Article - Training for Ultras

Training for Ultras - What's It All About? What is Fatigue?

To start this article I will first refer to a comment I made in one of my blog posts: "Too often, the improved performance is credited to the increased physical training people may have carried out prior to the event. Marathon running performance, and even more for Ultra running performance is largely determined by self expectation. I believe it is the heightened self expectation following a good bout of training that leads to the improved performance, not the actual training per se! So only indirectly has the increased physical training lead to the improved performance."

In addition it is useful to refer to two comments from Professor Tim Noakes ”There was a time, not so long ago, when we really did know everything about human physiology. After all, it was all so very simple. ...... But the more compelling challenge for the traditional model (of fatigue) is that it simply cannot explain the obvious." Tim Noakes (2007) From the foreword for the book: Brain Training for Runners, by Matt Fitzgerald. And in relation to fatigue in terms of a Central Governor, from the book Lore Of Running, page 19 (fourth edition): "At the same time, information is sent from the controller to the emotional and other centers in the brain. These influence the level of discomfort that is felt, the emotional response, and the self-talk and self-doubt that are additional but poorly understood features of the fatigue that develops during exercise."

The key words within this last quote are the "poorly understood features of the fatigue that develops during exercise." Yes, the understanding of fatigue is really limited. Not much is actually known regarding the causes of fatigue during endurance events!. So therefore if this isn't really known, then how does one know how best to reduce the fatigue!!! So this is why I find it so hard to really comment on what physical training is best in order to improve performance, i.e. reduce fatigue, during marathons and ultra runs.

Just before I do however attempt to try to do this, I will refer to the article titled "What Determines Performance in Ultra Running?" where I state that ultra trail running performance is all about "the ability to remain within a 'positive state of being, a positive state of mind', while all of the many negative states from various sources are being initiated." Looking at my list of potential negative sources within this article, I seemed to have missed one. Well I'm not really sure if it is actually a negative source. It is as if the 'mind' gets fatigued. .... It was as if the mind was no longer able to maintain that 'Within the now focus', .... It is as if the mind has decided that after so many hours of race focus, it has had enough." .... So the secret is to develop 'race focus' endurance."

Lets first consider some key aspects in relation to Training for Ultras and what factors influence performance/fatigue during endurance running:

(i) Nobody knows what causes fatigue during endurance running.
(ii) The mind plays an EXTREMELY LARGE role in resisting/delaying fatigue. (Remember the mind and body are not separate identities, they are all as ONE!)

(iii) Remaining within a positive state of mind, is the KEY ASPECT to endurance running performance, as highlighted in one of my signing off quotes: "Ultra trail running performance is dependent upon the preparation that has taken place prior to the event. The preparation must be TOTAL and not just the physical, as the preparation must ensure one remains in a positive state throughout the entire event." Stuart Mills, 2011.

(iv) Remaining within a positive state of mind is determined by one's 'Race focus endurance'. Race focus endurance largely relates to how difficult it is whilst racing to maintain a positive race focus. The greater the sources of negativity, the greater the difficulty in remaining focused and keeping positive.

(v) So finally, yes physical training does have a role to play with endurance running performance, but not only directly due to resisting physiological fatigue, but also in terms of making it easier to maintain a race focus, i.e. to maintain positive, to stop the MIND from fatiguing!!!

(vi) Sorry, (v) was meant to be the final key point, but this one (vi) definitely is! "The way we perform is the result of the way we see ourselves. To alter our performance we need to alter or change ourselves and it is that changing that's difficult". Gary Elliott (1983), coach to the great New Zealand women marathon runner, Alison Roe. Therefore: (vi) Fatigue during endurance running is largely determined by how one perceives oneself, in terms of their running capabilities.

In addition to writing on my UltraStu blog I also occasionally do presentations to runners. At one of my presentations, I asked the audience to give some thought, and then share with the group, what a typical week’s mileage would be in order for them to achieve their goal during the upcoming Lakeland 100/50. We had a massive variety of mileages, ranging from 30 - 110 miles per week. The take home message I presented to the audience in response to the question; What weekly mileage is required in order to achieve your goals, was simply being, the weekly mileage that YOU BELIEVE is necessary. If you believe 30 miles is sufficient, then it is. If you believe that 100 miles is needed, then you need to do 100 miles. It all comes down to what you believe is required.

Matt Fitzgerald from his book “Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel” states on page 23, "If it does nothing else, a runner's training must make him feel prepared, because if he feels prepared, he is prepared, and if he doesn't, he isn't." Just prior to this on page 22 he states: "The primary objective of training for every competitive runner should be to develop confidence in her ability to achieve her race goals. Well don't these statements sound a bit like some of the material highlighted above from one of my presentations, and also a bit like Gary Elliot's ideas (Alison Roe's coach) from 30 years ago!

Finally I will try to answer the following questions: What physical training is best? Are hills useful? What did I do physically in order to be the first GB finisher, in 15th place, at the 2011 IAU World championships?

Well as much as you may read in running magazines, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that one form of training is better at developing VO2max, lactate threshold, or running economy, than other types of training! It is total speculation. So stating that threshold training will improve your lactate threshold has simply not been demonstrated by scientific research, similarly for the other physiological measures that supposedly determine running endurance performance! In relation to having a low VO2 max, VO2 max has very little to do with endurance performance. If I am correct in my reading from the past, Derek Clayton, a 2:08 marathon runner, back in the sixties, only had a VO2max of around 69 ml/kg/min! Nothing special! Many of the readers of my UltraStu blog will have higher values, but unable to run a 2:08 marathon!

So, returning back to Fitzgerald's statement from page 23 of his latest book, to put it simply, it doesn't really matter what physical training you do, as long as you believe that it is sufficient for you to be able to achieve your goals. In 2009, my 20 week build-up average weekly mileage for the UTMB was 34.5 miles per week. This for the majority of the runs was easy running, on pretty flat footpaths and bridleways. With the biggest hill being pretty well 150 metres to the top of Beachy Head within the South Downs National Park. Would I do repetitions of the hill climb, DEFINITELY NOT!!! Why run to the top, to simply turn around to go down, and run back up to the top again! I run to enjoy myself, the scenery, the variety. If I wanted to run over the same ground again and again, I would be a track runner! The secret to my physical training, which now no longer appears to be a secret, is for running to be enjoyable, to feel comfortable, to run by feel at a pace, for a duration, over the terrain and gradients, that feel right for me, to maximise my enjoyment! As simple as that!

Was, 34.5 miles per week of easy, flattish running sufficient to achieve my goals for the 2009 UTMB? NO! Although I finished in 22nd place overall (from 2300 starters), in 26 hours and 29 minutes. I did not achieve the goals I had set. So yes, I have needed to increase my weekly mileage slightly, in order for me to "feel prepared". Have I changed the gradient of my runs to try to replicate the huge elevation ascent demands of UTMB. No! Why? Because hill training doesn't specifically make you a better hill runner. Believing that you are a good hill runner, makes you a better hill runner. Yes, by doing lots of hill training will help you to develop this belief, but if you understand that belief is actually all you need in order to be a better hill runner, then you actually don't need to bother with the actual physical hill training. The benefits of hill training are not only physical! Referring back to some of the above six points, one needs to be reminded that: endurance performance isn't primarily physiologically determined, it is determined by the mind, by one's self expectations, one's enjoyment whilst running.

Have I any evidence for this statement immediately above? Well surprisingly , or perhaps not that surprising, there is actually some published research which seems to back up this believe/expectation/enjoyment theory on endurance performance. Fitzgerald refers to some work by Marcora published in 2009. He got cyclists to repeat a cycling task to exhaustion twice, with the only difference being that they exposed the cyclists to a mentally demanding task for 90 minutes prior to the cycling exercise. And yes, as one would expect, understanding that it is the mind that largely determines endurance performance, when the mind gets tired, physical performance is statistically and significantly decreased! Absolutely rubbish though if you are a believer of the dated idea that physiology determines performance!

One of the key attributes that the physical training is hoping to improve, is that for during the endurance race, your mind doesn't become tired. How though does physical training specifically improve your mind? Well although within this article above, and pretty well within everything you read on running, in magazines, books, published scientific literature, absolutely everywhere, it is pretty well always separated into physical and mental training. After believing this idea for 30 years, I guess it was when I got into ultra trail running that I realised that this view is just totally flawed. I guess a bit like, when people finally realised that the earth wasn't flat! Why did it take so long to accept this, when the answer was so obvious, i.e. the moon. Also why does everyone seems to think the mind and body are different identities when they are totally the same??? Does, your body determine how you mentally feel? Yes, of course! But then ask the opposing question, does your mind determine how you physically perform? Again yes! So, obvious really, totally inseparable! So when you are physically training, you are also mentally training, and similarly, when mentally training, you will improve your physical performance. Hence, why I go on about TOTAL preparation.

So now in trying to respond to the above questions, one must refer to TOTAL preparation, not physical preparation. So that is the purpose of training? No, not to increase VO2max, or lactate threshold or running economy, but to increase the enjoyment and the positivity in order to prevent race focus fatigue, when your mind and body together as one begin to get tired, resulting in your pace slowing. The following are some of the principles related to the necessary training.

(i) Have a good understanding of what the endurance race will entail, in terms of duration, terrain, elevation, temperature, company, loneliness, darkness, etc. By having a good understanding of the demands/characteristics of the race, your mind and body are better prepared in terms of having positive self expectations that you are capable of achieving your goals.

(ii) Be aware that you do not have to have actually carried out the demands of the event, in order to be confident of 'handling'/achieving the race demands. Remember, success in terms of achieving realistic goals, is largely determined by self expectation, self belief that you can achieve, simply your confidence.

(iii) Understand, that as long as you have a positive attitude, and are enjoying the 'journey', i.e. enjoying the present, the 'here and now'. Then you will be able to achieve much, much, more that you have ever achieved before. You don't need to have run 100 miles in training in order to run 100 miles in a race, as long as you believe this. If you believe you 'have to', and you haven't completed the 'required' 100 miles training, then, according to your expectations, your performance will be poor, due to poor preparation.

(iv) Remind yourself, that performance is not simply about physical attributes. Therefore do not expect a low performance due to your well accepted assessment of your physical attributes in that you 'are no Kenyan athlete'! Reassure yourself, with the appropriate TOTAL preparation, that you can be fully prepared to achieve your realistic goal.

You will note that I have used the term "realistic goal". This is extremely important, because if your goal is not realistic, then there is no way that you can deeply, deeply down within yourself, truly believe that you can achieve your goal. And without this belief, success is not possible. So to put it simply, don't have a goal of being an Olympic champion if you haven't got any evidence to provide some 'substance' to help you develop this belief.

(v) Your TOTAL preparation is all about collating evidence, obtaining 'substance', that you are capable of being able to respond to the anticipated demands of the event. Obviously it firstly gets down to knowing what these demands of the event are. Secondly, it is totally acceptable to compare yourself to others, to help gauge how others have responded to the event demands, if you are a newcomer to the event. Although, whilst racing you should focus on yourself, and not be distracted by others. During your preparation, it is a good strategy to compare yourself to others who have completed the event you are preparing for, and you have some knowledge of their total person, not just their physical attributes.

(vi) Within your preparation, give the event plenty of thought. Consider, whilst running on your own, and at other times while on your own, how you will respond to the demands. One of the key benefits of running miles, is the time that becomes available while running, to consider, to think about, to visualise, how you will respond when it comes to the actual event. Ensure your response is positive. Be excited about the upcoming event. Reflect on why you are doing it. What is it that you enjoy about it so much. Look forward to it, knowing that you are carrying out the necessary TOTAL preparation. Simply, giving the event some positive thinking time, is improving your performance. The more miles you run, the more thinking time, hence the improved performance. It is therefore not actually as a result of the miles, improved physical/physiological attributes as most runners probably believe that are responsible for the improved performance. Although there is also the increased feeling of being fully prepared when people have put 'more miles in the bank'. Again, it is the confidence, not specifically the physiology that improves performance.

(vii) Learn to remain positive, confident during training. Learn to counter the negative arguments that will develop within during the actual event. One way to do this is to think in advance what these negative arguments could be. Maybe think of it as preparing to talk to a 'stroppy' teenager! You prepare for this situation by being ready with an appropriate response to whatever irrational argument they may 'hit you with'. Be prepared with some evidence from your TOTAL training to counter the arguments. Maybe some examples here to illustrate may be useful.

You are half way through a 100 mile race, and feeling tired. Argument being presented within your head: you have to walk, your training hasn't been sufficient, your weekly mileage has been too low to handle a 100 mile event. You need to have ready someone you know who has performed during a similar event, doing similar mileage to you, e.g. that UltraStupid guy Stuart Mills, ran 26hours at UTMB on only 34.5 miles a week of easy running.

Another example. It is a hot day during the event. Argument being presented within your head: you must slow down as it is far too hot to perform at your usual pace. Well during your TOTAL preparation, you hopefully gave the likely weather conditions some thought, and you appreciated that there was some chance that it would be hot. You therefore did some running in the heat, not for your body to physiologically acclimatise. No, but for you to gather some evidence, to counter the argument, so you could reply; remember back to those hot runs I did it the heat, yes it was hot, but I was able to continue running along at a good pace then. A bit like hill training earlier. The actual running in the heat may have nothing to do with physiology, it is all about raising your self expectations, your self belief that you will be able to respond to the likely demands of the event.

One final example, somehow, you are running way quicker than you ever thought possible. The argument being presented within your head: you have started far too fast, you will 'blow-up', you must slow down before it is too late. Perhaps you are running quicker than you thought possible due to you being much further up the field than your fellow training partner. Remember, it is okay to compare to others during the preparation, but not good during the actual event. Argument response, remind yourself that performance is determined by TOTAL preparation, not just physical attributes. You have carried out the necessary TOTAL preparation, you have developed high self expectations, high self belief. Don't let your training partner's lesser performance cause you to doubt yours. You have no idea what their TOTAL preparation has been like. Simply, believe in yourself. If you are enjoying the 'journey', i.e. enjoying the present moment, and all is going fine and you are positive, then don't let this doubt that wants you to slow down, to allow any negative thoughts to develop. You are what you believe. If you believe that you have gone to fast and you will suffer for it, then you will suffer. As simple as that!

I could go on and on providing examples. But maybe your endurance training in terms of reading blog post articles doesn't quite match, my preparation in terms of typing them up. Remember my motives for typing such lengthy posts. It is all to do with my TOTAL preparation. The thoughts involved in typing this post, is as important at developing race focus endurance, as the same time involved as running across the South Downs. To put it simply, 3 hours of typing is as beneficial, NO, probably more beneficial with regards to ultra endurance performance than a 3 hour training run! Hence why I only needed 34.5 miles per week back in 2009. I probably did equivalent mileage, reading, thinking, visualising. The improvement in my ultra running performances since starting the UltraStu blog, I think is largely a result of the extra training time I have put in thinking about and typing up the posts. On paper I may only be a 40 mile a week runner, but in reality, taking into account my TOTAL preparation, I am probably more like a 150 mile a week runner. Remember the key message. ultra running performance is predominantly not physiologically determined!!!!

To finish this article, is just a quick two examples to help illustrate more. just how endurance running performance isn't physiologically determined. The first is to do with Mo Farah and his rapid improvement over during 2010-2911. If you haven't come across the Marathon talk podcasts, then they are worthy of a listen, especially the interviews with various runners. Mo Farah was interviewed on Marathontalk. If you have a few spare moments, take a listen. Also if you have even more spare time, remember, you can include this listening as part of your TOTAL training for the week, listen to the interviews with Tim Noakes, Liz Hawker, Jez Bragg. There are loads of great interviews. But don't miss the David Hemmery interview, an Olympic gold medalist for the 400m hurdles from 1968. Some really good words of wisdom here! Listen to what Mo Farah says about the influence of Alberto Salazar, his new coach in 2009. Nothing physically training wise has really changed, but agrees that "Salazar gives his athletes an incredible belief to achieve things that perhaps they thought they weren't able to do".

The second quick example is concerning Haile Gebrselassie and his final eleven days of run training prior to winning the 10,000 metre gold at the Athens 1996 Olympics. Within the book titled "The Greatest" by Jim Dennison, it is reported that apart from running the semi-final three days before his victory in the final, for eleven days before the final Gebrselassie was totally unable to run, due to his left foot becoming severely infected. Meanwhile, his great opponent Paul Tergat "had completed a perfect run-up" to the final. Interestingly within Fitzgerald's Running by Feel book. both Alberto Salavar and Haile Gebrselassie are repeatedly referred to as examples of best practice!

This articles sign off quote will be short.

"You are, what you believe!" Stuart Mills, 2011.

All the best with your TOTAL training. Don't forget to log one hour plus as TOTAL training within your training diary, if you have managed to get this far through this article. Hey, why not read it again, and double your training for the day!


  1. Nice post. You may be interested in these articles describing a new way to train the brain for endurance:

  2. Inspiring, thanks so much!

  3. Extremely interesting and obviously fits well with what noakes & others are talking about at least in terms of the difference between one’s “best” and “ok” performances. But is all very n=1 isn’t it? There’s absolutely no way to get from 34.5 flat miles per week for you resulting in 26h29 UTMB and the statement “success in terms of achieving realistic goals, is largely determined by self expectation”. You haven’t actually shown any evidence of this. So yes, there is evidence that positive views can have positive impact on athletic results (and I think most people will have had similar experiences) but you can’t extrapolate from that to the very low training loads you suggest. Indeed, my understanding is that the evidence is that results are positively correlated with training loads (until these become overtraining).

  4. Hi Marc

    Thanks for your comment. Yes you are correct in that my blog post above is based on a sample size of one. However, I do try to justify my ideas by referring to other respected people's views such as Tim Noakes, Sam Marcora, Matt Fitzgerald, to name just a few.

    With regards to your suggestion that "results (in ultra trail races) are positively correlated with training loads", I have never seem any actual evidence to support this. In fact, I have seen research that clearly shows that there is a very small relationship. Sorry but I can't recall the source of the research, which isn't really much good! I do have the references for the research in my notes somewhere, up in the loft? So will add these when I hopefully soon have some time to find them.

    Just one last final point. Yes, I am not saying that any runner can simply run 34 miles a week, and then achieve a 26 hour finish time at UTMB. I have never suggested that. I have always acknowledged that I have a tremendous advantage in that I have been endurance running for over thirty years. But what is important, is recognising that it wasn't until I started raising my self expectations, that my performance improved dramatically!

    The disappointing aspect for the majority of runners is that they believe that they must run in the region of 100 miles per week in order to perform well in 100 mile ultra trail races. Therefore if they are doing less than 100 miles a week training, they expect a sub-elite performance, and therefore tend to produce a sub-elite performance. This is really disappointing, and what I am hoping to avoid by my sharing of what I have discovered. Yes, with a sample size of one, but also backed up by some very clever and well respected experts!

    I would love to chat about the topic in person. If we happen to be at the same race next year sometime, please give me a shout,

    All the best with your physical training, and the development of your increased self-expectations.


  5. Thank you so much for this article.
    I am new to the ultra scene. I have ran 2 100km events this year. By running I mean running and walking. The 2 events were 7 weeks apart and I have another 100km in 8 weeks time. I am raising money for Parksinson's UK -
    I have been struggling to find a formula of training between the events that works that includes recovery, maintenance, and preparation. Your article has given me a new way to approach and look at preparation and makes perfect sense. 5 Years ago I read 'Born To Run.' It changed my perspective on the equipment that I need to run with. And yes I am now a minimalist footwear runner. Your article has given me a similar 'wake up call' as Born To Run did. This time it is about the 'state of mind.' Thank you again.

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