5 action steps to prepare and train for an ultra
You did it! You set some goals for the year, and you signed up for a race that aligns with those goals! Now comes the hard part, or is it the fun part? Depends on your outlook, but either way, you now need to prepare for the event.
Below are five steps to take in your preparation. I’ll use myself as an example, since I just signed up for a 56k race happening April 3.
1. Assess current fitness level
How prepared are you for the event? What has your training been like in the last couple of months? How long is the event, and how does that compare to your longest run recently? How is your body feeling? What is your fatigue level, mentally and physically? Do you have any recent race results that could indicate strengths or weaknesses in fitness?
In my case, I’ve signed up for a 56k, a distance I haven’t run since 2020. Looking back at my training from last year, my longest run was a marathon, and my second longest was a twenty-miler. This tells me that long runs will need to be a focus of this training block.
How long does a long run need to be? It’s relative. For this event, I anticipate taking five to six hours if things go well. That means I want to push my long runs up to three, four, maybe even five hours. I had a lot of runs in the two to three hour range last year, so this is building off prior fitness.
My body is feeling strong and balanced. I have some lingering tightness in my hamstrings, which is forcing me to keep my running volume on the low side, balanced with cycling and other cross training.
My last race was a 30k. I’ll be doing almost double that in April. I felt strong in that race, was able to push pretty hard all the way to the final kilometer, so I’m encouraged that my base is solid. I’m not too worried about speed work for this block; going the distance will take priority.
2. Identify the timeline
How long until your event? How many months and weeks? How many blocks can you fit in, or will it just be one? The concept of “blocks” is endorsed by ultra coaches like Jason Koop, in his Training Essentials for Ultrarunning. I’ll simplify the concept here to mean: doing the same type of intensity or workouts for several weeks at a time.
A “block” will allow you to choose a focus for your training and measure progress in that area after a few weeks. The focus might be endurance and long runs, speed (VO2 max or lactate threshold work), or terrain-specific (rocky trails, climbing, descending, roads, smooth trails, etc.).
I’ve already identified that I want to focus on long runs (endurance), and with 9 weeks until race day, that means I’ll be doing one 8-week block, broken into two sub-blocks. Increasing weekly volume and long run volume will be the focus.
3. Set a target for training volume
How much time per week can you commit? How much time do you want to commit? These two may or may not be aligned. Most busy people I know would like to have more time to train and recover. We need to work within the realities of our day-today lives, though, and fit in what we can.
Set a target based on what you’ve been able to consistently maintain, and that will be sustainable. Look for times in your weekly schedule when you might be able to “trim the fat”. Training seriously can involve making compromises. Can you get to bed earlier by cutting out some screen time, hence letting you wake up a bit earlier for a workout? Can you find time during the day to run? Can you run to work? To pick up your kids? To do errands? I spent many years as a proud run-muter, and it helped lay the foundation for my ultra career.
Last fall I was hovering around the 7-8 hour/ week volume for total training, including running and biking. For most people, running 6-10 hours per week is more than enough to prepare for an ultra. There is no hard and fast rule about how much volume (be it time or mileage) is needed to prepare for an ultra. We are all experiments of one, and we can test out what works for us.
This block I would like to set a minimum weekly volume of ten hours total endurance work (bike and run combined), and peak around 15 hours. I’m going to be balancing running with biking to reduce the risk of aggravating my hamstrings. I plan to alternate bike and run days.
4. Have a focus for each block
If you have time on your side, you may choose to do a base block, followed by a speed block, which will allow you to be more competitive and race at a higher level. We can debate the various merits of pyramidal training, polarized training, periodized training, etc., but the average athlete will benefit simply from building their foundation, and eventually doing some race-specific workouts to sharpen up.
I’ve had success preparing to race competitively in ultras by having a periodized approach, training for and racing a marathon early in the year, and shifting to longer distance later in the year while still carrying fitness for speed. That approach requires coming into the early season with a very solid base. This time around, my season will be organized more classically into a base period early in the year. My focus will be getting the weekly volume going up and to the right.
5. Do your homework
Research the race you’ve signed up for. This step is becoming easier and easier, as more people share their experiences online. Can you find race results and race reports? Are there videos of the course on Youtube? Can you find some Strava stats? Who ran, how fast, what were the paces like? What’s the terrain like? How much climbing and descending? Do you know anyone who has done the event? What can they share about it?
In my case, I am navigating racing in a new country, so I am starting more or less from scratch. My first step will be to read through all the info on the race website. Then I’ll look up results. I look at the top finishers’ names and search them on Strava. Boom! The fourth place finisher made his run public, so I can see his splits and the route. I then save his track as a favorite route in Strava. Now I can export that as a .gpx file and send it to my watch. Since the course is only about a 30-minute drive away, I can plan a day to go recon, running the first half as a long run. If I have time, I can do another day trip to recon the second half.
There are a lot more details that go into crafting a training plan, but I’ve outlined some considerations for how to begin the process. Ultramarathons aren’t just long marathons. A static training plan won’t cover everything you need to prepare. Ultras are course-specific and present unique terrain and environmental challenges that most road racers never have to think about. Hopefully this article gives some ideas for how to start your own preparation for a successful ultramarathon!