When runners first come to you, their goals might be pretty modest—stop being so sedentary, finish a 5K, maybe enter their first half marathon. That’s great for the general population, but you might sometimes have a client who wants to progress all the way up to racing ultramarathons, which presents a whole different set of challenges. In this piece, we’ll suggest some ways to get such an athlete’s body ready for the rigors of ultras, without you reducing them to dust in the process.
One of the big challenges when an athlete is moving up to ultra distances is how they’ll handle the extra training volume. How can you push your clients just hard and long enough without tipping them over the edge into overtraining and burnout? To get some expert insight on this matter, I reached out to Stef Flippin, who won the 2021 USATF 100-mile national championships and the 2020 Tunnel Hill 100 and coaches a select group of her fellow ultrarunners (thanks to Mary Johnson from Lift Run Perform for the kind introduction).
“It’s really important to be sure the athlete has a strong aerobic base,” Flippin said. “While total mileage/time on feet can look different for everyone, I usually want to see the athlete comfortably running 60 to 70 minutes a day without overt fatigue or nagging soreness before adding in doubles. Doubles (or double workout days) – and in some rare instances, triples – are a great way to increase volume for runners while toeing the risk/benefit line of keeping the runner healthy. Before I increase an athlete’s volume, and especially prior to adding in doubles, I always have a discussion with them about their sleep, nutrition, and recovery habits. That’s the true base of ultra running and no amount of doubles will be beneficial unless the athlete is building in the time to recover properly.”
It’s likely that you have at least a couple of older and/or injury-prone clients in your training group. So how can you prepare them for the rigors of ultra racing without pushing them too hard? “I’ve found great success with my more injury-prone and masters ultrarunners by programming their training in 9-10 day ‘weeks,’” Flippin said. “Shooting for a specific time on foot can be much more beneficial for me and my ultra athletes, even simply from a psychological standpoint, so that the athlete doesn’t get into a constant mileage-chasing pattern. It’s also extremely helpful for more technical mountain races, as it’s not uncommon to be clocking 15 to 20-minute miles during those races. A coach can help toggle/scale back the intensity of any speed workouts so that the body isn’t trying to adapt to multiple stimuli at once, increasing the risk for injury.”
Increasing Load Tolerance of Supporting Tissues
Ask the typical client what they’re working on when they’re training and most will say, “Muscles.” They’re not wrong, but this neglects the fact that they’re also calling upon ligaments, tendons, bones, fascia, the extracellular matrix (ECM) and other supporting structures. I’m not a PT, but I have learned from some pretty smart people who are, including Tim DiFrancesco from TD Athletes Edge and Kelly Starrett from The Ready State. I hit DiFrancesco up to get his thoughts on how your wannabe ultrarunners can equip their musculoskeletal systems to handle the demands of very long-distance races.
“A lot of runners are reluctant to do resistance training because they’re worried that it will bulk them up, make them less mobile, or overtax their legs,” DiFrancesco said. “But the loads they subject themselves to while running aren’t sufficient to prompt adaptations in either connective tissues or bones, so they do need to complement what they’re doing on the roads or trails with some strength work. And unless they start training like powerlifters and neglect to do any mobility exercises, any changes in body composition and movement quality will almost certainly be positive.”
He went on to suggest that your ultrarunners do one to three gym sessions a week that combine resistance work plyometrics (aka jumping training) to increase joint-protecting collagen production and prompt an elevation in stress fracture-preventing bone density. The strength and power training component of such workouts should include bodyweight exercises that emphasize unilateral, single-leg stability and use tools like the TRX Suspension Trainer, kettlebells, and dumbbells. Doing so can help them increase loading sufficiently to prompt beneficial changes in your athletes’ ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissues. With consistency, this will make such structures durable enough to handle the accumulated loads that ultras will place upon them.
Make Mobility a Priority
Gray Cook, the creator of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and Fundamental Capacity Screen (FCS), once said that for every ounce of strength one of your athletes add, they also need to add length. What he means is that as your clients continue building up to ultra distances, they need to avoid layering strength on top of movement dysfunction. This is why an increasing number of your coaching peers use an assessment like the FMS or FCS to identify errors in fundamental movement patterns. As the old saying goes, you can only improve what you can measure.
Once you’ve evaluated where each runner is from this perspective and highlighted any red flags, you can start to help them make the necessary corrections. For example, perhaps they’re missing hip extension on one side and ankle flexion on the other due to previous injuries and the compensations they’ve been making since. Even if someone gets a green light from the FMS or a similar assessment, this doesn’t mean that you should let them off the hook with their positioning or soft tissue work.
Cultivating a daily mobility practice will enable them to tackle any recurring issues before they start increasing the risk of injury, and will do more to resolve acute or chronic pain than NSAIDs ever could. If any of your athletes are struggling with plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, “runner’s knee,” or any other persistent issue, addressing the tissues above and below the site of pain or restriction will start to feed some slack into the system to alleviate the problem, and maybe clear it up once and for all.
If a client doesn’t know where to start, suggest that they begin by tackling those spots that always give them trouble. Then they could progress to mobilizing the major muscle groups and joints that they’ve taxed while running or cross-training. Or they can deploy a “head to toe” approach whereby they tackle the neck, shoulders, and upper back on the first day of the week and then progress down the body until they end up at their ankles and feet a few days later. What about duration? Starrett suggests a minimum of 10 minutes a day, every day. If your athletes get busy, they can still fit in a little mobility work by changing positions at their work desk, putting a lacrosse ball under their hamstrings when they sit down to dinner, or smashing their calves during family movie night.
These strategies won’t rule out the chance of injury as you experiment with the volume, density, and intensity of your runners’ ultra training. But they will make them more resilient, mobile, and durable over the long haul, putting them in a better position to cross the finish line and reach their time goals in longer races.