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Ten Top Tips for Ultra Training

By Nicky Jenkins

We're no strangers to the world of the Ultra at JDW Fitness, and not just Ultra running either, one of our first events together was a full day multi sport of 100 miles running, cycling and kayaking in the Scottish Highlands. I like to throw in the odd long distance triathlon now and again and between us we have racked up a few Ultra runs as well (35,50,55,60,80,100), John having completed the Lakeland 100 twice in the last 2 years.

However, despite the fact that we have had a lot of success in completing Ultras, neither of us got it absolutely spot on first time with the training, and so we thought we'd share some of the things that we've learned over the years.


man running in the Lakes, Lakeland 100
Lakeland 100

  1. TRAIN SLOWLY


A friend of mine recently shared a newspaper article with me (from the Times no less) which suggested that 80% of your running training should be at slow pace. This isn’t news to us, but when we first started training for Ultras I don’t think either of us realised how slow “slow” pace actually was.

Slow pace runs should feel relatively easy, it's all about getting the right intensity.

Low intensity allows you to build volume, means quicker recovery and less chance of injury.

Don't forget the other 20% though, which should include some tempo runs, intervals, and the king of training sessions - Hill Reps (especially if your event is a hilly one).


2. TRAIN IN TIME NOT MILES

Why? There are many different things to take into account on the long training runs such as terrain, weather, elevation, how you respond to hydration and nutrition, etc. How long it takes you to cover mileage on one training day, may be completely different to how you complete it the next, especially if you're not running the same route all the time. Think of time on the feet rather than a rigid "mileage" training plan. Increase the time in gradual increments over the course of your training plan.


3. LEARN THE COURSE/ROUTE

Best case scenario - practice the actual race route in smaller sections - use it for your training runs.

However, it's not always possible to practice the route you're going to be running, logistics can sometimes prevent this, so if this is the case make sure you do your research.

Have a look at the elevation profile, so if you can't get to the route you can perhaps practice something similar. It's also useful to practice similar terrain as well, this will help with your shoe choice(s).

Top tip from our good friend Jonny Milner (Hardmoors Superslammer and 1000mile club, amongst many other things) ;

"research where the checkpoints/aid stations are and work out how long it's likely to take you to get from one to the next. Especially on something like the Spine where there's really long sections without anywhere to top up food and water. Make sure you're carrying enough or things can start to go south pretty fast"


4. PRACTICE WITH YOUR PACK/RUNNING VEST

This one's from Shelli Gordon, Lets Run shop in Great Ayton - a very accomplised Ultra runner in her own right. This top tip from Shelli is to do your training runs wearing the full pack that you would be wearing on race day. It sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise when you've got all the mandatory kit in there and have filled it with the necessary fluids, just how much your bag weighs! Practising with the weight will mean no surprises on race day, you'll be used to it. You'll also get used to how everything is packed and how easily accessible everything is. Salt tablets in that pocket, flapjacks in that pocket, knowing where your waterproof is if you're not wearing it, etc, etc... It can save an awful lot of faffing and time wasting. You'll also become aware of how comfortable (or not comfortable) it is, if any adjustments are necessary, and/or if you're likely to experience any chafing!


5. PRACTICE WITH YOUR OTHER KIT

Can you get your Waterproof trousers on over your trainers?

Is your combination of shoes and socks the right one?

Do you get blisters and is there any way you can prevent this?

Are you using poles, and do you know how to use your poles?

Do your shorts chafe? Do your underpants chafe? Does your bra chafe?

Is a vest top a good combo with your running vest/pack?

Do your layers work if it's cold? And wet? And windy?

You get the idea... Plan your outfit and practice with it (as well as the spare kit you'll be carrying).


Couple on Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District
Fairfield Horseshoe

6. OFFER YOUR SERVICES/VOLUNTEER

I did an awful lot of crewing before I attempted the Hardmoors 55. I had also marshalled a good few races. If you've never done an Ultra before, this could serve as a crucial part of your training and give you valuable insight. Understand how the checkpoints work, understand how different runners behave at the checkpoints, do a lot of people watching, watch and learn, pick up tips (this is where we first saw someone brush their teeth mid 110 mile race), and also look out for those things you might want to avoid.


7. PRACTICE FUELLING & HYDRATION

I have known many people have to pull out of Ultras due to stomach issues. As a general rule of thumb - the advice is don't try anything new on race day. Have a look and see what the checkpoints are offering (these are usually published on websites way before the event) and try eating some of those types of food on your run. Also work out how much you want to/need to carry in between the checkpoints and try eating that food (and drink) on your long training runs. Eat regularly as well (we like real food wherever possible); it keeps the stomach receptive and keeps your energy levels up. Every 45mins to 1 hour is a good guide on an Ultra. This may feel unnecessary from a fuelling perspective on a training run, but testing foods, gels and even your salt tablets and electrolytes can be crucial to knowing how your stomach is likely to respond. Think of it as training your gut.


8. PRACTICE FAST HIKING

If you are doing a hilly Ultra, it's unlikely you're going to be running up those hills on race day. Therefore, don't be afraid to walk on your training runs. Fast hiking, or power hiking, up hills is an art form in itself. Trail runners of all abilities do it. It's an effective way to conserve energy and delay muscle fatigue. The ability to fast hike during a race can significantly impact your overall time. Practicing marching up the hills with pace on training runs will be super beneficial on race day.


Couple riding mountain bikes, Rat Race Coast to Coast
Highlands Coast to Coast

9. CROSS TRAINING

A great way to improve running performance, whilst helping you stay injury free. Cross training (swimming and cycling are great as they are non-load bearing) means you'll be using different muscle groups whilst maintaining your cardiovascular fitness.


Don't neglect your strength - it's super important to stay robust - strength training can improve running economy, delay onset muscle fatigue and help prevent injury.

Your strength training should compliment and not hinder your training program. Think specificity - working the muscle groups that you use for running (think upper body as well - carrying your pack, repetitive arm movements). And try not to kill yourself in the gym... For example, if you're smashing some really heavy weights in the gym and get bad DOMS, you may find it difficult to effectively complete your running workouts.. and your running workouts should take priority - these are much more important to your Ultramarathon success. No point having strong (smashed) legs if that hinders you from getting mileage in them.

And the final piece in the cross training puzzle; factor in some core work, mobility and a bit of stretching (Yoga/Pilates are fantastic for this) and you've pretty much got the full training package sorted.


10. CONSIDER HIRING A COACH

We have both utilised coaches to help us through some of our events. We are no different to anyone else. You can never know everything (although we like to think we know a lot) and there is pretty much always someone out there with more experience and more knowledge than you.

Think specificity again here. In my (humble) opinion, you want a coach who is not just a trained running coach, but someone who has first hand experience of doing Ultras themselves. Do your research before you hire a coach.

Perhaps you're happy with your running program but you need a little help with the strength training - again, consider hiring a strength coach who has experience of Ultra running, they will understand your needs and make sure the strength training is helping and not hindering your progress. Super important.


Man with arm around his girlfriend, dressed in running gear with poles in the Lake District
Lakes Traverse

BONUS TIP

Above all, try to enjoy the process. The Ultra journey is not just about the event itself. It's about finding that level of commitment, discipline, determination and mental strength. It's about getting outside and enjoying nature, the views, the silence, the headspace. Whatever makes you tick on those trails, whatever brings that smile to your face - remember that as you move through your training.

Happy running.



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