Creating a Training Plan for an ultra
As anyone who has ever taken part in an ultra knows all too well one of the most common questions you will get asked (or ask yourself) is “Where do you even start?!”
The notion of running or walking 250km may seem inconceivable. For many a marathon seems enough, but five in five days?
Getting to the finish line of an Ultra X is an achievable goal for anyone regardless of running background. The secret is to not be intimidated. If you are marathon fit, you can, in 16 weeks, add an Ultra X to your CV, and even if you are not yet at that stage, by taking training one step at a time completing an ultra is obtainable.
More than half of Ultra X Jordan finishers in 2018 had never run a single marathon before signing up. In training, a 10 mile run can quickly turn into a marathon and then back to back marathons before you know it. What an ultramarathon will teach you is that the human body is capable of so much more that it is usually exposed to.
Training for something like an Ultra X need not differ hugely from preparing for a traditional marathon. By following a marathon plan which works for you and then substituting a high tempo session for a lower intensity ‘time on the feet workout’, it is possible to progress to ultra distance relatively easily. However, it is important to make one thing clear; there is no one-size-fits-all training plan for an ultra. You must workout what works for you.
People often ask about how many times a week they need to run, how far and for how long, but without knowing that person’s goals, running history, lifestyle, and the time they commit, it is impossible to answer these questions. Just take a look at the range of training from our Ultra X Jordan finishers in 2018 you can see this. Rather than following strict guidelines we endorse a 3 step principle-based method to succeeding (see below).
Step 1 — Focus on the output
This is to work out your goal and tailor a training program around this (see here for advice on this).
The fastest runners will finish an Ultra X in around 26 hours, whereas those with the sole goal of finishing can take double this. This is important because if you are going to be walking most of the race then walking should feature in your training. If, on the other hand, you want to compete, you really need to focus on becoming a fast marathon runner who can do well off road. If you are somewhere in between, like the vast majority, it is a sliding scale and the focus of your training should reflect this. It’s also important to assess the gap between your current level of physical fitness and mental preparedness and that required in order for you to successfully complete the race.
Step 2 — Build a schedule which works
Build a schedule around real life working backwards from the race date. There are so many different ways to prepare for a multi-stage race and it is easy to get distracted by somebody else’s workout. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Have confidence in your own strategy.
Koop’s Hierarchy of “Ultramarathon Training needs” is a great starting point. The argument here being that to start with, athletes should focus on three things; training time, rest and diet. Once these targets have been met then they can move onto more complex aspects such as high intensity training, training the gut and acclimating to a race environment. However, getting these key bits right has a much greater impact on performance than the items higher up the pyramid and by focusing on these three the majority of people will be able to get through.
Step 3 — Keep track
Logging your training means figuring out how you know if you’re getting what you want at each step. For the long distance runner it is important to train progressively and mileage should increase by around 10% each week, but by simply having just one goal — 250 km in 5 days, which may be 6 months away, it is difficult to know where you are at any one point.
By breaking your main goal (Ultra X Jordan for example) down into interim targets and periodizing training into blocks, focusing will be easier as the next target will always be around the corner. For example, if you have not run a marathon before registering, some example goals might be:
- Marathon distance (April)
- 50km (June)
- Ultra distance over 2–3 days (July)
- One longer non-stop ultra distance of more than 50 miles (August)
- Ultra X Jordan (October)
If you already have one or more marathons under your belt you might jump straight into a shorter ultra and build from there. By setting goals, runners can stay motivated, on track and be sure that they get to the start line ready to fly!