6 Keys to Long-Term Ultrarunning Success
Midway through Colorado's Never Summer 100K. Photo: Brian Metzler

Common sense guidelines for running long

When athletes approach training for an ultra-distance race, they often think more is better. While it is true that ultra races are longer—any distance longer than a 26.2-mile marathon marathon is considered an ultra—the training required to succeed isn’t about just piling on the miles. It’s about running smarter to continue running longer.

This idea of longevity in long-distance running is becoming more commonplace; where for a long time athletes were trying to string together so many amazing performances, while perhaps ignoring the cyclical nature of training, they were in effect digging holes too deep to fill. Often signaling an early and unnecessary end to their running. Whether your race distance of choice is a relatively short 50K or as long as a 100- or even 200-miler, smart training is the key to success.

These six training tips will help keep you running long stronger and longer as you train for ultra-distance races.

1. Hours Not Miles

Mileage may be king for athletes on the road but doesn’t lend itself to success for athletes preparing for ultras. This especially holds true for athletes pursuing mountain races, where hours logged and vertical feet climbed are better gauges of effort. Take time to look back on your training for successful buildups and see how many hours it took for you to have a peak performance. Use this as a rough baseline. If you’re looking to expand your reach in training then increase your weekly hours no more than 10 percent per week. Don’t push so hard today that you lose out on a chance to perform tomorrow.

2. Cumulative Fatigue

Back to back long runs have always been par for the course in training for ultra marathons and are the two most important days of training in your weekly training cycle. Consider also the effect that these runs will play on the next two runs of your cycle. If necessary, a day of rest is more beneficial than a third day of slow running—so you can run strong two days out. Traditional periodization—where an athlete builds for three weeks and then undergoes a fourth week of training at lower volume and intensity—is a great way to avoid burnout and injury. Running consecutive ultramarathons and long-distance races can really push you to a dark place mentally and physiologically. This has caused a number of elite athletes in the last five years to disappear from the sport completely. This exit has not been from a lack of competition or desire—but from the pounding they put their adrenal systems through from digging further and further—without coming back to center. Recovery is an opportunity to re-equilibrate and rebuild the athlete within.

3. Fuel for the Course

The quickest way to have a great race go down hill is to get behind on calories or underestimate hydration needs. Athletes should have a number of focused runs where the goal of the run is two-fold: running at race pace and fueling to maintain that effort. Ideally, this would be done in race-similar environmental conditions, so you can simulate how your body will respond on race day. This training is a fact-finding mission that allows you to go into your race knowing how your body will respond. This also allows you to experience highs and lows in your fueling regimen, so you can work it through and adjust before race day. This is the best opportunity to work with different fuels and fueling strategies leading toward your most intensive training and racing efforts. Testing your fueling and pacing is the best present you can give yourself prior to race day.

READ MORE: Going Longer—An Intro to Ultrarunning

4. Recovery

There’s no shame in taking a rest day, or even a day to cross train. The most common injuries for runners are repetitive stress injuries, and taking one day a week or even one or two workouts a week away from running can lead to a greater longevity, and enjoyment, in the sport. Athletes shouldn’t look at off days as being weak or as a “day lost,” but as an opportunity to absorb and adapt to the training. When athletes can see rest as an opportunity, and not a loss, they can better understand what their body needs on an ongoing basis. More is not always more when you’re taking a little away every day; you need to give the body time to replenish.

When you hit a low spot in a race, repeating a mantra can help pull you back to where you need to be and keep you moving forward. Photo: Brian Metzler

5. Motivation

Training for an ultra is not a cast in stone process; rather it is a process of building layers and layers to create a final product you can rely on to carry you through an event. Motivation to train and perform can be hard to find at times, so give yourself every opportunity to succeed. Most athletes train best with a group. This keeps you accountable to your training, pushing you when you need to, and, keeping you safe when you’re exploring a new route. Motivation in a race is a central theme, and using tools like music and mantras can help keep you. Music is a great way to distract the mind through a particularly tough section and split your focus to keep you from self-deprecating in tough times. When you do hit a low spot, having a mantra can help pull you back to where you need to be and keep you moving forward. Positivity reigns supreme here, and repeating phrases like “I am strong” or “I can do this” or “I am going to finish” can help you fulfill your goal.

READ MORE: Next Level—Inside the 200-Mile Race Trend

6. Adaptability

Longevity in running requires a combination of all of these components, and your needs as an athlete will most likely change day to day and cycle to cycle. Don’t expect that what worked last time will hold true for the next round of training. Always be willing to change your goal and don’t get too attached on one singular race, or route, to define your training. Being adaptable means listening to your body and finding out more about how you succeed; don’t get stuck thinking your training has to be the same as what works for someone else. The success of an athlete is not how they react in moments of success but how they react in moments of doubt.

Playing the long game with your running is knowing that if you were to take three days off and rest or cross-train, it’s going to prevent you from having to be out for three weeks if you went out and pushed it on your scheduled run. While there is a need to increase volume for ultra-marathon training, it’s not always met by compounding all the factors of training. Listening to your body will allow you to enjoy every facet of the sport for a long time.

READ MORE: Running Across the Grand Canyon—At Night

Andrew Simmons

Colorado-based Andrew Simmons is a USATF Level 2 certified coach, the founder/head coach of Lifelong Endurance and a competitive amateur runner.