From Zero To Ultra in 12 Months: How I Did It
In your fitness life, one of the greatest challenges you can undertake is to run an ultra marathon. While the thought of running a marathon (26.2 miles/42.2 kilometers) is daunting enough for most, signing up to do an ultra marathon (anything beyond 26.2 miles and normally up to 100 miles (160 kilometers)) is a truly fearful experience.
But, as I have discovered over the past twelve months, everyone has the capacity to run an ultra marathon. In this article, I am going to share eight key principles you need to incorporate when developing a training program to run long.
Proof Is in the Pudding: My Experience
I used this approach to go from zero running to successfully completing a fifty-mile (82-kilometer) ultra marathon across Australia’s highest mountain range within a twelve-month period. I am no super athlete, nor am I am a great runner. I am in the master’s athlete age category and I’m of above-average fitness (at best). Prior to adopting this approach, I could not run for more than twenty minutes without pain.
Me on a fifty-mile ultra marathon across Australia’s highest mountain range
1. Build Volume Patiently and Steadily Progress
If you are starting from zero or a minimal running base, it is essential you increase your running volume in a patient and progressive way. Failure to do so is a surefire path to soft-tissue injuries (e.g. plantar fasciitis, calf adhesions/trigger points, Achilles tendonitis). This is particularly true for anyone over the age of 35.
To get started, I recommend the Breaking Muscle article and program designed by Australian RKC coach and Ironman athlete Andrew Read. It is one of the best I have seen. Your initial goal will be to progress to running continuously for sixty minutes, three times per week, without injury. Once achieved, you then progressively build the duration of one long run, while incorporating some higher intensity running (see below).
2. Run 3 to 4 Times per Week
For aging athletes or anyone starting running with no base, I recommend only running three to four times per week. This means you will run every second or third day, while avoiding running on back-to-back days.
"If you are starting from zero or a minimal running base, it is essential you increase your running volume in a patient and progressive way."
Three or four runs will allow for building of sufficient training volume, while still allowing enough time in between for soft-tissue recovery. It also allows for completion of other key training components including training for strength and movement/mobility issues.
3. Apply the 80/20 Rule to Your Run Training
Unless you are a professional athlete, the real-life commitments of work and family will limit your available training time. With that in mind, maximize your fitness by applying the 80/20 rule to the time you do have: Complete 80% of your training at low intensity, with the other 20% at high intensity.
In terms of setting intensity, you can’t go past using heart rate zones. I’d recommend completing a thirty-minute lactate threshold run test and then using those results to set your heart rate zones. Aim to spend 80% of your training in Zone 2 and 20% in Zone 4 or higher.
If you want to get into the nitty-gritty, read this piece by endurance coach Ben Greenfield. If you apply this principle and run four times per week, your training week should eventually look something like this:
- 1 Long Run (60-120 minutes) at a low intensity
- 2 runs up to 60 minutes at a low intensity
- 1 interval/tempo run at high intensity (30-60minutes)
RELATED: How to Reach Freak Level Fitness
4. Lower-Body Strength Training 2 to 3 Times per Week
Strength training is a critical, yet often-overlooked aspect of any runner’s training program. Strength training has effective transfer to running, leading to noticeable improvements in running economy and lactate threshold. It is also incredibly helpful in improving and restoring movement, as well as buffering the negative hormonal beat-down that comes from running long all the time. It will also improve your muscular recovery from tough fast runs or sessions incorporating a lot of eccentric work (e.g. stairs, down-hills).
"Strength training has effective transfer to running, leading to noticeable improvements in running economy and lactate threshold."
5. Focus on Quality Time, Not on Weekly Distance
One of the biggest traps you can fall into when preparing for a long distance event is focusing on weekly distance. While being able to run a lot of distance does help a lot in terms of building a massive aerobic engine, unless you’re a professional athlete with unlimited time to train, this approach simply is not realistic and will dramatically increases your likelihood of getting injured.
It’s better to run less, focus on quality, and complement your running by improving your movement quality and whole-body strength.
6. Address Mobility, Soft-Tissue, and Movement Daily
Thanks to genius of Kelly Starrett and his daily Mobility WOD, more and more athletes are learning the benefits of addressing their tissue quality and movement restrictions. I cannot recommend enough taking ten to fifteen minutes daily to work on your problem areas.
RELATED: "Ready to Run" (Book Review)
For most runners, I’d recommend the focus be on the joints and soft-tissue areas of the ankles, hips, and thoracic region. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend Kelly’s latest book Ready To Run. For me, I have had a lot of problems with calf knots and adhesions. It took me a good three to four months of daily work to fix this. The beauty of your fascial system is it’s ability to remodel, but it requires a daily time investment.
Me during the A21 Ultra marathon adventure across Australia's Snowy Mountains
7. Train Consistently: Don’t Leave Your Best Run in Training
From my experience, the key to training success is being consistent. Your end result on game day is never the product of one training session where you set a personal best or absolutely smashed yourself. Your game day result is the sum of the consistent, patient efforts over the days, weeks, and months in the lead-up. In contrast, smashing a session to set a personal record nearly always ends up leaving you sore for days and being forced to skip other sessions.
8. Be Realistic: Give Yourself Time to Progress
Running long requires steadily building volume. Along with consistent training, give yourself a realistic amount of time to progress. If you attempt to build volume too quickly, you increase your chances of soft-tissue injury.
"Running long requires steadily building volume. Along with consistent training, give yourself a realistic amount of time to progress."
Similarly, if you try to crash-train for eight to twelve weeks with no previous running base, then you are likely to leave yourself woefully unprepared. In my situation, it took twelve months to build from zero running volume to running an 82-kilometer ultra successfully and safely. Could I have done it in less time? Quite possibly, but the risk of injury would have been much greater.
As I have learned, everyone has the capacity to run long. Follow these principles - and add in a healthy dose of patience, discipline, and focus - and I guarantee you can successfully go from zero to ultra within twelve months.