by Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Truth be told, I don’t like the way most ultrarunning seasons unfold. In any normal year, once January rolls around many of the ultramarathon lotteries have been held. Runners know which races they will be doing the upcoming summer and have anywhere from 6-8 months to prepare. As I work out Long Range Plans for those athletes, I always want more time. More time to build a base, more time to work on speed, more time to round out weaknesses; in short, more time to work on the whole game plan. As many athletes are looking at returning to racing in 2021, more time is exactly what we have. The fact of the matter is that 2021 could be a big breakout year for your ultrarunning. Play your training cards right, and you will be set up for some of your best performances. Here’s how to train now so that 2021 can be your breakthrough year.
Incorporate Rest Phases More Frequently and Reduce Your Total Training Load by 10%
This year should still be a year to make fitness gains, challenge yourself during hard workouts and take an adventure run or two. However, now is not the time to press. We’re a little over halfway through the year, so now is a good time to take stock of your annual volume. Take a look at your 2019 training and take 10% off of the total time volume. Set that as your target for 2020. A 10% reduction in total training volume is a broad measure to ensure that you are still training, and you will be able to ramp up your training load when the time comes, yet you’re not pressing things too much and thereby risking injury. You’ll be surprised on how easy and still effective this volume reduction can be. All of your hard workouts, and even long runs, can remain virtually unchanged. You won’t even have to skimp out on an adventure run you have planned. You can achieve this 10% reduction simply by including recovery phases more frequently. If you took a rest phase every 3rd or 4th week in 2019, shorten that up to every 2nd or 3rd week for the remainder of 2020.
Work on Your Nutrition Plan
Gastrointestinal distress is the top reason ultrarunners cite the reason for a DNF. It does not have to be this way. You have plenty of time now to test out nutrition in training, with few if any negative consequences for getting it wrong. So, take this time and focus on two areas of your nutrition game plan.
First, you can do some gut tolerance testing, just to see how many calories you can tolerate. There has been some interesting research emerging on how you can train the gut to process more calories, as well as how extremely high rates of carbohydrate ingestion (up to 120g CHO/hr) might act as a protective element against muscle damage. Even with the early research in the area looking promising, at present, it is still unclear as to how exactly to undertake gut tolerance training or even if/how it can be effective. However, the lack of research should not hold us back to test things out in training (at least in this case). So, here’s what you can do in the near term; go out on one of your normal long runs (greater than 4 hours) and simply increase the amount of calories you take in by 50%. This sounds like a lot, but remember, it’s a test! Take in the same type of calories, just increase the rate. See if you can tolerate this increase or not. Repeat the test the next week and then the week after to see if you notice a difference. If you do, it’ likely that some adaptation occurred. If not, you are no worse off.
Second, do something intellectual and read some research on sports nutrition. Fret not, I’m not asking anyone to subscribe to an academic journal. Fortunately, there are enough nutritionists and Registered Dietitians out there that are quite astute at distilling the latest research into practical bite-sized nuggets of actionable information. The internet being, well, the internet, the key is to find sources that are well researched from experts who will do an unbiased review and consolidation of the research.
To give it a start, here are some of my favorite resources:
My Sports Science website by Asker Jeukendrup
It’s easy to search within these (and other) resources on a particular topic. I recommend that athletes pick one topic at a time (say, sodium supplementation) and gather 2-3 resources to pore over in succession.
Work on Your Weaknesses
2020 can be a time to work on your weaknesses. For me, it’s running, hiking and traversing along high alpine talus (which is why I’ve been attempting to do the Nolan’s 14 line this year). Naturally, many of my recent training days have been spent fumbling around jagged rocks trying to get more efficient at this ultrarunning skill. I’ve made some progress but still have a ways to go. You likely know what some of your ultrarunning weaknesses are as well. Now is the time to make those better.
If your weakness is speed, then run fast
Ultrarunners are notorious for skipping speedwork. We think that long, slow distance is the only pathway for improved performance. There is some truth to that, as up to 90% of your weekly time should be at an EnduranceRun or RecoveryRun intensity. But, there are some opportunities for improvement in that remaining 10%. With many ultrarunners, I have them do the majority of their intensity uphill. This acts as a hedge, of sorts, against injury, as the speed is reduced and forces are lessened. However, if your weakness is footspeed it’s time to turn it over. The best venue for this is the good ‘ole track.
The workout: 10 X 400 meters with 200 meters rest
After a 10 to 15 warm up that includes some dynamic stretching and strides, it’s time to toe the line! Run 10-12 x 400-meter repeats with a 200-meter jog rest. Each repeat should be as fast as you can hold for the entire set. If paced correctly, you should be no more than 2-3 seconds difference between any of the intervals. You can do this workout once or twice a week with at least a day of recovery in between sessions.
If your weakness is climbing, then climb hard
If you are constantly getting dropped on the climbs, then climbing is likely a weakness for you. In any mountainous or hilly ultramarathon, you will spend more time climbing than descending. In this sense, a 1% improvement on the climbs is worth more than a 1% improvement on the descents. Fortunately, the fix is easy: climb hard.
The workout: Climb hard, descend easy
For your next 1:30- to 2-hour run, pick a route with a variety of climbs of different grades and lengths. The more variety, the better. The workout is easy to remember: when you get to any uphill of a grade >5%, punch it up the climb as hard as you can. On the descents or flat parts, run (or walk) as easy as possible. The key is to choose terrain that will have as much variety in hill length and gradient as possible. This will make each uphill effort unique, as you will be naturally running a bit harder for the short uphills and not quite as hard as the length of the climb increases. When most ultrarunners work on climbing, they pick long climbs that tend to be gradual and monotonous. That might make you better at that one particular climb, but in the real world, running uphill comes in a variety of grades, durations and intensities. I don’t recommend doing this type of run on runs over 2 hours, as the total time at intensity tends to be too long to accommodate a variety of intensities on the climbing portions. You can do this type of run one to two days per week.
If your weakness is technical descending, get some skills
Constantly stumbling over rocks or getting dropped on technical descents (like me over the high alpine talus)? Then it’s time to improve your trail skills! Trail skill, as opposed to speed, is an essential part of an ultrarunner’s toolkit. Sure, we’ve all seen the sexy GoPro videos of our favorite trail runner bombing down some ridiculously steep and gnarly terrain, surely about to catch a toe and yard sale at any given moment. Not to be too much of a buzzkill, but real world ultrarunning is much different. For the majority of ultrarunners, downhill running is a ‘damage-the-least’ proposition where fluidity and smoothness trump reckless speed (and yes, even the best downhill runners take a tumble every now and then). While downhill speed might make a small difference down one descent, trail skill will preserve your legs for the long haul and provide benefits descent after descent after descent.
The workout: look ahead and run quiet
At least once per week, go and find a technical section of trail where you can deliberately practice your vision and running quiet. The trail section need not be long (100 meters will be more than sufficient) but should be moderately technical. This means somewhere that you have to pay attention to where you are placing your feet, but it’s still within your skill level to run while being attentive. Instructions for the drill can be found in an earlier article I wrote here. You can do these drills up to three times per week. If you are also doing hard workouts, these can be done on the recovery days as the effort will be relatively low.
2021 can be your breakthrough year. Lay your plans out deliberately now, work on your weaknesses, shore up your nutrition game and reduce your total training load so that you create a springboard for next year!