Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Quality Ultramarathon Training – Running with Purpose

Prior to the Kokoda challenge my motivation to train was lacking, and it hasn’t been great for over a year now. While this isn’t a good thing for my running (and life) in general it has led to the discovery of the benefits of different training volumes and techniques, which I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise learnt.

Whilst I have put in a lot of kilometres in the past couple of years, my training for the past 6 months has, by ultrarunning standards, been minimalist.  Up until about 3 months before the Kokoda Challenge I was running about 20-25kms twice a week. From then on I increased this to 2 runs of about 20kms and a 25-30km run on the weekends. (I certainly wasn’t running junk miles, and this post is an evolution of my previous thoughts on that topic.)

So 60-70kms a week was a little over half my normal ultra training weekly distance, and involved no runs of less than 20kms. This gave me plenty of rest between training runs, and unintentionally avoided back to back runs (my preferred session for building endurance).

Given that I was only running infrequently, and as I only had a limited amount of time available, the intensity of these runs was very different to the preparations for my Nullarbor run. In that case I was training to run comfortably at lower intensity, and to be able to back up day after day, and often backing up within the day.  By contrast the Kokoda training runs were nearly always run as a tempo style run, over the 20+km distance. I rarely just trotted along comfortably, but was almost always pushing the speed, or effort over the terrain (including a lot of sand running). My heart rate would be elevated about 20bpm over my normal levels, and I would be finishing each run with little left in the tank.

I was concerned before Kokoda, firstly because I didn’t want to let the team down, and because I was concerned that my training hadn’t been sufficient to get me round. As it turns out the 96kms of tough trails didn’t pose much of a problem, and as ultras go I was relatively comfortable. So my deduction is that the reduced volume/increase intensity training regime may actually give a better performance per training km.

My next race is the Great North Walk 100miler race in November, and I’m going to add what I have learnt to my training.  Whilst on a training run this weekend I discussed this with my training partner Tylana, and it is apparent that these sort of intense training sessions are similar to the Macmillan training methods. The idea is to push hard at the end of each run so that you are completely spent by the time you finish.  

I’ve not looked into these methods myself, but here is my theory behind the benefits I have experienced from doing something similar.  

From a physical perspective you are putting your cardio vascular system through its paces, which you would expect would lead to a higher Lactate threshold, improved VO2Max, and provided you are still doing the longer distance runs, getting an endurance benefit. By training at a greater intensity than you would race, you can reasonably expect to have a significant endurance gain. In simple terms you should be able to run faster and longer, but more comfortably – the reason why we train.

There are also important psychological benefits. By running at a far higher intensity, especially in the last 5kms of a longer training run, you simulate the mental stress and urges to slow and stop that you get at the latter stages of an ultra (and sometimes in the early stages too!). One of the hardest things about an ultramarathon is being prepared for how you will feel after 6, 8, 16, 24+ hours of running, as most people wouldn’t engage a training run of that duration. If you’re pushing hard for the final 20-30 mins of a 4 hour run, you’ll at least be getting closer to that feeling if you really put in.

What I have also found, is that pushing hard late in a training run distracts your mind from potential boredom, and by giving it purpose, focuses your attention on successful completion of the run. I’ve also noticed during these uncomfortable minutes, I become very conscious of my running form, trying to avoid running like a giraffe on drugs! So in turn this has a physiological benefit in strengthening those muscles you need most when you are tired.

For those of us who are time poor, or perhaps not disciplined enough to get up early to run, by having a purpose with each training session, and running with an ever increasing level of intensity you will get improved results when compared to just running lots of miles.  I’m not suggesting that every run should be a sprint, and that you shouldn’t have rest days, but that by having a purpose to each training session and putting in a little extra effort you can make your training more interesting and more effective.

Run Happy,

“It never gets easier, you just get better”