19 Sep How to train for an ultra marathon
Running a marathon is a huge accomplishment in itself, and taking the step up to ultra-running is a decision not to be taken lightly. We asked an exercise scientist for his tips on how to train for an ultramarathon.
An ultra marathon is any distance over a marathon (42.2km), and unsurprisingly, they can take a huge toll on your body. Whether it is the Jordan Ultra (360km) or the Badwater Ultra (135 km through the hottest place on earth – your shoes literally melt), your body is going to go through hell to finish. That hell will take a lot to conquer… but if you train your body to cope with its demands, the joy and reward of completing an ultra will never be forgotten!
How to train for an ultra marathon
Just like marathon training, there’s going to be a big emphasis on well-structured training (both in the gym and on the road). Nutrition and planned recovery periods in macro and micro-cycle phases are also incredibly important.
Training for ultra-running requires a high volume of training, so planning is vital to ensure you can fit it all in alongside other life commitments such as family, friends, and work. We highly recommended that you seek the advice of an experienced Performance Coach before you just head out and pound the pavement aimlessly.
Strength and Body Balance
Slight imbalances in your running technique, strength, flexibility and mobility will quickly be exposed when you increase training volume. A structured strength training program can address such issues, and will help to ensure you remain as fit and healthy as possible throughout your training and on race day. Stronger muscles, joints and connective tissue will allow you to safely perform and cope with the required volume for ultra-running training.
As important as it is to remain injury free, we all want to put in a good performance too. One study showed that when approximately one-third of the endurance training was replaced by resistance training, there was a significant improvement (8.1%) in running economy. Strength training won’t just save you some time, as the volume of running required will be far lower (vital to those who are not full time athletes), it’ll make you faster. On race day, it’ll save you energy, leaving you more in the tank for the last few miles.
How much strength training is enough?
When you train for an ultra marathon, your strength training should not negatively affect your run training. Be careful not use excessive volume of high reps and sets. You train for endurance on the road, not in the gym. Again, seek advice from a professional in this space.
Once you build a stable strength base and lifting experience, your reps per set should be no more tan 6-8 (preferably lower if you have good lifting experience). Ideal strength and power development for a runner, or any athlete for that matter, is training in range 1-6 reps per set, with a focus on intent to move with speed. Working in high volume sets and reps will only lead to excessive fatigue, affecting your ability to perform your goal task of running.
As a general guide, start with 3 to 4 sets of a squat/deadlift (lower body compound) pattern. Then move onto an upper body push pattern and upper body pull pattern exercise. Next, supplement this with some single leg hip control and core stability exercises, and you’ll be heading in the right direction. It is important that the strength program is specific to you following a pre-screening, the above is just an example. Ensuring your program focuses only on the necessary movements required for your sport, and your individual needs, will save you a lot of time and energy.
Don’t neglect your upper body
But why the upper-body work you ask? I know you’re a runner, but don’t forget that arm drive is vital! Upper body strength and posture will dramatically affect how efficient you are running. Just try running with your arms held to your side and see what happens!
An example, very basic, generic strength session is below. It should ideally be performed 1-2x per week, with an additional session per week focusing on hip and core stability and balance. Remember, the key to any successful program is pre-screening by an expert.
Sample strength session:
Warm up: Individually focused hip/glute stability work and dynamic movements for movement preparation. Include things like single leg balance work (such as hop and holds).
Cool down: Individually focused stretching/mobility program
When you train for an ultra marathon, the running side of training is the most important (obviously!). Everything you do should work with this, not inhibit it. When training for an ultra-run, the weekly training schedule won’t vary hugely from a marathon training schedule… You still need your speed work, interval and tempo sessions. The only big change comes from including one slightly longer run mid-week, and of course that ever-increasing long run on the weekend.
It’s vital that you build up the time on your feet. Longer runs (>4 hrs) can be broken up with walking breaks spaced throughout when you require them. Learning to walk and then start to run again is key to success in ultra-marathons. Being able to run for such a long time is a rare feat for humans, and spending time walking and recovering between run sections is far more achievable. Don’t think this will be bad for your overall performance! It’s common to see the athlete trudging along trying to run the whole race through stubbornness, refusing to walk and recover, then ending up being slower overall than athletes who intersperse the run with periods of walking. This is due to the poor running economy which occurs at such slow shuffling paces.
Recovery: Short and Long Term
It’s all well and good to have the perfect training plan to follow, but if you’re not recovering, then all your training will be in vain. Your body will improve when it’s rested, not when it’s constantly in a state of overreaching. Number one for recovery is sleep. If you don’t get 9 hours of sleep per night, then you’re already behind. 8 hours of sleep is for people not running 70-100 miles plus per week!
The macro planning for recovery is most important, and that is the scheduled rest through smart periodisation of your program. Ensuring lower load weeks, tapered weeks, and easier days throughout, will help you to cope with the training load and improve performance. Gradually increasing volumes over 3 weeks, followed by a recovery week of lower volume, is a good place to start. It’s important to remember that individual needs vary greatly… Don’t forget to ask as expert about what will work for YOU.
The micro side of the recovery is what you do after each session. This includes things like ice baths, contrast baths, massage, nutrition, and stretching. These will aid in individual session recovery, ensuring you are ready to go for your next run.
Getting more advice
Want to train for an ultra marathon? ASK FOR HELP! Find an expert who can give you an individualised training program based on your goals and current training volume. To find an expert near you, click here.
Written By David Smith. David is an Accredited Exercise Scientist and the Co-founder and Head Performance Coach at Absolute Health & Performance. He has 15+ years’ experience both in Australia and internationally in professional sports, multidisciplinary sports medicine centres and fitness centres.