Mid-year and the time when many runners start to think about the next running season’s big challenge. And entries to multi-day events are starting to fill up. Many competent ultra runners shy away from the multi-day thinking they don’t have the training time to commit nor talent to complete. Well I’m here to tell you that you do have the talent. Multi-day training isn’t about running mega miles in training. Yes, you can run 150 miles a week and you’d probably finish a multi-day event…but realistically unless you’re a pro you’d get injured doing so.
Consistency in training
Like all ultra training, consistency is the key to success. If you can run 100 mile weeks without injury and have the time to do so, then fab, no worries. But realistically most of us amateurs fitting training around other life commitments means we simply don’t have the time or stamina to do so. Having the time to recover from training is after all as important as the training itself.
Here’s my take on multi-day training (which has worked for me).
If consistency in training is rule #1, then specificity has to be rule #2. If your multi-day is hilly, then train for hills. Get a hold of that course profile and mimic it in your training. For example if Day 1 is moderately hilly and Day 2 is mountainous, then work through your training plan to copy this. An example would be to incorporate some hill reps into the end of your session on one day, followed by a decent power hiking session (yes, you’ll be walking up a mountain) on the following day.
And if you don’t live in a hilly area, then plan to get to the hills at some point in your training and mimic hills by ending your runs in the gym and hitting the weights. Squats, lunges, deadlifts all hit your leg muscles as uphills do.
Similarly, if you’re doing a multi-day event in the heat…then train in the heat. You need to experience what this feels like so that you can mentally manage how your pace is going to be affected and how you need to alter your hydration. Don’t forget you’ll also be living in these conditions for the event.
2. Maintaining speed
Okay, so you probably aren’t going to setting any speed records running a multi-day event, and while the majority of your training will be done in your lower heart rate zones to trigger that fat burning, if all you ever do is run slow then that’s all you’ll be able to do.
Challenging your anaerobic zones – that’s hard effort not just a little bit faster than your steady chug along pace – will make you stronger and you need to be strong enough to take on the sustained efforts a multi-day involves.
If I run intervals on a track – I get injured. Instead, I’ve swapped speed work for hills (let’s face it, I’ve no shortage of hills to train on now). Running hill reps builds leg strength and gets me blowing hard…I can certainly max out my heart rate which is exactly where I need to be to trigger that anaerobic burn and build power.
I also run (shock horror) shorter road races. As I struggle with pushing my pace doing intervals a 10km up to half marathon road race is ideal for getting me running hard. The excitement of running with others forces me to get my legs turning over. Indeed, my half marathon PB was set a week before the start of a multi-day.
And if all else fails, I love a pyramid session. Because short intervals are so risky for me, I find a pyramid gradually winds up my pace and heart rate in a safer way.
Weekday training, where it’s difficult to incorporate a long run around other commitments, involve tempos. I’ve currently got a nice little 6km loop, which is run once, twice, even thrice depending on where I am in my training. Since it’s mainly off road and incorporates a fair bit of ascent and descent it’s impossible to run at a set pace. There’s simply no way I could maintain running it at my marathon pace without exploding. Instead, I run it at 80% of my max heart rate. So for example the first section is flat/ down hill and is run at a fast pace, I then hit single track which winds on a very cambered gradient. My pace drops here so as not to risk twisting an ankle but that HR still keeps ticking over around 80%, I then hit a hard ascent. I run the first 200m or so but as soon my HR starts to pop too high and I’m puffing very hard, I power walk which keeps my heart rate up there. There’s then a runnable section at a fair clip, before a technical downhill. I use this to challenge my concentration when I’m feeling a bit jaded to keep my HR where it should be.
4. Long runs
It’s a common misconception to think that running a multi-day means copying those distances in training. You don’t need to run big miles week after week. I repeat you don’t need to run big miles.
It’s nice to do a fairly focused week as a mental stimulus. For example some Ultra Trail Spain guests are training for multi-days and want a holiday which also allows them to run fairly aggressive mileages in training, but we certainly don’t hit the distances they’ll be tackling in their multi-day…we advise them to save this for their event. And our pace is pretty conservative. all they have to do is run, rest and recover. During our multi-day training camps however, we actually focus more on the other training strategies which you can use in your training schedule and will help you finish a multi-day event.
For AAUT (5 days, 230km and completed three years in succession) my longest run was only ever 40km. The longest day of the event is 70 odd km run after three pretty heavy days. I never found the 70km day particularly hard during the event. Tiring but not exhausting.
My 40km training run was however then followed by a 30km the next day. Yes, I used back to back runs (judiciously) to get the body ‘happy’ with running on tired legs. But I believe in ‘saving’ my legs for the event I’m training for.
I do enjoy long runs and have to resist the temptation to go further. My weekly long runs are a very moderate 40km maybe 50km max…run to a very easy heart rate and not every week. This means I’m on my feet for a good long time and while the length of time makes the run intense, it’s actually very gentle in comparison to much of my other training.
If my heart rate is shooting up during my long run session, then I simply walk. This session is also a chance to practice fuelling and getting the body dialled into digesting on the go.
Progression during long runs is also a good way of getting an extra bang for your buck. But to be honest, I’m too lazy to focus on this much. Plus, living at the top of a mountain means every run is a little bit progressive since I’ve got to get back up the hill at the end!
5. Strength training
For a multi-day or any long race in which you’re going to be out for 5 or more hours a day running, you need to get strong. Strong muscles stabilize your bones from the straightforward hammering of movement they are going to take. Strong muscles stabilize your digestive tract so it doesn’t get shook up on the trail. Strong muscles repair fast. Convinced yet?
Strength training doesn’t need to take up masses of your time – it can but it doesn’t have to. Five minutes concentrated effort it better than none, especially if you’re fatigued after a run.
Form is king however, it’s better to do 3 squats well than 30 poorly. And don’t even be tempted by plyometrics (jumping and leaping while weighted) until you’ve mastered the movement pattern with control. Simple bodyweight drills can help get your body moving the way it should…and if all else fails I recommend checking out global postural reeducation. I knew exactly where I was twisted but this was the only method of physio which could get me straightened out-ish.
If you don’t fancy pushing weights then yoga, pilates, anything which involves carrying your own bodyweight, which is after all what you need to do, is a definite bonus.
6. Cross training
I get injured easily. Ever since I started running, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I can’t run every day of the week. It’s just not possible.
For me, cycling and/ or spinning works, for both higher or lower intensity training. It’s a way of avoiding junk miles. For example, being surrounded by hills it’s impossible to run a recovery run. Your heart rate simply is not low enough for recovery. It’s much better to walk or cycle.
While in the Middle East, I used spinning as a way to notch up my heart rate in the summer when it was too hot and humid to do this outside with a degree of safety. Spinning also builds great leg strength and turnover.
There are plenty of cross training options in the gym. Just think about how that class will help your running. If it leaves you too sore to run, then it’s not going to be suitable while you’re building up for a big event. Circuits can be a great way to get some strength work in for those who really don’t like lifting – just don’t let your form slip.
And I think that’s just about it. The distance never worries me, but the battering my body will take doing a multi-day does…which is where strength comes in. Your aim is to make your body bullet proof and fatigue resistant. The variety of training also keeps you focused.