Training for ultras and marathons simultaneously

It’s been two weeks since I arrived in Paris – time has flown! Now that I’ve started my French course I feel much more settled and have started to explore the city more. I also properly kicked off training for the next bunch of races I have coming up. The start of a new training cycle is always a good time to talk about the approach you intend to take, especially so that you can read over them later and see how you did. I’ve done this previously for my training for the London Triathlon and the Amsterdam/Berlin Marathon last year.

I have not gone easy on myself with the races in the first half of this year. Not only will I be tackling my first two ultras at the Eco Trail de Paris (45km, so barely an ultra) and the North Downs Way 50 miles in May, but I’m also going to try and run 4 marathons in 4 weeks under 4 hours in April. Yep, that’s Manchester, Brighton, London and Hamburg all one week after the other. Eek!

Let’s do this!

There’s a lot of work to be done to get my body into shape to perform well in those races. For the ultras, ‘performing well’ means finishing strong with a smile on my face, whereas for the marathons I do have specific times to hit. Ideally I’d like to run all the marathons quite a bit faster than 4 hours, which needs work. I’ve got a good base fitness which I maintain year-round, but I still need to do a solid training block to feel confident going into this crazy race schedule.

Marathon training involves two main aspects: endurance and speed. Endurance to get you through the 42.2km in one piece, and speed to… well, run it quickly. For ultra running, the focus is more on endurance. A 50-mile trail race will take anywhere from 5:48:12 (world record) to 13 hours (NDW50 cut-off), so you need to be able to run for that length of time. Ultras also require specific training on trails and hills as these are what you will encounter on race day.

For combining training for the two disciplines, we therefore have the following list of focus areas:

  • Speed
  • Hills
  • Endurance
  • Trails

These are my pillars of training for the next few months. To put them into action, I’m pulling from my experience during past marathon training cycles as well as various pieces of literature about ultra-running (eg. the ‘Ultimate Ultra Marathon Training Plan’ from Runner’s World). In addition to the running training, it’s also important to incorporate cross-training and strength work, however that won’t be discussed in this post.

Intervals & tempo runs

Track sessions and tempo runs along the Thames were the crucial ingredients of my BQ training plan. I dedicated to nailing these sessions each week and while it didn’t always go to plan, they put me in a great place come race day. Intervals are the best way to get faster, by teaching your body to push that little bit more each week. In contrast, the tempo run is all about testing out race-pace (or a little quicker!). When it comes to the day, not only will you know that you can run at your goal speed, but your body will easily settle into that pace because you have practiced it so often.

These two sessions are the hardest-effort runs of the week, and should always come before an easy run or rest day because you will be knackered afterwards. (If not, try harder.) Over the course of the training plan, they should increase in distance and speed, so that you are always pushing yourself and making improvements. Of course, they may not always go to plan, but the main thing is to give your best.

Hills added into easy runs

To me, the thought of a hills session is enough to make me hide in my bed and refuse to put on my shoes. They are brutal and I don’t enjoy them. However, I still need to get some hill training into my schedule, and so have come up with another approach: embracing the hills during easy runs.

The concept is this: when you find a suitable hill on an easy run, do a few repetitions up it. Each rep doesn’t have to be particularly long, but you should put some effort behind them. You could even do a few different sets on different hills that you find. Or not do any reps at all, but just rather run up a hill you otherwise may have walked up or avoided. The main focus of the run is still on being easy for recovery, you’re just adding in some hills. I find that this makes the whole ‘hills’ experience much less daunting.

Back-to-back long runs

The holy grail of ultra-training is back-to-back runs. Unlike a marathon, it’s unlikely that you’ll get close to race-distance during ultra training, because it’s not feasible to fit in 50km+ long runs into your week and still have family/friends/sleep/a life. It’s also a lot of impact on your body which will take too long to recover from in order to keep training the next week. To mimic race-day fatigue and effort, a long run is instead broken up over two days. These runs are both run at easy pace, but the idea is that by the second one you are already fatigued from the previous day’s efforts, and therefore will learn to run on tired legs (as happens in the latter parts of an ultra).

For my training plan, I’m loosely following the weekly long-run progression as outlined in the Runner’s World plan, which peaks at a 4-hour + 5-hour long run (falling, of course, on the April marathon weekends). It sounds brutal, but I know that when it comes to the 50mi race the time-on-feet will serve me well. The important thing to note is that the long run is dictated by time, not distance. It doesn’t matter how far you go, just that you’ve spent that amount of time running.

Trail running

This point is fairly obvious: run on trails! One of the back-to-back long runs each week will be a trail run to practice running off-road. Trail running is a specific skill in itself, given that you have to navigate rocks, mud, sticks, trees etc. as well as constantly changing elevation. It tends to be slow-going as well, so practising on the trails will mean that I have a realistic understanding of what speed I can run at come race day. Practise makes perfect!

What are you training for? 

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