Ultra marathon advice and training by Steve Clark

ATD Director Steve Clark is an ultra runner junkie!  He likes nothing better than to take off with his dog for lengthy runs in and around Somerset.  Having completed the London and Edinburgh marathons he took on the MDS.  After these challenges he wanted something different so he set up our portfolio of adventure races.  Including the Namibia 24 hour Ultra Marathon, the Iceland Laugavegur Ultra and the Grand Canyon 24 hour Ultra.

It is hoped that this article will give the first time ultra marathon runner some pointers about how to approach a training programme for their first race.  Because the prospect of completing an ultra is so daunting, many runners set an unrealistic training programme that involves too much training too soon.  This will more often than not lead to an early injury that prevents the runner from training. 

The ideal programme should allow for a low training load for the first three to six months to allow your body to adapt slowly to the training pressures you will undergo.

Step 1             Honestly assess your motivations and self discipline

For those of you blessed with an abundance of self discipline then sticking to a new training plan will be fairly easy.  For the rest of us, getting up at an ungodly hour on a cold wet morning and pulling on our trainers for yet another run will begin to wear thin after a while.

The following may help to keep you motivated.

  • Get active on forums for inspiration from fellow runners
  • Read books on ultra marathon runners
  • Join a running group or club
  • Set short term achievable goals
  • Always have your kit ready to go so there is no excuse
  • Think positively during training
  • Use both association and disassociation strategies as and when required.  (Sometimes thinking about running whilst training will help, and other times a bit of escapism will be just the ticket to hide the pain).

Step 2 Set aside enough time for training

When designing your training programme be realistic about the amount of time per day that you have to train.  Make sure you take into account any other commitments like partners and children and make sure that you don’t neglect them in the process.  (I have learnt from experience that it is not a good idea to moan to your partner about how tired you are after a training session, or cancel social occasions so you can rest up after a long run.)  If time is a factor consider splitting your runs into two or three sessions a day to keep the daily mileage up. 

Step 3 Learn from the experts.

Do your research and choose a training plan that best suits your experience, ability and lifestyle.  One of the best books I can recommend is Lore of Running by Tim Noakes.  This is an invaluable guide to everything about running, and has many training plans by elite runners, as well as plans for novices and beginners too.  My favourite plan that has guided me through the Marathon des Sables, Landmannalaugar Ultra Marathon and West Highland Way Race is Norrie Williamson’s Comrades Program on page 648.

Step 4 Be flexible and listen to your body

Don’t just religiously follow the training plan to the letter.  Make sure you focus on how your body is adapting to the training plan and make changes accordingly.  You may need more days rest after a longer session than you had scheduled, or you may just not feel up to your long weekend run.  If this happens then take the rest as your body probably needs it.  It is better to err on the side of caution than to plough ahead into overtraining or injury. 

Step 5 Avoid overtraining at all cost

Don’t set goals that you body is not capable of keeping up with.  Try to recognise the early signs of tiredness.  Alternate your training with enough easy sessions after the hard ones. Overtraining will cause the opposite of what you want – it will slow you down and lead to poor training performances.  Some of the signs are fatigue, recurring headaches, diarrhoea, weight loss, loss of appetite, and poor sleep patterns.  The only way to shake this off is to rest until the symptoms have gone and then start back training slowly.  This will require a lot of discipline because you will already be behind schedule.

Step 6 Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing

The key here is everyone is different and their bodies will adapt to training loads differently.  Be wary of trying to match those that have high mileage schedules because you think that you just aren’t putting enough mileage in after hearing from high mileage monsters on forums.  Increasing the mileage too quickly is the easiest way to get injured.

Step 7 Make sure you train for the course

You can get huge benefit from taking your long runs on similar terrain to what you will expect during your race.  This one sounds blatantly obvious but I have been guilty of it in the past, taking the easy training option and thinking I would get by in the race.  Invest the time in your training and the event will go much smoother.

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