How to train for an Ultra marathon

finishedLanding back in the UK after completing the 2015 Marathon Des Sables, knowing I had pushed my body and mind to the limit, was an amazing feeling. Since then I have come close to experiencing that feeling but have never quite reached that level of fulfilment. It took me a while to find something that would push me as much as the MDS, but one day it just clicked and Castle to Castle was born.

1,130 miles over 22 days, visiting the castles of all the UK and Ireland’s capital cities. From The Tower of London to Edinburgh Castle, Belfast Castle, Dublin Castle and Cardiff Castle, before returning to The Tower of London. The preparation for this Ultra of all Ultras is in some ways unique, however, many elements of my normal training regime still apply, elements that can help you to have a successful event.

My advice to anyone with an Ultra in the diary is to make a plan and set goals. To safely complete your race, I would suggest increasing your mileage by 10% each week, aiming to reach 60-80 miles three weeks before the event. Having this as your end point allows you to determine when you will need to start your training. Along with your weekly running you should include some strength training to ensure your body can withstand the pressure of high mileage events. In addition to this, a weekly yoga or Pilates session will ensure your flexibility and core strength are at their peak and your posture is on point.


27667426865_d117b9559a_zTraining Events –
Taking on an Ultra is a huge challenge and training needs to be broken down to manageable chunks. Enter half-marathons and marathons in the months leading up to your final event to allow you to set mid-term goals. These events will also serve as check points to evaluate whether your training is going as planned. As the mileage for Castle to Castle is so high I’ll be doing some Ultras as training events, including Race to the King, a double marathon hosted by Threshold Sports, the amazing team behind Race to the Stones.

Nutrition – It is essential that you look at what your consuming before, during and after each training run so that you are aware of what your body requires to be efficient. Along with the food you are consuming you should also explore your hydration strategy. Carry out a hydration test to see how much you need to drink during each hour of your race. You can do this by weighing yourself (unclothed), running at a strong pace for 60 minutes, and weighing yourself (unclothed) again. The difference in weight is the amount of fluid lost. e.g. A loss of 1kg = 1kg of water needed = 1ltr of water.

Recovery – Sleep is so important when training. Solid nights and maybe the implementation of a day time nap where possible will help the body to recover and develop in the way it needs to be able to execute such a high volume of training. Along with good levels of sleep, a regular sports massage can help speed up the recovery process. Every four weeks would be my general recommendation.

Kit – Taking your running to the Ultra distance brings with it many new requirements. One of the better ones is the need for new kit, such as a race vest or rucksack to carry some food and water. Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with this element of preparation. Getting it wrong can ruin your final race, which is why I advise practicing with your kit and tweaking it if necessary. When you find what works – stick with it. Also make sure you look at the route and terrain of your race. Often these events are off-road and underfoot conditions can be pretty variable so have a couple of trainer options in case of a change in weather conditions.

Psychology – Like any other endurance event the Ultra brings many mental hurdles to jump over. My advice is to not ignore this but train to overcome them. Like the mileage, it can be prepared for.

The three tips to overcome mental walls are:

  • Break the event down into smaller chunks. People often break it into first half and second half, but this is too much. I would break a marathon into four achievable chunks and an Ultra into even more.
  • Reward yourself during the event. Give yourself a favourite food or drink to celebrate reaching certain points of your run.
  • Find a new friend. One thing I love about Ultra events is the friendliness of the participants. The route is filled with a community of runners, organisers and volunteers, all willing to encourage you along the way. When the going gets tough, don’t be afraid to spark up a conversation or stop at a checkpoint to refuel and receive some words of encouragement from the crew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to train for an Ultra marathon

Five things I’m asked about…running the Marathon des Sables

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What made you want you do something so extreme and intense?

I’ve always been a keen runner and did my first London marathon in 2005, going on to achieve a PB of 2 hours 39 minutes in 2013. Taking part in the MDS had been a dream of mine since watching Ben Fogle complete it in 2004, and by 2015 I had reached a stage in my running where I was looking for a new challenge and felt that I was ready for it. I enjoy seeing how far I can push my body and what I can get out of it – and this was definitely a big push!

 

What was the hardest part?

The final 10 miles of Stage three were definitely the toughest for me, both physically and mentally. The terrain was made up of loose sand so it was extremely hard to move forward. At times it felt as though I was in one of those dreams where you’re trying to run but simply aren’t getting anywhere. I just had to keep turning my legs over and making very slow progress. I was so, so glad when it was done.

 

Was anything easier than you thought it would be?

One of the race rules is that all kit, including food, must be carried by competitors. To avoid having to carry extra weight I only took the amount of food required to meet the race’s minimum calorie guidelines. Whilst technically this was enough to sustain me I anticipated having problems as I didn’t know how my body would react once I was out there, and hunger is not something I deal well with. Thankfully I managed to judge it just right and didn’t feel too hungry at any point – which is good as there was no way to get any extra rations out to the middle of the desert.

 

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What advice would you give to someone else doing it?

Don’t just think about the mileage of your training runs, practice with weighted packs so that you get a feel for how it will be to carry your kit with you over those longer distances. Something else I found extremely helpful was to reduce the weight of my pack as much as possible. Race regulations set the minimum pack weight at 6.5kg (not including water) so try to get as close to this as possible. There’s obviously the essential kit, such as medical items and food, that you have to take, but other than that, question everything that you put in to your pack. I became quite obsessed with it – cutting labels out of items, removing packaging and even trimming the handle on my toothbrush. It might sound extreme but even an extra kilogram will make all the difference when you have to carry it for 6 days over a hundred and fifty six miles.

 

How would you sum up your experience? 

I can honestly say that it was a truly incredible, life-changing experience. When I first thought about doing the race back in 2004, I just wanted to take part. Then I just wanted to complete it. As I trained more and more, I thought that coming top-50 might be achievable and in the end I came 21st and was the 2nd fastest Briton to complete the race. It really made me aware of what can be achieved with enough time, effort and determination. There’s something quite incredible about getting that far, in such difficult conditions, just under the power of your own two legs.

Five things I’m asked about…running the Marathon des Sables

Training tips: Goal setting for runners

The only way I can motivate myself to train regularly and to see progression in my running is through setting goals. They give me a reason to train and break down my overall aims into manageable, bite-sized chunks. When bad weather or social engagements might distract me from my training plan, these goals encourage me to push on through – braving the rain or running to or from an evening out. As I see it, there are five main benefits to setting goals:

 

  • Creating a sense of commitment – setting a goal makes you psychologically commit to trying to reach that target, making you more likely to succeed
  • Encouraging progression – if your training is stalling having an end goal will motivate you to keep moving forward
  • Building self-belief – breaking down your overall aim can make it feel much more manageable and achievable
  • Allowing you to re-evaluate – should you not reach your overall goal, having milestones in place will enable you to look back at where your training veered off course
  • Rewarding success – once an end-date and target are in place you can begin to build in rewards to your training schedule, again, motivating you to continue training

 

Before we look at the three different types of goals I’d recommend, it’s important to look at the five criteria necessary when setting goals. To do this you need to think SMART.
Specific: focus on one part of your training, for example, achieving a certain distance or speed

Measurable: ensure your goal is quantifiable. Set yourself a target of being able to run 10km, as opposed to just being able to run further than you can currently

Achievable: based on your fitness level and the time/effort you can commit, make a judgment on whether your goal is realistic

Relevant: ensure this goal fits with your longer-term aims and ambitions

Time-bound: set yourself a time limit to encourage you to keep pushing towards your goal when you’re lacking motivation

 

Many of you will already be using SMART goals in your career so it won’t be too big a leap to take these into your running. However, that’s not the only thing you need to think about when setting your goals. You should also consider layering your goals so that you have short and medium targets that feed in to your wider ambitions. For example:

 

Short-term goal

Specific: run three times a week, for the next six weeks

Measurable: frequency can be measured using a diary or app such as Strava

Achievable: consider this in relation to your other commitments and available time

Relevant: see medium and long-term goals below

Time-bound: 6 week deadline

 

Medium-term goal

Specific: run 10km in under 60 minutes, in 6 weeks time

Measurable: distance and speed can be measured using an app or GPS watch

Achievable: you can look at this in relation to how you perform in your first six weeks of training

Relevant: see medium and long-term goals below

Time-bound: 6 week deadline

 

Long-term goal

Specific: complete a half marathon in under 2 hours, in 6 months time

Measurable: distance and time can both be measured via a chip in a race environment, otherwise, you can use an app or GPS watch

Achievable: again, look at how successful you were in achieving your medium-term goal

Relevant: once achieved, this long-term goal will become a short or medium- term goal as you move on to your next ambition.

Time-bound: 6 month deadline

 

As a running coach I get involved in all levels of goal setting but it’s usually when people start considering their long-term goals that they come to me. What I usually find is that people have skipped the first two steps and have jumped straight on to the bigger ambition. However, without building towards this overall goal it is much more difficult to succeed. This is something I experienced myself in the recent RTTS. Whilst I had trained hard I failed to build shorter races in to my training schedule,  which impacted on my eventual performance and made the 100km more difficult. My advise for anyone wanting to increase their distance or achieve a PB is to think about what you need to do before you tackle that ultimate goal and to think SMART.

 

Training tips: Goal setting for runners

Training tips: Starting to run

With the weekend coming to a close many of you will be looking to Monday morning and planning to kick off a new regime of some sort, whether it’s upping your fitness, cutting back on the treats or getting more sleep. If one of your new goals is to break in those box-fresh trainers and begin running, you’re in luck as I’ve put together my top three tips to get you started.

 

Running was never really a choice for me. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere and my modes of transport were my feet or a bike. You might think that a bike would be the more sensible option but considering it had been ‘recovered’ from a hedgerow by a family friend and was far too big for me, my feet were much more reliable. Running progressed from a necessity to a pleasure when I took up cross-country at secondary school, and continued when I began road-running whilst in the forces. Nowadays running serves two purposes in my life – a career and a hobby. The mental aspect of my personal running is just as important as the fitness it provides me with. I use it to clear my head and prepare myself for whatever life throws at me. When I spend some time turning over my legs, and my head, I become a better person. And I’m not the only one. Time and time again I have clients who start running to drop some pounds or gain a PB but then end up reaping the mental rewards.

 

So, if you’re planning on hitting the road tomorrow, here are my top 3 tips to get started:

 

  1. Get out there – and do it regularly. Whilst planning your route and prepping your kit are important, what’s more beneficial is to get out there and actually run! Look at your schedule right now and block off three 30 minute sessions each week, for the next few weeks. You don’t have to run for the full 30 minutes each time, a combination of walking and running is fine to start with. Nor is the distance you cover too important – what matters at this point is that you get in to the routine of running. Once you’re feeling comfortable then you can up your speed and distance.

 

  1. Use your commute. If you’re struggling to find three blocks across the course of your week, why not kill two birds with one stone and replace your sweaty commute with an even sweatier run! If you have shower facilities at work, leave a stash of clothing there the day before and run in the next morning. If not, then replace your evening commute and take the opportunity to clear your head of your day’s stresses.

 

  1. Join a running club. There are lots of clubs out there, many of them completely free. Make sure you find one that complements your approach to running. Some will be track-based, focusing on increasing your speed and achieving your personal best. Others will take a more relaxed approach, with members who just want to run for pure enjoyment. Whichever you choose, joining a running club will cement your dedication to running. When the evenings get dark and wet and you consider hitting a box-set instead of the road, those friendships you’ve made and that sense of community will keep you motivated. If you’re based in London, why not try out the free running club that I’ve just launched in partnership with Team TomTom? It takes place on Tuesday nights in Regent’s Park and you can find the full details on the Facebook event page.

 

Getting started can sometimes feel like the hardest part of running, but once you’ve taken that first step you can begin to progress and develop to the point where it becomes enjoyable and can sometimes feel almost effortless. Let me know how you get on applying my top tips and for those more seasoned runners amongst you, if you have any other advice, please share it below.

 

 

 

Training tips: Starting to run