Training for Ultras
I hope these notes will help others to benefit from what I have learned over the years, from wide reading and from practical experience of ultradistance training and racing. They are offered with all humility, not as gospel statements, but as thoughts which readers may take or leave, as they choose. It is important to find out what works for you. We are all different, with different tolerances of distance and speed.
That in itself is an important lesson- not to assume, for example, that a particular schedule that seems good for one individual is necessarily transferable to another. But if you can shorten your learning process by profiting from others’ experience, just do it! I hope that my notes will give readers some useful hints and food for thought.
Cross Train With Pride. And Be Yourself!
Each person’s training patterns and their performances need to be seen in the context of their lifestyle, opportunities and personal capacity to train and race. I have always worked, mostly behind a desk, even when my daughter (now 13) was a baby. I have never had the chance to over-train, something for which I’m very grateful, especially now I’m W50, still enjoying my sport immensely, and largely injury-free. Living for most of my working life in central London, and with many demands on my time, I have always had to adopt a flexible approach to training and to be content to cross-train. Now we live in a rural village in South West England. The village is surrounded by rural lanes where you can run/walk almost traffic-free, and where you get a hilly workout whichever way you go. But the same lifestyle constraints still apply. On days when there is no chance of hitting the road, I have to be content with a session on the exercise bike and/or some free weights/exercises at home (the latter usually performed in the kitchen while getting breakfast or supper!) There have been times, I’m sure, when I have envied other people their chance to run twice a day. Perhaps now I see the advantages of keeping fit through a varied programme which avoids excessive wear and tear on the joints, strained and overtrained muscles, and physical and mental tiredness.
A Glorious Addiction
Our sport is addictive. Don’t fight it! It brings friendship, fitness and fun. But be careful how you use this addictive substance called exercise if you want to continue to enjoy its pleasures and avoid injury and -time off.
Racing as Training
For me, during the season from March to October, racing and training become a continuous activity. I like to do 1-3 ultra races a month, depending on where and when they are held, and how they fit in with work and school commitments. I have got a bus card which makes long-distance coach journies in the UK and Europe very good value, and a family railcard which makes the train cheaper provided Vicky comes too! Looking back, my best years have been those when I have raced often. I do not agree with those who say that you can only do one ultra race a year, or two. Each race is training for the next, each one builds up your strength and fitness until, by mid-late season, you are at your racing best, ready to set records and achieve new personal bests.
Races provide an excellent training environment. They give you the opportunity and the motivation to train for longer hours and miles than you would normally manage to do, with food, drinks, shelter, loos all provided, and a measured, safe and usually well-lit circuit. Don’t try to treat each race as an eyeballs out, competitive affair. If you do too many like this, you will risk physical and mental burnout. One Spring, when we were preparing for the Paris-Colmar in June, we raced 24 hour/200kms walking events every 1-2 weeks in April and May. After a few weeks the tell-tale signs of sore throats appeared, and our performances tailed off. We had overdone it - pushed our luck a bit too far, and needed to back off for a couple of weeks to let our immune systems recover.
In 1999 I did 9 races of 100 miles or more between April and October, including three in May.
I survived and thrived, by treating perhaps 5 of those races as real competitive efforts, and the others as hard but sociable training spins, some way back from the - edge - of more or less all-out physical and mental commitment. You don’t have to prove yourself or push to the limit in every race.
Decide which races are likely to be the more important competitions - for example, the 100 miles Centurion racewalks if that is your speciality - and have some training fun in the others. In 1999 I entered a number of - go as you please - 24 hour races in which I walked, aiming for 100 miles, but without fussing about the time I took, and making sure I drank and ate well enough, so that I was not over tired, and was ready for work on Monday and to resume training after a couple of days.
S t r e t c h It Out
So jog or run if you like, but mix this with walking, and be diligent about stretching- a walker needs to keep his or her muscles and tendons supple and long, and running can shorten and tighten them progressively if you don’t take care with stretching. I always try to start and finish any training run with a 5-10 minutes of walking with a nice long stride, followed by stretching at the end. I have a routine of 3 or 4 basic leg stretches which I do before I come through the front door, otherwise I get caught up in the business of family breakfasts and conversations!
Gym - or Improvise
Running is one useful element of cross-training. Gym work is another. Our village is miles from the nearest gym or track, but you can achieve similar training effects with very basic equipment. Walkers need power and strength in the upper body, so some exercise for the chest, shoulders, back, front and arms can really help your style and speed. Be careful not to distort the balance between the two sides of the body, or between the back and front, or you may find inefficiency, aches and pains emerging – it is uncomfortable if back ache or shoulder pain occurs. I prefer to use small to medium sized free weights with quite rapid repetitions, rather than heavy weights – the walker’s aim is to develop strength and tone with speed, not to build bulk or slow responses. I have improvised weights with tins of beans in the past! When I have to travel for work away from home, I put into a corner of my bag a flexiband with which I can perform some exercises in my hotel room wherever I am! I don’t have a rowing machine but have enjoyed using them when I occasionally get the chance, for upper body strengthening.
At home I have an old exercise bike - just a sturdy mechanical affair with no electrical gadgets - which I use as often as 3-4 times a week, especially if I can’t get on the road because of shortage of time or bad weather. I don’t pedal at high resistance, but work steadily for anything between 20 and 60 minutes. There is a big wire bookstand on the handlebars, piled with a mixture of work-related stuff and sports reading (like the NZUA and Centurion newsletters, and Runner’s World magazine.) As a family we enjoy real bike rides some weekends; they can be relaxing, and good training without being strenuous.
Speedwork Pays Off
Going to the track, especially with friends, is great for speed work sessions. Long distance specialists tend to become mileage junkies and shun intervals and any kind of variable speed work. One winter I went to the track with friends each Wednesday night in London. We did intervals, each working hard but letting each member of the group find their own pace. It isn’t surprising that the following summer season I achieved some of my best times at short distances as well as in longer races. I confess to being lazy about speedwork now.
It is vital to stretch well soon after any gym work, and the best time is while your muscles are still very warm and supple. If you can, it is a good idea then to have a walk, even just for a few minutes and not too hard.
Any training regrets? Not really; it’s important to feel positive about what you do, and make the best of whatever routine fits into your life. I am a rotten swimmer, so it doesn’t bother me that the nearest pool is miles away! An activity we love and wish we had more time for is long distance cross country walking and running. In the UK we have a terrific organisation called the Long Distance Walkers’ Association (LDWA.) LDWA groups around the country put on events each weekend, mostly of 25-30 miles, occasionally 50 miles, 100kms, and annually 100 miles, almost entirely off road, through all kinds of terrain and conditions. Route descriptions are provided, and there is food and drink at checkpoints every few miles. They are not races, and the organisers specify a maximum time limit (eg 10 hours for 25 miles) and sometimes a minimum time (out of consideration for checkpoint marshalls.) You can fast-walk or jog if you like. For good fun, great views, and training value there is nothing like a day in the hills on one of these events.
There is so much you could do, if you have time. Just don’t overdo it. There is nothing smart about hitting the road or the gym so often that you have constant muscular niggles which threaten to hamper your training and racing, constant tiredness because you are pushing your body beyond sensible limits, or constant snuffles because your immune system is run down. In deciding where your limits are (and each person is different,) take account of all the demands in your life, including work and family responsibilities as well as your sport. I have known young (pre-vet) athletes run themselves down and then give up, because they tried too hard. And older athletes who looked forward to greater opportunities to train when they retired, but ran into injury time by increasing mileage too fast. If you want to build up your training volume, increase mileage by small amounts (not more than 10% per week is often suggested,) and remember the value of cross-training in avoiding overload on specific muscle groups. Balance heavy training and racing periods with sufficient rest to promote healing and recovery. And use nutritional strategies to help keep you fit and well.
I have had four injuries in the last 15 years, and it’s quite instructive to explain how I got them (and could have avoided them!) The first was a badly sprained ankle caused by a slip and fall in a 100 mile cross country event in the Snowdonia mountains. The fall occurred running down off a mountain at about 30 miles into the race. I slipped on a wet rock (it was raining at the time) and crash! More haste less speed. Being an obstinate sort, I insisted on carrying on till the finish, another 70 miles. My ankle was like a balloon and very painful for a couple of days afterwards. At the time I knew nothing about icing, but rest and gentle exercises to maintain flexibility probably came naturally. There is scar tissue around the ankle, but thank goodness it doesn’t seem to bother me. My ankles and shins are probably stronger now, thanks to racewalking, than they were then.
The second was a tear in the quads. This occurred a couple of days after a 28 hours racewalk at Roubaix in France, during my -comeback- after Vicky’s birth when my muscles were still rather out of condition. I was squatting low down to get items out of a low cupboard, then stood up quickly - and felt the tear. I got straight on to the exercise bike for 20 minutes to help kick start the repair process, and repeated this several times in the next couple of days, together with gentle self-massage of the affected area, to promote healing and to help avoid the build-up and tightening of scar tissue. This hasn’t bothered me since then.
Finally, I have had tears in the hamstrings at the top of both legs. One was caused by doing unfamiliar gym work, then sitting on a 14 hour flight to Hong Kong, then going for a run, all within a couple of days. Something had to give, and it was a hamstring. In those days I was ignorant and careless about stretching, which could have avoided the problem. It was also a bad idea to accept an invitation to do an unfamiliar activity - gymwork - before a long journey when I would be bound to stiffen up.
The second tear (at least I have matching legs with old tears on both sides) was caused, to my great annoyance at the time, by an overenthusiastic physio who was supposed to be helping me to warm up gently before a 24 hour race and got carried away. I am now more wary of having physio at any time, and make sure that I stay in control, by saying at the outset what I want and don’t want to be done to me. Having never had a persistent injury (my varied training pattern means that any niggles have the chance to heal quickly, rather than get hammered and go critical,) I have never had regular physio or a steady relationship of trust with any physiotherapist who knew me and my needs. The closest I have come to this was receiving massage from Michael Gillan during the Nanango (Queensland) 1000 mile race in 1996. I had no hesitation in having a massage from Michael again at the end of the Melbourne 100 miles walk in 1999. Michael’s approach is very gentle at all times, and always works with the athlete and puts the athlete in control, thus minimising the risk of harm and maximising the benefit.
Very occasionally I will feel tightness in one or other hamstring, but I am lucky that neither tear has become a real problem. These days I stretch pretty diligently after exercise and am convinced of its value, and my cross-training approach plays a part, I am sure, in keeping me free of overuse injuries. More on stretching another time.
Sandra Brown is an experienced ultradistance athlete and has competed internationally in both running and race walking.