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How to train for an Ultra Marathon with as little running as possible!

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Posted by Jack A on 21 September 2013 at 11:00 PM

On January the 9th 2013 I received my confirmation of my entry to the 100km Ultra Marathon, the CCC. Two years before this I ran my first (and at that point only) marathon, I didn't train effectively and didn't enjoy it BUT I did find myself thinking how could I train more efficiently and was it possible to finish endurance races without logging masses of miles. 

I started reading up on strength & conditioning techniques and how they could be applied to running, after a few months and a few races with little running I found myself running once a week and lifting weights 3 times a week, I was getting stronger and faster but only just - I had no structure and progress was there but it was slow. This is when I learned about CrossFit and an obsession with functional training was born. The introduction of a functional strength & conditioning aspect had huge impacts on my training, I was getting fitter, faster and stronger. 

After supporting a friend for the previous two years of the race I knew it well and fully understood what an insane challenge just to even finish this race was. So naturally I decided I needed to do it. I signed up and training begun. I hadn't run further than 14 miles in the last year so I had a lot of work to do. 

The first thing I did was come up with a rough game plan (I've tried strict programmes but I never stick to them). I decided I would run once every other week and train CrossFit 3 times a week gradually increasing that to 4-5 times a week over the year. I never focused on my legs, I made sure that I was always working both upper and lower body as the great thing about ultras is you get to use walking poles.  

For the running I decided I needed to sign up to some races and have them as gradually increasing distances over the year and they ALL had to be trail races. 

My run schedule looked like this:

  • January - 10km trail race/10km run/8km run
  • February - half-marathon trail race/12km run/8km run
  • March - 32km run across the hills on my own/10km run
  • April - marathon trail race (44km - first time I broke marathon distance!)/8km run
  • May - 8km run/8km run
  • June - 71km Ultra Marathon
  • July - 40km run
  • August - 40km run

That is all the steady pace running I did up until the race (roughly a marathon distance a month). Now you're probably thinking I'm mental - a lot of people did! Traditionally runners will clock up many miles over the course of their training with multiple runs during the week and that is great and effective but just wouldn't work for me. 

A big part of my race preparation was mental preparation - "running is 90% mental, the rest is in your head". I've no idea who said that but they were on to something! You might be thinking all my training sounds actually quite easy but I came up with all sorts of horrible ways to try and trick myself over and over again so that when I arrived at the start line mentally i knew I was going to smash any race I did. My favourite trick was 7-10 days before a workout I would do a horrendous workout that I knew I would not enjoy...something with all of my weaknesses in and would make me question why I do this to myself (for example 150 wall balls or "Karen" as the workout is know in the CrossFit world). I also ran my regular 8km route with a 10kg weighted vest on, which is something I'd rather not repeat! 

The two other parts to my training was to include sprints (the aim was once a week but this ended up being more like every other week) and slacklining. Now for those of you that don't know slacklining is essentially a slightly wider tightrope designed to do tricks on and walk across. I initially bought one just for fun then when I looked into it I found out it has all sorts of benefits, so much so that olympic skiers swear by them for building ankle and knee strength. As someone who's torn a ligament in both ankles, ankle strength was a high priority. 

So how did I get on?

Well firstly I finished! It was tough, tougher than I ever imagined. I went out to fast and smashed the first 65km until the first climb at night where I suffered and this is where my training kicked in. I entered "the pain cave". I'm not sure where I heard this first but I love the expression, I guess it's similar to hitting the wall except I kind of enjoy it. I knew I'd trained hard and I knew what to tell myself and what to do - at the end of the day just lean forward and one foot will fall forward and the other will follow, it's as simple as that. When you're in a bad place you need to take a minute, compose yourself remember why you do this, remind yourself that you love this (even if you hate everything at that point), have some water and eat! Anything to take yourself away from the dreaded thought of quitting.

One of the most motivational things during the race was my support crew. They met me at every checkpoint they could and provided more food, spare clothes and more support than II could have ever asked for. This was the first time i'd ever had a support crew and the difference it makes seeing a face that you know every now and then is monumental. 

The first climb was such a confidence boost as I really didn't know what to expect with over 1400 vertical metres in the first 10km but I flew up (possibly slightly too fast). My training shone through as I was able to use the poles to push myself up giving my legs a big rest. By the time I reached the top of every mountain my arms were fried but my legs felt suprisingly great. This was needed as the downhills hit me hard. No matter how much I used the poles they were so steep my legs really took a pounding. After 24hrs and 28minutes I finally finished and what an epic event, 3 countries, nearly 6000m of climbing and I finally broke the 100km mark!

What did I learn from the run?

Firstly I learned a whole new level of exhaustion! This was my first experience with night running and that was a whole new ball game, something I definitely wished I had prepared for.

I realised I'm great at going up hills and shocking at going down! I suffered on the last few downhills but this is just motivation to train more, build more leg strength and make sure I get some mountain running in the monthly run whenever possible.

The biggest thing I've taken away from this race is simply that this way of training not only works but I stayed injury free throughout the year, my recovery times went through the roof and most importantly I finished an ultra marathon!

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    Comments

    20130717124558-jennispa

    This is phenomenal Jack - thanks for sharing! I'm definitely going to look into this more and try it myself - stay awesome!

    Jack A and Heather J encouraged this.

    20130924163340-malachy

    Thanks for this Jack, the timing is perfect! While I'm only aiming for 42K, I don't enjoy running, so was only intending to do 1 run per week most weeks(with 3 non running training sessions) so it's nice to see it can be done!

    Jack A and Heather J encouraged this.

    20130718100342-jack

    Go for it @malachy! It is possible but you do have to make sure you get all of those other training sessions in! Good luck!

    Malachy K and Heather J encouraged this.

    20130924163340-malachy

    I completed a 21K in March having run about 8km once per week in the months leading up to it, but doing focused non running training at least twice per week as well. Up until 6 days before the race, I'd never gone beyond 10k/60mins running. That day i did 14.5k in 1:17 in relative comfort. On race day, i smashed my target time of 2:13:00 with an official time of 1:53:34. Delighted doesn't quite describe the feeling of crossing that line, so I'm looking forward to doing the full 42k next March, and your post has taken away a little of the fear i had about doing so little running in prep for it :) Thanks again Jack!

    Jack A and Heather J encouraged this.

    20130718100342-jack

    @malachy Congrats on all the race times!! Great to hear more people doing this kind of training for running. What's the goal time for 42k?

    Malachy K and Heather J encouraged this.

    20130924163340-malachy

    @jack Hadn't even thought about a goal time this far out.. I'll start thinking about that when I know I can run 30k ;-)

    Jack A and Heather J encouraged this.

    20130927182831-zoobenny

    I love the idea of training for something by not actually doing that thing, and as I don't get on with running it's intriguing to think maybe I could become a better runner and actually enjoy it by doing other training first.

    Heather J and Malachy K encouraged this.

    20150428231158-weasel777

    An interesting read, Jack. Am new to ultra running coming to it late on in life (nearly 50) but loving it. Doing my second one in Oct. I like the idea of doing less miles and I`m doing around 50 - 60 miles a week concentating on quality rather than quantity but I enjoy the physical act of running too much to cut it down to your training. Good luck with your future races

    Enric M encouraged this.

    20130718100342-jack

    Hi @weasel777 I do actually love running. However living in London and not enjoying running on road isn't the greatest combo! So although I don't run as much as i'd like when I do it's on awesome trails and I love it - the other aspect is I've also found a great way to train! Good luck with the 2nd ultra!

    William B encouraged this.

    20150428231158-weasel777

    Anytime your up in the central belt of Scotland give us a shout and we`ll see if we can get out for a run

    Jack A encouraged this.

    20130913235303-nicoleworth

    I training for a 3 day stage race with very little running. I use regular Bootcamp workouts to strengthen the body and mind. I ran my 1st ever half (on trail to boot) when I had only ever run 10km+ once before

    encouraged this.

    20130913174115-giorgioc

    An epic adventure, not simply a race! Congratulations Jack! And if I can improve my running without run, I'm happier :)

    Malachy K encouraged this.

    20130718100342-jack

    Thanks @pookie-dog! It's all about quality training not just getting as much distance as your legs can possibly take! How are you finding CrossFit?

    Michael T encouraged this.

    20130914025027-enricm

    That's actually what attracts me of ultra and trail running and Jack A's approach: The viability of a training program with much more strength training in it and a better overall condition being Crossfit an excellent choice for already fit athletes. For some ultra runners it's showing to be an excellent choice, just look at one of my personal heroes Catra Corbet. Just one note of caution for the low mileage beginners: "Low Mileage" is relative in this case, this guy runs more miles in a "low" week than many in a whole month! It does not mean that you will be able to finish your first ever road marathon with a mile per week and and a few push ups (LOL) Well, I'm looking forward to next year when I plan on making my entrée in the ultra-trail world, with lots of strength training for sure and if I find a good gym (or space enough at home) CrossFit!

    20131011142927-sharv

    Thanks for the post Jack. Very useful tips. I'm trying to increase my athletic abilities in obstacle racing and would also like to increase my running distance but I find the traditional training method of logging miles (as you've described) often leads me into injury-land. Frankly, I also get bored running any more than a couple of days a week and need to mix it up with gym work, cycling, cross-fit and other odds and ends. Oddly enough, this has been working better for me than the more 'traditional' running plans. I think you're on to something. Thanks again!

    Male

    Great read there Jack, look forward to working with you in the future mate!

    Jack A and Malachy K encouraged this.

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