Monday, August 7, 2017

My personal key components of ultra training

Thankfully, there is no guarantee to finishing an ultra, defined here for my purposes as a footrace that goes beyond 10-12h; so basically anything above a 100km or mountainous & technical 40-miler. Anything under 10h, I think that with experience you can muddle through it. But beyond that all it takes is a bad day, going out too fast, wrong food, and things can go down fast - though the one advantage in a long race is that you have time to turn things around (if the time barriers aren't breathing down your neck).

Still, I have found that there are some key components that have helped me finish most of the ultras I have competed in - and I know that each one of my three DNFs is due to not attending to one or more of them. So I have try to summarize them here.

1. Have fun. It's so easy to forget, but essential. Enjoy it when the going's good - because it won't last. Enjoy it when it's tough, because that's where you learn about yourself, that's the journey, that's why we do these things.

2. Never ask "why am I doing this?" This question will always come into your mind at some point. Don't answer it. It's the con of a body finding a way to get you to stop. Any attempt to find an answer, even if you are trying to be positive, will be at best be fruitless, at worst it will send you into a spiral of rationalizing a DNF. Because there is no real answer to that - or rather, the answer is in the finish, when it becomes crystal clear or totally irrelevant. The only thing you can do is ignore the question - tell yourself that you'll never do this again if you have to, but at least go out with a bang! - and remember to enjoy yourself and do whatever it takes to get to the finish.

3. Solution-mode: any issue that arises during a race must find a resolution - a solution. It cannot be a rationale for quitting (well, unless it requires hospitalization, of course), otherwise you just go into a spiral of justification that leads to a DNF. If your legs hurt, your stomach is upset, the weather is crap - whatever is, search for solutions, carry on through it, just considering them as obstacles to the ultimate objective from which you cannot swerve: finishing.

4. Nutrition: day-to-day? Eat what makes you happy, don't try to conform to some ideal. Go vegan if that's what you want not because you think a runner should be vegan. Kilian Jornet diets on pizza and nutella... But don't lie to yourself. If you aren't happy with how you are eating, want to lose weight, or whatever - then definitely do it.

5. Race nutrition: ok, forget the "don't try anything on race you haven't tested" blablabla... I mean, try stuff out by all means, since if you don't like something on a long run, chances are you won't like it during a race, but otherwise you CANNOT test on a long run what you might want to eat after 10 hours of running - unless your long run lasts 10h (and it shouldn't). This is what is called experience. Go run a marathon on an empty stomach at your ultra pace - then head to the supermarket and buy all the foods that strike your fancy. Chances are, you'll want to eat it and your body will want to digest it. Then go run an ultra, and see what works and what doesn't - and so on. It's one of the things I love on a race - discovering new foods...

6. The Gear: don't get worked up about the gear. Get the stuff that's comfortable and you can afford, and don't sweat it. Gear will not make it any easier to finish, it just might make you feel safer and more secure, which is a distinct psychological boost, but the latest trendy gear is not essential. In other words, don't psyche yourself out of race by thinking you don't have the adequate gear to finish when you probably do. If you really don't, then chalk it up to experience and learn for the next time.

7. Train hard, race... less hard. I read on a blog - for ultra running no less - that if it is hot out, you should run early in the morning or late in the evening, etc. Crap! That just safe - not good ultra advice. You want situations that are tough. You didn't sleep well? Great, go for a long run - you'll know a little more how you react on no sleep. It's hot? Go run at noon! Of  course, take all the precautions as you would on a race (lots of water, salt, going slower, whatever) - but that's the point. You learn to manage.

8. Training: time commitment. I go with Jason Koop on this: 6-9h of training a week in six of last nine weeks of training before a race (since you factor in 3 weeks of tapering), for anything from 50 miles to 100 miles. The rest of the time, I'm convinced you can survive on 4-5 hours, taking the time required to build up to the 6-9h per week, which could mean starting increasing your mileage from a base of 5h to 9h.

9. Training: Speed and long. Speedwork in an ultra can help you finish for several reasons: better fitness (the key point), greater leg power and strength, sustaining a slightly higher race pace for a longer duration, and better race form (or "improving running economy", which also helps later in a race); essentially add short intervals, long intervals (lactate threshold runs) and tempo runs. Long runs have been touted as essential, and of course they are, but to be truly effective they must be run on tired legs since that is the whole point of them - sustain race pace for as long as possible...

Therefore, no rest on the day - or even days - before, and ideally doing a good hard long intervals session the day before. Also, run long runs (at least first 2h) on an empty stomach.

The following 5 days/week work for me for 100 miles. For 50 miles to 100km, you can probably get away with skipping one of the speed sessions:
1. short intervals (anything from 16-20 x 30"/30" (100-150m) to 8-10 x 2'/1' (500-600m)) (1h).
2. 1h-1h30 at race pace (depending on available time).
3. 1h-1h45, with 20mn to 2x40mn at tempo (just under marathon pace, for me)
4. (after a day's rest) - 1h-1h45 with 3x6' to 3x20' at half-marathon pace (1'30" rec)
5. Long run at race pace - duration depending on how much total weekly running time you want (1h30-4h)

Do a 3-4-week build, increasing running time by about 10%, then take a recovery week, removing the long run and reducing the interval sessions.

For mountain runs, I strongly believe that you can do the week-day, speed-focused sessions on relatively flat ground, and the long runs on race-specific terrain - that should be enough. Doing intervals on hills certainly doesn't hurt, and can actually help even for flat, road ultras.

Finally, it's probably good to plan a 50-miler or 100k as a training run. When? The most obvious is 2-3 months out, allowing for a week of active recovery before you start that crucial 6-9-week high-intensity and volume period. However, if you place it within that 6-9-week period then taper slightly in the week up to it (by "taper", I simply mean running enough mileage so that combined with the race miles you reach just above your peak weekly mileage), definitely take it easy and run it at your 'A' race target race pace (to test that pace, but also not to overtire yourself) - but then don't do much in the way of "recovery".
In training for a 145-mile race end May, I did 91km at a 12-hour timed race five weeks before, making it my biggest week at 110km, but the race ended on midnight Saturday/Sunday and the following Tuesday I was doing my interval sessions, followed by 4 more sessions, with a 3h45 long run on the Sunday (which had been preceded by long interval sessions on the Saturday), for a week totalling just under 10h and just over 90km of running. Then I did another big week (11h, 102km, including a marathon at slow 'A' race pace) before starting a three-week taper.

10. Race pace: it's key to train at this pace, because it should be slower, even much slower, than a comfortable pace and you need to be most efficient at this pace. Just because you are comfortable running at 12km/h, doesn't mean you will be efficient running at 9km/h. What pace? I would say that for a 100-mile run, for instance, your race pace should be 3km/h less than marathon pace. You can also take a target time (a reasonable one) start out 1.5km/h faster, which should account for slowing down while allowing you not to go out too fast (i.e. if you want to finish 100 miles, 160km in 20 hours, 8km/h average, start out no fast than 9.5km/h).

11. The Taper: this really is very personal, but what has now worked for me is a three-week taper, but with only a slight drop in mileage the first week (70-80%), maintaining intensity in the short and long intervals, but cutting the tempo run in half and reducing the long run to 2h. Then a sharp drop in the 2nd week to about 30% of peak mileage, 3 rather than 5 sessions, no intervals but a mid-week 1h15 run with 30' at tempo pace, and only an hour at race pace on Saturday. Finally the week of the race, only two runs, 50mn and 40mn at race pace, on Tuesday and Thursday for a Saturday morning race departure.       

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