It’s good to have a target date in mind—the day of the ultra you’d like to run. That determines when you should aim to reach your peak—the highest degree of readiness you can hope to reach in the coming year. Then count backward, allowing a couple of weeks before the race for a “taper” (easing off on the training), and before that two or three weeks of sharpening (speed work) to put a little spring in your step.The time left between now and the sharpening is what you have available for building base—the accumulation of lots of miles at an easy-to-medium pace. Ideally, you’ll have six to eight months or more for base building—developing cardiovascular capacity and endurance. If you don’t have at least six months for base, pick a later race. Once you reach your peak,you may be able to hold it for two or three months (and even run another ultra, if you’re young and crazy) before needing to back off and rebuild base for the following year.
The basis of the one-year pattern may be the long evolution of our species in environments where climate played a larger role in our lives than it may seem to play now. Persistence hunting may have been more difficult or impossible in winter, necessitating periods of relative inactivity and subsistence on stored food. And the universal biological principle of cycles of rest and stress may also play a role. In any case, most ultrarunners make running a seasonal experience—we train year-round, but consciously prepare to be at our best during certain parts of the year, and to build or recover at others.
Some runners race year-round, incorporating races into the base building while forgoing sharpening and tapering. Year-round competitors also use races as their long training runs. If you’re preparing for your first ultra, you might benefit by doing something similar—running a marathon or half-marathon as a training run (not as hard as you can, six or seven weeks before your ultra.
In the sharpening phase, starting five or six weeks before the ultra, begin incorporating faster workouts (maybe one the first week, then two a week after that). “Faster” in this context doesn’t mean anaerobic running or sprinting, but might involve what I prefer to call anaerobic-threshold running. Some physiologists don’t like the term “anaerobic threshold” because they feel it implies that there’s a point at which, as the effort becomes more intense, you shift suddenly from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism—which is not quite what happens. Rather, there’s a zone of overlap. The academics prefer the term “lactate threshold,” which is defined as the level of intensity or caloric consumption at which the production of metabolic waste is right in balance with therate at which it is being cleared out. Any faster, and the waste builds up and you can’t go more than a minute or two before having to slow down and recover. Experience tells us that workouts right around the lactate threshold (also
called “tempo” runs) are the best thing you can do to build endurance. Research confirms it. But threshold running only works if you’ve done enough base building to support that kind of intensity without breaking down. And it only works if it’s done infrequently enough (once or twice a week at most) to allow full recovery between one “fast” day and the next. To begin your sharpening phase, you might do a warm-up of several miles at an easy pace (always warm up before any fast running), then accelerate to threshold (about as fast as you can keep up for at least five or ten minutes), then ease off for a while and go home. Three or four days later, do it again, only this time, take the threshold part a little farther. Maybe in the second week, do an interval workout—alternating faster-than-threshold surges and slow recovery, say, four times. The next time you do an interval workout, go six surges, and the one after that, eight. By then, you may be ready to taper. All the in-between days should be the same kinds of easy distance running you do in base building. Use whatever mix of threshold running and interval work suits you. Just don’t overdo it, because fast running raises the risk of injury. If you feel twinges, back off. The taper is a period of easing down on mileage and intensity—letting the body get some regeneration before the big day. On the day of the ultra, you want to start out feeling fresh and “hungry” to run, not tired out from all the miles you’ve been doing. The taper typically takes just a week or two—so if your total mileage the third week before the race is 70 miles, the second week out might be 40 and the last week before the race just 20. These numbers are somewhat arbitrary; your individual condition and ability to listen to your body will guide you on the details.
--Excerpted from an Appendix to the forthcoming book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, to be published in October.