50 Mile Ultra run – Part 1 – beginner questions

5224138586_ef6cd3d825_z_d-1The first thing I do for training for anything, is to read a ton, ask advice and opinions from different people, and humbly assess my fitness level and ability to better tailor my training plan. I have 3 weeks to go before my real training plan starts to continue to learn about my pace, build up my base a bit more, and better think through and modify the plan.  There seem to be different philosophies out there for training plans and while there are some core elements of advice, other essentials are all over the board. I’m taking pieces of it that makes sense for me, which means the initial training plan I had found that I was working off of, I threw in the trash.  I realized it was not applicable to me, my background, how I’m motivated, and despite the misleading title of ‘beginner female ultra runner plan’ had nearly double the mileage that other plans suggested.  Warning – this is a long post! I also realize that if my opinion has changed this much in a week and a half, it is likely to continue to evolve as I  better understand ultra training. (Update January 26th – my training has changed so much its ridiculous.  The questions in this post are legitimate, but I’ve come away with different answers to these questions, and a much different training model. Here is my most updated post)  I felt it was relevant to quote a lot from the articles and discussion threads that I found most helpful.  The questions I’ve been exploring:

How important is weekly mileage:  This question was the biggest challenge for me.  I originally was designing my plan around weekly mileage results, but now I see this as less important than the other factors.  Something to consider, certainly, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is better to be used a guideline and a loose framework rather than informing how the plan is designed. For example, running 8 miles per day won’t be as effective as having one long run a week.  It can also be helpful to do some workouts running for time rather than distance (more on this below), and hill workouts, while extremely important especially for a race like mine with a lot of elevation, will always be less mileage. So if you are only tracking your mileage at the expense of these other things – for example, forgoing a hills in order to increase the end number, that doesn’t help.  There does seem to be general consensus around some training concepts in ultra training, but not mileage.   The beginner training plans I found initially had me running between 40-65 miles / week, and some even up to 70. Plans like this and this were very intimidating with how much mileage I thought I should be doing.   Then the more I read, and especially in the discussion threads, this was lower to between 30-50, with many saying that they could train pretty solidly on a 20-30 mile a week plan, with occasionally higher mileage weeks.  The reason for the discrepancy has a lot to do with your background as a runner – marathon runners will have a stronger base of high mileage for example, motivation and goals in training, if you are injury prone, but also different philosophies about cross training and how often that should be incorporated.   I re-designed my plan around the long run, mostly 30 miles per week, with up into the high 40’s closer to the end.  I’m slowly increasing distance and running time, after which I started planning out the weeks I would do back to back long runs and then last to be filled in was the midweek runs.  Despite every run being penciled in, I consider it to be a guideline, not a set in stone workout plan.  I’m worried about overtraining and getting injured, because I haven’t run this much before. It is possible I will be able to add on more miles quicker than anticipated,  but at least my  framework is there, and I can modify it as I go.

Long runs:   How long, how often, how much to increase the weekly distance?  This was something that didn’t differ a whole lot.  General consensus that the longest long run should be between 26 and a 50K, maybe use a 50K as a race 3-4 weeks prior to test your race day nutrition and setup. How often to do a long run – every week, maybe stretched to every 10 days, depending on how your body feels.  Most acknowledged that the 10% rule of increase wasn’t a hard and fast rule, although I wasn’t certain if this applied to long runs specifically, as it seemed to apply to weekly mileage.  Also, if you have lower mileage weeks to give your body a rest, does this mean you shorten the long run or just run less on the other days but keep increasing the long run.  My tentative plan, contrary to the paragraph above when I tried to pretend it was organized, is kind of random.  I’m gradually increasing the long run, but at the same time trying to increase the back to back long run mileage as well.  So you wouldn’t necessarily want to increase mileage again for the long run on the same day as increasing the B2B.  Or would you? By how much? So I guesstimated and filled out some numbers.  This is the part that will probably be modified the most as I run more.  I’m hoping to get up to a 50K to run a race Feb. 1st.  But winter races? I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Friend advice:  “Ultra run training is very forgiving. Don’t obsess about the exact mileage or dates of your runs”
*Updated comment two weeks later.  Week of Oct. 5 did 15 miles, Oct. 12th week ran 20 on the Appalachian trail.  With the first two 12 mile runs I’ve done: The first was on pavement and flat – about 9:20 per mile.  My right hip and knee were hurting during the end of the run and this was exacerbated by the 5 mile run I did the following day. I’ve had IT band issues in the past so this is a red flag for me.  Been doing more hip strengthening exercises to help alleviate this.  The second 12.5 mile was on trails with a lot of hills and which involved some hiking and I went pretty slow and tried to not look at the watch at all, came out to about 13min / mile so about 2hours 40 mins running time.  My 15 mile was also about 2 hour 40 min on the same trail.  I felt like I could go forever and made myself stop. My shins were hurting a little bit during this, but at least no knee pain. For the next day 3 mile run it was much more painful than before and I had to walk half the distance. I anticipate the long run, even the long long runs to be easier than doing the following day B2B.  The 20 mile run was challenging.  It put fear into me to do a lot of hill training, especially downhill training.  I likely bumped up my mileage too fast, knee pain was pretty bad the following day, no day after run possible.  4 days later it is mostly gone.

The long run is the most crucial of the three workouts for ultrarunners. It enables you to build a strong fitness base, run farther than previously possible, and, in turn, boosts race-day confidence.   (Also from the above article) “Types of long runs –  1) Steady Long Runs 2) Carbohydrate Depleting Long Runs  3)  Fast Finish Long Runs 4) Back-to-Back Long Runs “

Long runs should be between 20 and 30 miles for preparation for a 50 miler.

Advice from a friend:
“Long runs are the most important. You can train for an ultra on only long runs even if you don’t run during the week. The back to backs are essential.”

Time vs. Distance:
There is also a lot of debate of training for time vs distance.   Some people suggested to ditch the watch completely, especially for those that are just training to complete an ultra, not to compete – or to have in the training plan for hours to run rather than miles to run. And even with the articles talking about training with time, they still have quite a bit of discrepancy as to what they suggest:

The Long Training Run
“As far as a “program” is concerned, you’ll want to work up through progressively longer runs, doing one a week, adding about half an hour each time, until reaching the four- to fivehour range. Then build up to six to seven hours. Once you’re running in that range, do your long runs every other weekend or do two runs for every three weekends.”

10 Tips for Ultra marathon training
“As with training for a marathon the long run is the most important training run for the ultrarunner. The difference is that ultrarunning is all about time spent on your feet, the distance covered is not that important. The ability to run 20 miles in training is considered necessary to do well in a marathon. There are no such rules in ultrarunning. If you can build up to regular three to four hour runs including some walking you should have enough endurance to finish up to at least a 50 mile ultra race.

The articles that made the most sense to me though, point out that at the end of the day, a race is about a specific mileage, and so it is still pretty important to judge how far you have gone based on time.  The things I’m worried most about my own race, is that I will not make the cutoff time.  I’m sure I could just hike for 24 hours and  finish it.  But if you don’t make the cutoff time at certain points you get pulled off the race.

Should You Train By Time Or By Distance?
“There are different times in the training cycle and the season when an athlete needs to train on time or distance,” explains Jennifer Harrison, a USA Triathlon Level 2 Coach based in the Chicago area.  As the season gets into full swing, Harrison usually prescribes more workouts based on distance. “That’s when we start focusing on run specificity and getting athletes on the track to do intervals with time goals that are specific to their upcoming race,” she says. While time-based runs are just as valuable, a workout based on distance can give important feedback regarding an athlete’s fitness level and projected race times. There’s a time and a place for each and the right combination may just elicit better competitive results.

To sum up: For myself I plan on running for time at the beginning of the training plan as I’m trying to better understand my pace, as well as for an easy run or long run day after but not in general and not during the long runs.

Back to back long runs: It seems like a lot of info out there swears by doing the B2B.  That it helps prepare your body for running on tired legs, and mentally as well to keep going when you are sore and tired.  But how often should you do this? Is a 3 miler the next day after considered a back to back? What about hills instead?   Is the first long run always the longer of the two runs? The initial beginner training plan I found trains pretty consistently of 10-12 miles the day after the long run.  Other tips include:

Ultramarathon Training: The Long Runs
For this next part, I don’t recommend ultra runners just starting out in the sport to follow this, but back to back long runs can be effective for experienced ultra runners.. If you don’t have a good running base then back to back long runs may bring on injuries, burn out, sickness, and/or fatigue.

Your Ultra-Training Bag of Tricks: Endurance-Based Workouts
For back-to-back long runs, cut 25–50% off the first day’s mileage or time in order to determine the length of your second day’s run. For example, if you run 4 hours on Saturday return on Sunday with 2 to 3 hours. Because back-to-backs are time-consuming and tough on the body and mind, schedule them every two to three weeks. Experiment with their lengths and occasionally challenge yourself by including fast finish long runs on one of the two days.

Training plan of a friend:  ” I started at 5 the day after a 20 and built up to 14 the day after. Then I did 11+50k the next day. I plan on doing one more weekend of 26+16″

For me, I settled at building up to a long B2B, and playing around with the distance.  So for example, I’m aiming at a 20+8, and then a few weeks later, 18+14.  Not for any real science behind it, but to change things up and see how I do.

Cross training:  I love cross training!  Initially I was feeling sad that I would probably lose my other workout goals at the expense of training for this.  It seems that it is actually the opposite.  While the long runs will take up a chunk of time on the weekends, it is also very important to rest, and not injure yourself.  Some plans then have you running 3 times during the week days and others don’t.  The reasons for the difference is: The conventional wisdom is you need to train for what you are doing.  If you don’t run, you are not going to get better at running.  Right? But there are also elements of running that cross training is very effective with.  Such as improving your cardiovascular ability, strength training especially legs and core to make you a stronger runner,  staying healthy and not injuring yourself with a high impact sport, especially as a beginner, and making sure you are motivated to continue to train for months on end.  I personally felt that the articles and comments including a lot of cross training were more convincing. There was no consensus.  And if the mid week runs are not a cornerstone of the training, then why burn myself out.  I plan on doing hills, a lot of lifting, and occasionally biking during the week.  Less often swimming, but I do enjoy the mental focus to swim for 90 mins with no music and just listening to your breathing.  It’s like meditating.  From two articles I liked –  sums up well various opinions I found out there about cross training:

How to Train for an Ultra: “With volume, comes increased risk of injury; especially as your mileage and long runs build up. Cross training, and specifically road cycling can play a huge part in your fitness, and the reduction of that injury risk. The fitness gains from road cycling transfer well to running; helping with strength, cadence, long sessions to build aerobic capacity and recovery.”

First time ultra training:”My personal opinion is that most runners invest too much time in running big miles at the expense of cross training, physical therapy, etc… I believe the the mid to back of the pack runner would do better investing their time in a balanced training plan (weights, bike riding, stretching) and lots of specific training (hills and long runs) than trying to run 1 hour every day.

Midweek runs:  – Going back again to the beginner training plan I threw away, it was actually the midweek runs that were the most daunting to me.  Consistently training every Tuesday / Wednesday / Thursday 9-7-9 or 8-10-8  seemed intense, time consuming, and just a lot of mileage that I was worried I would not be able to handle.  It was a relief to read other opinions about doing less mileage during these midweek runs, opting for hill workouts,  and this is when cross training comes in handy.  Using the logic of  “Increase the length of the runs that you already have scheduled before adding more runs to the week. An hour run is aerobically more beneficial than two 30-minute runs.”  So that is what I’m doing.  I’ll gradually increase the length of my midweek runs rather than add in more frequent shorter runs.  Or will I?  I do like doing an easy 3 mile loop with the dog,  but I doubt that short of distance in the mornings has any neglible impact or hindrance on training.  I’m not quite sure the pace to go for these shorter runs though.  If I’m going to run a 7 mile mid week run, is this to maintain / build my endurance and I should go quite slow? Or is this the time to bump the speed up a bit.  I’m not sure.

Hiking:  I could have incorporated this under cross training, but it seems enough to deserve a category on it’s own.  I love hiking! I’ve learned more about my limits of endurance and strength on family backpack trips than I have through most other things.  I’ve been on a mission, so far undetermined, how beneficial incorporating hiking into the plan would be.  While yes, it is certainly important to be hiking a bit on the longer trail runs, as that mimics what race conditions would be like, and I’ve seen that discussed.  But if time on your feet is important, as is mental capacity to keep walking for hours and hours on end, would hiking then not be a bigger focus in these plans? Maybe most people are coming from a marathon background.  I think my backpacking background has helped me naturally be good at navigating difficult terrain, for being mentally prepared to keep moving and to focus even when tired and to also walk fast.  It seems like an ultra has a lot of walking involved, so even if my running game is not as strong, my hiking can keep me going.  But right now I’m not sure how far or how long would be beneficial.  I wouldn’t do a 6 hour run to train, but I could do a 3 hour run with a 3 hour hike. Helpful or no? What about a long 12 hour difficult day hike?  Conclusion:  inconclusive.  I plan on finding some fun long hikes to do for variety, probably best during the rest weeks.


About Musings over Coffee

Fitness enthusiast. Love to travel, mess up recipes, ponder random things, get riled up about the news, all of which nearly always coinciding with one of my favorite things in the world: Coffee.
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