Training for an Ultra Marathon: How to get there
Training to run an ultra marathon is a task that takes many months of systemic training and planning to ensure optimal performance. The annual training plan aims to balance fatigue levels with increasing training stimuli to progress vital physiological markers for endurance running. This balancing act starts as soon as one competition season ends. Starting the transition phase with a moderate reduction in running volume to be replaced with resistance training allows an athlete to recover and prepare for the next competition season. During the transition and general preparation phase of the annual plan, resistance training builds should have priority. Hypertrophy training helps athletes build a tolerance and conditioning base to tolerate the strenuous training ahead.
Strength and power training are becoming more common in the training routines of distance runners as mounting science points to the performance benefits of such training. Multiple studies support the positive effects of strength and power training for enhancing running performance. The primary training attribute enhanced through resistance training is improved running economy (RE) and a subsequent decrease in oxygen needed to maintain a steady velocity (Williams, 2020). This evidence means that following the initial training of the transition period, time must be dedicated to maximal strength training, followed by maximal power training.
Training strength before power for any sport is important because an athlete who lacks strength will not produce power. Power is the product of high amounts of force exerted rapidly, and thus without strength, there is no power. Maximal strength training also enhances running biomechanics and reduces the risk of overuse injuries (Moffit et al., 2020). A reduction in injuries throughout the general and specific preparation periods will result in more quality training time and enhance performance. A study by Fei et al. (2020) determined that greater strength levels were correlated with enhanced running economy, and runners that trained strength and power for eight weeks improved running performance.
Progressing into the specific preparation period, it is important to spend more time running and less time training strength to prepare for the huge volume of running an ultra-marathon. This time in the plan is also ideal for test training markers to ensure that the program is having the desired effects before entering the competition season. As the specific preparation phase comes to a close and the competition season begins, the timing of training becomes increasingly important. While the competition season for ultra-running lasts 3-4 months, an athlete can only be at the physiological peak for up to 14 days (Bompa & Buzzichelli, 2019), so it is important to plan this peak for the most important race of the season. It is advisable to place this race at the end of the season but a few training races prior to the main competition.
The final portion of planning for performance is the taper, a systematic reduction in training to allow the athlete to eliminate accumulated fatigue and experience all of the performance enhancements the training year has produced. It is advisable to taper with a reduction in volume between 31%-85% (Bouquet et al., 2007), and for endurance athletes, no reduction in intensity is necessary. If volume and intensity are lowered too much adaptation will be lost, but fatigue will not dissipate and performance will also suffer if volume and intensity are not lowered enough. Thus, the ideal time for a taper is two weeks before peaking occurs, during which the main competition should take place. This timing of the taper can enhance performance by the margins required to place first vs. second in a race and thus is a vital part of the annual plan.
Bompa, T. O., & Buzzichelli, C. (2019). Periodization of the Annual Plan. In Periodization: Theory and methodology of training (6th ed., pp. 165-205). essay, Human Kinetics.
Bompa, T. O., & Buzzichelli, C. (2019). Peaking for Competition. In Periodization: Theory and methodology of training (6th ed., pp. 207-225). essay, Human Kinetics.
Bosquet, L., Montpeiti, J., Arvisas, D., & Mujika, I. (2007). Effects of tapering on performance: A meta-analysis. Physical Fitness and Performance, 39(8), 1358-1365.
Fei, L., Newton, U.R., Shi, Y., Sutton, D., Ding, H. (2019). Correlation of eccentric strength, reactive strength, and leg stiffness with running economy in well-trained distance runners. .Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 35(6), 1491-1499.
Moffit, T.J., Montgomery, M.M., Lockie, R.G., & Pamukoff, D.N. (2020). Association between knee- and hip-extensor strength and running-related injury biomechanics in collegiate distance runners. Journal of Athletic Training, 55(12), 1262-1269.
Williams, J.A. (2020). Effect of explosive-based training on musculotendinous stiffness and running economy in highly-trained distance runners. Journal of Australian Strength & Conditioning, 28(3), 86-92.