How to Train for the Leadville 100: Inside Ian Sharman’s Training Journal

Learning from the best has always been important to me. After all, what better way is there to learn than by studying the experts?

When it comes to running, you can skyrocket your success by studying elite runners and top coaches.

This is why I interview a new expert every month for Team Strength Running members.

And it’s why I encourage runners to learn from top coaches by reading their books.

No, of course you don’t need to run their workouts! But it gives us a window into the training that’s done for specific events.

And a few weeks ago, I met Ian Sharman in the mountains of Colorado just two days before the start of the Leadville Trail 100.

If you’re not familiar, the LT100 is one of the most difficult races in the world:

  • It’s 100 miles long… enough said
  • Runners compete in the oxygen-starved air at 9,200 – 12,600 feet altitude
  • It includes some of Colorado’s gnarliest mountain terrain on tough single-track trails

And Ian is a three-time winner of this grueling race in 2013, 2015, and 2016. Other notable accomplishments include:

  • 3x Rocky Raccoon 100 champion (2016, 2015, 2011 and Course Record holder in 12 hours and 44 minutes)
  • Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Record holder)
  • Montrail Ultracup races (2014 champion)
  • 7x Western States Endurance Run 100 top 10
  • Altra Running-sponsored athlete

Ian is also a full-time coach for runners of all abilities – from the beginner to those hoping to take him off the podium.

After we met (and he officiated a beer mile), I asked if I could profile his training on Strength Running.

Thankfully for us, he agreed!

I hope you enjoy this – I know I am.

Ian Sharman’s Leadville 100 Training

This snapshot of training represents his peak training before he raced both the Western States 100 on June 25, 2016 and the Leadville Trail 100 on August 20, 2016.

Ian Sharman Leadville 100

Since Ian raced two 100-mile races about two months apart, I chose to profile his training before both to see his “peak” (highest workload) training weeks.

Week of April 18 – April 24, 2016

Monday: 53.8 miles  (double Boston Marathon course with 2:49 for second half)

Tuesday – Thursday: OFF

Friday: AM: 2.2mi weighted vest hike. PM: 8 miles – 8:56/mile

Saturday: 4 miles @ 8:40 pace

Sunday: 14.5 miles @ 10:57 pace

Total Mileage: 82.7mi

Total Elevation Gain: 4,264 feet

Week of April 25 –  May 1, 2016

Monday: 2.3mi weighted vest hike

Tuesday: AM: 2.3mi weighted vest hike + 6.3 miles @ 8:53 pace (hilly @ 787 feet elevation gain). PM: 10.1 miles with middle 7.5 @ Progression from 6:00 – 5:13/mile (progression on TM)

Wednesday: 2.3mi weighted vest hike

Thursday: 10.3 miles @ 8:53 pace. Stopped at gym for 1mi treadmill hike @ 20% incline

Friday: AM: 6.8mi run/hike @ 10:13 pace – 1200 ft elevation gain. PM: 7.3mi with 3 x mile reps @ 5:50, 5:34, 5:32

Saturday: 6.1 miles @ 9:26 pace with 3 short, uphill strides

Sunday: 7.4mi (race – 12k) in 43:03 @ 5:45 pace. 14 extra miles to make it a long run

Total Mileage: 76.8mi

Total Elevation Gain: 5,739 feet

Q&A with Ian Sharman

Jason: When you ran the double Boston Marathon course, did you run from the finish line to the start and then run as an official entrant? What was the goal time for the “official” marathon?

Ian: A group of 6 of us started at the finish then ran the course in reverse to arrive about 30 mins before the main start for the first wave.

I aimed to run under 2:50 since it was the second half of the day’s running and just managed it by pushing for the last couple of miles to finish a few seconds under that time in 2:49.

Jason: When you ran the 3 x mile repetitions, what pace did your times correspond to (i.e., were they 10k pace, half marathon pace, etc.)?

Ian: This was an attempt at doing 3 single miles around target race effort for the Bloomsday 12k a couple of days later, so more of a pre-race warm-up. In the build up to my main races this year I was hindered by a foot injury so I didn’t do as many miles as I’d like and basically nothing on trails before Western States for a few months, which wasn’t ideal.

Typically I try to get into good marathon shape for a race like Western States, as well as focusing on the specifics of that event (heat, lots of downhill, etc), then there’s less of that between Western States and Leadville since it’s an 8-week gap and recovery is the priority.

Jason: You seem to take the “easy/hard” rule to heart. Do you typically do a lot of very hard days (multiple runs amounting to 20+ miles) mixed with very easy days (just a hike or 4-5 easy miles)?

Ian: Most of my runs over 20 miles are within races. I’d rather enter a marathon or 50k and use that as a long run since it’s more fun than a solo long run.

The recovery runs are purely focused on recovery and every run I do has a purpose and aim, although that may alter during the run if I sense my body isn’t ready for a harder effort. So I rarely do recovery runs much over an hour, which corresponds to 6-7 miles. More than that would just be junk miles and not fit my purpose for that run.

So my hard days typically are tough, especially if I use races for that purpose (such as the Bloomsday 12k or the Cascade Lakes Relay with 3x10k within about 12 hours).

I find that really high mileage isn’t needed and is very overrated, especially if runners want to have a longer career. The marginal gains get less and less as the mileage goes up, so I err on the side of caution, especially since I know that in 100 milers pure fitness is only one of the variables that affects performance.

In other words, it’s better (and more sustainable in the longer-term) to be uninjured and fresh than overtrained or injured.

What Do You Notice?

There’s a lot going on in this snapshot of Ian’s training. While I’m not pretending to be his coach or offering advice, I just want to give my thoughts on his training.

1. Low Mileage

I’m surprised that Ian’s mileage is this low. He’s obviously found that works for him and it seems that his days are very polarized: some are grueling (back to back Boston’s? Yikes!) while some are very, very easy.

This is the “hard days hard and easy days easy” approach executed very well.

2. Slow Pace

The majority of his runs are relatively slow compared to his fitness level and ability. Ian is clearly a talented athlete – not just for his endurance, but for his speed. He’s a 2:32 marathoner and ran the Boston Marathon in 2016 in 2:49 (after running the course backwards from the finish line).

Ian probably keeps the pace slow to make sure he maximizes “time on feet” (important for ultramarathons), recovery, and to simulate a similar pace he’d run during ultras.

3. Weighted Hiking

Using a 20-pound weight vest, Ian completes a lot of hilly hiking that I was surprised to see. In hindsight, I shouldn’t be surprised! It’s a fantastic way to simulate the inevitable hiking (with some gear) that he’ll do during a 100-mile event.

Hiking – even weighted – is also a relatively low impact way to enhance the recovery process while also getting in some practice for upcoming ultras.

4. Just a Touch of Speed

There’s not a lot of “fast” running in Ian’s program. He doesn’t need it since his goal races are ultra-endurance events but it’s still great to see some speedwork.

In my view, these workouts help increase running economy and his ability to consume oxygen – great skills to have when you’re aiming for the podium at some of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathons.

5. ______________

What do YOU notice about his training? Any questions, thoughts, or workouts that surprised you? Comment below!

I’ve always been borderline obsessed with how runners train (no big surprise there…) so these “behind the scenes” looks into the training of elite runners are fascinating.

Bringing you insights into the training, mindset, and nutrition of top athletes is a real treat. Getting a glimpse into what it takes to succeed at the highest levels is fun, exciting, and teaches us lessons about what’s possible.

For those who are interested in running an ultra-endurance event like a 100-miler – or if you want to start competing in these races – I hope you find this valuable.

Are these types of articles valuable? Do you want to see more training logs from elite runners?

Let me know by posting a comment below. I’d love to do more if you want to see them.

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  1. I enjoy reading articles from top athletes on how they train.

  2. Fascinating… I am curious how he built up to such distances in the first place. Did he start out with marathons and just build up from there?

  3. Interesting, but whenever I dig deeper into someone doing really well off of what you might call lower mileage I always find that at some point in their history have got the miles in their legs for years of high mileage. I’ve yet to find anyone (and maybe Ian is that one) who began training this way right from the start. Seems to hold for cycling and swimming too. Its probably why ex pros can do 2 weeks training and be awesome miles do seem to stay in the legs

    • He might have a history of higher mileage in the past. But I think his weekly totals are a bit misleading; he gets a lot out of the ultra races themselves and the long training sessions of 30+ miles. You don’t necessarily need “high mileage” (100+ mpw) if you’re doing sessions like Ian does regularly. But you’re definitely right – miles do stay in the legs for quite awhile.

  4. Amazing insight into an elite athletes training and commitment to what I assume were two A races.I would be interested to know what his nutrition and recovery techniques are.What commitment !

  5. Michael Wehrle says:

    1: I don’t find the week in April to be useful to look at, from a training perspective, based on the exceptional nature of the double Boston (65% of the weeks volume) and the three days off, followed by strictly recovery workouts. Impressive recovery week though!

    2: I wish all my “serious” casual friends would see his SLOW paces. Hard days hard! Easy days Easy! I don’t see anything in between.

    3: I have no point of reference, but I’m wondering about his elevation gain for his peak week. It seems low to me… I wonder if he focuses on elevation gain during earlier and/or later phases of the training block, instead of mileage or time on feet.

    4: no hill sprints?

    5: Where is the strength training on the side? I know its gotta be there… Surely you asked him Jason, this IS after all 🙂

    • Michael Wehrle says:

      PS. This article is SUPER valuable!!! Its more valuable to me than 99% of your other content, to be honest.

  6. Adrian Spencer says:

    Sharman clearly works very hard physically but what makes him elite in ultrarunning is his brain. His philosophies and methods are starting to catch on in a big way. Look at Sharman’s performance at Leadville versus Max King. Except it was never a fight. Sharman didn’t let King’s astonishing run throw him off his plan. He executed and won the race. Not only did he win, he made it look perfectly simple.

    Execution. Leave your ego at the door.

    Tim Tollefson and Zach Miller’s performances at UTMB told the same story. Same for Miller and Walmsley at States.

    Emotional intelligence, hard, smart, precise physical preparation and tactics are all just as important as fast legs.

  7. This is a fascinating read. Thanks for putting this together! One thing I noticed, at least on the weeks posted, is there is not a ton of net elevation gain, either. That stands out to me due to the races he’s done well at (trail/mtn.) However, when he goes up, like you aluded to in other aspects of training, he isn’t messing around (20lb. weight vest). Seems like he is really maximizing his time and recovery.

    • My pleasure Zach. I noticed the elevation gain as well. It certainly seems low, but that might just be due to the two weeks I chose to profile. I’m sure in other weeks he’s done a lot more considering Ian’s accomplishments in some very mountainous races. Appreciate you stopping by!


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