4 Tips for Running a Fast Ultramarathon

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All summer, my wife Megan Roche had a date marked on her imaginary running calendar. August 27—the date of the Tamalpa Headlands 50K, the 2016 US 50K Championships—was covered in a red, 48-point-font letter. It would be her “A” race of the season.

“Right now, I am limiting myself to two 50Ks each year,” Megan says. “So each one is a big effort with a lot on the line.”

On July 9, she won the North American, Central American & Caribbean Mountain Running Championships, a 10K uphill race in Mexico (read about her training here). She was fast and strong, but now she needed to get ready for a completely different type of race. She had just seven weeks to get ready for one of the most competitive ultramarathons in the U.S.

When August 27 rolled around, she was ready. At the Headlands 50K, Megan won the national championship, broke a 10-year-old course record that many thought was untouchable and earned a $2,000 course-record bonus.

“Headlands was the longest race I have ever done by 40 minutes,” she says. “Knowing I was going into the unknown motivated training even more.”

So how did she do it? Here are four lessons from her training that you can use to prepare for your next marathon or ultra, whether your goal is to win, contend or simply get to the finish in good shape.

1. Aerobic Endurance Is Supreme

Putting in the miles in running is like putting in the sugar in baking. There is no substitute if you want to create a strong runner and/or edible cronut.

In the four weeks leading up to the North American Mountain Championships, Megan averaged 56.8 miles per week. In the seven weeks between that race and the 50K championships, Megan averaged 71.4 miles per week. She increased her mileage by 26 percent to improve her aerobic endurance. (See all of her training details on her Strava profile.)

In your training, above all else, prioritize steadily increasing aerobic volume over time. Consistent, easy running forms the foundation of healthy, fast running.

2. Make Key Long Runs Count

The most important workouts for marathons and ultramarathons are key long runs that simulate the demands you will face on race day.

Megan did three key long runs leading up to the 50K championships. The first was the US 30K Championships in Colorado Springs on July 30, where she focused on running the downhills fast. The second was the Aspen Backcountry Marathon on August 13, where she focused on relaxed but powerful climbing. The final key long run was the week before the race, when she previewed the second half of the 50K course with local stud runner Emily Peterson.

In the 50K, when Megan found herself off the pace set by 50K and 100K world champion Camille Herron early in the race, she gained confidence knowing that her body had made these types of efforts before, and it would only get stronger as the race got tougher.

“I bided my time to make a move,” she says. “The long runs ensured that when I asked my legs to go at mile 13, they responded with a loud ‘yes’ and even a little ‘woohoo!’”

In your training, do at least two (and no more than six) key long runs of between 18 and 30 miles (the exact distance depends on the length and elevation gain of your race). Make sure these runs are focused, allowing your body to adapt to the unique demands of running uphills and downhills moderately on tired legs.

3. Keep Intervals Relaxed

How many times during a trail race do push so hard that you need to stop running and recover? The answer is once—at the finish line—unless you are planning on up-chucking your gels at an aid station.

So don’t practice running all-out in training. Most people run their intervals far too hard. Even the hardest intervals (VO2 max intervals of between two and five minutes) should be sustainable for 12 to 15 minutes if you continue. If each interval feels like it is being timed by the Grim Reaper, you are going too hard.

Megan did one or two interval workouts each week, focusing on sustainable efforts. For example, on August 17, she did 12 x 2 minutes on/1 minute off, with the offs at a moderate effort (rather than a slow jog). Keeping the offs somewhat honest made sure that the ons weren’t too fast.

The sustainable principle also goes for tempo runs. On August 6, Megan ran up Aspen Mountain, taking the gondola down. During the effort, she watched her heart rate monitor to keep her effort under control.

“The biggest thing I have learned is that workouts should be uplifting and invigorating, rather than body- and soul-destroying,” Megan says.

During your workouts, go in with a purpose, and don’t let the need for speed cause you to overdo it. If you overdo it, the workout is non-specific to actually running a trail race (plus it increases injury risk). And while general fitness is good, specific fitness produces results.

4. Don’t Over-Taper

The perfect taper is like the perfect pre-race meal. What works for one person might not work for another person. Some people swear by pizza, others by pasta. Likewise, some runners like a linear two-week taper, while others like shorter, more abrupt tapers.

While there is no right way to taper, coaching experience has indicated that there may be a wrong way for some athletes. Too much taper can leave runners feeling stale, with less blood volume and lower cardiac output that hampers race-day performance.

Megan has found that big tapers do not work for her. Looking back at her best training and race performances, we found that she ran strongest immediately after hitting peak training volume. With that in mind, she ran her highest-mileage week ever (95 miles) in the second-to-last week before the 50K champs. Then, the week of the race, she ran only 24 miles over five days, with one of those days being a tune-up workout (8 x 3 minutes on/1 minute off at half-marathon effort).

So find what works for you. In general, if you need more than one week to recover from training before a race, you are training too hard in the first place.

In the Headlands 50K, Megan was able to push herself to the edge, covering 31 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing in 4:20, ahead of world champions Kasie Enman and Camille Herron, defending national champion Caitlin Smith and a star-studded field of other women.

Now, a few days later, Megan is just starting to recover, which brings us to her all-important bonus point: “You can’t overtrain when it comes to post-race recovery pizza.”

David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.

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