4 Tips for Busy Runners Training for an Ultramarathon

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The French philosopher Voltaire once said “perfect is the enemy of good.”

For runners who are trying to fit training in to a busy schedule, this is essential wisdom. Don’t let perfect training be the enemy of good training. Lots of “good” consistency over time can make for a close-to-perfect runner.

At the start of 2017, when Maya Grasse set a goal of finishing her first 100-mile race (her previous longest was 50K), she knew she couldn’t strive for perfect. She worked long hours as an attorney at Alston & Bird in Los Angeles, and covered 20 to 30 miles per week, with most of those miles on her days off work. Most days, she left home between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., and didn’t get back until 9:15 or 9:45 p.m., with all-nighters (or most-of-the-nighters) close to deadlines.

“I enjoy my job as an associate in a big firm, and I’m pretty disciplined and self-motivated,” she said, just after the new year. “But with a two- to three-hour round-trip commute, long days in the office and my back-of-the-pack status, I need to make the most of my limited time.”

In setting up her training plan to conquer 100 miles, she made four training rules.

1. Even 10 minutes counts

The most important training stimulus is consistency, which supports aerobic development and musculoskeletal strengthening.

No matter how many training books Maya sat down with, or how much time she invested in designing the perfect plan, life was almost certain to get in the way, like an unruly puppy that eats your training notebook and poops all over your running shoes.

Maya promised 10 minutes a day whenever a run was scheduled. So even if the puppy did its business all over her shoes, she’d still punch the clock with a short run. Often, that 10-minute run became 30 or 60 minutes; but even if it didn’t, the consistent stress let her body adapt for the big training days to come.

In your own training, remember that no brick is too small when building up your training wall. A few laps around the block are enough on the most stressful days. Set up a framework for consistency, and don’t let the desire for perfect training get in the way of good-enough training.

2. Aim for at least five runs a week

Running is a habit, and habits require repetition to become ingrained behavior patterns. If running becomes a periodic hobby rather than a habitual practice, it will fall by the wayside when the puppy poo hits the fan.

Maya generally had two rest days each week (usually Monday and Friday) when she focused on sleeping as much as possible. On all the other days, she ran, even if it was 10 minutes around the block or on the treadmill near her office. The unvarying consistency made running a habit, and because the body adapts to consistent stress, she got faster and stronger as a result.

In your own training, keep piling the little bricks up, avoiding weeks where you barely run at all. At five days a week, you’re only committing to a minimum of 50 minutes of running per week. If you can work that up to 2 x 1 hour on the weekend and 3 x 30 minutes on the weekdays, that’s still only 2.1 percent of the hours in the week. From that base, you’ll be ready to tackle long runs and workouts without getting injured.

3. Do short, strong hills to maximize bang-for-the-buck

From a base of consistent, low-level aerobic development, the next goal is to improve strength and higher-level aerobic capacity. Long, hard workouts can be daunting and hard to fit in in the context of a busy week. Short hills provide a stimulus above aerobic threshold, improving lactate threshold or VO2 max depending on how hard you go. Plus, they minimize injury risk because the body absorbs less impact force.

Most weeks, Maya had one key hill workout. Given the time constraints, she would generally aim for 10 to 20 minutes of total hard work, like 6 x 2 minute hills, 4 x 3 minute hills, or 2 x 5 minute hills. On these focused efforts, she was simply supposed to go “hard,” just putting in the work to support high-end aerobic development without requiring too much thought. She’d do short warm-ups and cool-downs with easy running recovery in between equal to the length of the intervals. Then, one or two times per week, she’d add 30-second hill strides or flat strides onto the end of runs.

In your own training, don’t do too many hard workouts, prioritizing easy running. But once or twice per week, do something short and intense, focusing on running with good form and enjoying the burn.

4. Keep long runs focused and strategic, and create “training camps” when you are less busy

For longer trail adventures, long runs are the key efforts to prepare the body and mind for what is to come. However, in training plans focused on consistent low volume, long runs also carry the highest injury risk, since the body is absorbing a lot more impact in a far more fatigued state. To balance the risk and reward, long runs need to be strategic and mostly easy, most of the time.

For even more reward while minimizing risk, during down periods at work, monthly or bi-monthly “training camps” can benefit your aerobic base. When (and if) an empty space appears in your schedule, add volume to each run—including the workouts and long run—for a short time, before dropping back to normal levels for recovery.

In Spring, Maya worked up to a weekly long run of 12 to 16 miles, running or hiking the uphills moderately hard and running the downhills relaxed, which limited pounding on her body. Once she settled in at 16 miles, she scheduled races around once a month, anywhere from a marathon or 50K to even her first two 50 milers.

In September, she capped her training off with two 50K races two weeks apart as final key efforts. The rest of the plan stayed mostly the same year-round, since her schedule didn’t allow much flexibility for bigger weeks. However, when she had some time off or a light week at work, she would do a “training camp” where she ran higher total volume, peaking over 55 miles per week a few times.

In your own training, build your long runs progressively over time, emphasizing different goals on each one (like moderate climbing and easy descending, rather than just going hard the whole time), and using races for the biggest efforts. Then, when life gets less busy, increase training volume for a short period (three to 10 days) for a big stimulus to complement the long runs and consistency.

On October 28, 2017, Maya stepped up to the start line of the Javelina Jundred 100 in Arizona. “I have been secretly obsessed with this race since I discovered trail running,” she says.

The race, which takes place around Halloween, is notorious for seeing many runners participate in costume. For Grasse, who had been obsessed with Jackie Kennedy since she was a girl, the choice was obvious.

“I grew up in Massachusetts obsessed with the Kennedys instead of normal pre-teen celebrity crushes,” she says. “The Jackie wig I wore at Javelina I’ve had since 1994—I first wore it trick-or-treating.”

She wore the wig, pearl necklace, and a homemade “Chanel handbag” handheld waterbottle, complete with faux pearls. She was ready to chase her big, scary goal after 10 months. 29 hours 15 minutes later, she crossed the finish line.

Over the race loudspeakers she heard something that nearly brought her to tears: she had won the award for best female costume.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada