Ultrarunners are an idiosyncratic bunch. They practice the sport in a thousand peculiar and individual ways. But on any given weekend, a high percentage of them will all be doing pretty much the same thing: completing a long training run. That’s because the long run is widely recognized as the most important element in the ultrarunner’s training regime, especially for the beginner.
When you trained for a marathon, you probably did a series of long runs starting at about eight miles in length and an hour and a half in duration and then worked your way up in a lock-step manner to something like 20 miles and three and a half hours. You probably also had very specific pace and distance goals in mind that were a critical part of attaining your target marathon time. For ultra training, forget all that. Time spent on your feet, not miles covered, is what is important, at least, if your goal is to just finish your first ultra. Let the distance covered and your pace work themselves out.
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.
Unlike those grim marathon workouts where you are constantly watching the clock, the pace for these long runs should be relaxed, allowing you to easily carry on a conversation with your running buddies. Walk the uphills and don’t be afraid to take a break once in a while if you feel like it. Your body will be making the correct physiological adaptations for the very long distances of ultrarunning as it adjusts to these long slow workouts. As one trainer puts it, you want to get your metabolism to “burn the right stuff at the right time.”
Your long runs will also serve as your laboratory for stress-testing all the variables of ultrarunning, such as eating and drinking, clothing, equipment, lubricants, and shoes. What to drink and how much to drink are critical questions you will need to find answers for during your long runs. How much you should eat, what energy gels work for you, and what solid foods agree with you after significant mileage are also questions you will need to explore. The long runs will teach you about your feet, what shoes and socks work best, and how to protect yourself against blisters. My first significant long run was six hours through a wilderness area on the most technical trails I had ever seen. By the end of the run, I had run out of food and water. I had blisters, a turned ankle, and several bleeding wounds. I was sunburned and I felt like I just barely made it out alive. In other words, I spent six invaluable hours learning some critical lessons about ultrarunning. The next time I went long, I was much better prepared.
Don’t shy away from difficult conditions during your long runs. If you are only running a few miles, no conditions seem intolerable, but if you are going long, you will have to figure out how to deal with adverse circumstances that are going to last awhile. Go out in the heat of the day and find out if you’ve brought enough water and used enough sunblock. Head out into a rainstorm or into icy winds to test your rain gear or see if you’ve layered on enough clothing or too much. Run on some technical trails or pick a route that takes you through lots of elevation change, especially if that is the type of terrain you expect to face on race day. Do a long run at night to test your lights and to get yourself accustomed to the sensations of running in the dark. Races will not always offer you optimal conditions so you shouldn’t be doing long runs only in optimal conditions if you truly want to be prepared for ultra racing.
Another reason for tackling a series of long runs is the mental conditioning they provide. Facing the strain and fatigue of those later miles in a long run and pressing on builds your confidence in your ability to complete an ultra distance. Pick a weekend and try running back to back long runs on Saturday and Sunday. The second run will demonstrate to you what it is like to run on tired legs and challenge you to keep a positive frame of mind when the going gets tough.
You can also practice your reactions to facing that moment when you feel you are out of gas and want to quit. Think up a positive and reliable mantra or phrase to repeat to yourself in tough circumstances. Crank your music up and try to distance yourself from the pain, or better yet, learn to accept the pain as a normal part of the process and see it for what it really is, feedback that you are running hard and doing well. Practice systematically relaxing all parts of your body as you run along. Try taking a break but then returning to the run with fresh determination to get to the end.
The fact of the matter is that over the course of your ultrarunning career, you will easily spend more time engaged in long training runs than you will spend actually racing and probably more time than doing all your shorter workouts combined. If you can find a way to enjoy your long runs, you will end up enjoying the lion’s share of your ultrarunning training.