Minimalist Training: low mileage, higher mileage and ultra recovery

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 haven't found many that 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 39h23mn back in 2017 without going much beyone 90-110km for 3-4 weeks: see below). I read these 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 around work and family/social life, adequate mileage for specific goals, balancing speed/endurance, then perhaps sharing what I have tried and tested, and what I plan for the future, may help provide some answers.

Here I wrote a specific post summarizing what I think are the key points to finishing an ultra and the minimum training required.

This said - HAVE FUN just playing around with training.

Low mileage

For about 15 years, I trained on low mileage and very haphazardly (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 10 days 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 the ability to enjoy a run is more important than any particular 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 80km weeks, and it was all up and down - no consistency in mileage from one week to the next (looking back, i would "recover" far too much after a 'big' week), and no speedwork.

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 while 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 (in 27h), an Ironman end August (in 14h42) and a 100km hilly road race in 13h38mn end September, taking more than 3 hours off my previous time (back in 2005!). And I really enjoyed all of them (which didn't preclude the transitory "why the hell am I doing this?" to cross my mind).

On speedwork or "running efficiency":

Just a quick note on that, for those who are wondering why do speedwork for ultras. Yes, the long runs at specific race pace are paramount, but speedwork can help on two levels:

1/ short intervals/sprints (30" - 2mn at 100-110% intensity or maximum aerobic speed, with 30" to 1' recovery) or longer intervals help with form, particularly important on flat, road ultras when fatigue really sets in; do a series of 20x30"/30" at top speed, and see how your legs feel the next day: if you've never done this type of exercise before, chances are you'll have muscle soreness... Hills reps are also considered "speedwork in disguise" and you can alternate these with intervals (such as 15x150m, 12x200m, 10x250m on hills).

2/ tempo runs (3x 6-20mn at 80-85% intensity or maximum aerobic speed, recovery around 1'30" to 2') and steady paced runs (2x 20-50mn at 75% with 1'30" recovery) increases your endurance factor (tempo runs do so more than steady paced runs but you can include both if you run 5 times a week), which means sustaining a higher speed for longer and the race pace (and often a higher race pace) feel much easier.

During the winter or my off-season period, i stick to about 4h per week, doing three speed sessions - short intervals/hills (alternating), a tempo run and a long interval session - and a longish run (1h15-1h45).
For peak period of specific mountain ultra training, i skip the long interval session, keep alternating hills and short intervals (sometimes combining them, i.e. 10x45"/30" + 10x150m on hills), and replace tempo sessions with the equivalent in the mountains, i.e. 3 to 5 times 150-200m elevation (which is, for me, about 12 to 16mn of climbing each time). Either i do this as a short seperate session on a Saturday, followed by a long hike in the mountains at race pace the following day, or integrate it into a 2h30-4h long run in the mountains, the rest done a slow race pace.

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 4-5h a week, and a few weeks at 7-9h: 

-  Maintain a minimum of 35-50km weekly (depending on the length of the long run, with doesn't have to be more than 1h30-1h45 in winter months or even every weekend on your "off" periods), with some marathon-style speed work thrown in (200/400/800m intervals, hill reps, 20/30/40mn tempo, longer 2k/3k splits...), one every week to ten days. Spread over 3-4 runs depending on available time. For paces, 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 7-9h 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). Yes, at this point it becomes more difficult to train without having some impact on the family (missed breakfasts, having a hard time finding the energy to play with the kids after galivanting around for 4 hours), but it's only for a few weeks, so generally it's a manageable and acceptable sacrifice for everyone.

- Weekly runs don't have to be longer than 1h, since they are focused on speed and that allows to fit them in a lunch break or in the morning or even in the evening if you are so inclined. If possible however, from time to time and during the peak period of specific race training, have one of the weekly runs last 1h30, combining specific (slow) race pace with long tempo (2x30mn, 1x45mn).

- In peak period, long runs should be 3-5h long (towards 3-4h if a road run, 4-5h if a mountain run since there's more hiking and it's easier on the legs); i do these on saturday mornings early (aiming to be home for a late breakfast with family), preceded by a good hard speed session on Friday so that my legs are fatigued. To increase time on tired legs and mileage you can do back-to-back runs, but each one a bit shorter (i.e. 2x 2h - sometimes it's harder to get up once really early than twice a bit later).

- But do at least one substantial back-to-back run, two if you can: 4h/3h & 5h/4h (3h/2h on road, 4h/3h in mountains) - i avoid doing too many of these because Doing this B2B session on top of a hard speed session on Friday gives you a 3-day block session and is, to me, what really gets you ready for the race. It should also cap your biggest week of running, three weeks out from the race.

- Start tapering three weeks out (i.e. after 2nd B2B session). Tapering is a very personal thing, but if in doubt, a general format is to 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. Keep some intensity: still do 2 speed sessions in the first week of taper, but increasing recovering time between sets, and one tempo session in the 2nd week of taper. The final week should be two runs of 40-50mn and 30-40mn and nothing two days before the run. If you feel you might disconnect too much, a 20mn very easy run with a few strides the day before won't compromise your race.
-I have tapered a month out, reducing mileage by 20%, 40%, 70%, and then two small runs the last week, and i have found it to be too much. I am well rested, but I feel like I've lost strength. But I put it out there, since it is better to arrive slightly less trained, rested and injury-free, then still carrying some niggles. 

Going longer: aiming for 100+ miles

The "year-round" mileage can be relatively similar, about 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 4 months out, and try and maintain 8-10h for 5-6 weeks before the 3-week taper. Here you should also plan for a 50-mile or equivalent race in training (I did a 12h timed race) that fits into your training plan about six weeks out, with no recovery after since it is done a race pace (i.e. slower than you would normally do a 50-miler). There shouldn't be any specific taper either for this training race, just reduce the mileage in the weekdays leading up to the race to maintain the weekly total (i.e. if you are competing in a 50-mile/80km race during what should be a 100km week, then do two 10k runs during the week before the race - but get right back into the training schedule the week after!)

So yes, we are getting beyond the "low" mileage factor, since for 6-8 weeks, at my speed, this means I am doing 80-110km (8-11 hours, if mountain training). 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 1h30-2h sessions, in addition to the weekend long run(s). It also required, for 8 weeks, to run twice on weekends, but the saturday runs were no more than 1h45mn (but with up to 3x20mn at half-marathon pace). 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 4.30-5am 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 - 145 miles / 233km flat

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 at marathon pace (went from 1x5mn to 1x35mn then 2x20mn to 2x40mn; 1'30" recovery).
Fri: rest
Sat: 1h15-1h45, with long intervals (3x6' to 3x20', 1'15"-1'45" recovery) at about 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 on Friday after 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. But I did almost no speedwork, certainly not consistently...
POST SWISS IRONTRAIL UPDATE, SEPT 2016: I hit 80-90km weeks (10h+ hours) 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 great (however, I was unemployed - duplicating that mileage in the mountains with a full time job would not be impossible but tough on the family).
I DNF's not because of fitness but because I wasn't fast enough. When I dropped after 42h (137km and 7300m) I felt in good form, my legs were ok, and over all I was sleepdrived but otherwise physically fine - 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 time 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 I would work on  speed:
1) do 2 sessions of speed work (short/long + tempo) consistently every week; 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: 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 18-20° incline, alternating between 5-6km/h.
Of course, you can train your downhill speed too, and personally I would love to work on going faster 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. 

On recovery

I've search high and low on how to recover after an ultra so as to "bounce back" and resume training for the next goal. But I have found not only very little but what I did find was usually so general as to be practically useless. Of course, there is a very good reason for that: everyone is very different in terms of abilities, training, endurance history, etc. Some take weeks before considering to run after a 50-miler; some run a sub-3h15 marathon after a 145-mile race. Still, I just wanted some basis from which to work so that I could find my own "recipe" - so if that is what you are looking for - a 'recipe' to try out and fine-tune for yourself - well, this is what has worked for me.

BTW, what I am talking about here is recovery after an important mid-season race, not recovery after a race that is intended as training for a major race, nor the final big race of the season, after which I like to hang up my shoes for a few weeks to a month. For instance, I had two goals for 2017: the Grand Union Canal Race (233km) end May and the Ultra Tour du Léman (175km) mid-September. Any other races were part of my training, but if I were to do well at the UTL, I knew I had to recover well enough from the GUCR so I could resume training without too much fatigue but also without losing too many of the benefits that I derived from my GUCR training.

- FULL REST/NO RUNNING: I think it's good to have a few days with no running whatsoever; I had very tired legs after the GUCR; it took 5-6 days for my feet to stop hurting. How much time of full rest? This is my personal equation: 1 day for every 10 miles of the race. So a marathon (where you aim for a good time) would be 2-3 days of full rest; the GUCR, 145 miles, meant 14-15 days of nothing more than mellow walking.
- ACTIVE RECOVERY: i think some walking (but no more than 30mn at first) is always good in any case; if, like me after the GUCR, the full rest time is longer than 3 days, i think a bit of mild biking after 3-4 days is also good to flush the system. Or swimming. It depends on how tired you feel. With the GUCR and 15 days of no running, I didn't do more than walk a bit in the first week, and only did some biking in the 2nd.
- BACK TO RUNNING: after the full rest with some active recovery, take 3 weeks to get back to a normal training plan, depending on how big the race was (I actually took 4 weeks, with week 1 consisting only of two 20-30mn jogs): week 1: 3x week, 30-40mn; 40-50mn; 50-1h, at an easy pace; week 2: 4x, one of which includes a tempo session of 30mn; week 3: usual amount of running days (5x for me up until my next and final race of the season), incl. 15x100m intervals (recovery 100m) and a 1h15mn session with 40mn tempo. Alternately, you can "reverse taper", i.e. mirror the last three weeks before your race as the three weeks after the race.

Of course, there are some who do one ultra after another, with little training in between. Or Hammer out a sub-3h15 marathon the week after the GUCR... So each his/her own, of course! I think the most important thing is "know thyself"!

Final considerations and training rants

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 planned 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 cruising 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 also why, personally, I can't do more than 2 big races in a year; and even then, I usually only really gear up and train intensely for the first!)

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).

Finally, 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.


  1. Love the detail and personal experience on this. I'm looking to do a 100 miler soon (on as little training as is realistic) and I'll be using some of your insights in my training approach. I'm excited to get started on it!

    1. Didn't mean to reply to the first comment. Oops.