5 tips for training for an ultramarathon

With one ultra under my belt (read all about it here) I am by no means an expert on running ultramarathons. On the other hand, because I am still kind of a beginner, I might actually be able to shed some light on some pitfalls and give some ultramarathon training advice for aspiring ultrarunners!

1. Make an ambitious training schedule

The first one seems obvious: make a detailed and ambitious training schedule and try to stick to it as much as you can. When I made my schedule, I had all my sports activities planned for approximately 6 months. My weekly schedule included the following:

    1. a long endurance run (2-3 hours, 20-30km)
    2. one interval training (1.5 hours, including warming up)
    3. one tempo run (consistent, quick pace, between 10-15 km)
    4. one boot camp session (high intensity strength and cardio)
    5. a gym session (leg strengthening and treadmill uphill walking – this was not the most inspirational part of the schedule!)

I even planned ahead the time and distance for runs 5 months in advance, gradually building both up in the end. Needless to say, I completely stuck to this schedule and never skipped a day because of a hangover or some other unforeseen problem.

2. Leg strengthening and high intensity training

As you can see from my schedule above, I tried to get in some other kinds of training as well. This was important to strengthen my legs and knees for the crazy amount of ascent / descent. It meant doing a lot of squats, lunges and burpees during a park bootcamp. I also tried to do some high intensity training, in order to get my heart-rate up, to prepare for the climbs. I tried to run to these bootcamps as much as possible.

3. Do yoga and go swimming

I have an office job and often get back pains because of it. Therefore, I tried to plan in a yoga or swimming session every once in a while, to keep my back and body flexible. Especially the yoga goes together with running very well. Read more about the benefits of yoga for runners here.

4. Back to back long runs

At the end of my training period I started to do back-to-back long runs to get my body used to running for long periods of time and running with muscle ache. So, for example on Saturday I would go for a 20km run and on Sunday I would do another 20km run. Be careful with this one, however, as you can easily overdo it. And that brings me to point 5:

5. Rest!

Of course, with an ambitious schedule there is always the risk of overdoing it and getting injured (the wisdom of hindsight). This of course happened to me. I had a period that I drastically had to cut down my training because I had a bad case of shin splints. Of all possible injuries, I got a typical beginners-injury. Luckily, I had a good fysio who helped me treat it in time. However, the month and a half that I had to cut down on running hours nearly jeopardized doing the ultra!

Other tips?

Any other things? Well there are a few things that I would do differently next time:

  • More hill training: of course, I went to the dunes and tried to get as much ‘hills’ in as possible, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Since I live in the Netherlands, hill training will always be a difficult one, but the next time I will do a mountain ultra, I will definitely dedicate one training per week to hills. This in order to get the legs and knees ready, but also to improve technique, especially for the downhills.
  • Fewer competitive runs near the end: As a preparation for my ultramarathon I did two 40km races in the Ardennes in Belgium, both with a reasonable amount of altitude gain. The last one was only a few weeks before the ultramarathon, and it was meant to get some good hills and distance in before the real race. It would have been a good training if the competitive gene in me wouldn’t have taken over. I went a bit too fast, really enjoyed it and finished quite quickly. In hindsight I think this might have set me back more than that it was of benefit, as I needed to recover for a week.

These are my tips, I hope they are of use to you! Disclaimer: I am not a fysio, nor would I consider myself an expert on running and injury prevention. I merely tried to share my own experiences of preparing for an ultramarathon with you.