Three Key Workouts For Ultramarathoners

Progression runs can be used by ultra marathoners to practice finishing strong at the end of a long race. Photo: Chris Denucci

Putting in the miles should allow you to finish an ultra, but mixing up your training will help you finish strong.

Typically, training for a grueling ultramarathon event (race distances longer than 26.2 miles) is as simple as running as much as you can during your busy week. For most ultra enthusiasts, just getting the maximum “time on the feet” is sufficient to strengthen tendons and ligaments in the legs and toughen up the feet for the ultimate test come race day.

In every other running event below the ultra, athletes incorporate track and other types of workouts into their training routines. These workouts, usually tempo runs or repeats done at or faster than goal race pace, aim to increase the runner’s cardiovascular efficiency and build strength. But is there such thing as an “ultra workout”? And if so, what do these entail and how do they help you?

What follows are three suggestions by three-time U.S. 50K champion Mike Wardian, former Western States 100 winner Geoff Roes and Bryon Powell, author of Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons.

1. Pick It Up Mid-Run

Wardian does this on his weekly long runs. What they entail is injecting some speed throughout the run at various intervals. Specifically, Wardian varies his pickups from 5 x 2 minutes of intense running up to 15 x 3 minutes, depending on where he is at in his training schedule in order “to simulate the demands of pushing the pace during a race.”

The pace of these pickups should be substantially faster than the pace of the rest of your run, but don’t run them too fast. The overall goal is to successfully complete the long run while mixing up the pace somewhat. Roes does these pickups too, at one minute right in the middle of his run.

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“I might run 15 miles, then do about 3 or 4 miles of these intervals, and then maybe 5-10 more miles,” Roes says. He contends that these workouts help develop “leg speed” in the new ultra runner. “I think there is a big difference between the type of leg speed you use in an ultra as compared to a shorter race.”

Roes thinks this is why you see in ultra races someone who might be a much faster shorter-distance runner get out-kicked in the last several miles by someone who is much more used to applying their leg speed after they have already been on the go for over three hours.

“Running fast at mile 95 of a 100-mile race is a completely different thing than running fast in the closing minutes of a marathon, and unless you’ve done some training to try to improve this kind of leg speed, you could be the fastest marathoner in the world and quite likely get out-kicked by someone who runs a 2:40 marathon but has lots of experience in closing out a 100 miler,” Roes says.

2. Hit The Hills

Almost any ultra you end up running is bound to have sections of challenging terrain. And so it’s best to prepare your body for the vertical element of the race by running up and down hills in your training.

Hill training for ultras can come in two flavors: short hill repeats and long hill climbs. Short hill repeats entail 6-8 reps up a steep section of hill that takes approximately 30-45 seconds. Ultras are as much mental tests as they are physical, so it’s best to run these hill repeats at the end of a longer workout in order to teach the mind to not give up when it’s tired. These runs also keep you mentally sharp and break up some of the monotony of yet another long run.

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“Ultrarunners can get lulled into complacency with their running,” says Powell. “In some regards, aiming for smooth, steady, low-key efforts in training and racing can yield an overall positive result. However, if you’ve got the mental sharpness and tenacity gained in fighting through sharp pain … well, you can squeeze more blood out of the stone at the end of the same smart and steady ultramarathon effort.”

Long hill climbs are repeats that last anywhere from 1 to 5 miles at 2-4 reps. Unlike short hill repeats, long hill climbs are done at a slower pace and can also include downhill sections in order to strengthen the legs, ankles and feet for the change in vertical elevation you will experience on race day.

“Hills are a must if you are tackling a tough mountain ultra or an ultra with a lot of climbing,” says Wardian.

3. Progress The Pace

Wardian is a big fan of these workouts. Progression runs are the staple for marathoners, but can also be used for ultra marathoners focusing on shorter ultra races like the 50K or 50-miler.

The best way to conduct a progression run is to break the overall distance of your workout into thirds. The first third is run at slower than goal race pace. When you reach the second third of the run, pick up the pace at or just under your goal race pace. In the final third, make sure you are running faster than your goal pace. These runs teach the body how to allocate its reserves. In other words, they help you learn how to judge pace and prevent you from going out too fast on race day, because once you “hit the wall” in the ultra, there is usually a slim chance to recover.

Wardian maintains that doing faster-paced speed work in a progressed fashion is good for the more-competitive ultra runners.

“A lot of the ultra races are getting faster and faster,” Wardian says. “It’s important to be strong, fast and conditioned to the challenges that the longer distances pose.”

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