How long should my long run be?

This is a question many first time ultra runners ask… For events up to marathon distance, the process is pretty simple. You probably ran for 18-20 miles as your longest run, knowing that would be enough to see you through to 26 (with a bit of suffering). But now, you’re running 50 miles, so how long should the long run be? 35? 40? 45?

You won’t be running…

Ok, so here’s the first thing to understand. With the right marathon training, most people can run the full 26 miles on good terrain. Once you go beyond 26 miles, that’s not the case. You can’t simply apply the same rules and increase the distance of your long training run to make it 40 miles. Most people find 18-20 is hard enough, so clearly running 40 miles on Sunday is not the best idea.

You need to accept that ‘ultra running’ in many cases is not ‘running’. There will be a lot of walking or ‘trekking’ (trekking definitely sounds so much better). In the Lakeland 50, we’d estimate that the average competitor will probably walk 60% of the course or more. Even the race winner will walk the tougher climbs. Once you’ve got your head round that fact, you can move away from the ‘marathon mentality’ of running the whole thing both in training and in racing.

When we give this fact to runners, most of them reel in horror… WALK!!!??? WHAT!!!??? You may think “yeah, some people might walk 60% of the route, but not me… I’m a runner” No, trust us, we’re talking about you, so come to terms with it.

Ok, so now you understand and ‘expect’ that, you can alter your training to match it. It’s REALLY important that you ‘expect’ it… because if you turn up on race weekend without a recce of the course and think you’re going to run the whole thing, you’ll be in for a shock. What’s more, in terms of ‘psychology’, that’s not something you want to find out and have to ‘get your head round’ on race day.

If you expect it, then it’s not a shock when it happens. If you don’t expect it… it’ll be a big shock, which won’t help your positivity levels when you need them the most.

Things to know for training…

  1. Ultra is about ‘resilience’, both physical and mental. It’s not about how fast you can go for 5k, it’s whether you’re ‘still going’ at 50k.
  2. Obviously you’ll need to do longer sessions as part of your training. These are better done based on hours, over hilly terrain, with 50-60% of it walking. Consider building up to 8-10 hour ‘treks’ where you walk all the uphills, then jog / walk some of the flats and downhills. There is a lot to be said for simply going out and hiking for hours upon end, because you’ll be doing a lot of that on race day.
  3. Building that longer workout helps with both psychological and physical ‘resilience’. In terms of psychology, you simply need to be accustomed to being out there for a long time rather than thinking “how much longer is this going to take!!” when you’ve only been going for 2 hours. Psychologists refer to it as ‘familiarisation’.
  4. In terms of your physical resilience, it probably won’t be your aerobic fitness which will limit your progress in the latter stages, it’ll be your aching knee, seized glute muscle or stiff lower back, because you’ve been on your feet for 14 hours or more. The only way to solve this is by doing ‘time of feet’ and conditioning your body.
  5. Do your longer sessions with your pack fully loaded. The addition of extra weight on race day that you are not accustomed to will contribute greatly to that sore knee and stiff lower back. You’ll also find out if it rubs and many people ‘tape their backs’ to avoid chaffing.
  6. Don’t worry about the uphills, but do worry about downhills. The eccentric muscle contractions caused by downhill running cause severe muscle damage. You need to accumulate descent prior to race day to ‘bullet proof’ your legs.
  7. Consider using poles, but do this well before the event weekend. The benefits of using them for uphills and significant and they can also help on downhill sections.

You need to be both mentally and physically prepared to be on your feet for 10-20 hours, with at least 60% of that time spent walking. You’ll be carrying a laden pack and there’ll be lots of uphills and downhills. Shorter run workouts during the week, will maintain a good level of aerobic fitness, but at the weekend, switch the idea of a long run for a ‘trekking session’ which matches as best possible, the demands of race day.

It’s 13 weeks until you become a legend. Make them count.

Montane Lakeland Team

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