Last week we discussed Maffetone as a training method and the objectives of the long run. One of the things we highlighted is how common it is for endurance athletes to get the 'training zone' thing very wrong. Variation is critical, so easy sessions should be easy and high intensity/interval sessions should be hard. Many athletes tend to drift into the middle ground where all the training is done at a very similar intensity.
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. Marathon runners stepping up to Ultra struggle a great deal with this concept. They can't calculate how they can run for 12 hours, when a normal 3 hours run will leave then tired for the next 48 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. Our Sunday run pace is generally just below the point at which breathing becomes so labored that we can hold a conversation.
It's all about damage
We tend to judge our intensity based on how hard we breathe and how fast our hearts beat, what we don't take into the equation is the damage to our leg muscles. It may feel to you as though the intensity is easy and your breathing may be very relaxed, but that doesn't mean you can keep going for ever, because each step generates impact and over time your muscles will become damaged and start to bleed. In marathon running and especially for ultra runners, this is perhaps the most critical thing that you need to resolve.
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 hike. 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.
Poles and packs
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.
Get your head round it
As a runner, you may be finding this concept difficult as you are used to 'running'. Most runners typical approach is to run for as long as they can and then survive the remainder. You need to switch your focus, this is not a long run, because you won't be running a 50-100 mile ultra. It's a trek / walk / jog... call it whatever you like, but it's not the kind of run you have been accustomed to doing when training for marathon.
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. Use the Maffetone HR to slow you down and run at a very easy pace. You can also use a walk/run approach, walk 2 minutes, jog 8 and repeat. Don't slip into the bad habit of thinking that your HR and breathing need to be higher or you're not working hard enough. 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.
How much should I be doing now?
If you are training for ultra in summer 2017 then up to 6 hours is probably sufficient up to Christmas and then you can look to increase after that. Of the 6 hours, I'd expect no more than 2 hours absolute max to be running and the rest to be hiking. It's feasible that you could be doing that once per week. If you're reading this and thinking "there's no way I can run for 6 HOURS!!!" then you're still not understanding the intensity. Go and walk for 6 hours as your start point. You should finish and feel ok, so if you're still knackered on Wednesday, you went way too hard.
In the new year, as the distance increases up to 12 hours, you may wish to drop this to once every fortnight. If you're training for 100 mile events, then back to back days are of great benefit and once per fortnight would be advised. Don't increase the distance to 6+ and continue every weekend or there is a risk of continuous fatigue day after day.
If you're training for a spring marathon, then you probably need to go no further than 13 miles by the end of the year and you can then start to plan specific long runs to progress over a 16-20 week period.
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.
Plenty of food for thought there, so it's time for you to go out of the door and test it. If you've any questions, post them on Facebook page and we'll answer. If you'd like a sports science assessment GO HERE.
If you're local to us (Wigan), remember we have a Saturday morning trail running club from October to end of March and every Tuesday is the free Bat Race Series. Fore more information about our shop training and events GO HERE.
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