Monday, February 25, 2013

Ultra Marathon Class – You've gotta have base!

I've always been amazed how some ultra runners have the ability to perform time and time again with incredible consistency.  They may not be winning races but they compete regularly and rarely DNF.

I got to thinking that this must be a result of good genes, or luck, or they’re single with no kids, no job, and have endless hours to devote to training!  On closer observation this isn't the case (for many of them anyway) and with online facilities for sharing your training (like Garmin Connect and Strava) it is quite clear to see that they don’t seem to be doing anything out of the ordinary for normal ultramarathon training.

In the year leading up to my multi-day effort on the Nullarbor I was clocking up some serious training kilometers  training daily, twice a day on many occasions, and the short term benefit was clear from my perspective. However in the year afterwards, running had to take a lower priority in my life and my training dropped of significantly. I reviewed the figures and in 2011 I ran about 4600 km in 9 months in 180 runs, an average of about 26 kms a session.  In 2012 I ran 2700 kms in 112 session, an average of 24.5 kms per session. Checking back on previous years the overall distances have been in a similar ball park, but the average distance per session has significantly reduced.

The main difference I found between before a heavy running year and after is not so much the distances, but more the ability to go and run 50kms or more without any specific preparation.  I may not have been out there breaking records, but I was comfortable that I was going to finish and wasn’t having to think about my pacing very much (other than to curb the initial enthusiasm of the first half of a race).  Maybe it is just a confidence thing, built on the experience of having been there many times before, but I feel there has to be a physiological component. Call it muscle memory, or perhaps it’s related to the nervous system delaying the “you’re tired and need to stop” messages.

Whatever the case, it comes down to conditioning. So while I may not have been a fan of “junk miles” previously (which usually ends up as a debate over the definition of junk miles more than anything else!) it would seem that putting those kilometers (or miles depending where you live) into your legs does have some lasting benefit.

That said it doesn't mean you can run hard for a year and then sit back on your laurels completely, as I found this Christmas after a few weeks of negligible training!  I guess it’s like raising a child. You have to put in the hard yards early to get the desired behaviours. You should then be able to have a relatively comfortable time without the same level of intensity of effort and coaching. However, if you neglect the child completely the hard work will have to start again (although it should be a little easier second, and third time around).  I only wish it was easy to implement with my kids as it was to write this!

I remember being told once that “Class is permanent, Form is temporary” and those runners who week in, week out keep completing ultra after ultra that I mentioned at the beginning, certainly have class.  In reflection though when it comes to running ultras, you can earn class whilst training to find form. Remember, it’s an ultra marathon, not a sprint!

Run Happy!



  1. Awesome post! I am a very slow runner and don't have any special abilities. However, this super slowness has helped me to finish 117 ultras up to now. I have plans for many more!

  2. I think that sums up what Ultras are about Johann, it's not about winning, more a continual accumulation of successes and personal achievement. That and meeting up with some great people along the way!