My first three months of ultra-training

March 01, 2024

If you want to save yourself the whole read, I have not been training as if I am running an Ultra.

Something that has been a very steep learning curve to wrap my head around has been just how much ultra-training differs from the training I am used to. It essentially boils down to running consistently and progressively further at a leisurely pace keeping your heart rate low.

I can tell you with absolute honesty that this is not something that has come easy for me. I enjoy it but frankly find it easier to head out and run at a pace around my limit for whatever distance is on the cards. Mentally the focus that running closer to your limit requires puts me in a state of active meditation that prevents me from overthinking things and getting caught up with just how far is left to run or questioning why I am doing it at all.

My transition from a recreational runner that ran twice a week to someone a bit more regimented began at the start of September. Until this point, I was in a rhythm of running around 20-25km a week supplementing this with cycling and bouldering. As my passion for running grew I found myself looking forward to getting out on the bike dwindle and longed to be running on the days that I wasn’t.

It was actually on a holiday that I had my first week consistently running more and hitting a higher weekly mileage. With a week in Porto, Portugal booked, laying by the pool or drinking myself into an early night day after day wasn’t what I had planned. With an excellent coastal cycle path just a stone's throw from the Villa I was able to get a solid 12km run ticked before the rest of the house was awake. Doing this run two days in a row and then having an easy day worked well and had me easily rack up 50km for the week something alien to me.

Returning to the U.K. and heading into Autumn I largely kept to this volume with my training looking like this:

  • 5km effort on Monday
  • Tempo 10km run on Tuesday
  • Easy 12km run on Wednesday 
  • Recovery day Thursday 
  • 10km Tempo on Friday 
  • Longish 12-15km run over the weekend

This did serve me well however, as anyone who has built up for a marathon or ultra-marathon knows, it is obvious that this training schedule is lacking quite possibly the most key ingredient for endurance running. High-volume easy runs. To be perfectly honest at this point in my training, running fast and running hard was far more rewarding and enjoyable than plodding around for two or more hours. I did know this needed to change if I was ever going to see the finish line of the 100k race.

This did begin to change come November as I became consciously aware that although my training might be great for making me a faster 5-10k runner it is going to leave me completely underprepared for running 100km in May. This is when I decided to push out my long runs first heading to 18km before a week later taking on my first half marathon. For me that mental game was my limiting factor as my body was more than capable of running the distance. Negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs were the true culprits for holding me back. It was on my first half marathon that I became increasingly aware of how much your self-talk and headspace can affect your running. Although it is present in cycling, I never found its effects so pronounced.

One of my proudest runs to date was my first half marathon. An out-and-back along the Bristol to Bath cycle path meant for an easy course with no navigation to worry about. In hindsight and after doing some more research I realise my goal for my first half marathon was a bit lofty however I wanted my first ever half marathon to come in under the benchmark time of 1:30:00. This did mean that I set off a bit too hard and died a little in the last few kilometres. A result of poor fueling more than anything. However, I did complete my first half marathon in a time of 1:28:10 averaging 4:11/km.

This newfound ability to run for longer than ever propelled me to sign up for a winter trail half marathon in December. The Mapledurham half is a mixed terrain half marathon with muddy trails mixed in with road sections to make for an enjoyable race. Mapledurham was also my first-ever trail race and my first half marathon with only a handful of Park Runs to my name beforehand. With no real idea of the course and with no idea how I would fare in the slippery and muddy conditions I had no real pacing strategy but assumed aiming to be mid-pack would put me in the right place.

As the race began I decided to sit at a pace I knew that on an easier course, I would be able to sit at comfortably, 4:30/km. This did panic me a little as heading out along the road to the first uphill section of trail I found myself well inside the top half of the race and just outside the top 10. I decided to ignore everyone around me and run off a combination of feel and my target pace. Ultimately this saw me finish the race in a time of 1:34:50 in 8th place overall and 3rd in my category. Not bad for a debut half marathon race.

The rest of December followed a similar training schedule to the months before it all be it with the 5km effort being replaced with a steady 12-16km run instead and my weekend runs typically consisting of a half marathon. This put my weekly distance at between 60-75km heading into the new year. The focus really now turns to the ultra-marathon with speed work taking a back seat for a little while whilst my endurance becomes a priority.

Make sure to keep up to date with my progress report for January and February coming in the next few weeks where I talk about how my training has been anything but plain sailing for the start of 2024.

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