be on getting the general themes of the season in the right order and in the right proportions.
Finally, this article pairs well with a general overview of the workouts I commonly use. If you need a refresher on that, please go here.
How to design your Long-Range Plan
When I design training plans for athletes, it is always a “pick and choose” exercise based on what is going to benefit the athlete the most. I have an unlimited number of workouts to choose from: speed workouts, long runs, fartleks, ladders, progressive tempos, strength training, crosstraining, plyometrics, downhill intervals, uphill intervals, and more. However, after the planning process is all said and done, I end up primarily using a small handful of the arrows in my quiver: RecoveryRuns, EnduranceRuns, SetatdStateRun, TempoRun and RunningIntervals, all of which are summarized below.
Regardless of the season objective, each LRP follows three distinct principles that I utilize sequentially and in the order of priority presented.
Principle #1- Build the bookends
Figuring out the demands of an event is a very large part of what I do as a coach. The analysis starts from the very high-level cardiovascular physiology that is specific to the event, and extends all the way down to the surface characteristics of the trails or roads, the distance between aid stations, the environmental conditions, and how one copes with the stress of eating and drinking. Even though the practical applications might be overly broad or extremely narrow, the principle is the same. If an aspect is highly specific to the event, you should develop it closer to the event. A classic example of this can be seen in connection with the Hardrock 100. Hardrock is very specific in that hardly anyone actually runs the uphill portion of the race. Even the fastest “runners” hike the majority of the uphill and then run the descents. Therefore, applying Principle/Step #1, I have my athletes do the majority of their hiking training in the several weeks leading up to the event because it is so specific to the race in question.
You can extend this thinking to many other areas, such as workout intensity, surface, environmental conditions, and the average grades of the course. Most runners who go out and recon a course in the weeks leading up to an event are applying this principle correctly. They are training specifically for the grades, surface, and environmental conditions they will face on race day.
In contrast, I have my athletes do the least specific aspects of training as long before the event as they can logistically manage. Again, using Hardrock as an example, I cannot think of anything less specific in that race (inconsequential might be a better way of characterizing it) than one’s velocity at VO2max. In other words, a Hardrocker’s pace at VO2max is likely the least important factor in the whole scheme of success. But it is still important to develop (see Principle #2). Being the least important should not be confused with being unimportant! This is why, from a practical standpoint, many of my Hardrockers do flat, fast, high-intensity running very early in the year.
As a sheer matter of practicality, this means that the last 6-8 weeks of training should include primarily lower intensity EnduranceRuns and SteadyStateRuns, as those intensities will be most similar to just about any ultramarathon race (with a few exceptions for elite athletes doing 50k/50m events). So, the first step in your LRP development is easy, bookend the last several weeks with EnduranceRun and SteadyStateRun and the first several weeks with RunningIntervals (provided that you have 4-6 weeks of easy running under your feet when you start). The example below and in the following sections is for a sample athlete training for a 50-mile mountain ultramarathon in July.
Principle #2- Fill the middle
Principle #2, or Step 2 is where the Long-Range Plan gets tricky. You have the beginning and the ends bookmarked with high volume/low intensity and low volume/high intensity work, respectively. Now it’s time to fill in the middle. Your clearest guidepost at this juncture is to ensure that you should visit all of the intensities throughout the entirety of training. Rough it in at first, realizing that it might change as the year goes on, and according to the next step. Does that mean 2 TempoRun phases and one RunningInterval phase or 2 RunningInterval phases and 1 Tempo phase, or some other combination? This is going to be different for every athlete, depending on Principle #3. This is the step where you fill in any lesser priority races, training races and training camps. In the example below, I have filled in the middle with a 50k training race as well as a TempoRun phase.
Principle #3- Refine with strengths and weaknesses
Most runners are aware of their natural strengths and weaknesses. We come to these realizations during group runs and races; anytime you run with a companion serves as a barometer. If you are passing people on the climbs and getting dropped on the technical descents, then climbing is a strength and technical running is a weakness. Therefore, according to Principle #1, you should try to improve your technical running as far before your key event as possible and your climbing as close to the event as possible. This principle is far more applicable for elite athletes who will generally win races that are closely aligned with their strengths. For other runners, the focus should be on improving your weaknesses as far out from the race as possible. In the example I provided, the athlete’s weaknesses are balanced between VO2max and lactate threshold intensity, so I moved the RunningInterval and TempoRun intensity blocks so they were on more equal footing.
Adapt as the season unfolds
Your Long-Range plan is not static! As your season unfolds, you will have to adapt it and modify it as you see fit. For our coached athletes, this is a big part of what we do. It’s relatively easy to put together a plan, then draw up the X’s and O’s of training on a weekly basis. However, it can be challenging to modify the plan when faced with adversity such as an illness, injury or when you might not be progressing as much as anticipated. But, if you remember the three Principles above, as well as what things are more important and less important, these can provide direction as you go along.
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Thanks for a thorough walk through of your approach. Very helpful!!