I often get asked if there’s a secret to maintaining consistency. This question usually has the undertone of having your cake and eating it too, i.e. doing excessive training and getting away with it. Yet, it’s a fairly simple formula that I instill in those I coach, as well as in my own racing.
Create a routine for training
One of the first things I tell my runners is that we’ll work on many different things and get specific with training, but nothing will matter more than the regularity of running. Consistency is king, and that makes the biggest difference in overall fitness.
There are three things that usually get in the way: lack of time, lack of motivation and injuries. Most committed runners can carve out the time to run, even when traveling or if work/life get busy. Motivation is harder to conjure from thin air and often stops a runner from achieving specific goals. It’s vital to know why you run and why you care about your goals, since that shapes the day-to-day enjoyment of the sport and the ability to stick it out for long periods of time. Remember that even the best runners struggle to get out the door, and Instagram depicts an overly rosy picture of everyone else’s workouts.
Injuries are a significant topic, of course. If you frequently get hurt, then step back and assess whether you’re doing too much running and there’s not enough variety, or if there are underlying imbalances that need to be addressed with strength training. An objective, independent third party like a physical therapist or coach can help immensely with this, especially if they’re focused on ultrarunning and are runners themselves.
Don’t push it
It’s tempting to take consistency too far and obsess about goals that aren’t a priority for your event. Benchmarks along the way can certainly help, but too much focus on hitting mileage or time targets can lead to overtraining or an unwillingness to back off on recovery days. This is especially dangerous closer to race day when we all want to squeeze in a little more speed work, another long run or extra hills. I’ve certainly made this mistake in the past by being in great shape a month out and then taking on too much and turning up tired for the race.
Instead, in your final month of training, stay aware of how you feel on your runs and if you’re pushing too hard. Once you get two weeks out from the race, it’s better to accept the level of fitness you’ve achieved than to try to catch up after an injury, busy work week or other reasons you weren’t able to do as much as you’d hoped. I’ve seen many runners turn up a little undertrained and nail their race, but I’ve never seen an over-trained runner get near their potential. In fact, the longer the race, the more your success will depend on tactics and mental toughness to make up for a lack of training. To give a clear example, across the 20+ 100-milers I’ve run, my best races haven’t been the days when I felt I was fittest. Some of those days led to mistakes due to my assumption it would be “easy” because I was in better shape. The best races were the ones where I executed really well and adapted to obstacles, which leads me to my next point.
Race based on how things are actually going (not how you want them to go)
Assuming you turn up fit and ready to race, there’s still a large portion of success that’s determined by problem-solving and tactics, which includes excellent judgement of pacing. Too many runners only deal with something going wrong once it gets out of hand. For example, at Western States 100 the heat is extreme but easy to ignore. If you keep running hard until your body overheats, it forces a significant slow-down and has effects on digestion, hydration and your mental state. Instead of running to a rigid plan, keep asking yourself how you’re feeling and whether anything got harder over the last few minutes. I liken this to a pilot monitoring all the dials in a cockpit, making sure nothing’s in the red or heading in that direction.
By preemptively making adjustments, which almost always includes temporarily lowering the intensity of your running, it’s possible to minimize difficulties that may derail a race. This is essential for running consistently and takes experience, but also involves a mindset of accepting when things aren’t going to plan and fixing them ASAP. It sounds easy, but in the chaos of a major event it’s a skill that constantly needs to be refined and improved.
So, to be persistently solid in races, you need to train consistently, accept when you’ve maxed out for a race and be smart and humble enough to adjust on the run, even if that means slowing down. The alternative is errors in training and racing that can severely limit your potential. This is also why ultras are so extremely satisfying – because there’s no easy cheat, and success involves hard work and determination.