As the calendar flips to yet another year, runners everywhere begin to set their goals for the New Year. For many, setting personal records and getting healthy are at the top of their New Year's resolution list. However, there are a brave few who look to tackle new adventures and challenges. Most notably, and perhaps most impressively, is running an ultramarathon.
Preparing your body to handle the stress of racing and training for an ultra is a unique challenge. The distances are unlike marathons, and the challenges of training countless miles can deter even the most dedicated runner. This article outlines the step-by-step preparations you can take to get your body ready to tackle an ultra.
Step 1: Get Your Muscles, Tendons and Ligaments Ready
To successfully train for an ultra, it is essential that you have a consistent block of healthy training. If you're injured and can't put in the training, I can almost guarantee the race won't go well. You can't fake your way through an ultra race.
One of the main reasons runners get hurt is they attempt to increase their training volume and running speeds at a rate that their body is not ready to handle. Initial improvements in aerobic conditioning are often biochemical in nature and thus can happen somewhat rapidly, whereas changes to the physical structure of muscle, ligaments, tendons and bones are a far more time-consuming process. A good example of this development is how you may be able to head out the door and hammer out a long run or a tempo run at 8-minute-per-mile pace (or whatever your tempo pace is), but your hips might not be strong enough to handle the stress of the pace or the length of the run and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed the next day.
To train for an ultra race that could be two or three times the distance of a marathon, you're going to need to increase your training volume. As such, it is critical that you take the time to prepare your structural system (muscles, tendons and ligaments) to handle the increased demands of training.
To address the structural system, you should start with a running-specific strength routine that includes lots of core work (core refers to hips, glutes, lower back and abdominals) so you can isolate and strengthen any weak areas. Research has shown that hip and core strength, or lack thereof, strongly correlates with running injuries. By strengthening the core, you can develop the foundational strength in your running muscles to support your increased training demands.
Start the New Year with four to six weeks of structural work. After which you'll have developed the necessary strength to safely increase your mileage and incorporate the long runs necessary to train for the ultra distance. During this period, you should maintain the same training load and intensity you usually perform. Of course, if you have the time, you should continue with running-specific strength training after this initial four to six weeks.