Ultrarunners tend to race more frequently than is prescribed by standard marathon training lore. We typically run more than two long races a year and think of 26 miles as a mere training run. So does that mean marathoners are wimps and we’re all superhuman? It’d be nice to think so, but physical limits still make it difficult to run multiple long races in a year.
There are many reasons to run ultras close together, ranging from completing a series like the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning to lottery gods granting access to races right next to each other. Even pure addiction can be blamed and the summer is packed with plenty of fascinating races when the mountain snowmelt opens trails for business.
Therefore this article lays out tactics for optimizing your performance at multiple ultras. As many of you are used to multiple races spaced out through the year, I’ll focus on gaps of under a month between ultras.
Tips For Racing Ultras Close Together
Each race will act as a training run for the next event but bear in mind that performance in the latter races will almost certainly be slightly compromised.
Train For The Specifics Of All The Races Prior To Race One
Prioritize training for the features of the first race, including terrain, weather and anything else you’ll need to deal with. However, once you get past race one you won’t be able to train too much so you also need to train for some aspects of the terrain of the other races. Some aspects can only be trained for nearer the time of those races as the benefits won’t last long enough, including altitude and weather – see point two.
Focus On The Non-Running Aspects Of Each Race As You Approach It
In the period immediately before each race, switch your focus to the aspects of the course which require specific adaptations. This includes altitude, heat and any other non-running factors for the race, since the benefits of training for these wear off rapidly and can’t necessarily be sustained over a long period. For example, most of us don’t have the time or inclination to use a sauna for heat training for months but just a couple of weeks of heat training can help the body deal with this better in a race.
Look After Yourself More Than Usual
At the first hint of illness or injury, back off your training. Be prepared to see a specialist quicker than you might otherwise choose to, since you can’t afford to remain ill or injured when another race is right around the corner. For race series like the Grand Slam it’s vital to turn up to each start line as fit and healthy as possible, while any training in between races is more about active recovery than pushing your limits.
Power-Hiking Is Your Friend
Most ultrarunners don’t include power-hiking in their training, despite the fact almost everyone will hike at some point within an ultra, even the fastest mountain runners. If you don’t train for it, your muscles and cardio system won’t be efficient or fast when hiking. Greater intensity can be achieved by including a weight vest or backpack with weights, but be careful not to strain your back or get bruises from the positioning of weights in a pack. This is extremely important for any ultra, but even more so when running multiple races where you’ll be at under 100% fitness after the first race and therefore more tired, needing to use hiking strategically.
At the fourth race of the Grand Slam, I hiked around 50 miles of the Wasatch Front 100 because this was efficient and my legs were already worn out at the start line.
Note that longer periods between races mean the figure above applies to the first two weeks after an event and then the final week before the next race. Additional weeks can be used for more normal-style training after the two-week recovery.
Recovery Is The Priority
Straight after each race it’s vitally important to get more rest than usual. The more quality sleep you can get in the days after the race, the faster your body can heal, so give it a high priority. In addition, there’s no rush to run again after each race, so take at least a week completely off running then start walking and hiking.
Non-impact, low-intensity cardio exercise is best, then reintroduce easy running after one to two weeks but no consecutive days yet. There’s no need to run hard, but by the time you’re running again it’s okay to include high intensity power-hiking.
Help Your Muscles Recover With Dietary Changes
Straight after a race your muscles will be especially damaged so supplementing your diet with additional protein from lean meats helps. Also branch chain amino acids, CoQ10 and other nutrients can help and it’s worth speaking to a sports nutritionist to find out what will work best for you.
Mentally Prepare Yourself
Don’t even consider dropping out as an option in any of the races. Only allow yourself to concentrate on the current race rather than worrying about the next one. Have a long list of motivational reasons to dig in when things get tough. This is true for just a single ultra, but becomes more vital when multiple races can leave you weaker and mentally burnt out. Otherwise you may struggle to find the mental strength to push you to each finish line.
It’s easy to overdo things when racing frequently, plus the chance of injury goes up substantially. A major proviso for attempting races in quick succession is that your body and mind will tell you when you’ve done too much. If you lose the desire to run or find you can’t complete runs as fast as you expect, lacking zip to your step, then racing further will probably lead to overtraining and injury.