Part Two: Elevating Your Training for Ultra Marathon Success by Kris King
Welcome back to the second part of our comprehensive guide to preparing for a multi-day ultra marathon. I’m Kris King, Race Director at Beyond the Ultimate and for the past 20 years I have been running, coaching people for, or designing some of the toughest races in the world. Let’s dive deeper into the intricate process of transforming you into an adaptable and resilient ultra-runner.
In Part One, we explored the significance of maintaining consistent progress and forming habits. The next steps are crucial as we need to create an environment that best facilitates adaptation. This phase is arguably the most important as we prepare our bodies for the physical demands we aim to set upon it.
Chase the adaptation, not the goal.
When tackling a big race or significant challenge, such as a race in the Global Race Series, the instinct is often to calculate the total distance and plan backward – thinking, “I need to run 250km in 5 days, so I should be able to run at least 150km in training.”
In this particular phase of your training, a shift in mindset is crucial, we need to focus purely on how to become a well-rounded runner and athlete, not the race. Instead of fixating on specific distances, ask questions like: “How can I enhance my efficiency? How can I improve my speed? How do I prevent injuries? And how do I balance training with my work and home life?” Every training session should have a particular focus pointing to answering one of these questions.
If there is anything you remember from this article, it is this.
“We are looking for key physiological adaptions to take place, the outcome of which is normally an increase in speed for the same heart rate.”
Managing Training Volume: Avoiding Overtraining and Injury.
Progressive Increase: As you move forward, aim for a gradual increase in your total training volume, adhering to a soft rule of not exceeding a 12% weekly increase in this phase. This limits the chance of overtraining, allowing your body to adapt and recover effectively. One word that isn’t used enough in ultra-running is prerequisite, we must earn the right to increase our volume, we must respect what we are wanting our bodies to do.
Listen to Your Body: Pay real attention to signs of fatigue, persistent soreness, or changes in performance. Adjust your training intensity and volume accordingly. Rest and recovery are integral components of any successful training plan.
Cross-Training: Consider incorporating cross-training activities such as cycling, swimming, rowing or gym work. These provide cardiovascular benefits while minimising the impact on your joints, promoting recovery and overall well-being.
Results and progress can be addictive. It is important to remember overtraining can lead to exhaustion, decreased performance, and a higher risk of injury.
Nutrition Periodisation: Aligning your nutrition with the varying demands of your training cycle is so important. Adjust your macronutrient ratios to match the intensity and duration of your workouts. Carbohydrates become crucial during intense sessions, while fats play a significant role in sustained efforts and protein aids recovery. We will go into the maths and how you can calculate this in part 3.
Hydration Planning: Develop a hydration plan that considers environmental conditions, sweat rates, and electrolyte loss. It is vital you practice your hydration strategy during long training sessions to ensure it works seamlessly on race day. Invest time in researching and testing different hydration systems and electrolyte supplements.
Strategic Rest and Active Recovery: My good friend Pete Newland uses the phrase “Use rest as a weapon” and he is right. Rest and recovery are non-negotiable aspects of your training plan. Prioritise both strategic rest days which could be no exercise at all, and active recovery techniques like walking or yoga to keep your body adapting. It is normal to have at least one day a week dedicated to this but don’t feel bad taking more if your body feels like it needs it.
Set small goals, measure success and be patient with results.
Regularly assessing performance is crucial. Confidence grows as we adapt, but if progress slows, asking questions becomes essential. Success in training is marked by completing the plan you set. I’ve crafted some beautifully intricate programs over the years, yet the best plan is one that you can stick to. Therefore, refrain from comparing yourself to others, as there are countless variables that could affect how your training programme may look.
A typical block of training can be anywhere between 4 and 6 weeks and it is important that you set some goals throughout your programme. At this stage, it could be as simple as improving your 5k 10k or 20k personal best, or to run consistently for 180 minutes without walking. Remember, It does not need to be specific to the goal at this stage.
Testing regularly is important. Goal setting is often reliant on a single performance to where confidence can grow or drop depending on the result. Regular soft testing allows us to check in regularly. Here are three personal examples I use.
The Flat 10km – Maintaining a low heart rate of 140-150bpm. This precise loop, door to door from my house, is repeated at least twice in every training block. Monitoring my overall time at this heart rate provides a straightforward measure of my current fitness and serves as a soft marker at the beginning of each training block. The flat terrain makes it easier to maintain a consistent heart rate. Witnessing an improved time for the same effort level is an undeniable sign of adaptation!
The Hilly 5km – without using a heart rate metric, I start with a 1km warm-up and then transition into a full-effort 5km. The loop I choose includes a few short, steep hills, providing valuable feedback on my top-end efforts. Running at maximum effort and consistently shaving off seconds from the overall time indicates successful adaptation or an improved ability to tolerate lactate.
Kingy’s Treadmill Ramp Test – a unique measure I crafted to assess both my hill-running while serving as an effective sprint session. Begin at a treadmill gradient of 0, increasing by 1% every minute until you hit 9 minutes of running. It’s a pass/fail test where the goal is to complete the full 9 minutes at the initial speed you set. If you run at 12kph for the entire duration, that’s a pass. Falling short means reducing to 11kph and aiming for success in the next attempt. It is quick, simple and a very effective way to measure your current condition and hill ability.
At this point, it’s crucial to emphasise the need for patience in seeing results. Expect noticeable changes after a consistent 4-week block of low-intensity work. Surprisingly, real improvements in high-intensity sessions can surface in as few as six sessions. While results can be addictive, it’s essential not to anchor your feelings solely on each test outcome. Off days are a normal part of the process.
Start creating the system.
It is no secret, my favourite saying and mantra is Strong System, adaptive plan. It is time to start building that system.
A robust system is fundamental, yet equally crucial is the flexibility to create an adaptive race plan. Echoing the wisdom of Mike Tyson, who famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” unexpected challenges, much like a sudden punch, are inevitable in the races we organise.
A well-structured system provides a solid foundation, your ability to adjust and adapt the plan in response to unforeseen circumstances becomes paramount. In any ultra-marathon you will need the adaptability to navigate the unpredictable twists and turns.
Know your Kit
A self-sufficient ultra runner’s equipment is not just gear; it’s a lifeline throughout the time required to perform. Understanding the nuances of key pieces and keeping your admin tight can save your race. Your backpack is essentially your mobile home and you will need to become one with it.
Introduce an Admin Mile
Incorporating an “admin mile” into your running routine is a strategic and holistic approach that will set you apart from other runners. This introspective mile serves as a mini checkpoint where you ask yourself critical questions that often influence your overall performance. Questions like, “Am I hydrated?” and “Have I eaten enough?” address the fundamental needs that fuel the run. Assessing whether your pace is sustainable ensures you’re not racing yourself into trouble, while considering your sleep quality acknowledges the profound impact of rest on performance. Lastly, reflecting on whether overall fatigue is affecting your mood and decision making.
Eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty
The adage “eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty” is a golden rule that does the rounds in ultra-forums. Anticipating nutritional and hydration needs ahead of the body’s signals is not just strategic; it’s a fundamental aspect of successful ultra running. Waiting until hunger or thirst sets in may lead to a lag in energy levels, dehydration or both, which can severely impact performance.
Consistent and proactive fueling, coupled with mindful hydration, ensures that your body is adequately sustained, preventing energy crashes.
Gain experience through replication
Resilience and confidence evolve through the process of understanding and correcting mistakes made in training. While you don’t need to replicate every nuance of the actual event in your training, crafting soft testing environments, like mock races or smaller official events, allows you to make mistakes when they truly matter. This deliberate approach transforms errors into valuable learning experiences, fostering growth and resilience in preparation for the real challenges ahead.
Build your volume carefully
Chase the adaptation not the goal
Use rest as a weapon
Experiment with your hydration and nutrition in your training
Give every training session a particular focus
Test and measure your performance often
Strong System, Adaptive plan
Eat and drink regularly in training to keep energy levels and performance high
In the final part of this series, we’ll explore race-specific preparations and how to maximise your performance. We will lean heavily on science to form a blueprint for success. Until then, stay consistent, embrace the process, and remember, each step brings you closer to the finish line.
See you in Part Three!
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