By Kris King
Embarking on the journey of preparing for a multi day ultra marathon is a thrilling and life-altering endeavour. Whether you’ve committed to a local run or a 200km+ race through some of the world’s most remote and challenging terrains, such as the races in the Global Race Series, you will need to prepare well. You may have done plenty of research before getting to this point, or you’ve impulsively entered and are now in the midst of a research frenzy. Either way, you’ve come to the right place. I’m Kris King, Race Director at Beyond the Ultimate, and I’m here to guide you through the transformative experience of preparing for an adventure that will undoubtedly change your life for the better.
In this three-part series, we will delve into the comprehensive process of preparing for any ultra-marathon but in particular, multi day races. Part one, which we’ll explore here, is all about mastering the fundamentals, laying a strong foundation, and evolving into a versatile and resilient athlete. Beyond the Ultimate races are known for their challenging nature, making every medal earned a testament to months, maybe years of dedication and perseverance. So, let’s get to work.
Part One: Mastering the Basics and Building a Solid Foundation
In this phase, we’ll focus on developing the fundamental aspects of ultra-running, preparing your body for the arduous demands, and setting the stage for a successful race day. In the world of ultra running, consistency is the secret sauce that transforms ordinary runners into extraordinary adaptable athletes. It’s the commitment to setting key habits, prioritising your time and focussing on the right things. Having the discipline to go on those long early morning training runs in the rain is what makes the real difference.
Key habits to be a successful ultra runner.
Love the kitchen and plan your week
This can make a huge difference for ultra runners, as it ensures a well-balanced and nutritious diet that supports the demands of intense training and helps optimise performance and recovery. Learn new recipes and build a healthy relationship with your food.
Eat plenty of fruit and veg
Aim for 5 to 7 pieces a day. They provide a rich source of vitamins and minerals to support a healthy immune system. We want to maximise every available week of preparation.
Up your protein
As runners we generally have no issue in eating carbs and fats for fuel. Protein is an important macronutrient for recovery and we should aim to consume at least 1.2 grams of protein per KG of bodyweight. Especially as our training volume increases and gets more intense.
Drink your water
Hydration can make or break a training run, and a race. Aim to drink two litres a day + 500ml per hour of exercise.
Quality sleep is paramount for the resting phase where the body repairs, rebuilds, and adapts to the rigors of training, ultimately leading to improved performance and reduced risk of injury.
Keep your NEAT high
Maintaining a high Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) contributes to calorie expenditure, aids in improving body composition, and helps prevent the negative effects of prolonged sedentary behaviour, which can impact both physical and mental health. In simple speak, get your 10,000 steps a day in, move well and move often.
Get your green and blues
Chances are if you are interested in ultra running, you love being outside. Try to bring as much of the outside into your life as possible. It will keep stress low and improve general mood.
Be accountable to yourself or someone else
Track your progress and build your clan around you. Family and friends’ support will be vital. The Beyond the Ultimate team is always available for additional support and accountability.
Aim for 30 minutes of purposeful exercise a day
Incorporating 30 minutes of focused exercise into your daily routine. You can have a particular focus like, flexibility, core stability, reducing the risk of injury, mindfulness. It may provide a valuable opportunity to target specific muscle groups, address imbalances, and maintain a strong mindset.
“In the world of ultra running, embracing the art of consistency means understanding that it won’t be flawless every step of the way, but it’s the unwavering commitment to progress and resilience through imperfection that ultimately leads to success” – Kris King
Prioritise your focus, then your time.
Ultra-running often requires longer, more frequent training sessions, which necessitates careful allocation of your time. We need to effectively manage training time and achieve a balance with work, family, and social commitments, to not only enhance your chances of success in the race but also foster a sustainable, healthy lifestyle that benefits both your athletic pursuits and personal relationships. Here is how I recommend you should prioritise your time:
1. Aerobic Base:
Developing a strong aerobic foundation is crucial for ultra-running. It forms the backbone of your endurance and long-distance capabilities. Aerobic training increases your VO2 max, a measure of your body’s ability to consume oxygen, and improves mitochondrial density, enhancing your body’s energy production efficiency. Long, steady-state runs, often referred to as “base-building” runs, are the cornerstone of aerobic development. By consistently training in this zone, your body becomes more proficient at utilising oxygen, conserving glycogen, and efficiently metabolizing fats. This enhances your endurance and helps delay the onset of fatigue during effort.
Training your aerobic base can be determined through various methods. One effective way is to track your heart rate during workouts. An aerobic training zone typically falls between 130 and 155 beats per minute for most individuals. Monitoring your heart rate can help ensure that you’re working in the optimal intensity range for aerobic development.
Another valuable tool is the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). RPE is a subjective scale, usually ranging from 1 to 10, where 1 is very easy and 10 is maximal effort. When training your aerobic base, you should aim to stay in the 5 to 6 range on the RPE scale. At this level, you should be able to maintain a conversation without struggling to speak, indicating that you are working at a sustainable, aerobic effort level.
The amount of time you should dedicate to training aerobically per week varies based on your experience level and goals.
Amateur Ultra-Runners (3-5 hours per week). If you are relatively new to the sport or aiming to complete your first ultra-marathon, you should aim for around 3 to 5 hours of aerobic training per week.
Mid-Level Ultra Runners (5-8 hours per week). As you progress and gain experience, you should increase your weekly aerobic training volume. This extended commitment allows for better conditioning and better adaptation. It also provides room for more structured workouts and longer runs.
Professionals (8-12 hours per week). If you want to win or make the sport a significant part of your life, you will likely need to allocate 8 to 12 hours per week for aerobic training. This includes not only longer runs but also specific workouts, such as tempo runs and interval training, to fine-tune your racing skills.
It’s important to note that individual variations exist within these broad categories. Your training should be tailored to your own needs and objectives. Moreover, recovery and rest are crucial components of any training plan, regardless of your level. Listening to your body, adjusting training volume as needed, and ensuring adequate rest are essential to prevent overtraining and injury. We will discuss this more in part two but for now, a general rule of not increasing your total training volume by more than 10% per week is a great principle.
2. Anaerobic Base:
While the majority of ultra-running is done aerobically, developing your anaerobic capacity is equally important. Anaerobic workouts like interval training, hill sprints, and speed sessions improve your lactate threshold, allowing you to sustain higher intensities for longer. This adaptation is particularly valuable for handling challenging terrains or surges in an ultra-race like you would experience in the Global Race Series. Research has shown that interval training can increase VO2 max and enhance running economy, ultimately contributing to improved race performance. By incorporating anaerobic work, you’ll not only tackle varying race conditions more effectively but also enhance your overall race-day performance.
Here are some examples of how you can anaerobically train.
Hill Repeats: Finding a steep hill and sprinting up it repeatedly serves multiple purposes. One of the key benefits is that it elevates your heart rate to near its maximum. These short, high-intensity sprints are essential for conditioning your body to handle the sudden surges and intense efforts that can arise during an ultra-race.
Interval Training: Particularly sprint intervals, is another key component of anaerobic training. The main objective of sprint intervals is to get your heart rate as high as possible within a short duration. Sprint intervals should always be between 10 and 60 seconds and should be performed at your absolute maximum effort level.
The importance of achieving a high heart rate in these anaerobic workouts lie in enhancing your body’s ability to rapidly generate energy and cope with intense, race-changing moments. This prepares you to tackle steep inclines, conquer obstacles, or surge past competitors when necessary, all while maintaining overall race pace.
However, it’s crucial to incorporate these high-intensity workouts carefully and sensibly into your training plan. Overdoing it can lead to overtraining and increased risk of injury. Balancing anaerobic workouts with adequate rest, recovery, and a strong aerobic base is essential for peak performance and injury prevention.
An example of an anaerobic session that gets great results:
Warm up, slow 10 minutes
2 minute rest
45 seconds max effort 1 min rest x 6
5 minute rest
30 second max effort, 1 min rest x 6
2 minute rest
Cool down, slow ten minutes
3. Strength Work and Injury Prevention:
A strong, injury-resistant body is fundamental to successful ultra running. Strength training for ultra runners should target the muscles most stressed during prolonged runs. Scientific studies support the importance of strength training in reducing the risk of injuries. For example, exercises that strengthen the hip abductors and glutes can help prevent common issues like IT band syndrome. Plyometric exercises enhance muscular power and joint stability. Core strength is also crucial for maintaining good running form over long distances. By incorporating these elements, you reduce the risk of overuse injuries and improve your overall performance and durability. For specific examples of strength exercises you can do to prevent injury and improve performance by sure to follow both Beyond the Ultimate and myself on Instagram.
4. Nutrition and Hydration:
Nutrition and hydration are cornerstones of ultra-running success. Your nutrition plan should be based on a balance of macronutrients, particularly carbohydrates and fats for fuel and protein for recovery. Carbohydrates serve as the primary energy source during high-intensity efforts (your anaerobic sessions), while fats become more critical during extended, lower-intensity efforts (aerobic base building). Hydration is equally vital, with research indicating that even mild dehydration can negatively impact performance and increase the risk of heat-related illnesses. We will touch on creating a nutrition plan tailored to your energy needs and implementing hydration strategies such as fluid replacement guidelines and electrolyte management in part two.
5. Event Specific Detail:
Adapting your training to match the unique challenges of your chosen ultra-marathon is going to be important. For instance, if your race includes high-altitude trails like the Mountain Ultra, acclimatisation becomes crucial. If your event involves extreme heat like the Desert Ultra or Jungle Ultra you need to prepare diligently. If you are in the extreme cold like our Ice Ultra, kit research will be vital. I plan to cover how to adapt specifically to each race in our series separately but for now, focus on getting to the race location, including flight options, local transportation, and any visa or permit requirements. All races by Beyond the Ultimate take place in remote areas, so planning your travel well in advance is crucial to ensure a smooth arrival. Never underestimate the effect of long haul travel on the body.
Supplements have an important role in an ultra-runner’s diet, but they should complement a well-balanced real food diet. Evidence supports the use of supplements in certain circumstances. For example, during long events, electrolyte and carbohydrate supplements can help maintain energy levels and prevent muscle cramps. Creatine supplementation has shown to improve high-intensity exercise performance and caffeine is the most widely used and well researched supplement in the world.
Key Take Aways:
How your typical week might look in this phase.
180 -360 minutes a week of low intensity aerobic training
15-20 minutes of high intensity anaerobic training
60 minutes a week strength training or injury prevention exercises
60 minutes a week event specific research
30 minutes food prep and focus on hydration
5 minutes a week researching or testing supplements
So lace up those shoes, embrace the madness, be consistent, invest your time in what truly matters and remember, every race begins with a single step. Let’s get at it.
In part two of this series, I’ll explore the power of mindset and how it shapes your approach, alongside effective goal-setting techniques that pave the way for achieving your milestones. Additionally, I’ll talk about the significance of gaining experience, emphasising its role in honing your skills and capability as an ultra-runner. To get early access to my upcoming articles, you can sign up below.
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