Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Your best performance yet
Photo by Patitucciphoto.
While some trail runners train by feel, a structured training program is your surest ticket to success. Here, renowned ultrarunner and coach Ian Torrence dishes the dirt on how to structure your training to run your best race.
So make this the year! No matter what happened last year, you can always improve by training smarter. Set your sights on chasing new challenges and setting personal records. However, don’t succumb to the biggest trap of all: trying to achieve your goals by following a plan that’s not appropriate for you. The best approach will allow you to reach your full potential by maximizing your present abilities while taking into account your own unique needs.
Photo by Patitucciphoto.
1. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses
“I used to create my own plans based on what others were doing, what I saw in magazine articles, an inflated sense of self and a need to overachieve. My plans were always beyond my abilities and always resulted in injury,” laments six-day TransRockies Run finisher Carey Martin. This is a time to be both self-critical and honest with yourself. Review your running history to determine your strengths and weaknesses.
How do you recover from long runs and speed work? Are you often sidelined by lingering or recurring injuries, like Las Vegas-based trail half marathoner Kimberly Kanitz used to be? Says Kanitz, “I was repeatedly on the road to an injury by do ing a lot of the same training week after week, unable to complete a training cycle.”
Do you sign up for events in advance only to find yourself unmotivated to train as the event draws near? Adam Towle, who recently finished his first trail ultra, experienced just this. He admits, “Before using a structured plan I had goals but there weren’t any teeth to them; there wasn’t an investment. My path to various goals was hit or miss. I had a string of ‘did not starts.’”
An optimal schedule will maximize your strengths and intelligently address your weaknesses so that you can improve.
2. Identify your race distance and venue
Do you gravitate to ultra-distance or multi-day events or do you prefer trail races that are over in a few hours? Are you satisfied with your placing at these races? Brazen Racing race director and frequent San Francisco Bay area trail racer Sam Fiandaca says, “I’ve recently found strengths with distances I didn’t know I’d be strong in. In my case, this is mid-distance trail running. I’m not winning these races, but I tend to place higher in them and that’s something I can continue to work on.”
You’ll need to prepare for the physical and mental demands of the event you’ve chosen. Excelling at shorter races means incorporating speed training and some knowledge of clever race tactics. Longer events emphasize stamina and endurance training and the ability to execute proper race-day nutrition and hydration routines. Specificity is important. Become familiar with and train on terrain similar to the race course.
3. Identify your goals
We all have our ultimate goal, but be prepared for the bumps in the trail that could keep you from reaching it.
“This year I’ve been unable to run,” says Seattle’s Cougar Mountain Trail Run Series contestant Mark Burke. “The mental frustration of not being able to achieve my original race goal has put me in a state of limbo.”
Having a tiered goal system in place will foster your commitment to training and ensure you give your best on race day. Select not one but several immediate and far-reaching goals even if they aren’t specifically related to the race.
Burke continues, “However, in an effort to identify some new mini-goals until then, I am going to focus on losing weight and doing as much non-weight-bearing exercise as possible. It is easy to give up on my goals when I cannot run, but these tricks will keep me engaged.”
Strive for your primary goal, but use the others along the way as yardsticks of success and something to fall back on if you encounter a setback. Also, don’t be afraid to decide that you may need not one but two or three years to achieve your ultimate goal. Two-time JFK 50-Mile finisher Emily Malloy explains, “I have underlying goals of becoming a better runner from a year-to-year perspective. And by ‘better’ I don’t necessarily mean faster; I mean learning more about the sport, about running different distances and in different conditions. When you train through a few cycles, you know you are generally becoming a better runner, and that is what I strive for.”
Photo by Patitucciphoto.
SPRINT, SPEED AND STAMINA WORKOUTS
Sacramento-based trail runner Steve Itano comments on why training is a true discipline: “In the past I tended to run every run hard and did not really differentiate between workouts. I ran my easy runs way too hard and did not push hard enough on key workouts. Knowing the purpose for each run, whether it be recovery, long runs or tempo runs, really helps me execute each properly.”
Let’s discuss the nuts and bolts of a typical plan.
Training zones and
Our body undergoes huge physiological changes as we pass from a slow jog into a steady run. As we increase effort our heart rate, rate of breathing (ventilation), oxygen consumption, and lactate accumulation all increase. Heart rate and oxygen consumption increase linearly until they can go no higher. Lactate and ventilation reach a point after which they increase at a much faster rate than at slower paces. Training is the art of replicating different exertion levels in short, controlled bouts so that our body and mind may adapt to the new stressors and be better able to handle that workload on race day.
There are four training zones. Within each of these specific zones there are optimal workouts that develop each zone’s physiological benefits.
1. SPRINT ZONE AND NEUROMUSCULAR TRAINING
Workouts in the sprint zone enhance the body’s ability to run very fast when the muscles are inundated with lactic acid—that burn we feel in the muscles when running all-out.
- Sprint Intervals
These fast intervals last between 30 seconds to a minute and are run at an effort you can sustain for two to six minutes. The recovery between repeats is relatively long—two to five times the length of the hard running. These are rigorous workouts and might not benefit everybody, as the risk of injury is relatively high.
- Neuromuscular Strides
Lasting between 10 and 30 seconds, these promote quick leg turnover without accumulating lactate in the muscles. Recover fully by walking or jogging slowly after each stride. Perform a stride workout of six to eight times 15 to 25 seconds once or twice a week right after an easy workout.
- [THE IDEA] Neuromuscular Training
Neuromuscular training improves running economy by developing better coordination between the muscles and the nervous system. The goal is to focus on proper running form, something that can be lost by running too slowly too often. These intervals are much shorter than the sprint intervals mentioned above, making them relatively safe and quite invigorating.
2. SPEED ZONE TRAINING
Speed workouts are very challenging, but teach you to run harder for longer by improving:
- Biomechanics that reinforce proper running form and range of motion.
- Recruitment and growth of fast-twitch muscle fiber.
- Metabolic pathways that help store and use fuel sources more efficiently
- Lactic-acid-buffering capability.
- Oxygen uptake from the blood once it reaches the muscles.
These advancements, working in concert, will allow you to reach your maximum aerobic capacity or VO2 max.
[THE IDEA] VO2 max
VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can use during intense exercise. This measurement is an indicator of an athlete’s endurance and cardiovascular fitness. The more oxygen you can utilize during hard bouts of exercise, the higher your VO2 max, and the more power you can produce during a workout.
VO2 Max Intervals
These speed workouts last between one and six minutes with paces that emulate an 8- to 15-minute race. Heart rate will range between 94 and 98 percent of maximum. A recovery jog that lasts roughly one half the distance or the same duration as the fast running is required between repeats. The goal of the workout is to spend a cumulative total of 10 to 30 minutes at these quick speeds.
Two examples of this kind of workout (after a thorough warm-up) include:
- A fartlek run comprising a series of one-minute fast (slightly faster than 5K effort) and one-minute jog rotations.
- A session of five to eight times a half mile at 5K pace separated by 2-to-3-minute recovery jogs.
These workouts can be done on any flat to rolling surface with good footing. Keep in mind that the purpose is to run fast so technical trails should be avoided. If you are new to this type of workout, avoid injury by starting on soft surfaces such as a track, treadmill or well-groomed dirt path. Begin slowly and integrate a modest amount of speed into your training plan. This will be all you need to reinforce this zone’s physiological benefits.
3. STAMINA ZONE TRAINING
Stamina-zone workouts hone your ability to run at a steady pace for a long period of time by improving your speed at lactate threshold, the best indicator of endurance performance, and perfecting your ability to run by effort.
[THE IDEA] Lactate Threshold
Blood lactate is formed through any simple muscle movement. During light activity, the body is able to rid the muscles of the small amount of lactate created. However, at higher exercise intensities, muscles are flooded with lactate and a point is eventually reached at which the body can no longer clear the lactate created. This is your lactate threshold. Stamina workouts enable you to shift your lactate threshold toward faster speeds and harder efforts. In general, lactate threshold is attained at near one-hour race pace and stamina workouts focus on working at or near this point.
1) Steady-State Runs
Steady-state runs are performed at slightly below lactate threshold pace—roughly 30K race pace. If you train by heart rate, you’ll want to stay between 83 and 87 percent of maximum. The use of 20-to-30-minute steady state workouts will provide training benefits early in the training cycle, and as your fitness improves, you can increase the duration to an hour or more.
2) Tempo Runs
Tempo runs are more intense and thus shorter in duration than steady-state runs. They last between 15 and 40 minutes and are performed right at lactate threshold (between 50- to 70-minute race pace). Heart rates should fall between 85 and 90 percent of maximum.
3) Tempo Intervals
If you find the length of a tempo run too tough or difficult to recover from, break the workout up by using tempo intervals. Though these are slightly faster than tempo-run pace, they are broken into two or more repeats with short (2-to-5-minute) recovery jogs in between. Tempo intervals are run at 40- to 50-minute race pace. Each repeat should last between six and 15 minutes. Longer repeats necessitate a longer recovery interval.
4) Cruise Intervals
Cruise intervals are a shorter and slightly more intense version of tempo intervals. They last 3 to 8 minutes and are completed at a pace slightly faster than your lactate threshold, roughly 25- to 40-minute race pace. They are followed by short recovery intervals (30 seconds to 2 minutes).
5) Progression Runs
Progression runs begin at a comfortable, conversational pace; however, as the workout progresses, you pass from an endurance-training zone into a stamina-training zone, and sometimes into a speed-training zone. These workouts are an excellent way to develop a sense of pace and effort as you pass from one zone to the next. Here are three examples:
- “Thirds” progression runs vary between 45 to 120 minutes depending on your fitness level. During the first third of the workout, run at a very slow, easy pace. In the second third, increase your pace to a manageable, but steady speed. During the final third of the workout, increase your speed to between marathon and half-marathon effort or roughly 80 and 90 percent of maximum heart rate.
- Super-fast-finish progression runs begin at your normal steady pace, but finish with a final 3-to-6-minute 5K-effort kick. While they stimulate muscle coordination and recruitment, they will leave you with little to no lasting effects.
- DUSA Progression Runs are one of Flagstaff-based coach Greg McMillan’s favorite workouts. McMillan learned of these workouts when he coached with the Discovery USA Program. Run 75 to 90 percent of your total run at a steady, easy pace. Then, as you approach the final 10 to 25 percent, increase your effort to 10K to half-marathon race pace. These workouts should last a total of 45 to 90 minutes. Walk or jog for five minutes to cool down. This is another excellent way to squeeze a few more minutes of stamina training into the week without causing any lasting fatigue.
Photo by Patitucciphoto.
4. Hill work can fall into both the speed and stamina zones of training depending on the length and slope of the climb and your pace. Uphill intervals are low impact, challenge the cardiorespiratory system and develop strength in the legs and glutes. Downhill intervals are less taxing on your heart and lungs, but will prepare the legs for excessive eccentric loading, typical of mountainous trail courses.
1) Short Hill Repeats
To improve your VO2 max, find a hill with a medium slope (6 to 10 percent) that takes 15 to 90 seconds to ascend. Run up it at your mile race effort, nearly 100-percent effort. Focus on good form with powerful push off and strong arm swing. If you find your hands on your knees after a few reps then you’re doing the workout correctly. Slowly jog down the hill to recover. Start with four to six repeats and build up to 12 to 14.
2) Long Hill Repeats
Find a hill with a medium slope (6 to 10 percent) that takes 90 seconds to 3 minutes to ascend. Run up at an effort equivalent to your 10K to half-marathon race pace. Again, focus on good form with powerful push off and strong arm swing. Slowly jog down the hill to recover. Start with three to four repeats and build up to 10 to 12.
3) Long Rolling Hill Run
During a long, hilly run, approach each incline as a challenge. Start with 45 to 60 minutes and work up to 90 to 120 minutes total. Regard- less of the size, surge at 5K to marathon race effort to the top of each hill encountered. Recover on the subsequent downhill and flat terrain. Adjust your pace and effort depending on the length and slope of each climb. This workout will not only increase your stamina, but will boost your confidence as you’re able to tack on miles over time.
4) Mountain Climbs
Find a trail or road that ascends for several miles and ideally gains between 300 to 1000 feet per mile. Complete a total of 30 minutes to two hours of uphill running, steadily increasing your intensity as you approach the top of the climb. You can also duplicate a long climb workout on a treadmill.
5) Circuit Workout
This is a combination of short hill repeats and neuromuscular strides. Run hard up the hill, jog for 30 to 45 seconds, run a 20-to-30-second stride on flat terrain and then jog back down to the bottom of the hill to begin the circuit again. You should end up with around four to 12 hills and four to 12 strides.
6) Short Downhill Repeats
Find a hill with a medium slope (6 to 10 percent) that takes a minute or two to descend. It is best to start on smooth, soft surfaces. Stay away from rocky, technical trails for this workout. Like the uphill repeats, start with fourtosixandworkupto12to 14 downhill repeats. Jog slowly or walk back to the top for recovery.
7) Long Downhill Repeats
Long downhill repeats should last anywhere from a quarter mile to six miles. The more sustained downhill, the better. The objective is to make your legs ache in training to minimize race-day soreness. Schedule a long downhill session at least once every 10 to 14 days during peak training as muscle memory for this kind of work can fade after a few weeks.
Endurance Zone Training
Endurance workouts, the bulk of your training, help you recover from hard training, improve your ability to run longer, maintain your aerobic fitness level and maximize your capacity for speed and stamina training.
1) Recovery Runs
Recovery runs assist with the recuperation process between tough efforts. They can be used for the rest periods between taxing intervals or on the days following rigorous workouts. They are purposely short in duration and should be kept at a very slow “jog” where the heart rate remains below 65 percent of maximum.
2) Easy Runs
Easy runs maintain our aerobic fitness. Most runs within a given week fall into this category. Do these runs at a conversational pace for no longer than 90 minutes. Your heart rate should stay below 75 percent of maximum.
3) Long Runs
The long run is the most crucial workout. It enables you to build a strong fitness base, prepares your body for all of the faster zones of training and boosts your confidence as you run farther than before. There are several ways to approach the long run.
STEADY LONG RUNS
These are what usually come to mind when we think about running long. The objective is simply to spend time on your feet. These runs:
- Train the body to become efficient at burning fat, its optimal fuel source.
- Teach the body to become efficient in storing muscle glycogen, the major form of stored carbohydrates in the body.
- Increase the size and number of muscle capillaries and mitochondria, the blood vessels and cellular factories that facilitate aerobic energy.
- Prepare you for running while fatigued.
The pace of a steady long run should be easy, but the effort consistent. Your heart rate should remain below 70 percent of maximum for most of the workout.
Photo by Patitucciphoto.
For a downloadable PDF of a trail half-marathon training program that incorporates all the workouts covered here, please go to: trailrunnermag.com/halfmarathon.pdf
Carbohydrate-Depleting Long Runs
Only water and electrolytes are permitted until the run is complete. These workouts train the body to use fuel stores more sparingly and perform more efficiently on low blood sugar. These runs are very taxing and should be limited to training runs of three hours or less.
Fast-Finish Long Runs
These workouts are the most challenging component of your endurance-based training. The goal is to finish fast or with a high level of perceived effort. These runs make you a stronger runner, build your confidence and become race-day-habit forming. Begin the workout at steady long-run pace (conversational) and increase the effort and/or pace to near marathon race inten sity (roughly 80 to 85 percent of maxi mum heart rate) toward the end. The fast-finish portion can range from 2 to 3 miles for early sea-son sessions to 8 to 10 miles later in the season or for more experienced runners. Keep in mind that if you are training on hilly or technical trail, aim for marathon “effort” as marathon race pace will be too difficult to sustain.
Back-to-Back Long Runs
Piggybacking long runs two days in a row has proven effective for races beyond the marathon, because they mimic ultra race-day fatigue but allow for a night’s recovery between sessions. Begin with relatively short back-to-backs during the pre-season months and build on those as race day approaches.
Cross training gives the musculoskeletal system a break from the pounding from running, but still benefits the cardiorespiratory system. Other forms of exercise can replicate the four training zones by matching the corresponding zone’s perceived effort or heart rate. To get the best bang for your buck if you are in the midst of a race-specific training cycle and want to substitute a cross training session for a running workout, do an activity that is closest to the running motion as possible.
The best examples of this are using the elliptical machine, cycling, cross-country skiing, hiking and aqua jogging. Swimming, rowing, yoga and Pilates work best as off-season or recovery activities. If you prefer tough ancillary activities like Boot Camp, P90X or Cross Fit, make certain that these classes don’t leave you too exhausted or sore for your running workouts.
1. Calculate the amount of time before race day
Get out your calendar and count the number of weeks you have before your race or races. Make sure that you have a reasonable amount of time for the proper training, and, if you’re peaking for several races, you allot enough time for recovery between them. Cram training will only lead to injury and poor results. At the same time, be sure not to begin your race-specific training prematurely. A training cycle that lasts too long is a quick recipe for mental and physical burnout.
2. Assign training phases
As mentioned, base training is the most important and prevalent phase of your plan. You can always race well off of a solid endurance-based background. Before launching into any race-specific stamina or speed work, a minimum of 12 uninterrupted weeks of base training and a month of pre-race specific work should be done. The workouts and how they are arranged during the training cycle’s final months will depend, again, on your specific race and strengths and weaknesses. In general, in order to avoid fatigue, the length of any one zone of training should fall within these time frames:
- Endurance training: Can be done indefinitely and will benefit any race distance
- Stamina training: 6 to 8 weeks
- Speed training: 4 to 8 weeks
It’s important to place race-specific workouts closest to your goal race. For example, a runner training for a trail 10K or half marathon would arrange workouts so that speed-based training takes precedence during the final month of the schedule. Conversely, a runner preparing for a trail marathon or 50K would assemble a mix of tough endurance and stamina-based workouts in the final months.
If you find it difficult to recover from speed work, develop injuries or despise the thought of it, simply de-emphasize or eliminate it from the program in favor of endurance and stamina workouts. If you are willing to work on or enjoy speed and stamina workouts, allocate more time to these training zones.
Don’t forget to allow a few weeks for a proper peaking phase. Continue with your race-specific training, but drop the volume of each run by 35 to 50 percent two weeks out and then another 20 to 25 percent from that during the week of your event.
Finally, designate a purpose to each week in your plan: Base, pre-race and race-specific and within those—endurance, stamina, speed and peak.
3. Compute weekly volume
In order to keep you accountable and injury-free, chart your weekly mileages beforehand. Scheduling a recovery week, when volume is cut 25 to 50 percent every three to four weeks, is an excellent way to enable your body to absorb recent training and gear up for the subsequent weeks’ workouts.
Use your own running experience, injury frequency, age and target race to determine the most advantageous mileage you should cover in your plan. New runners must take a conservative approach, keeping in mind that an uninterrupted, injury-free training cycle will get you to the start line with the best chance for success. Runners who have completed several training cycles and have a year or two of consistent training volume under their belt can and should explore higher volume.
4. Schedule your long runs
Research suggests 90 minutes is the minimum length long run for a trained athlete, but the upper maximum is limitless. Manage your long runs according to the following criteria:
Time vs. miles: Mountain and off-road running are relatively slow-going, so running for time alleviates the pressure of having to cover a predetermined distance.
Adjust the length of the long run to gel appropriately with your most recent (roughly the last 10 weeks) training load.
Training on the same terrain as your race is key, but don’t let terrain specificity rule your long-run location choices. Variation in topography allows for both mental and physical reprieve.
The frequency of tough long runs can be altered. Many runners have been successful with as many as 10 to 14 days between long runs.
Though this topic is up for much debate, here are guidelines for optimal long-run distances relative to popular trail-race lengths:
- 10K and shorter: 90 to 105 minutes
- Half-marathon: 2 hours or 12 to 16 miles
- Marathon and 50K: 16 to 26 miles or 3 to 4 hours
- 50 miles and 100K: a 50K race or 4 to 5 hours as well as back-to-back long runs
- 100 miles: a 50-mile or 100K race or 5 to 6 hours as well as back-to-back long runs
5. Distribute the quality workouts
Most athletes can complete one or two quality workouts, not including the long run, in a week’s time without risking injury. The primary workout should match the week’s designated phase and take priority in the schedule. If you’re in a speed-based phase, then a VO2 max workout is in order. If it’s a stamina-based phase, then a lactate-threshold workout should be the focus. Vary these primary workouts on a weekly basis in order to eliminate training drudgery. If training has advanced enough, you may use a secondary workout to remind the body of past training phases, prepare it for the next, or utilize it as time to prepare for race specific challenges—like hills or working on a finishing kick. Remember that these workouts shouldn’t take focus away from the primary workout.
6. Fill it all in and account for life’s responsibilities
This is the time to make note of all of the other important life obligations, family responsibilities and things that keep you motivated, happy and healthy. Examples might be:
- Vacation and family time, work, anniversaries, weddings, volunteer responsibilities, etc.
- Regularly scheduled recovery or off days
- Non-goal races
- Strength training, spin class, Boot Camp, Pilates or yoga classes, etc.
Once you plug these commitments—along with your long run(s), your primary and, possibly, secondary workouts—into your plan, the rest of your weekly volume will come from easy and recovery runs and cross-training activities. Review the entire plan and assess it. You’re now looking at a realistic balance between essential goal race training and life’s duties.
Stephanie Shepherd, who trains regularly on the trails in North Carolina’s Umstead State Park agrees, “It is difficult balancing work, family and daily life while training for and achieving my racing goals. Planning my schedule for the weeks and months ahead is the only way I’ll know I’ll get my running in.”
Jason Penticoff, who participates annually in Illinois’ Rock Cut Winter Survivor Race Series, echoes Shepherd’s praises for training structure: “I follow a plan because it gives me a focus. Without a plan, I feel like I’m swatting at a piñata blindfolded just hoping to hit it.”
Photo by Patitucciphoto.
This is your time to build endurance and to prepare your body for the stresses you’ll encounter as your training gets more race specific. There is no wrong way to approach your base training, but it should include easy runs, long runs, neuromuscular strides, short hill repeats and steady-state runs. Strides or short hill intervals can be done in the middle of or after one or two of your weekly easy runs. They help you get fast and efficient without stressing the body. A steady-state workout performed once a week provides a good change of pace from the easy running that otherwise governs the base phase. Sixty to 70 percent of your year’s total training should fall into this category. However, if you’re taking the year off from racing or simply enjoy this type of training, there is no harm in making this phase fill your year’s calendar.
Pre-Race Specific Phase
It’s an awful shock to the system to jump right into tough training. The pre-race specific phase cushions this blow by slowly introducing the body to the concept of hard running. The phase can last four to six weeks and includes all those workouts found in the base phase as well as longer hill repeats and climbs, faster and longer fartlek sessions and progression runs.
This is the core of your program where your goals, weaknesses, strengths and race demands determined above come heavily into play. This phase can last three to 10 weeks and will involve an assortment of the endurance, stamina and speed-based workouts discussed in this article. This type of training will constitute 30 to 40 percent of your plan’s volume.
The final two to three weeks before your goal event should be used to rest your body. Keep the routine and intensity but drop the volume.
Ian Torrence grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and ran competitively for the cross-country and track teams at Allegheny College. He ran his first ultramarathon in 1994, and has now finished 170 ultras, 24 of which were 100-mile races. In all, Ian has won 51 ultramarathons. He’s a two-time, top-10 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run finisher. In 2002, he completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, finishing the Western States, Vermont, Leadville Trail and the Wasatch Front 100-milers in a single summer. Ian, 40, now lives and trains in Flagstaff, Arizona, and is entering his fourth year as the lead ultrarunning coach at McMillan Running.