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Coach Case Study 2 - Ultramarathon Running With Limited Training Time

The Endurance Coach help people from a range of abilities achieve their goals in a variety of disciplines. Training methods vary depending on the athlete concerned and programs differ considerably. This series of blogs focuses on a selection of athletes – all with differing circumstances and considerations - and describes how their training was designed and adapted throughout 2016.

Cathy is an experienced endurance athlete with a history of competing in various disciplines over several years. She’s a mum of two and an academic who occasionally travels abroad due to work commitments. Training therefore needed to be as time effective as possible. Cathy began training with the Endurance Coach with a new challenge of competing in ultramarathons.

The target event that was penciled in was the St Oswald’s 100 2016. Completing a 100 mile ultramarathon was never the issue as Cathy already had a strong aerobic base so it was a case of making her a faster runner so she’d be able to be as competitive as possible. The race program leading up to the 100 was designed to increase her speed at shorter distances without burning her out by completing too much volume or scheduling too many long runs. Races included Parkruns, cross country league, a couple of half marathons, a marathon and a handful of shorter ultras before the 100. The longer events were designed to be sociable long runs - not races - so she’d recover quickly afterwards. Pacing strategy was to therefore finish each long event feeling she could have gone further and/or faster. The shorter events were designed to be run as fast as possible.

The biggest mistake people make when training for ultra-distance events is to switch to ‘ultra mode’ where the emphasis is on completing as many long slow miles as possible. The result is usually a slow, tired and uninterested runner who finds they get slower at every distance. Basic principles for ultramarathon training shouldn’t differ that much for anyone training for a marathon: the faster you are at shorter distances the faster you will be at longer events. Training was therefore focused on improving running speed with one eye on improving her ability to move (and metabolise fuel efficiently) for very long periods.

There are several ways to describe training intensities and different methods work better depending on the athlete. Cathy was already familiar with the Jack Daniels Formula so that’s what we agreed to use in training. The Jack Daniels Formula describes running speeds for different training/racing intensities: the pace at each intensity is determined by current ability at any given distance so the paces increase in speed as race times improve.

The specificity the Jack Daniels method provides works in two ways. It ensures the athlete runs fast enough during the harder interval sessions (T, I and R pace) and slows them down during the easier sessions (E pace). Marc has previously discussed the importance of easy runs being easy:

Limiting effort during easy runs is an aspect of training which is usually overlooked or misunderstood by endurance athletes so adhering to the correct Jack Daniels pace is one effective method of maintaining E pace.

Having said that Cathy was encouraged to not use the pacing exclusively but listen to her body and use perceived effort as well. If an easy run doesn’t feel easy it needs to be slower regardless of pace.

Perceived effort was also more relevant when running off road, especially during hilly runs. For instance, a 60 min E-T pace hilly off road run referred to perceived effort, not pace: Cathy would run at T pace effort on the climbs and E pace effort on the descents. Actual speed was irrelevant and wasn’t to be measured.

Training during the winter was mainly polarised between short, high intensity interval efforts and E pace runs. There were several reasons for this:

  • Some high intensity work was required to increase Cathy’s speed/strength potential so she’d be able to complete a higher volume of intensity later in the program
  • High intensity work is essential if time available to train is limited
  • E pace runs would provide the necessary aerobic conditioning without causing unnecessary fatigue and develop fat burning efficiency

Sessions regularly required Cathy to carry weight to adapt her body to the kit, food and equipment she would be required to carry during events. This included 2-3 times the weight she would be racing with during hill rep sessions and the longest runs. If Cathy could maintain posture and efficiency with that amount of load in training the race would feel relatively easy.

Back-to-back long runs can be very beneficial (although very demanding) for ultramarathon training so Cathy entered the Kirstall Trail Marathon, two marathons on the Saturday and Sunday in March. The aim was to pace the first day sensible, keep warm and fueled, and then refuel adequately afterwards. Cathy ran 4:17 on the Saturday and 4:12 on the Sunday finishing as first female. The training benefits were invaluable and Cathy demonstrated excellent pace awareness and discipline throughout.

Long runs depended on the race schedule and what available time there was to train. If time was limited an example of a long run would be 2.5 hr E-M pace undulating off road run (weighted 150%) where running was continuous. If Cathy had a day free a typical session would be a 6 hr E pace undulating off road run run/walk (weighted 200%). These sessions included a mixture of walking and running to simulate race strategy: she’d walk the climbs and jog the rest. Distance covered was irrelevant and the aim was to simply keep moving for the specified duration.

The Keilder 100k in April was the first significant event so some M pace running was gradually introduced to improve her sustainable aerobic pace – I’d deliberately avoided this early on as I didn’t want Cathy to become excessively fatigued at any point, especially so early during the training process. The aim was to complete the event without racing it. Approaching supporting events this way has several advantages:

  • It prevents people getting overly stressed about the race beforehand, especially if the person isn’t experienced at the distance
  • It prevents people starting to quickly, something almost everyone is guilty of
  • By limiting effort it usually means the pace is appropriate for the distance – the person can then often perform very well as others fade in the latter stages
  • Recovery is relatively quick so training can continue to progress after a week or so

Race strategy for the Kielder 100k in Cathy’s program notes was as follows:

  • Walk every climb regardless of length or gradient
  • Ignore where you’re placing for the first 50 miles – if you pace it right you’ll be towards the back and gradually gain places from 10 miles onwards
  • The hardest part mentally will probably be before half way as the adrenalin will have worn off and you realise you’re not even half way
  • You could have a bad patch for 20 miles or more but it’s psychological so accept it, ignore it and look forward to getting through it
  • Once you get through 40 miles you’ll be feeling physically more tired but it won’t feel as hard as the endorphins begin to return
  • Eat/drink as you’ve done so far – there’s no exact science but you seem to be getting it right up to now
  • Drink a hot sweet tea whenever possible – this will provide a bigger boost than any energy drink

The result was a successful completion, first female and eighth overall.

As the St Oswalds’s 100 is relatively flat I wanted Cathy to complete a long flat ultra to provide the specific adaptations you can’t get from a hilly event. Flat races are often harder than hilly ones as walking is enforced on the climbs during hilly events. During flat runs your legs are working through the same range of movement for hours on end and this provides a very specific type of fatigue which is almost impossible to replicate in training.

Cathy chose the Cannonball 12 hour as it was flat and would also provide essential mental training. Multi-lap events require a mindset which is necessary for anyone wanting to race 100 miles or further: if you can’t embrace the repetitiveness and remain positive and focused for 12 hours you’re in the wrong sport so it would be a great step forward, both physically and psychologically for Cathy.

As expected Cathy approached the event with the right attitude and achieved a win and beat her 100k PB on the way. Pacing was sensible throughout and she finished feeling strong.

After each ultramarathon I schedule a couple of easy weeks before training resumes. Throughout 2016 there were more easy weeks that most people would expect but it’s only be providing enough recovery that the body is able to repair and adapt.

As the St Oswald’s 100 approached more M and T pace running was included but I pace interval sessions were maintained throughout the entire process. Training paces had gradually increased despite the hard events Cathy had raced so there was still steady progress over shorter distances.

There were two final ultramarathons (30 and 70 miles) which were used as long training runs and provided more practice at pacing and fueling before the 100. By the time the 100 arrived Cathy was healthy, fit, positive and more confident in her ability to run 100 miles. Race strategy was the same as it had been in all the previous ultras: start sensibly, remain positive and deal with the inevitable deterioration that would happen in the second half.

Cathy won the race despite some navigational issues with only seven men in front of her. The training highlighted the need for quality over quantity and demonstrated how a busy professional with children can still achieve their goals if training is logical and approached with the right attitude.

The result was down to months of consistency and a tough and pragmatic mental attitude during the training process. Because she was willing to experiment during events and adapt as necessary Cathy achieved the result she deserved.

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