Training Rants: on low running mileage, higher mileage and family life

I don't think I am particularly well placed to talk about actual training schedules, considering that I  never really followed one until 2015 when I found an online plan by Bruno Heubi to prep a 100km, which in any case I tailor-made, due to injury and the small matter of an ironman one month before.
In any case training is so personal, depending on so many factors such as availability, goals, whether you have endurance and want to work on speed, or need to build your endurance before working on speed, and if you just want to finish or want to hit a certain time target, and if you plan on your first 50k or 100 miles, and how much running experience you have…

Still, despite all the info that is out there on training, I have found few who share more than general figures, and for the most part these are way beyond what I can or wish to do. I doubt I could run much more than 50 miles a week, perhaps 100km on occasion if my body could take it, but I'm not convinced it's necessary (Later note: I finished the GUCR, 145 miles/233km in 2017 without going much beyone 90-110km for 3-4 weeks: see below). So I read this race reviews and wonder: how did they train for that particular result?

So for those who wonder like I do about organizing one's time, mileage, balancing speed/endurance, and for what it's worth, then perhaps sharing what I have tried and tested, and what I plan for the future, may help provide some answers.

For about 15 years, I trained very haphazardly and low mileage (all endurance, no speedwork) - running about 3x/week, 35km a week, upping it for a few weeks to about 50-60km (4 weeks max) before my main race, mainly by extending the long run to 3-4 hours, then sitting on my butt for several weeks afterwards and calling it tapering...

That recreational running, over the years, saw me through a dozen ultras, though nothing really beyond 50 miles (apart from Marathon des Sables and Desert Cup early on, for which I mainly did a lot of hiking - I also had no job and no family!) - but also no DNFs and usually somewhere in the 2nd third of the pack... But I'll admit that as I advance in age (born in 1971) and the running field grows and gets faster, not to mention tougher time barriers (but that could be just a factor of age!), I've been slipping further and further to the back, sometimes banging up against time barriers - with my ego starting to get bruised in the process... Another reason to set up an actual training plan and include speed.

So I got a bit more serious about training in 2014 when signing up for my first 100-mile mountain race (UT4M), and I really needed to run more without compromising family time - important not only to my wife but also to me. I refuse to sacrifice unduly to running, otherwise it will just outweigh the benefits and may no longer be fun. And enjoying a run is more important than a certain level of training when it comes to tackling the dark spots and seeing the run to the finish.
Anyway, I failed to finish the UT4M for several reasons. Yes, there were mental issues I didn't overcome during the race, and some started before: I just got too intense and serious about my training, forgetting to enjoy the journey. Mentally, I wasn't there. But I don't think I trained either enough or properly. I barely hit a few 80k weeks, and no speedwork at all. 

So then in 2015, I adapted a training plan to devise something far more structured - and fun. I also went from just under 1500km/900miles of running in 2014 to just under 2000km/1250miles (with speedwork) in 2015. I managed this even with having to take almost 3 months off (end January to mid-April) due to a torn calf. But I compensated with quite a bit a swimming in February-March and a lot of biking in April, May and June (almost 700 miles). In those last two months, I trained 5-8 hours a week. And on that training, I managed to  finish a highly technical 65-mile mountain run with over 20'000 feet of vertical elevation in July, an Ironman end August and a 100km hilly road race in 13h38mn end September, taking more than 3 hours of my previous time. And I really enjoyed all of them (which didn't preclude the transitory "why the hell am I doing this?" to cross my mind).

My 'low'-mileage training program for up to 100k

So for what it's worth, here's what is working for me so far in tackling at least up to 100km ultra distance with an average of 3-4h a week, and a few weeks at 6-8h: 

-  maintain a minimum of 35-40km weekly, with some marathon-style speed work thrown in (200/400/800m intervals, 20/30/40mn tempo, longer 2k/3k splits...). Spread over 3-4 runs depending on available time. For speed, i do short intervals at 95-100% top speed (depending on distance), long intervals at 10k-half marathon pace (with recovery time equal to half the interval running time), and tempo runs at marathon pace.
- about two-three months out from the race, start increasing distance and time to reach about 65-80km (or, more importantly for mountain races, about 6-8h of training) for 4 weeks, mainly by increasing the long weekend run and, adding a 4th weekly run if at 3 runs/week (i think for one month, that can be squeezed in, either at lunchtime or early morning).
- weekly runs don't have to be longer than 1h, since they are focused on speed. if possible though, from time to time, have one of the weekly runs last 1h30, working either on specific (slow) race pace, or to fit in a harder and longer long intervals session.
- long runs should be 3-5h long (towards 3-4h if a road run, 4-5h if a mountain run); i do it on saturday morning, preceded by a good hard speed session on Friday so that my legs are fatigued.
- do two back-to-back runs: 4h/3h & 5h/4h (3h/2h on road, 4h/3h on road) - i avoid doing too many of these because i don't like missing breakfast with the family on both saturday and sunday. I prefer to do a longer run on Saturday and getting up earlier to fit it in. Doing this B2B session on top of a hard speed session on Friday is, to me, what really gets you ready for the race.
- start tapering three weeks out (i.e. after 2nd B2B session). Tapering is a very personal thing, but if in doubt, reduce running time by 25% of max running time the first week, 60% the 2nd week, and the week of the race do two short runs (30-40mn and 20-30mn )at race pace before full rest for two days. So that means if you last big week three weeks out is 8 hours, you do 6 hours the following week and 3h15mn the week after. Do 2 speed sessions still three weeks out, but increasing recovering time between sets, and only one tempo session the week before the final week.

Going longer: aiming for 100 miles

The "year-round" mileage can be relatively similar, about 3-4h/week mainly focused on increasing/maintaining speed (as you may notice, i've gone from always running at the same steady pace, to being a real advocate for less-but-tougher sessions; that's because it worked really well for my 145-mile/233km race!). But start increasing mileage 3-4 months out, and try and maintain 8-9h for 5-6 weeks before the 3-week taper.

So yes, we are getting beyond the "low" mileage factor, since for 6-8 weeks, at my speed, this means I am doing 80-90k, even 100k. I manage this by adding a 5th, one-hour session at race pace, since I can squeeze this quite easily at lunch time, but it did require in the top weeks having one or even two early morning 1h30 sessions, so that i have two long runs at race pace a week (a minimal long run of 1h30 mid-week between two speed sessions, and the weekend long run). It also required, for 6 weeks, to run twice on weekends, but the saturday runs were no more than 1h45mn. Actually the hardest part was not on the family - in that respect, the training program that I outline in more detail below worked well - but on me, having to wake up at 5-5.30am three or four times a week. But it was "only" for 6 weeks, and I managed to do while working full-time at a rather intense job, and studying for a degree online; i came close to bagging a few training sessions, but close is the key word here, and as i could feel myself getting fitter, i gutted it out. And that's what you need to finish a 100-miler. So even if i was training quite tired every time, i had energy; i wasn't exhausted. And it was all worth it in the end!

GUCR training

Training for this 233km monster was spread over 20 weeks. I started at just over 5h of training and worked up from there, with a four week build and a fifth week "recovery". The plan was made for me by Bruno Heubi. Here's the sample week:

Mon: rest
Tues: 1h short intervals (went from 20x30"/30" to 8x 2'/1'); I would run the rest at race pace, with 5x20"/40" warm-up strides/sprints
Wed: from 1h to 1h30 at race pace
Thurs: 1h-1h45, with tempo run (started at 1x5mn, ended at 2x40mn; 1'30" recovery) - just under marathon pace
Fri: rest
Sat: 1h15-1h45, with long intervals (3x6' to 3x20', 1'15"-1'45" recovery) at anywhere between 10k and 1/2-marathon pace
Sun: long run at race pace (started at 1h, ended at 4-5h).

Fitting in other races as training runs

The cycle 4 weeks build, 1 week recovery was a bit theoretical, however! It worked for the first cycle, where the 5th week was the same as the 1st week and no long run on Sunday.
At the end of 2nd cycle (the 10th week), however, I did a short intervals session on wednesday and two 1h race pace sessions on tues-thurs; nothing on saturday and a marathon at race pace on Sunday. The week after, i jumped right back into regular training, with a speed session on the tuesday!
The 3rd cycle (15th week) ended with a 12h timed race - i did only two 1h race pace runs on tues and thurs that week (no speed work), then did 91km between noon and midnight on saturday. Again, on tuesday i was out doing short intervals - and it was ok!
And there was no 4th cycle: i just continued to build mileage in the 16th week, did another marathon at race pace in the 17th week, but this time at the back end of a full week's training, making it my longest long run (5h), before starting the three week taper. So 6 weeks at 9-11 hours of training (1 week at 14 hours), in the last 9 weeks.
And i finished the 233km race in 39h23mn, very happy. My race pace, incidentally, was 8-8.5km/h. 


Mountain runs

For the Swiss Irontrail that I competed in early August 2016, I included 500-1500 meters of elevation per week from February-March on, with a 50-mile mountain race in April, and a big back-to-back (6 hours Friday night, a few hours sleep, then 5 hours Saturday morning) mountain run in early June. Basically heading out after week at work, night running, resting and then heading back into the night out after a few hours sleep to run through dawn and into late morning.
POST SWISS IRONTRAIL UPDATE, SEPT 2016: I followed this training quite well, hitting 80-90km weeks in June-July, with over 10'000m of elevation gain in both those months, with a 3-week taper going from 80 to 50 to 30 miles a week, and a 9k jog on the Monday preceding the race. This worked fine: my fitness was perfect (however, I was unemployed - duplicating that mileage next year might be difficult, but i'll rewrite the post then).
"But you didn't finish", you'll argue. Sure, but when I dropped after 42h (137km and 7300m) I felt in good form, my legs were ok - I was still able to run downhill (when not too technical) and jog at about 9km/h on flat; but I only had 10mn at that food station, not enough to sleep and eat... So even though I need to cut a lot of faff out of the early check points (see race review), since we are talking about training: my weekly mileage of 50-55miles/80-90km + elevation worked fine, BUT MY SPEED WAS CRAP.
Two ways of working speed:
1) actually do my tempo work; i realize that i really wasn't good about long 2-3k intervals, and never did 2-3x20'-30' at a sustained pace;
2) work the treadmill: my goal for next year. A friend who did the Tor des Géants said that he really picked up his uphill speed by doing an hour every week on the treadmill set at 20° incline, alternating between 5-6km/h.
I would love to work on my downhill, but the truth is between dislocating my shoulder and cracking my trailbone, I've just become too scared to push it. Maybe it will come back in time - certainly that didn't help my time at the SIT, which was very technical in parts - but for now I'll work on what I can change: uphill speed. 

I'm managing off-season mileage with 3 runs a week, but am now averaging 4: three lunch-time runs (or early wedesday morning), with speed early in the week and a tempo on Friday before a long run on Saturday, to have a sort of regular back-to-back. (With an optional swim during the week, this means I have 1 or 2 days free for lunch with friends!) When increasing, I'll add a 5th day, a low-pace easy run after speed work on Monday, and sometimes running every day of the week so that I have full weekend with the family twice a month. And to hit some higher-mileage weeks before the race, I plan to do smaller B2B runs on occasional weekends, which makes for triple days when considering the Friday - but not adding a 6th day.

Since I'm only running one early morning on weekends, extending the distance as the days grow longer (so basically waking up earlier!), I'm almost always wake up with the family on Sunday, and back on Saturday in time to dedicate the rest of it (post-9am or 10am) to family activities. I also have two weekends a month free, and I'm only really feel like I'm sacrificing family time in the month leading up to main race taper time... In this way, my wife and children are happy, and so am I.

I'll go out almost every long run with a race pack.  I've now gotten so used to a backpack that I almost feel naked without one... For the last two months of training it will be loaded down with water and gear, up to 10 pounds, to stimulate race day. I'd rather have the pleasant surprise of a lighter load on race day, than the opposite.


Since my ironman experience in 2015, I've seen the benefits of throwing in more biking into training, and plan to do more of that, especially when I get the sense that hitting a plan high mileage week at all costs could lead to injury. Biking is great to get some extra endurance in there without punishing the legs, and working hips and other muscles that add to core strength, though I still can't quite get used to the outfits, the clip-on shoes and the mechanical aspect of the bike, and my fear of falling... As soon as it gets warmer I plan to bike as much as possible to and from work/meetings/whatever I need to do in town...
And since I am now the proud owner of a wetsuit after competing in my first long distance triathlon in 2013, a swim in the lake seems like a nice way to strengthen the upper body and look better on the beach in summer. But then all it takes is a rowing team crusing by to make me fear getting my head lopped off, or a brush with weeds to make me imagine I'll come across a bloated body drifting up from the depths...

Still, all in all, I have to say, no matter how much I love running, training can be a bitch. I mean, there’s always a glow and sense of accomplishment after finishing a long run, but when I'm getting up at 5am to be back in time for breakfast with the family—I can't say it enough: a sure way to keep harmony in a marriage—but that you are only doing so in order to be decently prepared for whatever trail race you signed up for… then yes, training can be a bitch and the actual race not such a big deal. Which is why I like ultras, at least the 50-70 mile variety where the training time is not that much more than for a marathon (just longer runs on weekends, which basically means getting up a little earlier). The effort to train for a marathon relative to the time and challenge it represents is too small. I certainly don’t want to minimize the extraordinary accomplishment of enduring 26 miles of pavement pounding--and I really believe that completing a marathon with non-stop running can be tougher mentally than finishing a 50-mile trail run--but even if everything else fails, baring a bone breaking or a torn ligament, you can almost always stumble your way across the finish line in a marathon.

I think a flexible mindset, the ability to adapt to race day conditions, and a certain amount of thought put into what you carry with you are as important as training. Listening, observing and learning from others is also useful, and what I find so rewarding and fun about this activity - the different quirks, experiences and solutions to all kinds of problems you can encounter on a trail... Then there's sheer bloody-mindedness - and, of course, blind luck. Those two will always get you to the end of a race. I need to remember that myself.

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