Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Long View - How I Train for Ultras

In 2006 (before my time in ultrarunning) there was a controversy at the finish of the Western States 100. Front runner Brian Morrison collapsed a few times in the final 300 meters of the race (inside the stadium at Auburn) and was disqualified because he was helped up on his way to the finish line by his pacers (one of whom was Scott Jurek).


A brief account of the controversy is still accessible on Scott Dunlap's blog.

There was apparently some heated discussion about this on the ultra list at the time, however it is not that controversy that interests me here, but rather a very insightful post made in response to it by well-known ultrarunner Geri Kilgariff. She titled the post "Warriors and Explorers" and it made such an impact on the group that it was still being referred to some three or four years later after I had joined. I am reproducing it here in its entirety:
Yesterday's heated discussion got me thinking. There seems to be at least two different attitudes in ultrarunning: "Warriors" and "Explorers." That's why there was such a split in opinions about what happened at Western States.

Warriors are mainly at war with themselves. They're fueled by the passion to prove something to themselves and the world. They're willing to push themselves beyond the point of self-preservation and ignore any thoughts of the consequences. Warriors often win because they're willing to sacrifice more. Warriors aren't always at the front of the pack. Anyone who runs themself into a longterm injury, an IV or trip to the ER is a Warrior. The Warrior attitude does not last long in ultrarunning.

Explorers run ultras to find their limits. They pick up on cues when they've had enough. They're aware of the cost of pushing too hard and don't want to pay the price. Sometimes talented explorers win races, but an equally talented warrior will beat them because warriors are willing to self destruct.

Many times warriors evolve into explorers. Explorers rarely become warriors. Runners who have been in the sport for any length of time are explorers. That's why so many longterm ultrarunners did not find what happened on the track at Western States admirable. Many have been there, done that and never want to do it again.

Feel free to disagree with me. These are just my observations. For those who don't know me, I've been involved in ultras for 15 years. During my ultra career I've been a front-, mid- and back-of the pack runner, crew, pacer, volunteer and race director. I've gone from warrior to explorer to enabler to observer. I still don't know everything. Enlighten me.

Geri K
Geri's post itself generated some controversy, as some read it as judgmental toward the "warriors" - and perhaps it was. I don't know that Geri saw a short, meteoric, burn-out ultrarunning career as a 'bad' choice. Perhaps so. I don't think it can be argued though that it is a choice that some ultrarunners make. I've only been around the sport for six years and even I have seen warriors come and go. The big names of the dominant runners of today will very likely soon be replaced by new ones. Very few of them will survive the warrior lifestyle long enough to build careers like an Ann Trason or a Scott Jurek.

The warrior attitude is everywhere in fitness today - and not just among elite athletes. Workouts must be intense; In puke there is honor! Don't you want to be a champion?


(Note: I do not sell Advocare, and this is not an endorsement.
Neither is it a criticism of their products, which I have not tried.)

There is little advocacy today for the long view. There is little advocacy for patience. Fitness late bloomers are everywhere given the impression that the path to success lies in stomping on the accelerator and going from zero to ninety in a moment - right out of the garage.

If you buy into that then this post is not for you. This post is about the long view.

In what follows, I will appeal to authority (named and unnamed) quite a bit. That is not a ploy to give my own ideas weight they do not deserve. I really have gotten advice and learned from some very experienced ultrarunners, and I will try to pass it on minimally tainted by my own ignorance (which I fear remains considerable). I will probably also talk about me a lot. That is merely because I am the example most familiar to me.

"Strategic Overtraining"

To begin, let me define what I think of as the short view so that I've got something to contrast against. This section will also describe the audience I am primarily addressing with this post.

There is a pattern in training for and racing distance events that is followed by large numbers of participants. Long before I decided that running would become my 'thing,' I observed this pattern in most of the marathon runners who I knew. It goes like this:
  1. The runners run very little - or even not at all - during the winter months (I live in the northeastern U.S. where winter, for many, means running indoors on dreadmills).
  2. Spring comes, and the cycle of marathon training begins. Running friends are seen on the streets of the neighborhood again, or heading out from work for a run during their lunch hours.
  3. Training builds in intensity through the summer. Life for the runners is largely taken over by running and recovering from running. At work you often find them eating yogurt. They begin to look a bit haggard, and will sometimes complain about the difficulty of their training regimens. They may take quite a bit of ibuprofen.
  4. Sometime in the fall, the big weekend finally comes. This is what they have prepared for all year. Their marathon is on Sunday!
  5. Monday morning (if they make it to work Monday morning) they look like death in the vertical limping through the door. They can barely walk, but they have done it. It was epic and extremely satisfying - but thank God it is over!
  6. They want little to do with running afterward. Recovery coincides with the holiday season, winter settles in, and the runners go back into dormancy, living life like everyone else.
I described this pattern on the ultra list once, and ultrarunner Jonathan Savage (who maintains a very good running Wiki site that I highly recommend as a resource) gave me a term for it that I think nails it perfectly: he called it "strategic overtraining."

'Overtraining' basically means pushing oneself imprudently beyond one's present level of fitness. That's a pretty squishy definition. Training fundamentally means pushing beyond your present level of fitness. The line between training and overtraining is the line between 'prudent' and 'imprudent' - and is therefore individual and (somewhat) subjective. Often the only way to know when it has been crossed is to see the consequences manifest.

Overtraining often leads to injury and/or mental burnout. In extreme cases it can lead to a serious condition called 'overtraining syndrome' that has been blamed for the end of some prominent running careers, including the careers of Alberto Salazar and (in ultrarunning) Geoff Roes.

"Strategic overtraining," as I understood the way Jonathan defined it, was this pattern I observed in so many weekend warriors. Their training regimens were so rigid and so taxing that by the time they finished their big event (if they survived the training uninjured to actually reach the starting line) they were on the very brink of physical or mental breakdown. They were fit - make no mistake - but as an ultrarunner friend of mine once told me, "Peak fitness is a razor's edge" - and these people were right on that edge (if not already being cut by it).

The long off-season that followed was a matter of survival, and it was by no means a given that the runner would ever be back to do it again. Many do not return - or they only maintain the resolve to participate in such a grueling endeavor for another year or two before deciding that they've satisfactorily checked the marathon off their bucket lists and they move on.

I'd venture that most of us know someone who has done this. They (or others who know them) are often the ones who respond to learning of your running habit with lines like, "Oh, running is bad for your knees." They're the ones who say, "I used to run, but my <name of body part> couldn't handle it."

I think in many cases what actually ended these running careers was strategic overtraining, and I do not believe that this approach scales well to ultramarathons. At the risk of offending the marathoners and ironfolk, I think the reason it does not is this: if your goal is merely to finish, twenty-six point two miles is not all that far to run. Fifty miles is.

I'm All About that Base

What else is there? Isn't that how it's done? Isn't that how all of the training plans work? Well, yes... and no.

Most of the training plans I've read for either marathons or ultras are indeed rigid, challenging schedules of running designed to bring the trainee to a peak of fitness just in time for a race. I think what gets glossed over, and what a lot of weekend warriors miss, is the assumptions built into these plans (sometimes well-documented, other times not so well) about what sort of athlete is ready for the plan. Most of them are designed for a runner starting from a base level of endurance. They are not designed for someone who has essentially been a non-runner for three to five months, and they are not designed for intermittent runners who take off-seasons each year long enough to lose much of their running fitness.

In short, these plans are ill-suited for a fairly high percentage of the people using them. The difference is the endurance base.

What is an endurance base?

Back in 2009 when I was first overcome by the mad dream of running ultras, I corresponded briefly with a professional coach. I never engaged his services, because I really felt I was too inexperienced and had too little knowledge of running in general to use professional coaching effectively (maybe that was exactly the wrong way to look at it - I don't know). Something he said to me in one of his messages made me a little indignant at the time though:

"Pat, 12 weeks is not enough to prepare for 50K particularly as you have no real endurance base (emphasis mine)." What did he mean I had, "no real endurance base?!" I'd been running a lot (that was why I had plantar fasciitis at the time after all)!

In reality he was (of course) right. I'd only been running for a couple of years at that point and I didn't even keep a running log. The first year I did log my mileage (over a year later) I ran only a little over 800 miles - and that was a big year. It would be two more years (and over 3200 more miles) before I began to truly understand what an endurance base is. It's been another 3500 miles in the year-and-a-half since then and I'm still learning.

My average weekly running mileage has now been over 40 for the past 130 weeks. That doesn't mean they were all over 40 (obviously). There was a week in there as low as three miles and another that was over two hundred. There were no complete breaks in running in all that time though - no off-seasons of any significant length.

A runner runs, and the endurance base of a runner is the weekly mileage (or running time) that a runner can sustain year-round, indefinitely, without finding it stressful to do. I find running forty mile weeks to be natural and easy. I don't have to think hard about how I'm going to schedule the workouts, and I don't have to worry about how I'm going to work in enough recovery to handle it. If I'm feeling particularly good, my week may pop up into the fifties. If not (or if life intervenes) it may dip into the low thirties - but barring illness or a major race to recover from, I run about forty miles a week, year-round. I continue to work on gradually increasing that.

What that Base Does

What does this do for me? Here are some assertions I believe to be true. Because of my base running endurance, I could...
  • ...complete 26.2 miles in under five hours on any given weekend with just a day or two's notice to rest from normal training.
  • ...do that again the following weekend.
  • ...finish a 50K or 50M race (perhaps even a 100K) with no more than a week's notice to prepare.
  • ...barely run at all for the 4-6 weeks preceding one of those races and still finish it (this I've done).
  • ...resume normal training within the week following one of those races (I've done this too, regularly).
Now I really don't mean those as brags. A five-hour marathon is nothing to brag about. Just finishing a 50K or 50M is nothing to brag about. When I race as well as I possibly can I only just sometimes manage to sneak into the front half of the pack at my races. I am not a great ultrarunner - but I can do things beyond the imaginations of many of the strategic overtrainers. I have run/walked west-to-east across the state of Tennessee. I have run/walked 183 miles in a 72-hour race. (Okay, now those just might have been brags.)

My knees, incidentally, are stronger than they have ever been. Again, the enabler for all of this is the endurance base - and at this point I actually have a pretty low base for an ultrarunner. Two-thousand-mile years are entry-level mileage for serious ultrarunners.

My base is essentially my 'prepared canvas.' Just as a painter begins with a canvas already covered in an off-white or some other ground tone, I begin preparing for each goal race from a well-established, solid level of capability. Just as a painter can paint a variety of pictures on the canvas, I can build on my base with varying types of workouts to prepare specifically for different types of races.

I am ready to build on my base by following one of those challenging training plans - not that that's what I usually do. I don't like rigid plans, so in my build-ups for goal races I just do these things:

  • Make sure I include ample terrain similar to where I will race in my week-to-week route selection.
  • Work on increasing my mileage well above base - slowly and flexibly, listening carefully to my body so as to manage stress and recovery effectively to avoid injury. Using this strategy I can easily hit training peaks of 60-70 mile weeks for a week or two before gradually tapering.
  • Add a little hill work and/or speed work into my weekly regimen.
  • Back off from all of that as far as I have to if an injury does begin to develop.

It's because of my base that I can have the confidence to include that last item. Strategic overtrainers sweat bullets over missing workouts. I know I can rely on my base to enable me to finish. My race-specific training is about how well I can finish - and I'm content to be quite flexible about that if it keeps me away from the orthopedist or the physical therapist and gets me to the starting line feeling healthy and strong rather than over-extended and on the verge of breaking down.

How to Build that Base

Building a running endurance base is not very hard, but it takes patience - and a lot more time than some people believe. Another of my ultrarunning mentors maintains that a base takes three to five years to develop. He has also said to me that, "Consistency is the key."

In order to build a base, you must fully embrace being a runner. That means that you typically run four to six days per week - rain, shine, hot, cold; spring, summer, fall, winter. Remember: you are a runner, and runners run. A short annual 'off-season' during which you cut mileage below base for perhaps a month is good, but there is never a complete cessation in running except for injury or serious illness.

Begin with whatever weekly mileage you find easy. Run all of your miles at an easy, conversational pace. That means that you can speak in full sentences while you run. If you really struggle with keeping your pace slow enough, get a heart rate monitor, set it to beep at you if you exceed your easy training zone - and wear it every time you run. For many of you this experience will at first feel like you are wearing a ball-and-chain, because you habitually train too hard and the thing will be beeping at you all of the time! Learn. The best ultrarunners I know have repeatedly said that most runners train way too fast and race way too slow! Don't be those people.

Once you're sure you're running at a sustainable level, begin increasing your weekly mileage. Add no more than 10% in a given week, and do that for only two or three weeks before taking an 'easy' or 'cycle down' week - where you reduce mileage by perhaps 40% from the previous week. Again, one of the best, veteran ultrarunners I know often said that the plan for success was, "Hard-hard-easy, and repeat forever."

Personally, I modified that a bit for building my base. Maybe it was just because I'm an old guy - I don't know - but I could only do three or four of those three-week cycles in a row before I could feel myself beginning to go into an over-stressed state (I could not do four-week cycles, by the way). I would do a short period of mileage-buildup using the 'hard-hard-easy' cycle, and then I would 'stick' at that final 'hard' level until it started to feel 'easy'. In other words, build for two to three months - and then 'lock in' the new base level. I found that the whole process took about six months for each cycle of base increase - roughly speaking, about half of that time spent in the build-up and the other half holding steady to 'lock it in.'

Over time, as you do this, a number of things will be happening:
  • Your pace will slowly increase while you remain under your target heart rate. This will be due to a combination of factors, including learning an efficient running form and significantly increasing your muscles' capacity to process oxygen.
  • Your bones will strengthen, your tendons and ligaments will thicken and grow stronger, and (obviously) your running-specific muscles will grow stronger too.
  • Your resting heart rate will decrease.
Many of these adaptations are stymied by training too fast too often! I shake my head to myself when I see runners post somewhere boasting about how fast they did a long training run. The purpose of a long training run is to operate in that comfortable target zone for an extended period of time. Run it too fast and you counteract the intended training effect and burden yourself with too much recovery.

Again, I take my advice about how to train from some of the best veteran ultrarunners in the world. I once paid attention while two of them (both with real accomplishments going back decades, and one of them a sometime world record holder) talked about how "three hours on your feet at any pace" constitutes a good long run. The world record holder (Ray) had just posted about doing a 12.5-mile run that took him a few seconds over three hours. When the other veteran (Marv) jumped in with a bit of a nod and a wink to suggest he thought Arthur Lydiard had once said something about the importance of three or more hours on your feet at any pace, Ray replied, "Hush now Marv, the younguns might learn sumpthin."

In the years since I read that conversation I've spun endurance gold from it. You will never see me post about how fast I did a long training run.

(As an aside - since this is a post for ultrarunners - you should include a long run in your normal week as often as possible. The long run should be no more than about 40% of your weekly mileage, and you should not increase the length of your long run more than 10% a week either. In my training a long run is sixteen to twenty-two miles, and I can do one pretty much every week - though I usually don't do one in an easy week. It is this feature of my training that enables me to say with a straight face, "Twenty-six point two miles is not all that far to run.")

Back to the key point though: if you run too fast too often - or too far beyond your base fitness - you will overwhelm your body's ability to adapt to training. It will have all it can do to keep up with overcoming systemic fatigue and repairing the damage you continually do to it, and it will not have many resources to spare for the over-building phase of the training stimulus response - which is what leads to real improvement in running fitness.
  • The endocrine system adaptations will be short-circuited - meaning that running beyond the 'wall' of the marathon will never get easier.
  • The musculoskeletal adaptations will be short-circuited - meaning that you will continue to be injury-prone, and may do permanent damage (you may quit, thinking your 'knees can't take it').
Many people mistake mere aerobic fitness for a running endurance base. It is easy to train yourself to breathe hard for a very long time. It takes much longer to train your body to withstand pounding it into the ground at a force of three times your body weight for a very long time. These are the slow adaptations that take three to five years of consistent training to fully develop. They are also adaptations that may never fully develop if you follow the strategic overtraining pattern, which (again) is why I believe that approach is not at all appropriate for would-be ultrarunners.

I am an explorer, and I am a firm advocate of taking the long view in endurance training. I have been six years getting to where I am, and I am thrilled to know that Geri K. - nine years beyond me at the time she wrote - still hadn't figured it all out. How I will enjoy learning the things that lie ahead! Why not take the long view and join me?

1 comment:

  1. Great writing and great post, as always! Spot on! I've always admitted that the reason I got into ultra running is so that I could explore more trails and places faster than hiking. I love going to new places to see new trails and meet new people and just have that experience. I'm never going to be super fast, and I don't mind. I know I can go out and run a 50k on a weekend without being too concerned about blowing up. I think I've learned a lot from being a "back of the middle" packer. Thanks for posting this at a time when I needed a little boost and inspiration.

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