How to Rock Your First Ultra

So you’ve been there, done 42.2, and you’re looking for a new challenge? The obvious choices are to either go faster or go further. Option B is increasingly popular: The number of ultramarathon finishers has nearly doubled since 2009, to almost 70,000  in 2013. But for the truly hard-core, there’s a third option: Move up in distance, but don’t just aim to finish. Go far and fast. If you want to make that your goal, here’s how to start.

Track Time-on-Feet

You may not need to spend more time running, according to Canadian ultra pro Adam Campbell. Aim to average the equivalent of at least 80 kilometres a week during a 16-week buildup–but instead of tracking  kilometres, track “time-on-feet.” Many ultras are held on tough terrain, sometimes at high altitudes, where an eight-minute effort might produce a 10-minute kilometre, and you’ll need to train in these conditions. Your body responds to duration and intensity, not distance.

If you ran 80 kilometres a week at five-minute pace in your marathon buildup, start your ultra training with 400 minutes of running per week at the same effort. Go out six days a week; rest or cross-train on the seventh day. Make each run at least an hour, unless you’re running twice in one day; then, you can include 30- to 40-minute morning runs.

Practice running fast on the kind of gnarly terrain you’ll likely encounter in endurance events.

Go Back-to-Back

Instead of a 60 kilometre long run, work up to running four to five hours on Saturday and another three to four on Sunday. It will still prepare you to run on very tired legs, but the risk-reward ratio is more favorable. Keep the pace easy.

Schedule back-to-back long runs every other weekend, alternating with a single long run in which you insert some marathon-pace surges near the end. Build up gradually, and for your longest double four weeks before the race, aim to be on your feet for as long as you expect to race for.

Practice, Practice

Simulate the race during long runs. If you’ll be walking up hills in the race, work your hiking muscles in training. Downhills can be even more debilitating if you’re not prepared. You’ll also need to experiment with foods–anything from gels to sandwiches to baked potatoes.

Broaden your search for training-run spots, even if it means driving for a couple of key long runs. If needed, log time on the treadmill–up and down. Track what you eat and how you feel during long runs until you find a stomach-pleasing formula.

Stay Fast

The success of ultrarunners like Max King, Sage Canaday, and Rob Krar–all fast at shorter distances, including a 1:51 800 metres for Krar–is a reminder that speed matters, even in ultras. Some fast running will keep your stride efficient and your legs strong as they adapt to going longer.

Include intervals at half-marathon pace or faster each week. For example, run 5:00, 10:00, 5:00, 10:00, 5:00 at half-marathon pace with 2:00 to 3:00 jog recovery; or find a hilly loop for a fartlek where you attack the uphills, run steady on the flats, and recover on the downhills

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