When you take up ultrarunning, there are three things you must do to prepare yourself for the sheer physical demands of the sport.
First, you need to run trails. The uneven surfaces, ups and downs, obstacles, rocks and roots, twists and turns all break up your stride and force your legs to adapt. While you’re engaging all the standard muscles that propel you forward, on trails you are also blasting all the stabilizing muscles, tendons and ligaments in your ankles, knees and hips. You develop legs that are resistant to injury and capable of withstanding the punishment meted out by the trail without creating undue fatigue.
Next, you need to take mega-doses of LSD. That’s not the ’60s psychedelic drug, but Long Slow Distance. These long runs will develop the stamina you need for prolonged exercise, and train your body to sustain aerobic exertion for many hours. Both your muscles and your cardiovascular system will adapt to make running ultra-distances possible.
The third thing you must do is train on hills. There’s truly gold in them thar hills and it ain’t the shiny kind. It’s the super-efficient, multi-faceted, demanding workout kind that hills deliver. Lifting yourself up the slopes is strength training. Cycling through the hard climbs and descents is like interval training. Throw in some uphill sprints and you replicate speed and fartlek training as well. The trip up the hill puts a tremendous load on your hamstrings and calves. The trip down will strengthen your quads. Muscles, tendons and ligaments in the lower body are all strengthened in concert with one another.
Get started by including one or two hilly runs a week in your standard workouts or include some hills in your long runs. Ideally you should map out a course that gives you about a mile of f lat terrain for a warm-up, then a series of three or more climbs and a final flat mile for your cool down. Maintain your pace going up the hills but shorten your stride. On steeper sections, practice your power walk. Exaggerate your arm swing to drive you forward up the hill. On the downhills, relax and let gravity work for you. Run with a slight lean forward and avoid braking as much as possible. You can control the speed you’re generating by using a short stride with a quick turnover. Pick your feet up as soon as they hit the ground.
You can amp up the intensity of your hill workouts by running repetitions up a single slope. Hill reps work like interval training on a track. You alternate running uphill for a specified period of time or distance at a pace that will have you going anaerobic. Then you rest by walking or jogging slowly back down to the start, then repeat. Be sure to schedule a rest day after any intense hill workout so your muscles get a chance to make a full recovery.
Another great method for really getting the most out of your hill training is to incorporate some exaggerated knee-lifting, bounding drills into your climbs. Pick that point near the top of a climb when you feel like slowing down and cruising the rest of the way to the top and instead bound up to the top with ten to twenty long strides, lifting your knees as high as possible. This technique really capitalizes on the built up fatigue in your legs and pays extra dividends. Much like when lifting weights, the last few reps can be worth all the lifts done before them.
No hills in your area? Find a stadium where you can run in the bleachers. Run the stairwells in a high rise or in your hotel. Do repetitions on an overpass or a well arched bridge. Or you can resort to adjusting the slope on your treadmill. The built-in programs on some treadmills do a great job of replicating a varied hill run.
Inadequate hill training can be a show-stopper on many ultra courses, with “dead” quads slowing you to a walk, especially on the downhills. But even if your race is over a f lat course, the hill training will pay off, like you were swinging two bats before stepping up to the plate. In short, hill train to make it rain on race day.