Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ultramarathon Training: Train like a marathoner for peak performance

Over the past decade the sport of ultra running has grown exponentially and with its growth the level of competition at the front of the pack has risen proportionally. With its growth in participants, media coverage, and prize purses, the sport of ultra running has seen a lot races won by serious athletes who have road marathon times in the 2:20 to 2:30 range.

The ultra community however still engages in behaviors which are completely counter-productive in relation to gaining speed  beyond marathon distance, (and any distance for that matter!). Ultra runners still wear the number of races they partake in each year as a badge of honor even though over-racing is detrimental to performance capabilities. Along with racing too much, the lack of speedwork we do in ultra running is appaling. Speedwork is the key in gaining speed at even the one hundred mile distance. Can anyone tell me the name of an elite marathoner who races 6-12 marathoners per year who has peak performances in all of his or her races? No, because racing is counter-productive to training. To perform at peak levels, a runner must taper and decrease mileage, and allow recovery post race for several weeks which also results in decreased training abilities. Peak performances can only happen every few months. The inconsisties in training which result as a product of racing do not allow the adequate training routine needed to get stronger and faster. If someone thinks they don't need recovery after a race,  I assume they don't know it feels like to race at maximal capacity.

It may surprise most ultra runners to know that to prepare for even the hundred mile distance one must still train as if they were preparing for a marathon PR. Ultra running is an endurance sport, and as such we rely our lactate threshold to govern which pace we can manage for any given distance. Whether its a marathon or a one hundred mile ultra, we must build our aerobic engines to its maximum potential. Building our engines requires speedwork and tempo runs.

The human body for all intensive purposes has two motors which drive it; the aerobic sytem and the anaerobic system. The aerobic system fuels exercise considered easy to moderate and the anaerobic system fuels activities considered hard and beyond. Aerobic means "with oxygen" and anaerobic means "without oxygen". The aerobic system runs off of fat and oxygen, and the anaerobic system runs off of stored carbohydrates in the body.  These stored carbs are called glycogen. The body is very efficient at burning fat and oxygen for fuel. The aerobic system is the preferred energy system of our bodies. Fat comes from storage in the body and oxygen is delivered from the lungs as we breath. When the body runs out of oxygen because the lungs are taking in all of the oxygen they are capable of at increases efforts, the body supplements with glycogen and we go anaerobic.

Even the slimmest runner and cyclist has enough fat to fuel themselves for days and even weeks, but those same bodies can only store about 2000 calories worth of glycogen. This 2000 calorie supply is enough to fuel roughly two hours of intense exercise. Coincidentally, the worlds best marathoners finish the 26.2 mile distance in just over 2 hours... just enough time to make that final kick a real challenge when their bodies run out of their high octance fuel source, glycogen.

Elite marathoners train their bodies to burn fat and oxygen for fuel by raising the point at which their bodies switch from aerobic to anaerobic. This is called the lactate threshold.

For an ultra runner the advantage of raising their lactate threshold comes in the ability to run at higher paces and intensities using fat and oxygen primarily since the human body can only store a small amount of glycogen. Ultra runners are racing for an entire day, and in doing so, they must race below their lactate threshold as the events last from several hours to several days, clearly these requirements burn through more than 2000 calories worth of glycogen! Ultra runners must spare as much glycogen as possible while racing to avoid the dreaded "bonk" or "hitting the wall".

Here is an example to illustrate:

        Imagine a runner attempting his first 50 mile race. Let's call him, "Quadzilla". During Quadzilla's first ultra his lactate threshold was 75% of maximum heart rate. Even with perfect nutrition, getting in gels every half hour to provide the glycogen his body craved, he was only able to run the race at 60% of his max heart rate since his threshold was 75% of max. Quadzilla is happy to finish but he understands sports physiology and vows to start doing speedwork and raise his threshold. Quadzilla doesn't buy into the poor logic ultra runners dish out all the time. He doesn't "run on tired legs" and he avoids "back to back long runs". Marathons are not his speedwork. Over the year he raises his lactate threshold ten percentage points to 85% of max. He shaves nearly an hour off his 50 mile time since he is able to maintain a higher power output as a result. Nice job Quadzilla!

Speedwork such as mile repeats are the tools with which to increase your lactate threshold. Along with logging long quality miles the balancing act can be hard, but there must be a combination of all of these aspects to reach your maximum potential. Speedwork is very hard on the body. While running at max intensity the body recruits the endocrine system to help bump up hormone production to push hard during intervals. More than approximately 8 weeks of dedicated speedwork and the endocrine system fatigues and runners can become stale. Yet another reason that peak performances can only happen a few times every year. Recovery can be pro-active by planning it, or retroactive by waiting until your body says, "No More!" and you end up sick or injured.

Of course there are many aspects to training which provide the end result, lactate threshold improvement is only one piece of the pie. Nutrition is paramount as well. Low carb runners are doing themselves an injustice by not allowing their bodies to receive the fuel it craves for these high intensity workouts. To reach peak intensities during workouts the body uses glycogen, and as you know, glycogen comes in the form of carbs. It sound catchy to say, "I'm teaching my body to burn fat", but in reality a runner just can't hit the speeds they could hit with a full fuel tank of glycogen. Try to do speed work while being carb depleted and notice an inability of the heart rate to elevate. Look to clinical science before anecdotal conjecture. Low carb diets and high intensity training do not go hand in hand. An intake ratio of 65% to 70% carbs should be maintaned during the two month period in which speedwork is the focus. Your body will become plenty efficient at burning fat during your long runs which you will now have the energy to complete due to your increased focus on diet.

Good luck in training for your next ultra. Keep the information stream flowing! Most of us runners could benefit from taking an hour off from running each week and sticking our nose in a book! Be critical of articles, research their claims! Just because a runner trains in a certain way, doesn't mean that's the best way. I'm sure there are low carb runners who are fast, and I'm sure some people blow off speedwork, but are they really living up to their potential? What about a mid-packer who has a 95% lactacte threshold and has trained his body flawlessly, he just wasn't gifted with elite physiology. Someones placement in a race is not indicative neccesarily of how well they have tuned their body. A podium finisher could actually be capable of better and the mid-pack runner could be at the top of his game. It's all about the numbers. What is YOUR lactate threshold?
Comment call! Post questions and comments below!

Best of luck in training!


  1. Last time I did a test, my run LT was 164.

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  3. Troy, interesting line of thinking. I had my lactate threshold tested in the spring and found that it is 166 (max HR is 194) or 85%. I plan to use this as a metric to compare with in the future to see how my training impacts my LT. What's yours?

  4. Awesome. Yes, while doing speedwork glycogen fuels those workouts, I also fuel with a low carb higher fat diet throughout the year several times also to utilize fat stores more efficiently too. Last time I checked, my threshold was around 175 and max hr was 186, close to about 95% of max HR I was happy!

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