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The long and short of it: the secrets and benefits of ultra distance

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

You may have heard about how going slow can help you go faster, but have you considered how going long could help you get better at going short?

“I could never do an ultra” is a phrase I hear quite a lot from runners. Often followed by a something like “I know how I felt at the end of X race, and there’s no way I could have done another X miles”.

But, you know what? In nearly every case, they are fully capable of completing an ultra. And, if they did train for one in the right way, the chances are that their performances over shorter distances....even parkrun..... would improve too. Plus, they may well enjoy the training process more than they think. Especially if they are currently thrashing themselves doing loads of ‘speed’ work in pursuit of a PB, and regularly spending time on the side-lines with injury.

“How can that be?” you may be thinking? “The amount of running I’d have to do would be really tough, and I’d be too knackered to run fast!”

Well, that’s not necessarily the case.

And the reasons for that are logical when you understand why the top elite endurance athletes, those winning Olympic medals at 5,000m and 10,000m (not just the marathon), are as good as they are.

Sure there is an element of genetics but, other than that, the thing that makes the biggest difference is the many hours each week they spend plodding around at a really easy pace. Not the hour or two of so called ‘quality’ work - that’s just the icing on the cake to help them peak for their target race. And there’s nowhere to put the icing, if there was no cake in the first place.

A great example of this was observed by one of my coaching clients recently, while out in a training camp in Kenya. Setting out on a morning run with a bunch of elites capable of 2:10 marathons (and expecting to be dropped after half a mile), he found himself at the front of the group. Because they were content trotting along at 10-minute mile pace; literally half their ‘race’ pace.

Their fast running is a very small percentage of their overall regime, but when they do did hit the track for a ‘session’, BOOM….you can hardly see them for dust.

Anyway…. how does this relate to those “I could never do an ultra” folks?

Well, let me try and explain.

There has been quite a lot floating around the running press in recent times about how running slow can help you run faster. This is true, as many that I coach know, but – and this is quite a significant BUT – just slowing down and running for an hour 3 times a week won’t turn you into the next Mo Farah or Paula Radcliffe.

What will make a big difference is being on your feet at an aerobic (fully conversational) intensity (A) more often and (B) for more time accumulatively during a week.

For a typical recreational runner: if you can build up to the point where you’re training six times a week and accumulating 8-9 hours on your feet, then you’ll almost certainly be capable of running faster than before AND be capable of completing an ultra.

You may think that running 8-9 hours per week is beyond you. Sure, if you simply haven’t got the time because of work, family life, etc., this might be true. But, if you’re basing it on how tired you feel at the end of your training runs (or the aforementioned X race), and how sore you feel afterwards, it’s almost certainly not true. If that’s the case, it’s probably because of the way you’re training…. most likely that you’re going too fast and/or not training often enough. You may have heard the saying “if running hurts, do more”. This is good advice, but not if you just do more of the same and expect different results… that’s the definition of insanity.

Ask your self: “could I walk for an hour most days and a bit longer at the weekend without being completely destroyed?” Well, if you could… and most people could….then it’s really a question of (i) how you structure your training, and (i) spending time gradually converting ‘most’ of that walking to running.

I say ‘most’ rather than ‘all’ because walking is a completely valid form of training. In fact, a very important form of training if you’re relatively new to running and/or have an underdeveloped aerobic base; which many have.

Plus, for the vast majority taking part in ultras, walking is part of the game, especially hilly ones.

So…. this is the crux of it: it needs a change of mind-set and it may need you to put your ego away in a locked cupboard for a while. Rather than going out for a run and walking when you really have to, go out for a walk and only run when you really can without busting a gut.

This is especially important on your long runs.

Running at a moderate pace (think heart rate zone 3) for more than 2.5 to 3 hours is just going to tire you out (even if you’re an elite), prolong your recovery and make it hard to run again the next day. So it’s actually counter-productive to the training process.

BUT, if you go out with the aim of keeping the intensity right down - which may mean that a big proportion from the outset of the session is walking - then you’ll be able to be out for a longer time without completely exhausting yourself. And in the process contribute more to your aerobic fitness.

Here’s another thing too: don’t find a flat route so that you can run more and make it look better on Strava. Go off-road and find a hilly route that makes you WALK more. Because then, as well as building that aerobic fitness, those hills will improve your strength at the same time.

Take this approach and your training weeks for a while may look something like this:

Relaxed jogging for an hour or so a few times during the week, with perhaps a little fartlek or a handful of short sprints during one of the sessions – just to remind your body that it can run faster.

Then, getting out into the countryside at the weekend with your friends, and spending a few hours hiking in the hills, enjoying the scenery and maybe even stopping for a drink and bar snack along the way. And just jogging the easy bits where you feel able.

Does that appeal to you? If so, you could already be well on your way to that ultra…. and that parkrun PB!

Still not convinced?

Well let’s talk a bit about the science behind it and go back to those elite runners. Because what you’ll actually be doing is emulating the correct bits of what those elite runners do. Not the sexy, high intensity, bits they can only cope with because of the base fitness they’ve built. But the bits that will benefit you most and cause you less injuries.

Back in the 1960’s the legendary Arthur Lydiard developed principles that remain the foundation of nearly all elite endurance runners’ training methods. And in the ‘80s, Phil Maffetone’s work complemented these with added emphasis on the link to nutrition; something that is especially important in a modern junk food world.

At the heart of both of their work is the fact that a big aerobic base is far and away the most important asset for an endurance runner. In simple terms, the runner should endeavour to build the biggest aerobic ‘engine’ so they can to become ‘an aerobic beast’. This is achieved through progressively more ‘time on feet’ at a low enough intensity to keep recovery cycles short, and encourage the body to be fuel efficient, i.e. burning a good proportion of fat for fuel.

The physiology behind this is: the more you’re on your feet moving your body, the denser the network of capillaries in your muscles will become, and the more mitochondria you’ll develop to mix the oxygen you’re breathing with the fuel you’ve eaten to create energy.

Simply put, for the same effort your heart will be able to pump more oxygenated blood to your muscles to enable them to do more work. And, the used (deoxygenated) blood will return to your heart quicker ready to be recycled; enabling you to recover faster.

According to Lydiard and Maffetone, only when there is a good aerobic base as a foundation should the focus move to more speed and bringing the anaerobic (lactate) energy system into play more.

If you cut to the chase and go for speed from the outset, all you’ll be doing is revving a small engine.

Yes, the stimulation to your lactate energy system might improve your speed for a few weeks but the improvement will soon plateau. Plus, there’s a high likelihood of something going twang along the way. This is because the other thing you won’t have gained from skipping aerobic base building, is the robustness of your muscles, tendons and bones (your muscular-skeletal system) from all that additional time on your feet using them.

In any case, if you’re training for an ultra, there actually very little need to do speed work at all. Because the fastest way to run an ultra is to run it slowly and keep moving consistently.

So less speed work means you can keep the focus on doing more of those easy, low intensity, miles; walking where you need to and continuing to upgrade that engine size. Over a few months your 1 litre mini hatchback will become a 3 litre diesel cruising down the motorway at low revs.

Get this too: those that take time to really focus on their aerobic base, will usually find their speed at lower intensity creeping up, so they’re running around having a chat at a pace that was previously eyeballs out. An extreme example of this is a guy in my coaching group. In around 6 months he improved from 12:45 per mile to under 8 mins per mile at the same low heart rate, on zero speed work. The training not only enabled him to move up in distance to 50k’s and 50-milers, his times at half marathon and below pace have tumbled too.

“Do I have to do an ultra to get these gains?” is something you may now be asking yourself.

No, of course not. At the end of the day it’s personal choice.

BUT, wouldn’t booking yourself into an event much longer than you’ve done before, and picking one in a spectacular location, give you the incentive you need.

You’d be able to train differently, not - as I hope you’ve taken from the words above – harder. And wouldn’t it be great to achieve something that you thought was beyond you!

Then, once you’ve revelled in the glory for a while, you can leverage off that elite level aerobic base you’ve built while training for that ultra, do a bit of speed work, and go smash that parkrun PB (or 10k, half marathon or marathon).

“Okay, okay, you’ve convinced me”, I hope you’re now thinking. “Where can I find a great ultra to sign up to?”

Well…… I’ve heard there some guys are put on a fabulous event in the Peak District, based out of Castleton. And they can give you bags of support and training advice along the way too ;-)

So, what are you waiting for?

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