Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Ultramarathon Training Plan

When I was preparing for my first marathon I was a little overwhelmed with how many different marathon training plans there were. Unfortunately it's quite the opposite for ultramarathons. I found some stuff for 50 milers (here is information on the plan I used), but almost nothing for 100 milers. (With the exception of which is loaded with very useful information. I read everything on this site multiple times.)

I think I've figured out why there is so little information about ultra training plans. 1) There just aren't as many people who blog or write about this topic since fewer people do these races. 2) Most ultrarunners I talked to are much less ridged about their training. For many, their training plan is simply "Run as much as I can" (or want to) to gradually build miles. 3) Cliche as it may sound, there is no "right" training plan for ultras. Everyone is different and a plan should be tailored to individual strengths, weaknesses, and the race course.

I found two training plans for 100 milers. THIS one seemed unreasonable knowing I'm more injury-prone with high mileage. I think that many miles would have had me on the injury reserve, and I believe it would be very challenging if you still want to have a job and family. Plus....with running, sometimes less is more. Then there is THIS one which seemed more realistic so this is what I built my training off of.

In all my searching, I never found a training history where someone said "This is what I did in the months leading up to the race and it seemed to work." I wish I had something like that. So I made my own.

Here is what my training looked like for the four months leading up to the Javelina Jundred. I did some biking occasionally on the days I didn't run. And you'll see the 26.2 miles when I ran a full marathon or 13.1 when I ran a half.

This plan isn't going to help you set a course record. But that wasn't my intent in signing up for a 100 miler. My goal wasn't to go fast, my goal was TO FINISH. This training plan helped me do just that in a race that only has a 50% finisher rate.

Running one 100 miler is far from being an expert on the art of ultramarathons, but here are some tips that I gathered along the way which I think are critical for training:

Race-Specific Training
Study your target race and it's course. If the course is rocky, find some rocky trails to train on. If you're race may be hot, get lots of miles in the heat to prepare. I try to run on trails whenever possible, but at the very least, almost all your long runs should be on trails. It's important to train your feet, ankles, and knees how to adjust to different terrain and rocks. I've had lots of minor ankle rolls that were no big deal since my ankles have gotten stronger. Before running trails, these would have been major black and blue ankle sprains.

Practice Walking
An experienced ultrarunner told me that a 100 miler isn't a race, it's a test of patience. Expect to be walking 40-50 miles. I think that's true. I have incorporated frequent walk breaks into all my training runs. What works for me is running for 5 minutes then walking for about 1 minute. Some people run for 25 minutes then walk 5. It works out to be about the same. Frequent walk breaks have completely changed my running. They help me finish runs feeling strong and I recover faster. In training and racing, start walk breaks right from the beginning. If you start doing walk breaks after you start feeling tired, you're too late. Just ask Jeff Galloway.

Long Runs
These were definitely the most crucial parts of training. I treat each long run as an experiment. I experiment with hydration, nutrition, calorie replacement, run/walk breaks, electrolyte replacement, etc. Long runs help teach your mind how to deal with pain. Time on your feet really is the important thing. I learned to take it very easy on long runs because when you're doing lots of training miles, your purpose for each run is to be in good enough condition to do tomorrow's run. I was careful to avoid excessive soreness so I could recover quickly. I think a training plan based on time instead of mileage could be very helpful. Go sloooooow on long runs.

Running Frequency
I really liked doing just four days a week of running. I think that was helpful for a few reasons: 1) It cut out some of the junk miles, and 2) It built in more recovery time. Rest days are just as necessary as the long runs! Many ultra runners do back-to-back runs where they run 20 miles one day and 30 the next (mileages vary). I think those back-to-back runs are definitely helpful to train the body how to run on tired legs. But I don't train on Sundays and with a family and job I found those back-to-backs hard to fit in. You'll see that I did some shorter back-to-backs. I think some are helpful as long as you don't overdo it.

Listen To Your Body
Don't get so locked into a training plan that you ignore what your body is saying. If you feel an injury brewing take a break. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to allow yourself to adjust training as needed. My 100 miler was so physically demanding that I don't think I would have made it if I was at the starting line with nagging injuries. Keep yourself healthy.

Relentless Forward Motion
This is a mantra of ultra runners. When times get tough and their bodies are revolting and each mile is taking an eternity, everything is boiled down to one element: just make relentless forward motion. Keep fighting. Keep moving long enough for that second (or third, or fourth) wind to come. Don't worry about the 30 minute miles. As long as you are making relentless forward motion you will get to the finish line. I found this to be completely true during the race when it felt like the finish line might as well have been in Nigeria. (This is how I looked at that moment.)

Gear (none of these are sponsors)
Everyone is different but I'll tell you what works for me.
Gaiters: I got mine HERE and they work great to keep dirt and rocks out of my shoes.
LinkShoes: Road shoes will work okay for many trail runs, but my favorite trail shoe is the Hoka Mafate.
Hydration: I am madly in love with my Nathan HPL 020 hydration pack. I tried lots of others and this one leaves all the others in the dust. I wore it during the whole 100 miler and it didn't bother me one bit.
LinkBody Glide: Useful for any areas that may chafe. I also rub it all over my feet before I put socks on.
Electrolytes: Get used to taking these during long distances or in heat to replace the salt and minerals you are sweating out. I bought Saltstick capsules but lots of ultrarunners use S-Caps. I take one every hour. extreme heat or after lots of hours this might not be enough. After I had been running for about 20 hours I started urinating A LOT every ten minutes or so. It was clear (thankfully not Coke-colored like I've heard from other runners) but it was very frequently. Lucky for me at that time my wife was pacing me who is also a nurse. She said I needed more electrolytes. I took the Saltstick caps more frequently and that fixed the problem.

Training The Mind
I think the biggest thing that got me to the finish line of the 100 miler was the fact that quitting was not an option. You have to really, REALLY want it. You have to be willing to suffer. I told my crew (wife and sister) that the only way I was dropping from the race was if I didn't meet the cutoffs and was pulled from the course by race officials. I gave my crew specific motivation points to remind me of during the race. I told them to not let me quit, no matter how much I might beg them too. (Thankfully I never reached that point where I begged to quit.)

I told myself before the race "Eventually this is going to really, really hurt. But that's okay! It's alright to hurt. It's okay to suffer. It's (probably) not going to kill you. You. Can. Do. Hard. Things!!!!

I'm not going to lie. Those last 30 miles were excruciating. I was in way more pain than I had ever experienced. Every single cell of my body was in agony. Each step hurt worse than the one before. But the feeling when crossing that finish line was indescribable and made all that suffering worth it.

So here's my point in all of this: If you want to run an ultramarathon, YOU CAN DO IT! Seriously, that is the honest truth. If you really want it, you can do it. So go find a race, get really, really brave for five minutes and click the Register button. That is the scariest part of the race is getting guts to click the Register button. You. Can. Do. Hard. Things!!!!

Is there a part of you deep inside that wants to tackle an ultra?

Is there anything I'm missing? Anything you want to know more about?


  1. Nope, there is nothing deep inside that wants to tackle an ultra. But, I love following your journey. Dude, do you not train on Sunday because that is your church/day of rest/spend time with the Lord day? I do that too, (on Saturday), and I think it honors God and gives my body a break.

    All those tips are great! I benefitted from them and don't even plan on doing one. Thanks!

  2. I've always wanted to do a 50 miler. I promised myself that if I could get my ITB under control that I would train for one. I love history and presidential history so my secret goal is the JFK race in Maryland. I guess it's not much of a secret anymore since I told you. My goal this year is an Ironman in July but 2013 I plan for a 50 miler! You're a great inspiration and I don't get tired of reading about your 100 miles!

  3. All of this advice is GOLD- even for someone who isn't (and doesn't plan on being) an ultra runner. You'll be so glad you wrote all of this down when it comes time for heavy training for the Zion 100. If you're like me, you still forget the lessons you learned. That is why I love the blog so much! It's easy to review. You are an incredible runner.

  4. ummmm yes. there is a part of me deep down that wants to do an ultra. SO BADLY. but i think the more i learn...the more scared i get? there seems to be so much more than just the running to be prepared. i want to learn more about myself physically and mentally as a runner before i tackle anything too huge. i also need to get more into trail running. these tips were wonderful and i appreciated each of them! thank you for sharing your experience!

  5. You are awesome Cory. I love that you are so real and so honest about your training and experiences. Even though I have no real desire to run an ultra I still gain so much insight and learn so much from your experience. Thank you so much for sharing. And yes we can do hard things. I continue to learn that and push myself past new boundaries with every single race I run.

  6. I always told my fellow ultra runner friend that the key to running 50 miles is WANTING to run 50 miles. The training and stuff is secondary to that desire. Not that it's optional, but there are more fit runners out there that don't want to ever run 50 and we'd be more likely to finish than them. :)

  7. Without hesitation, yes! I want to run a 50 miler in 2012 and train with my husband who will be running his first 100 miler! He keeps raising the bar for me :)

    I'm sharing this post with him.

  8. I love this post.... Just today I was thinking I needed some ultra advice and was planning on hanging out with google. I am planning on running antelope island 50 again in march. I want to take an hour off my time. But mostly I want to actually plan, train and prepare for it. This year when I ran it, I hadn't trained for a fifty, just a marathon. This post gets me so pumped up. Can not wait. You are such an inspiration. Thanks for the tips.

  9. As always, thank you so much for the motivation and all the knowledge you have come across during your training and your awesome ultra. I am absorbing it. YOU ROCK!!

  10. I still can't wrap my brain around an ultra. I also used Jeff Galloway's walking breaks on my marathon. But now I can't seem to break the habit. I'd like to NOT have walk so much on my shorter runs, like I used to. Thanks for a fun and informative read!

  11. This is amazing! You are amazing and inspirational! I'll never run more than 13.1 miles, but I've enjoyed following your journey.

  12. I should clarify a few points:
    1) On trails my walk breaks are determined by terrain much more than time intervals. Most ultrarunners follow the plan of "Walk the ups, run the downs and levels."

    2) I had responsibility in the last 30 miles being harder than they needed to be. I felt so good from miles 50-60 that I pushed a little harder than I should have. Duh! I should know better. That decision came back to bite me. (Actually more than that, it ate me for dinner.)

  13. I think heart rate training could be really useful for training for an train in zone 3 for an eternity and see where that takes you! I'd like to do something like this next year!

  14. Thanks for the great information! This post is a great resource. I recently decided to tackle my first 50, and I'm already enjoying the journey.

  15. Interesting to see your weekly millage buildup, Im actually surprised by how little it was in the begining, and how 'short' your Long runs were.

    Gives me a bit more hope for my 50 miler next year that the boston training im doing now ( involving significant millage ) will hold me in good stead for that race...

    I have a 100 miler sitting in the back of my head as a long term goal. But next year its 'just' 50 miles or there abouts.

  16. Cory, I saw your comment on my HR entry and had to check out your blog! We have a lot in common! The first Ultra I ever attended was Javelina Jundred in 2010 as a pacer for 50 miles, a month after I BQ'd at the St George Marathon. The training plan you used for your 100 miler above is the exact same one I used for training for the Bear 100 this year and I finished about the same time, 29.5 hours. I did get to see Karl Meltzer at mile 93. I'll put in a good word for you next year. I have some friends that want to come down for the ZION 100 so keep the awesome pictures coming and I'll send them to your blog!

  17. Thanks! Great info! I am pretty much following plan like yours I had come up with! Due to work,kids,wife!! I am really pinched in time! Gives me confidence in my plan! I will keep you posted, 100 mile is at end of Sept. and will post my results and hopefully can help other like you have! Thanks! Carl

  18. This is awesome, solid advice, and well written. Though now I'm more afraid of a hundred miler... maybe I'll stick with a 50 as my goal. You are crazy in a good way!

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