Ultramarathon Training Demystified: Tackling an Ultra with Bryon Powell

by Jason Fitzgerald

Ultramarathon. The mere mention of the word intimidates many runners. The marathon itself can be a big undertaking, requiring months of training, too many sacrifices to count, and the inevitable highs and lows of arduous training. Surely, ultramarathon training is even more difficult.

Ultramarathon Training

I’ll be up front and honest right now: I’ve never run an ultra. I don’t have any experience with ultramarathon training so I won’t pretend to know everything there is to know. However, I do consistently run 80+ miles per week – a mileage total that’s actually more than many ultramarathoners cover in a week.

So I can run long. But I don’t do the long runs that would prepare me for a race longer than a marathon. There are other training tweaks I would make to mentally and physically prepare me for an ultra: back to back long runs, 3-4 day “endurance blocks” where you cover a ton of mileage in just a few days, and frequent double sessions.

Aside from that, I don’t know much. There are a lot of questions that I have concerning ultramarathon training and I’m becoming more and more interested.

Why you ask? Well, I’ve tentatively committed to running the 2012 TransRockies Run – a six day, 120 mile jaunt through the Rocky Mountains at high elevation.

This race entails… six days of averaging 20 miles a day. Up mountains. At suffocating altitudes of 7,500 – 12,500 feet.

I must be nuts. But it’s a team effort, so my running partner must be equally nuts. Besides, there’s an unlimited buffet every night! It’s an easy sell when the path to a runner’s heart is through his stomach.

While it’s not 100% definite yet, I hope to make my transition from marathoner to ultramarathoner next year.

Before I do, I emailed Bryon Powell, author of Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons for advice. I’ve read his book and was immediately energized and motivated to complete an ultra. His enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge of the sport is impressive.

The interview below helps answer some of the practical (and not so common) issues that many newbie ultramarathoners might have before venturing into the realm of ultra distance events.

Tacking Ultramarathons – A Brief Chat with Bryon Powell

Jason: What are 1-2 training changes that a marathoner can make to prepare for an ultramarathon?

Bryon: I think the biggest change would be decreasing the pace and increasing the distance of long runs. If you’ve routinely run marathons for a few years, this will be surprisingly easy once you get around the mental side of that. If logging longer long runs under your previous marathon training plan leaves you without adequate recovery, cut down on the volume and intensity of your speedwork. Surely these things help ones fitness even in an ultra, but the long run is even more important!

Jason: For a lot of runners, the idea of running for double (or quadruple) the distance of a marathon just seems boring. How do you make ultras exciting?

Bryon: The challenges and constant vigilance needed during an ultramarathon keep it interesting. If you’re staying on top of monitoring all your systems and staying upright when on trails you may end up cherishing the few boring moments. In addition, the reduced intensity and increased camaraderie of ultras allows for some great interaction with other runners. My favorite moments of both this year’s Western States 100 and The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc are long stretches spent chatting with my “competitors.”

Jason: My first impression of ultra training is that the injury risk is much higher because of the long runs and overall high volume. What are the injury prevention strategies you use to train effectively while staying healthy?

Bryon: I think there’s a general misconception that ultras increase injury risk. Rather, it’s folks who overindulge in their training while failing to listen to their bodies that lead to a higher risk of injury. There’s no need to have a higher training volume when training for an ultra than when training for a marathon. In addition, with adequate rest, I think longer long runs have no more injury risk than track or tempo work, but, to answer your question, I guess my “injury prevention strategy” is listening to my body and taking rest in the short term to lead to greater long-term training consistency.

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Big thanks to Bryon for helping out here with the subject of ultramarathon training and racing. It doesn’t need to be as complicated as some may make it.

Once you look carefully at what Bryon is saying about how to train effectively for an ultra, you notice many of the same principles that are common here on Strength Running:

  • The long run is the most important tool in the distance runner’s training arsenal.
  • Know your body and find what works for you to stay healthy.
  • Increases in overall volume or long run distance should be gradual. Take a long-term view of your training!

Thinking long-term in terms of months and years, as opposed to days and weeks like many other runners, is key to training effectively for any distance. We know that consistency is key, so taking a day or two off or drastically cutting your volume or intensity can actually be a very smart decision.

Trying to cram in too many workouts or as many miles as possible is often a mistake. Just a few weeks ago my arch was sore so I took a few days of very slow, easy running. I should have been running workouts. My mileage dropped by about 25%. But it was temporary and I’m back to running 80+  this week. No big deal.

Some of the best running advice I ever got was: The best workout that you can do today is exactly what your body needs today. If it needs rest, then that’s what you should do. Don’t get impatient. Don’t rush things. Stay patient.

Ultramarathon training and racing is the ultimate game of patience. Learning how your body reacts to the effects of long distance running, tweaking your training accordingly, and successfully completing an ultra training cycle are important things to know.

For a head start, I highly recommend Bryon’s book Rentless Forward Progress: How to Train for Ultramarathons or his site iRunFar.com.

Now for you: have you run an ultramarathon? How is it different than a marathon? What did you learn about training or racing? More importantly, what did you learn about yourself?

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