Thinking about doing an ultra marathon?
8 weeks ago I decided I was going to enter an ultramarathon. I did think it might be a tall order, but after having completed the training for the marathon in April and completing the marathon successfully, I figured if I could do all that, I could do just about anything. I thought, I still had the marathon in my legs and I could go on to train to run 40 miles.
I set up my 40 mile training plan, based on a 4 weekly rotation where I ran long for 3 weeks, then rested on the 4th week. I usually run 3 days a week, and increased this frequency to 4 days a week. My weekly mileage was increased from about 30-40 miles, to 50-60.
After 3-4 weeks, although I was still enjoying running and enjoying the challenge of running more I was finding it a bit of a struggle. I felt like I needed more rest than I was getting. I especially found the days where I was running 5 miles in the morning and 9 or 10 at night hard.
I ended up taking rest when I wanted it, but it meant I wasn’t strictly following my training plan and by week 5 I’d taken a break from running of around 8-10 days, with the odd short run in between. I’d successfully ran 20 and 26 miles in the early stages of my running. Then I tried a trail 20 miler and got lost, and ended up with a swollen ankle (possibly from going over it slightly on the rough terrain). I rested from running to let my leg recover, and had my birthday week meant I took a week off before running 31 miles.
The Clyde Stride 40 mile ultramarathon I entered and pulled out of 3 weeks ago is tomorrow, Saturday the 16th of July. I’m not taking part because I think I messed up my training and got injured.
Below I’ve got some thoughts together about some learnings I’ve made from the experience:
Create a good, achievable training plan
I’ve read that the length of the long run is the only difference between a marathon training plan and an ultramarathon training plan. Keep doing the speedwork and hill workouts you would as part of a marathon program, and gradually increase either the frequency or the distance of your long (slow) runs. That’s all it takes.
I think my issue was that there weren’t many ‘example’ training plans available to me, so I didn’t know what did and didn’t work for training for ultras. I think perhaps I took the whole ‘running lots of miles’ too seriously and should have cut back on the distances of some of my mid week (medium) runs.
I also seemed to cut out most of my other cross training I’d been doing. My marathon training included cross training (spin fit) and circuits, and for some reason for training for the Clyde Stride, I concentrated almost wholly on running. Not only was this putting stresses on my body, it also made me start to dislike the pressure of having to run, and run so much and so far all the time.
If there is a next time (I have my place for the Clyde Stride next year now)… I would continue with my cross training, and run less weekly miles (30-40 miles instead of 50-60). I would do: 1 short run, 2 medium runs (miss one medium if required, or cross train instead of it) and 1 long run.
I would also consider having more rest weeks – I was doing weeks of high mileage for 3 weeks (4 weekly pattern), then having a recovery week. I could make this 2 weeks of high mileage and 1 of recovery week (3 weekly pattern). Or set it up as a 4 weekly pattern to start off with, and reduce it to a 3 weekly pattern later in the training programme if I was finding it hard to do the 4 weekly pattern comfortably.
Continually reassess your training plan
I did this throughout the 5 weeks before I got injured. When I felt tired, I made sure I took a rest day. When I had a swollen ankle, I took plenty of rest time to allow it to recover. I just think I didn’t have enough time to recover properly to recommence my training back up to 31 miles.
You set up a training plan as an idea of what training you will do to get you ready for the ultramarathon (or marathon, or 10k of half marathon). If you can stick to that training plan then great, but if life gets in the way, let it. Start each week afresh and don’t be too harsh if you mix things about or miss out on training sessions.
Looking back on it during the times I wanted to rest (through tiredness or injury), I think I should have maybe kept my legs turning over, cutting the medium to long runs to short easily achievable runs or even better, changed the day to be a cross training day (bike, swim or circuits).
By week 5 of my 8 week training plan, when I became injured I realised that I wasn’t going to make the 40 mile run, and changed my training all together. I discarded the goal of running the ultramarathon, and confidently changed my training to suit how my body was feeling at the time. I didn’t want to risk further injury, so rest from running was the key for me. I changed my whole outlook and changed direction. I wasn’t too down about it, I just started to concentrate on another goal instead.
Set a reasonable amount of weeks to allow you to train for the ultramarathon
For any event, you need to have enough time (in weeks) to get your body and mind ready for the event. I can train for a 5k or 10k in 6 weeks, a half marathon in 6-10 weeks, a marathon in 12-24 weeks.
For the marathon I did in April, I trained for around 14 weeks. I started off with my long runs being about 8-10 miles, and gradually increased these so that by the end of the 14 weeks I had run 4-5 long runs (above 20 miles). This got my body used to running that sort of distance, or for that amount of time. It also allowed me to play around with energy and hydration, and learn how my body would act and recover.
I thought that because I had the ‘marathon in my legs’ that I would be ok training for 40 miles in 8 weeks, but looking back on it, I should have maybe trained for longer (12-16 weeks minimum instead of 8 weeks).
Learn to get comfortable running slowly
When you start running, you maybe run a 5k then a 10k, then you go up to half marathons or marathons. Once you get to the 10k stage, all of a sudden 5ks become easier and you want to see progress by improving your time and trying to get faster. The same applies for half marathons and 10ks.
After I ran the marathon in April, I pulled about 4 other pbs for shorter distances out of the bag. After I’d done the marathon, 10k seemed like a walk in the park!
For ultras though, it seems, you need to consider you pace and you need to think about running slower. Many runners are conditioned to equate ‘running’ with ‘running fast’, but for ultras you really need to consider a pace which you will be able to sustain for up to 5-10 hours!
For a lot of ultra marathon runners, running longer than 30 miles involves a lot of walking, for good (or stubborn 😉 ) runners its maybe just walking up the hills. Once you start running trains, get comfortable with the slower pace, or even walking. If your goal is to finish and ultra, walking can be the quickest way to get there.
Run on trails or in forrests, or the type of terrain you will run on for the ultramarathon
Practice on the type of terrain the ultramarathon will be on. See the Specifity of training
I’m used to running on tarmac. I don’t tend to run on trails, or even on grass – it’s totally different to road running. In week 4 of my training, I tried running on trails, and I found it really hard. It was the second section of the run and it was tough. I was worried I’d go over my ankle, and I’m not sure my trainers were up to it (just an excuse to buy new trainers! Lol).
Running on trails, you need to slow it down a bit and adjust your stride to deal with the terrain. You need to learn to sometimes walk on the up hills and let go on the down hills. You need to run with confidence and you also need to know where you’re going.
On the upside, trail running can help you avoid injury. I think one of the main reasons I experienced knee paid 16 miles into my 31 mile run was because I was running on the right hand side of a single track road (on a caver on the side of the road). In trail running, you are forced to shorten your stride and really think about where to put your feet.
If I’m going to do the Clyde Stride next year, I need to consider getting a lot of training done on trails. As well as training for longer, I maybe should have run on some of my short and medium runs on trails too, to get my feet, legs and body used to the difference of running on trails compared to what I’m used to (road running).
Train with an experienced ultramarathon runner to gain some of their knowledge and tips
After I pulled out of the Cylde Stride a few people got in touch with me, and I got in touch with someone I recognised from work who was doing it. She suggested that once I was back up to running long distances that we should go out for a run or two together.To quote her: ‘If you’re ever looking for someone to go a run with – give us a shout – I can never find people that want to run more than 15 miles or so (and usually I get laughed at even suggesting it!)’
The long runs were starting to get a little monotonous. Sure there were a great challenge and I felt great after doing them, but sometimes when you are out there running for 3-4 hours it’s good to have someone to chat to, to take your mind off the niggles of pain or whatever goes through your head on solitary long runs.
If you run with people who have experience of running longer distances than you, you can also learn from them. They might have tips on hydration, nutrition, how not to ‘hit the wall’, how to deal with blisters… or how you should tackle your next week of training.
My friend Jackie helped me to build myself up from running just 5k to being able to run half marathons and beyond. I learned a lot from her, and if you run with others, you are bound to pick up tips and advice along the way (as well as getting good chat).
If possible train with someone who’s done the route before
Ultramarathons are usually on long routes (but this applies to any kind of run event). Sometimes you might not know the route or they might not have routes or maps publicly available. If you know someone who has run the route, get them to take you out on parts of it. (Mix this up with the point above of running with experienced runners).
You will get to know the route and feel more confident in your training and in your belief that you can finish the ultra distance.
Consider your nutrition generally and energy for during training/long runs
On my long training runs, I tried out lots of different experiments with eating whole food, porridge, mars bars, energy gels. I carried a water pack with me for hydration, but perhaps could have incorporated leaving bottles of energy drinks along longer routes.
Learn from others what works for them and try different things out with regards to nutrition so that you find out what works for you. I don’t think I had enough time to try new things out and didn’t feel exactly comfortable with the idea of ‘eating on the run.’ If I do the Clyde Stride next year, I guess I will need tor revisit this and perhaps ask other ultra runners for advice on what they do for nutrition on long runs!
So, if you are thinking about an ultra marathon – consider the points above, and perhaps I’ll be looking back on this again at some point in early 2012 to see whether I want to take on the challenge of the Clyde Stride ultramarathon in July 2012.
Perhaps I’ll spend a bit more time considering a new training plan, and take on some of the learnings from above before I go about training for an ultramarathon the next time.