Training Basics: Mix It Up | June 9, 2012
There’s no way around the fact that training for an ultra is going to involve an awful lot of just plain running. What can top a string of high mileage weeks and a series of long runs to get you set up to do well in an ultra? But as you pile up those miles, be sure to include lots of variety in the types of workouts you do, the places you run, and the distances you run. Mix it up. You want to be a strong, versatile, resilient monster-runner out there, not a one trick pony. Varying your workouts will promote those monster-runner qualities. Mixing things up will also keep you from getting bored with all the miles. You’ll be a lot more stimulated physically and mentally if you’re tackling different challenges each day, versus going over the same ground day in and day out.
First of all, vary the type of workout you do for your average weekday runs. If you always walk out the door and do five miles at the same moderate pace over the same course, you will be trained to do exactly that and not much more. Jazz up your usual run with a series of pick ups, or make the run a fartlek (“speed play”) run where you vary the speed and intensity of the run as you feel the urge. Seek out some hills or do some hill repeats on whatever bump in the geography you have nearby. Make one day a very easy recovery run, just loping along enjoying the sunshine. Then, make the next day challenging, a hard tempo run where you hold a strong pace throughout the workout, or spend a day on the track doing intervals.
Next, vary the location and terrain of your runs. Most ultras are going to take you over a wide variety of trails and surfaces so you should train accordingly. Here’s an example from my own training routine:
Monday: Easy recovery run after a weekend long run or race, done on a mostly flat, very forgiving, single track trail.
Tuesday: Much longer hilly run on a paved road perfect for practicing a strong, sustained pace.
Wednesday: Full stop rest day.
Thursday: Rugged trails with lots of steep elevation change promoting maximum all around stability, strength, and flexibility.
Friday: A longish, ten mile trail run with a lengthy climb and descent and many twisting turns, great for endurance and strength training.
Since each run visits a different venue, it’s hard to get bored from day to day, and the varied nature of the runs both challenges different muscle groups and promotes both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
Take advantage of different types of weather and the varied conditions offered by different times of the day. On Monday get out before work and do five miles in the cool and damp of the early morning. The next day challenge the heat in the hottest part of the afternoon. If it’s raining or snowing, suit up accordingly and get out there in the weather. You’ll get a good workout without even noticing since you’ll be so hyped up about splashing through the rain or padding along in the quiet of falling snow. Seek out a route that is all covered in shade. The next day run a completely exposed route in the naked sun. Run in the evening around twilight or get out your lights and do a night run. All the variety will keep you interested and excited about running. It will also get you accustomed to all the varied conditions you’re liable to experience in an ultra.
A great opportunity to shake up your workout routine and rediscover the adventure and joy of running is when you’re traveling. I usually find that I can’t handle the same level and intensity of workout when I’m on the road due to the time changes and extra energy spent just dealing with being away from home, but even a curtailed effort in a brand new setting is very rejuvenating. You rediscover the joy of being able to cover long distances and explore new territory and all while getting in a good workout rather than sitting on your bed in the hotel room eating room service. I was reminded of how exciting a travel run could be recently while visiting in-laws in Poland. I was running solo through a couple of remote villages when I took a wrong turn exiting the second village. The area was pancake flat. Way off in the distance, I happened to spot a uniquely shaped church spire that I’d passed in the first village. I was able to course correct and get back to my in-laws before they panicked and called out the “policja” to look for the missing American.
You can also mix things up by cross training. Substitute a hard swim, weight training, or a long bike ride for one of your running workouts each week. With swimming or biking, you’ll still get the cardio-vascular pop that you get from running but you’ll be engaging a different set of muscles than you have been working (or over working) continuously with all the running. Maintaining your upper body strength will actually enhance your running form, and if you’re an older runner, you will be offsetting a natural tendency to lose upper body strength that comes with age. Cross training is also a great way to keep yourself from getting into a running rut since it presents you with a lot of fresh challenges. You’ll be focusing on new techniques and perhaps meeting a new group of fellow athletes, all grist for the keeping yourself excited about training mill.
Finally, a great way to break up a couple of continuous months of long weekend training runs is to jump into an actual race but treat it as a training effort. Relax and enjoy the whole experience of running with other ultrarunners, having all your needs met at the aid stations, and cruising down a well-marked and spectacular trail. Even if you’re not in full race mode and spend a lot of time walking and enjoying the afternoon out in the wilderness, you’ll notch another ultra finish and get a great gauge on just how your training is going. Just be careful not to push yourself to the point of needing to take several weeks to recover after the race. You want to be able to follow your “training” ultra with an easy week and then get right back to serious training.
So mix it up. Your body will be forced to adapt to all the different stimuli and conditions making you a more flexible and resilient runner, and you won’t find yourself burning out from doing the same routine over and over. When you finally do put in a serious effort at your target race, you’re going to tear down that trail like Grendel ripping the massive doors of Hroðgar’s drinking hall right off their hinges.