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Nailing The Long Run For Ultra & Ironman - Pacing Is Critical

We've been blogging over the last few weeks about run training and specifically how to put your training plan together for 2018. You can join in the discussions on our Facebook run coaching group.

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It's far more common for athletes to run 'too quickly' on long runs, it's very rare that they are running too slow. Most runners have a 'Sunday pace' which they naturally 'slip into' and this is generally a bit too quick. A run of 16-18 miles often leaves them tired for a couple of days and going further than 18 can often require a great deal of recovery.

For marathon runners stepping up to ultra distances, they struggle a great deal with this concept. They can't understand how it's possible to run for 12 hours, when a normal 2-3 hours run will leave then tired for the next 48 hours. How do you even contemplate a training run of 8-12 hours??

Break the habit

It is very hard to break the habit as our Sunday run pace is so hard ingrained in our brains. It's our natural and comfortable 'steady running pace'. Try and run a little slower and you'll soon find, unless you are concentrating, that you'll just drift back to Sunday pace that you are accustomed to. We've talked and blogged repeatedly about Maffetone pace, which is just below the aerobic threshold and why this slow running has so many benefits.

Become efficient at the slow...

We've had plenty of ultra runners and those racing Ironman events complain that Maffetone / aerobic threshold running is just too slow, they find it very frustrating. There is also a 'technique' to running slow and many people find that it just feels unnatural, they commonly find that it becomes more comfortable when they speed up a little. It's important to become accustomed to this slower pace and adjust your technique so you feel comfortable and efficient. It's very common for athletes racing Ironman and ultra to complain that Maffetone is too slow in training, but on race day, they can't actually hold that pace for the full event.

Take a hike

If you are training for ultra distance next year, then you'll probably benefit significantly by changing your focus completely from a long run to a long trek/hike. You need to understand that you can't go out and 'run steady' for 10 hours on Sunday... it's not physically possible. Start with 3-4 hours and progress to 6 over an 8 week period. On all the climbs you should walk and keep your HR down (important - don't try and run the climbs and then react by walking when your HR goes too high, forget the running, walk from the off). Brisk walk or jog flat sections and then jog the downhills. It is particularly important to jog the downhills as this is where most damage occurs during ultra events. Uphills may tax your heart and lungs, but downhills damage your legs.

We organise the Montane Lakeland 50 & 100 and the average finisher will probably run only 20-40% of the time, the rest will be 'trekking'. Your long 'run' should be specific, so your 8 hour training 'run' may well be be 60% trekking.

IMPORTANT - It won't be your aerobic fitness which will fail you in an ultra or Ironman, it'll be your resilience. Your legs will be damaged and your chassis will collapse. Get out, go slow and get 'time on feet'.

Poles and packs for ultra runners

Now is a good time to try poles and use a pack. Poles can help significantly when walking uphill (not really great for downhill) and they are a wise investment for ultra races. Packs are important as weight causes more muscle damage. You need to condition your legs to the extra impact causes by the pack weight. It only take a couple of additional Kg of weight to have a big impact upon muscle damage.

Hang on... I'm not an ultra runner, I'm just training for marathon

Ah, well if that applies to you, your approach is slightly different. The principles are still the same, you need to spend a long time on your feet to condition the muscles. The purpose is to condition the muscles, you need to spend as much time on your feet as possible and if you go slower, you can spend more time on your feet. It's not about 'fitness' it's about impact and conditioning. Use a heart rate monitor and set yourself a very low heart rate or if you have a GPS watch, aim to run 1-2 minutes slower than your normal Sunday run pace.

How much should I be doing now?

The easiest answer to this question is to join the Facebook page linked at the top of this article as there is a free periodised plan, telling you what to do and when.

Will going slow make me slow?

Potentially yes it will. For that reason, you need to maintain harder sessions during the week which tax your breathing and heart rate. The long easy sessions needs to long and easy, the hard sessions need to be hard. It's a common scenario that ultra runners do the long day too hard so have to stop early (failed to hit the objective of the long session). As a result, they are still tired 2 days later and can't complete a harder training / interval workout (failed to hit the objective of the harder session). There are many people who slip into the grey area between going easy and going hard, resulting in a poor performance on race day.

We offer a coaching service for triathlon and ultra running, it's £40 per month which includes sports science testing, a structured plan and ongoing support. If you're planning something big next summer and want us to help you structure your training, then email

The Endurance Store

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