Sun and exposed-skin lovers rejoice: despite the east coast’s world of white, Winter is more than half over!
We’re on our way towards the warmth, dampness, and blossoming of early Spring, which also means we’ve officially entered training season for trail ultramarathons.
Nothing beats running – and running just a bit farther – through the comforting near-silence of the outdoors. If you’ve been thinking about attempting your first 50k/50 mile/100k+ event, congratulations! You’re a badass for even thinking about it.
With some preparation, you’ll soon be joyfully hobbling past the finish line on your trail du jour. My first 50k’s were awe inspiring and filled with a word-salad of emotion and experience. A trail ultra can change your life and you absolutely CAN run one – so let’s help you get there!
TRAINING BASICS: RUN MORE, NOT FARTHER
I’ve seen the fear-dilated pupils of long distance newbies when”the long run” comes up in conversation – this dreaded 15, 19, 20, bazillion mile training run that we are supposedly meant to undertake weekly for god knows how many weeks.
But while long weekly runs work for some, I’ve come to believe that once they get long enough, these runs have the potential to cause more damage than benefit. I also think the whole concept can intimidate more-than-strong-enough Ladies (& Lady-lovers) from attempting longer distances, unnecessarily keeping some from the amazingness of an ultra showing just how strong you have always been.
My times and speed (which I don’t actually track other than the finishing times at events and how long running takes me to get home) have improved with subsequent training rounds, but not because I now have a specialized training regimen. My gains have come mostly from limiting my long runs.
Instead of running several 20+ milers leading up to an event, I run more days per week on more varied terrain. The miles add up and so do the hills. The result has been more conditioned legs and hips and less stiffness – a side effect I thought was just par for the running-for-hours course.
I still run for hours some days, just taking my time and enjoying the scenery. Long runs are important, but lengths that approach epic can actually be detrimental to your performance. Save your legs for your event – spend your training creating a solid musculoskeletal foundation that can withstand whatever your mind does come race (or unsupported run) day.
HILLS: CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE, CHANGE YOUR RUNNING
Hills used to be the hyena to my lion, which is to say I fucking hated them. Some days I still do.
But the difference between an early exit and completing an ultra often comes down to your ability to withstand them. I quickly realized during my first 50K that my previous road marathons didn’t matter – running slowly on an even surface with limited elevation gain and loss is far easier than it seems.
But the physical exhaustion that accompanies 4,000, 11,000+ ft of elevation gain ON TOP OF 32+ miles can’t be understated – it’s fucking brutal (and beautiful… it’s a lot of things).
I decided one day last year while huffing up another hill-of-unusual-size that I needed to find a way to enjoy my plodding – hills were only a torture because I’d brought myself to dread them.
Sure, they’re hard. They will always be hard for me. But they are only suffering if I decide they are. So I started saying positive bull-shit about hills before every hills training day, and now I actually believe it. Finding excitement and enjoyment in hills led me to run more of them, to get better at them, and taught me to embrace them as a satisfying part of the journey.
Run more hills more joyfully – they’ll strengthen your legs, they’ll feel less difficult as you get stronger, and the satisfaction of summiting will make your ultra.
REST DAYS: LISTEN TO YOUR BODY, LOOK FOR PATTERNS
Training matters and rest is an essential part of training.
Your body will support you in achieving incredible things, but only if you give it the space it needs to heal and recover. For me, there are weeks where running all 7 days feels amazing. Other weeks I can only muster enough motivation and energy to run two. The key is figuring out and then listening to what your body is telling you.
Both an overly regimented mindset and general laziness can be detrimental to training for an ultra, and both can lead to injury. Learning to differentiate what it is that you’re feeling is actually pretty hard – it’s something you’ll need to practice. A lot.
Having a training plan will help you keep track of what’s working and what’s not, but plans can (and often should) be adjusted.
Keep a written record of your runs, how you feel after, how you feel on rest days, and why you skipped or lengthened a run. Patterns usually start to appear that can help indicate whether you may need more or less downtime. Self care and rest matter as much as weekly mileage counts and hill days – factor them in accordingly.
No single training plan works for every person – you have to make your training your own, and the training principles above can help.
If you want to run an ultramarathon you have to trust your body, give meaningful effort, and believe in what you can accomplish.
There’s a finish line waiting for you and you’ve got plenty of time to prepare. Get out there and show yourself just how strong you are.