I asked this question this time last year just before the Australia Day Ultra ( http://australiadayultra.com ) . A year later I can report I ran a good first 100k ultra and finished just over 8 hours with a constant pace throughout. It seems my ‘no tapering for an ultra’ strategy worked. This year I’ve ran 118k / 130k / 154k and 100k this week , since the 6 inch ultra in late December. The 100k this week was my ‘taper’ week before the final week where I’ll probably run 10k a day similar to last year. Is this a guarantee of success come the race ? In an Ultra unfortunately not. For any race, upto and including the marathon, I can probably predict my finishing time to within 1-2 minutes, with an ultra there are just too many variables to be really confident of a predicted finishing time.
In a marathon it’s all over in less than 3 hours so the time period for things to go wrong is small, assuming you have experience at the distance of course. I’m talking personally here and with 43 marathon finishes to me it is a fast long run, one I have completed many times. With this experience comes confidence, confidence to go out at a pace I know I can maintain and confidence to know that at 32k when most people are worried about ‘hitting the wall’ I mentally switch over to finish mode. There have been no unpleasant marathon experiences since 2014 when I was defending my Bunbury title and mentally fell apart at 15k. I learned from that mistake and its all been good since. (Note. the distance still hurts but ‘been good since’ really means as good as any marathon can be. Sorry people but if you race marathons you are gong to spend serious time in the pain box, there is no sugar coating this.)
An Ultra though does not give you the benefit of confidence because of all the variables that come into play. Last year was a great year for me and it all fell into place beautifully. I even managed to grab a second place finish when two runners in-front of me dropped out, the lead runner (who shall remain nameless) even pulled a hammy while going for an unscheduled call of nature, how lucky is that ? (for me of course , not the lead runner.) My nutrition and hydration strategy was spot on, again more luck than judgement, and the conditions were perfect. Because it was my first time I wasn’t under any real pressure (bar the video shot by Rob where I mentioned a 8hr 30min target time.) and truth be told actually enjoyed the whole experience bar lap 6 and 7 (it’s a 8 lap 12.5k course) Who is going to enjoy laps 6 and 7 though, this is when you are settled in the corner of the pain box in the foetal position asking yourself some serious questions? (the joy of running an ultra?) Lap 8 is bearable because it is the last one and every step you take you know you won’t repeat it, it’s one step closer to finishing rather than starting a new lap.
So in a few days I come out of my retirement (I retired as soon as I finished last year !) and take on the ADU again. Can I run a sub 8 hour 100k and grab an AURU age group record ? We’ll have a good crack but with so many variables you can never tell and the Piper may come a-calling this year and ask for payment. If he does , that’s cool, it’ll give me something to blog about when I eventually crawl over the line, after my pancakes, bacon and maple syrup of course, somethings will be constant in a world of variables.
Do you taper for an ultra ?
Being mainly a marathon runner I’m not as confident or sure of the taper period for an ultra. For the 6 inch ultra marathon in December last year I experimented by not tapering nearly as much as I would for a marathon. On the week of the event I actually ran twice a day Monday through Thursday and only had 48 hours rest before the race. Admittedly all runs on race week were slow and easy but I still managed over 80km’s pre-race. On the day I felt great and ran a good race for a 7th place finish but more importantly I was 4th quickest over the second half of the race. I actually ran my first negative split for an ultra. The week before the ultra I had ran 140k so there really wasn’t a taper period to talk off. ( http://www.6inchtrailmarathon.com )
Could this work for a marathon ? I don’t think so. The ultra is normally ran at a more subdued pace and although longer I feel not as testing as ‘racing’ a marathon. (Well ultras less than 100k, when you get above 100k I’m sure it becomes a tad more testing that a marathon. Once I run further than 100k I’ll confirm?) In an ultra the race pace normally decreases brings your overall cardio fitness in to play more than resting the legs a few weeks before. If you haven’t got the fitness a two week taper will not help, you’ll still be underdone. With a marathon, as the distance is less, you normally have the fitness required to finish the event, the tapering helps more by letting tired muscles recovery.
Also I feel running a good ultra is more dependant on the nutrition and hydration plan, get this right will benefit you so much more than a taper period. Again get this plan wrong and the taper will not save you. In an ultra any mistakes will be paid for, that is a certainty. In an ultra there is no where to hide.
Researching tapering and ultras on the web and there are stories advocating no tapering and setting PB’s while others advocate a 3 week steep taper and lean more towards relaxing rather than stressing about the event. All have their pro’s and con’s and as with all things running there’s no one shoe fits all. It really depends on the runner and also their experience and fitness. The more experienced runner with a good foundation of distance training under their belt will be more likely to be able to go into an event without tapering. They will not need the confidence boost that comes from a good taper as much as someone with less experience. Remember a good taper will also aid confidence and going into any race this is important, anything that helps put you in a positive mindset is welcome and needs to be embraced,
Of course if you have any niggling injuries an enforced taper may be called for. When this happens there is nothing you can do about it, just sit back and smell the roses concentrating on things you can influence like carboloading. Now carboloading, that is a whole new post and one I shall tackle next. Until then enjoy this article below by Ian Torrence which highlights ‘peaking’ rather than tapering as a benefit, pre-ultra. Ian is part of the Greg McMillan stable of writers so has a wealth of knowledge and experience to call upon. (Please note I do not advocate the Joe Kulak method of peaking described below but as you can see in the photo below my friend Jon is convinced it works… ?)
The final weeks before an event are the toughest to get right. The common notion that all hard work must cease and inactivity must ensue is incorrect. It’s also foolhardy to continue amassing mileage and tough workouts as race day nears in hopes of improving fitness. Depending on your approach to this all-important time period, you may be left feeling lethargic or simply exhausted. A runner with the proper peak will feel rejuvenated and ready to go on race day.
Greg McMillan, my mentor, has devised a set of rules to live by as race day approaches. Greg explains, “By studying peak performance research – both physiological as well as psychological – as opposed to just the tapering research, I’ve been able to dial in how to truly peak on race day. It works for all athletes no matter where you find yourself in the pack come race day.” By placing Greg’s simple and effective system into context, let’s get you prepared for your next ultra.
1. Do not drop running volume drastically
Though there are some that prefer three weeks to peak, two weeks seems to be the most popular choice. During the first week of a peak, drop the length of each run by 10 to 20 minutes. The week before your event, drop volume by 20 to 30 minutes per run. I recommend that ultrarunners limit their last long run(s), done a week before the key event, to 90 easy minutes (regardless of the distance of the event). This is enough to give you that long run feeling, but short enough that muscle recovery and glycogen-storage continue. Light, non-impact cross training can be done in lieu of runs, but only if you are used to those forms of exercise.
2. Keep the routine
Run, eat, sleep, work, and socialize when you do normally. Your body and mind have achieved stasis over the past few months of training. Keep them both happy and the keel even. Now is not the time to experiment with new workouts, forms of exercise, foods, and social events. Use the extra time not spent running for sleeping and sticking to “safe” hobbies.
3. Keep the intensity and build confidence
Before the 2007 JFK 50 Mile, I had an exchange with fellow competitor Andy Mason. Nine days before the race, he completed a round of very quick mile repeats on the track; his last quality workout before the race. I knew he was fit and feeling confident. That year, Andy finished in the top ten.
Though most ultrarunners do not need to perform a tough round of mile repeats before their next race, they might consider doing some sort of confidence-building workout 10 days to two weeks out from their event. This workout, however, should be in tune with recent training. Running a 30-mile training run or time trialing up and down Hope Pass (like the author) a few days before a race is neither smart nor beneficial. A moderate length workout that you’re familiar with, that is aerobically challenging, allows for adequate recovery before race day, and demonstrates your fitness should be the order of the day. If you don’t routinely perform hard hill, stamina-building, fartlek, or fast finish workouts then this is not the time to start. Maintain your current training and follow the guidelines for reduction in mileage as mentioned above.
Now is also the time to reflect on all of the training you’ve done thus far. Remember that you’ve done the work necessary to get you to the finish line.
4. Stick to the original race plan and have fun
No one starts a race without a goal. Whether it be to keep your Grand Slam hopes alive, finish your first ultra, or win the event outright, don’t lose sight of why you’re out there. Be deliberate in your actions and calculate each move you make on the race course. Run your own race and enjoy the time you’re having on the trail or road. Greg McMillan sums this up perfectly, “Let’s face it. Most of us aren’t going for an Olympic gold medal here. We are simply enjoying the challenge of doing our best. There is no real pressure, so quit putting so much on yourself. We run for fun, and you should remember that. Have fun!”
PEAKING FOR MULTIPLE RACES
What if you’re gearing up for several important races that are separated by a few weeks or less? The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, as well as others of that genre, and several race series like the NorCal and SoCal Ultra Grand Prix are perfect examples. In essence, you are recovering and peaking in unison between events. There are two ways to approach situations like this:
1. Reverse taper
This is like returning from injury. Gradually and slowly increase the length of your post-race easy runs and avoid fast and difficult workouts. You won’t reach your normal training level, but you’ll satisfy the need for a few runs before your next event.
2. The Joe Kulak Method
When I asked Joe Kulak what he did between each of his four 2003 Grand Slam record- setting 100-mile races, he quipped, “I sat on the couch and drank beer.” If beer is not your drink of choice, water works just as well. The reality is that you can’t gain fitness in the two or three weeks between long ultras. Recovery will be your best “workout” while preparing for your next event.
I’m a big believer in trusting in your training, put in the hard work and you’ll be rewarded. I have said it many times on this blog running is an honest sport, this of course is a two edged sword with very few examples of running faster than expected times off poor or no training. Of course returning from injury can sometimes be a blessing in disguise because you are forced to take some time off and this, combined with good training before and after the injury, can surprise you with better than expected times. Which leads me to the point of this post, predicted finishing times for longer races from shorter races. The main example I use is my current half time times two and add 10 minutes, this will normally be pretty close to my marathon time. e.g. if I’m running 1:20 for the half my marathon time is around 2:50 (1:20 * 2 + 10 minutes)
My current half PB is 1:15:00 but this hasn’t translated to a 2:40 marathon ( I managed 2:41:41 ) mainly due to the half time being one of those races when ‘the magic happens‘ and you out perform what you thought you were capable of. Saying that to get to within 2 minutes is pretty accurate. When I ran my marathon PB , 2:41:14 my half time was 1:16:24 which was closer. You can use a 10k or even a 5k time as an indicator but of curse the margin for error is probably larger as you are multiplying the finishing time by either 4 (10k) or 8 (5k). There are various websites where you can ply in your predictor race and your goal race and get an estimated finish time. A good example is the McMillan website ( https://www.mcmillanrunning.com ) or Runners World ( https://www.runnersworld.com/marathon-training/heres-a-better-marathon-time-predictor )
The Runners World race time predictor has bee rebuilt apparently (see below) It seems most race predictors are overall generous with their predictions and the work by Andrew Vickers paints a gloomier picture by also adding in weekly mileage. Common sense really as those runners running higher mileage would be better prepared , cardio-wise if nothing else, for the longer races. Most, if not all, race predictors never ask for weekly training mileage, strange this has been over looked.
As always I have an amusing story reference race predictors. My good friend Mike Kowal wasn’t running as much as he should have been due to injury (we use to call him ‘sick note’ as he was injured so much. There was the amusing story where he got injured at the sports massage clinic because the physio left the heat pack on and told Mike to call out if it got to hot. Not wanting to seem a wimp Mike kept quiet and ended up with second degree burns ! You get the picture…) Anyhow because Mike hadn’t run a half , 10k or even a 5k he started to predict his marathon finishing times off even shorter distances, At one point I’m sure he had it down to a 10 metre sprint. This is not to be recommend for predicting a marathon finish not matter what magic he used, it is to be noted Mike is an Engineer and probably developed some devilish formula to show a sub3 prediction of a 4 paces sprint. Funnily enough he did go sub3 on his first marathon but has yet to repeat the magic on subsequent outings.
All joking aside can you use a race predictor and rely on the predicted time to set your pace for a marathon ? Remember the marathon runner who slows the least normally wins (or achieves their goal). Predicted time and the resulting race pace is pivotal to success when it comes to running a marathon so get the predicted time wrong and the race pace will also be wrong, which equates to failure. I like the idea of entering two previous results in the Runners World predictor because it adds in experience which is so important to race finish times. I can predict to within +/- 90 seconds my marathon time these days and this is all down to experience. With over 60 marathons and ultra’s under my belt I can predict my race pace very accurately and have only hit the wall twice, once in my first marathon by not preparing and running a time beyond me and once when I was struggling mentally and talked myself into failure. (I have covered the mental part of marathon running in various posts, so important and so under estimated.) With experience and good quality training comes consistency.
I used the Running World Race Time Predictor and added in my best 10k and 5k times and adjusted the weekly mileage until I got a sub 2:40 marathon time. I had to get two 160 km a week (100 miles) to get my predicted time under 2hrs 40 minutes for the full marathon. Probably about right truth be told but it never asked for my age which would surely be another factor that would be pivotal to the accuracy ? I’m 51 in a few weeks and assuming all the variables where the same I would expect a 35 year old runner, for example, with the same race times to out perform me. Maybe I’ll try and run a 2:38:30 in June this year, hell the computer says ‘Yes’ so what could possibly go wrong ?
I was looking back in my Excel spreadsheet training journal recently at my PB’s (PR’s for our American cousins. (You need a manual record just in case Strava ( http://www.strava.com ) gets taken out by North Korea, that funny looking leader of theirs doesn’t look like a runner, just saying.) All my PB’s have come at the end of a high mileage training week(s) and on all occasions I have ran with runners who I had no right running with, truth be told. In most cases I have been dropped but not before I was deposited into a situation where a PB became a reality. If I had ran to a set pace I would have not ran as fast. So it seems we all have the ability to run faster than we think we can but we rarely put this theory to the test as we are worried about ‘blowing up’ or failure.
For my 10k PB of 34:18 I raced this new young runner I had not seen before as I thought initially he was running the 5k option. When the 5k runners turned we both moved to the 10k course. As it turns out this young runner became a good friend of mine who I train with weekly. Zac has turned into a very accomplished runner who is currently training with Raf and targeting a sub 2:30 marathon. Needless to say I don’t race in the same league as Zac anymore and this was brought home to me recently at the Fremantle half where I placed third in the 10k and ran with Zac for the first 3k , unfortunately Zac was running the half and then dropped me on the way to a 72 minute time and the victory. I couldn’t even keep up for 4k. I digress of course, the first time I met Zac I decided to try and run with him for as long as possible as he was running quicker than my PB pace. Any thought of a predetermined race pace went out the window and I just ran to see how long I could keep up with this new face on the Perth running scene. As it turned out Zac was also outside his comfort zone and I managed to sneak home for the win and a new PB. I feel without my ‘gun-ho’ approach I would have achieved neither.
It is a similar story for my 5k PB. This time Chris O’Neil turned up at my local park run (a very accomplished ultra runner and marathon runner with a marathon PB of 2:25 ) and I was again at the end of a long training week with double-up days all the previous 5 days. I wasn’t expecting much truth be told but thought I’d try and keep Chris honest for at least the first kilometre, it was my local park run after all. So off I went like a scolded cat running 800m pace from the start. I did manage to get to the first kilometre marker before Chris but after that he was off and I managed to maintain a pace quick enough to run a 16:40 which was a time that myself and Dan ‘the man with a plan’ Macey had often talked about achieving. I had been close on many occasions but this time I had given myself the extra few seconds I needed by running the first kilometre at suicide pace and then hanging on.
My half marathon PB was achieved in similar circumstances when I again decided to try and run with the lead group for a long as possible as see where it took me. It actually took me to the lead at 18k feeling great and I started to think about a winners speech, ( do I thank all my extended family first and then the Marathon Club for hosting the event, marshalls, God, the list soon became quite large ? ) The Fremantle Half is quite a large event and for some reason this year a lot of quality runners had decided to run elsewhere. I was left leading Gerry Hill and Tom Bakowski, two runners outside my pay grade but both had not been running at the top of their game and I dared to dream, briefly. At 19k they both decided to stop playing with me, like a cat plays with a mouse, and both put on the afterburners consigning me to third place but a massive PB of 75 minutes dead. Yep, that’s right, a rookie error finishing dead on 1hour 15 minutes. One step quicker and I would have been a 1:14;xx half runner, albeit the xx would have been 59 seconds, not important it’s all about the minutes when it comes to half PB’s. As with the other two PB’s this one came at the end of a massive training week and I remember sitting in the car before the event actually contemplating pulling out as I was so fatigued from the weeks training and I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
So to sum up this little gem of a post it seems if you really want to grab a PB you need to run more and then on race day hook up with someone you know is quicker, than your current PB, and hang on for dear life. Don’t worry about the time as they’ll take care of it, all you need to do is hang on for as long as you can and they will sling-shot you to a PB, simple really. Perfectly summed up by the late, great Steve Prefontaine below.
Note: I must stress this can also work with longer distances like the marathon but a certain amount of self restraint needs to be shown. I wouldn’t recommend slotting in behind the lead Kenyan at a marathon hoping to take the ‘gung-ho, nothing ventured, nothing gained ‘ approach because unfortunately this will end in failure and normally pretty quickly. By all means find someone who normally runs a few minutes quicker but running a marathon at suicide pace normally results in just that. Young Mr. Prefontaine never ran a marathon and was a specialist 5k runner, for 5k you can run at suicide pace and sometimes survive, for a marathon there is no finishing if you start at 5k pace. No one ever said at the end of a marathon ‘that was easy, I shaved off 30 minutes off my PB with no training’, sorry but that’s running for you……