Most ultra marathon training programs agree that there are five steps to preparing for an ultra event. In the first instance, you should be concentrating on building up a mileage base. This helps you build your cardiovascular and muscular endurance and involves gradually increasing your mileage until you are averaging 40-60 miles a week, with at least one long run of more than 20 miles each week. You also need to be practising running on back-to-back days so that your legs are used to running under fatigue conditions.
Your increase in mileage should be gradual. Run the same mileage for two weeks before increasing it further. A total training program should last at least 16 weeks, and a lot more if you are not an experienced runner, so you can afford to take your time when building up the mileage in your ultra training program.
Strength building is the second phase of your ultra marathon training program. During this phase you will be increasing the number of muscle fibers in your legs, allowing your muscles to produce more energy and break down lactic acid build up more effectively. By increasing your leg’s muscular profile you will be better able to cope with the terrain you are running on and avoid injuries.
Much of your strength building will involve a combination of time spent in the gym, leg drills, such as bounding, sprints and hill running. Once you have built a good base mileage, start introducing strength work once or twice a week.
The third phase of the ultra marathon training program divides the schools of thought when it comes to ultra marathon training programs. This phase is speed work, and many training experts advocate that only elite runners should consider making speed work part of their training. Some coaches think that speed training is only necessary if an athlete is looking to record a good time for the race; if the target is just to finish then the runner would be better off continuing to work on mileage. Other coaches feel that speed work adds variety and can improve a runner’s performance, no matter what time they are aiming for.
Speed work for ultra marathon training is not the conventional type that is favoured by 10K and half marathon runners. It should take the form of a 10K race or a time trial of 10K, run at 85-90% of your maximum effort. The race/time trial should replace one of your weekly training sessions, and whether you do include speed work largely depends on your ability to recover quickly after running 10K at a high intensity. If you need 2-3 days to recover then it is possible that you should avoid too much speed training.
Phase four is the tapering off period and this can be especially hard for people who are used to running high mileage. Most experienced runners would suggest the tapering period should be two weeks before the event but some runners are comfortable only tapering one week before.
Whatever time you decide to give yourself, it is important that you do build in some taper. This will give your muscles a chance to get rid of toxins and any niggling injuries to repair. You should still be eating meals that are at least 60 per cent carbohydrate so you might feel a little ‘stodgy’ in that last week but this can be seen as a good thing as you will have the energy necessary to complete the race.
The fifth and final phase is race day itself. And this is where the nerves and self-doubts are most likely to kick in. Six months ago this all seemed such a good idea but here you are on the morning of the race with a fluttering stomach, a racing heart and a dry mouth. At this stage all you can do is remind yourself that you have trained hard for the event and get yourself to the start line as well prepared for the actual event as you can be.
As with all races, it is really important that you eat two hours before you run. Stick to the tried and tested – porridge, cereal, toast, bagels and honey – any simple carbohydrate food that you know you can digest will serve its purpose.
Unlike any other event you may find that racing conditions change as you run. You might be racing during darkness, the temperature may rise and fall dramatically over the course of the event and you might find what starts as a dull grey morning turns into a scorcher of a day.
A lightweight, purpose-built running bag is essential for your to carry things such as blister packs, extra clothing, spare socks, sun screen, a head torch and any other accessories you think might help you complete the race as comfortably as possible.
The important point is that you have tried and tested all of these things during your ultra marathon training program. This is no time to be trying new gear or unfamiliar food and drink. Preparation is vital if you are to finish your ultra marathon marathon and enjoy the experience.