Wednesday, 7 July 2010

What Training is Appropriate?


The other day I read John K's post on his six month training review, and along with presenting data on his training he made the following comment:

The big question I have as I look back over the mileage is whether I should do more or less or stay the same for next year?

I don't know many other ultra's runners mileage but in conversation with a few people I know some do a lot less than me and did better this year. Both Gavin (20:00:08) and Dave (20:20:59) did considerably less mileage than I did and yet ran really well on the day. I know Stuart Mills is also a fan of less mileage.

But there are others like Richie (whw winner), Marco (5th) and Thomas (6th) who do quite a bit more than me including a few back to back long runs. So should I be thinking of doing more mileage, expecially in January - March?

Maybe it's not just overall mileage but how you do it that matters.
What is the answer?  Is his monthly average of 202 miles per month, or 47 miles per week the optimal amount of mileage to run.  But what about the pace of the run, or the type of run e.g. intervals, hill work etc?

In my post titled  "What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two" I concluded "In order to address what training is appropriate, one must first consider what limits performance!" and listed what I considered limits performance in ultra running. 

Before I expand upon some of the ideas introduced within that post I thought I would produce a 6 month training summary similar to John K's

Firstly, looking at my training this year compared to the previous three years.  Without really noticing it I have run significantly more miles this year.  With the main aim of the year being the Lakeland 100, I felt it important to recce the course, so in those three days I ran 114 miles. (I have never done anything like this before, i.e. three long runs in three consecutive days, but it was my only opportunity to recce the course, so it just had to be done!)  I also ran 44 miles along the Wealde Way to complete my running of the entire route.  This was something I had been wanting to do since I moved down to East Sussex eight years, as the Wealde Way passes right in front of my door.  With there being an eight week gap between racing the Hardmoors 55 and the Marlborouh 33, it just fitted in nicely.  Apart from these two long trail routes, I have carried out my physical training pretty well the same as the three previous years, but I guess with a focus of trying to only typically have one day off a week, rather than my usual two days rest per week.   The reason for the one less day rest?  Probably the main reason was to try to loose a bit of weight, as weight is such an important determinant of running economy, which is what I consider to be the key physiological factor that influences ultra running performance.  My weight has dropped a wee bit, but it just doesn't fall off me like it used to when I was younger!

How much mileage should one do, and at what pace etc?  To answer this, one has to look at what are the effects of the training, and how does this relate to ultra running performance.  Surprisingly there is pretty well ZERO research that will confirm what type of training is best to increase VO2 max, or to increase lactate/anaerobic threshold/breakpoint. (Refer to some of my earlier posts for explanations of these terms).  Logically you would think the harder you train, the more likely these two variables will increase.  I agree with this logic.  But whether to do long distance runs, short reps, threshold runs, hills etc., science wont provide you with the answer.  I guess this is why it is often said that "coaching is an art not a science".  The coach and the athlete will discovery the result by trial and error!

So you may be asking the question then why did I conclude in my "What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two" post with the following statement:

"To run faster in ultra trail races, train slower! Your training pace should enable your running to be relaxed, smooth, flowing, cruisey, and in total rhythm, with positivity and joy. For the vast majority of your runs, do not train hard!"

This is because ultra running performance is influenced substantially more by running economy, NOT lactate threshold or VO2 max, so why bother training these aspects.  Surely it is much wiser to train to improve your running economy, and to do this, DO NOT TRAIN HARD!!!

Although there isn't any strong scientific evidence, it is suggested that you are most efficient at the running speed at which you train the most often at.  So if you do most of your training at around 7:30 - 8:00 minute mile pace (which is probably the pace at which I do the majority of my runs at, although quite often slower, especially my semi-long Saturday morning runs with my training partner Kev), then I will become more efficient, more economical at this running speed.  Not only will I consume less oxygen at this speed, I will have a smoother style, be more relaxed and in rhythm, which will reduce the amount of muscle damage I will experience during racing.  And this muscle damage is an extremely important factor in ultra running.

Having given alot of thought to what physical factors influence ultra running performance, I am confident and comfortable with my conclusions.  When I ran trail marathons as my key focus, I used to do mile reps, threshold runs etc. as the intensity in a marathon is so much higher, right on the lactate threshold/turnpoint, so it was important to try to improve this physiological component, as well as VO2max.  But for ultra running, are they important?  I think not, so training these aspects one could conclude as a waste of time!  Although, it is important to recognise that while doing this form of training it is often really enjoyable, often carried out with fellow runners, maybe a club night, followed by a chat a drink.  So in this respect, it isn't a waste of time, in some ways the enjoyment from the training is more important than the enjoyment from racing, as you spend more time training.  But if we look at the training solely for the training benefit, then probably my 'waste of time' conclusion is appropriate.

Looking at the winning time in the recent Western States 100 miler.  Sure there are some hills which will slow the runners down, but the overall course drops many metres.  This year it has been reported that it was the strongest field of ultra trail runners ever assembled.  What was the winner's average mile pace, in a record time???  9 minutes and 04 seconds!  So why bother training at 6 minute mile pace, or even 7 minute mile pace, and that is for the winner!  Look at what average mile pace you are going to run at, 10 mins per mile, or 12 mins per mile, maybe 15 mins, or 18 mins per mile.  So is training at 8 minutes per mile that beneficial???

The question that I have asked myself is; what is it that determines the pace I run at during an ultra race?  And I have concluded that it is my mental state during the race that largely determines the pace.  The other advantage at not training at a hard intensity, is that it helps immensely in developing a positive mental state.  I am never in a state of over-trained.  I don't get that stale feeling.  I don't begin to think of running as 'homework', i.e. that same sort of feeling, something like when your parents and teachers told you that it is beneficial for you, but you don't really enjoy doing it!  You might do it first thing in the morning, so you can get it out of the way, and relax and enjoy the rest of the day.  As if running is like taking 'medicine'!  You believe it will be good for you, but you don't really like taking it!

The ONE MASSIVE factor in my philosophy on ultra running training is that I have TOTAL, absolute TOTAL belief it what I am doing is right for me.  This 'take it easy' training approach will only work if you believe 'deep inside' that it right!  If you don't have this total belief, then when you start getting tired during an ultra race, then it will become so easy to accept that you should be tired, and you must run slower because you haven't trained hard enough.  Pretty well everyone believes in the work hard, train hard and this will produce the results, bring you the rewards.  But hey, just because the majority of people believe in something, it doesn't mean it is true.  What is important is what you believe in!  And it is this belief, this mental approach which largely determines ultra performance.  Yes, physical performance does play quite a substantial role, therefore I have given my physical training some serious thought, in order to perform at my best. 

My conclusion probably differs to most other ultra runners.  Will it work for me for the Lakeland 100 miler?  Well only two and a half weeks to wait to find out.  I can't wait!!!

Time to sign off with another Millsy quote:  "Never assume the majority view is correct. Always question, consider the evidence, and come to your own conclusions.  Don't be afraid to differ!" Stuart Mills, 2010.

All the best with your training,



  1. I was hoping for some comments from you and you didn't disappoint! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    I will be rereading this a few times as I think about my plans for next year!

    All the best for the Lakeland 100. We'll be on holiday but I hoping to be able to get internet access so I can find out how you got on.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful post. Between this and John's there is so much to take in. One thing I always wonder about is the number of years someone's been running ultras and what positives and what negatives that might have. I think it goes hand in hand with the pace you run through the years.

  3. Very intersting post. And as you say "Don't be afraid to differ!". That applies in particular for yourself. I am really impressed how well you perform on fairly little mileage. It is probably knowing what's best for yourself. And really feeling what mileage is good for you.

    Take Krupicka 200m/w Jornet 250m/w vs Roes. Roes pointed out in an interview that he trained half the mileage compared to Anton.

    Training can be much fun and if I could I would run 100 miles a week. Even more. But I am quite happy with my average just now and it feels right. I am certainly not overtraining.

    Good luck with the Lakeland 100. Can't wait for your report :-)

  4. Hi Stu, Great post as usual. Just one thought concerning intensity of training and racing. With even pace racing, the effort needs to increase to maintain the same even pace in the later stages ie effort levels are uneven. The only way to do practice higher effort levels in training is to do some (a little ) faster running?

  5. Very interesting post and I totally understand where you are coming from but I have an alternate philosophy.

    I run 60-80 miles per week typically spread over 4-5 runs. One of those will be a very hard series of 3-5 min uphill sprints done 5-7 times and another a threshold session ( eg 2 x 30minutes hard) The rest of the sessions are done at a very easy pace over hilly terrain and very close to ultra race pace.

    My reasoning is, yes during an ultra you may run at say 12 min miles but if you raise your fitness so that you can comfortably run 7 minute miles for 20-30 miles then running 12 min miles will feel easy. If you struggle to run say 9 minute miles for 20-30 miles then 12 minute miles for 50 miles will seem very hard. SO I work at increasing my fitness so that I can run at a fast pace and combine that with running my slow runs at a slow pace training the body to become efficient at running at that pace for hours on end.

    One factor to keep in mind is that yes the overall average for the WHS100 winner may be approx 9 minute miles but going uphill he was probably going a lot slower than that so he would have had to spend a large amount of time running a lot faster to make up the average. Eg if a runner spends say 5 hours going up hill at 12 mins per mile - thats 25 miles up hill so to average 9 min miles for 50 miles he would have had to run the other 25 miles in 2.5 hours which is some seriously quick running!

    Ok thats an unrealistic example but looking at the winners average speed is not an good indication of how fast he/she ran on an undulating course.

    Having said that everybody is different and as you said there is no definitive research particularly for ultras that tells us what kind of training is best. Whatever works for you

  6. Really interesting post. This year was my first WHWR and I often felt intimidated by the mileages that some people would do in training. But as you say, you have to do what works for you.
    I will be at the finish of the Lakeland100 so no doubt will see you there.


  7. Remember that in ultras we have to learn to suffer, often for extended periods of time. Luckily for us the ability to suffer is trainable. To practice suffering in training you have to do some hard running and on a regular basis unless you are happy to just coast in races.