The short answer is that you shouldn’t really ever have stopped training – performing well in ultras is all about growing your cookie jar. Read THIS ARTICLE if you’ve got no idea what I mean by your “cookie jar”
A period of intense training to build up for an event, followed by a long period of rest to get over it, is about the worst thing you can do to your running body. The sudden build up, on a relatively unconditioned body (due to sustained rest), is what causes most overuse running injuries.
The Ultra-Trail Australia is an incredible event. The organisation, atmosphere and excitement of the event keep going from strength to strength. Entries to all of the races fill up in a matter of days. Most of your running buddies are probably already talking about their weekend long runs and the hard stair sessions they’ve been “smashing out”. You probably feel like you’re getting left behind. The best advice I can give you with regards to your training, is don’t panic. You need a plan (Check out the UTA Training Plan). There is still plenty of time to get fit enough to run a PB. Your single biggest priority at the moment, in fact, your single biggest priority full stop between now and race day is DON’T GET INJURED.
Great races come after great blocks of training. You need to be able to train consistently to achieve the results you want and deserve. If you suffer let’s say a stress fractured foot and a calf strain during the next 6 months, you are going to lose a combined 10 weeks of training time. If you are returning from injury then I recommend you follow this Return to Running Guide. This will give you a realistic schedule you can follow to safely return to running.
What sounds better in terms of a successful UTA race performance to you?
4 weeks of 100km “hard” training and six weeks of rest (stress fractured foot) – followed by 2 weeks of sensible training (worried about the foot), 2 weeks of moderately hard training (still trying to be sensible with the foot), 4 weeks of smashing yourself (thinking you’d lost lots of fitness because of the foot) then . . . A calf strain (because your foot wasn’t actually 100%) and now . . . . 4 more weeks of rest for the calf.
4 weeks of 50km “easy” training, followed by 4 weeks of 60-70km “easy-steady” training, followed by 4 weeks of 70km with a few “moderately hard” stair sessions, followed by . . . . . You get the picture.
We live in a society of instant gratification. Gone are the days when people had the patience to do things slowly and sensibly. It wasn’t that long ago that the general population thought marathon runners had a screw loose, and 100km races were unheard of. Nowadays the natural inclination for someone who did the UTA22 in 2019 is to jump straight to the UTA100 because that’s what their friends are doing.
Most runners, and endurance runners in particular, have an obsessive-compulsive element to their personality. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to drag yourself out of bed at 5am every morning to run. You would just put it in the “too hard” basket like the rest of the world. This O.C.R.D. trait is ultimately part of what makes great runners great, but it also contributes to a lot of runners becoming broken. The percentage of runners who sustain a significant injury in any given year is scary. Depending on what research you read, it is thought to be up to 65-70%.
The good news is, it is totally within your control. You need to run within your body’s limits, and gradually build the strength and capacity to cope with the bigger and harder training weeks which will come closer to race day.
6 months prior to the UTA50 and UTA100 you should be working on your base aerobic fitness.
This is when you are making your cookie jar bigger. Banking lots of safe and productive miles to allow your achilles tendons, calf muscles, knees and hips a chance to get stronger and more robust. Ideally, you should be base training from September to January, before ramping up into some race-specific training.
My advice, especially to anyone who is relatively new to ultra running (less than 3 years of consistent training), is to write yourself a training plan or get a guided training plan designed specifically for your race.
UTA Training Plan Tips
As an example, work out what your base mileage has been for the last couple of months, and start adding 10% / week to the total amount. Build up for three weeks, then have an easy week to let your body recover and absorb some of the training effects.
You should then be able to start your next three-week building phase on relatively fresh legs, with renewed energy and motivation.
I would also advise anyone, except those of you who are very experienced runners, to avoid “speedwork”. For the purposes of this article let’s define “speedwork” as anything which is radically faster than your usual training pace.
For example, if you usually train at 6mins/k, and you do a track session of 6 * 400m @ 4mins/k – then you will be highly likely to suffer a niggle or injury. Your body won’t be used to operating at that intensity and you may not have the extra hip flexibility and strength required to maintain good technique at a fast pace.
A much safer session, and in my opinion more beneficial for an ultra runner, would be 6 * 1km reps @ 5:30-5:45 pace. You can still consider this to be “speedwork” as it is faster than your designated race pace, but it isn’t such a radical departure that it is likely to cause injuries. From there you can progress by either gradually increasing the pace, or gradually making the intervals longer
Adding some hill repeats or stair repeats is a much safer, and much more UTA-specific way to make yourself stronger. Running up hills and stairs will give your heart and lungs a good work out, but because it is hard to maintain a fast pace when you are going uphill, you are less likely to cause injuries. Like everything though, introduce it gradually, and give your body a chance to adapt. Don’t race off to The Blue Mountains for four repeats up Nellies Glenn because I told you it was “safer”.
You also need to implement a good body maintenance routine of stretches and exercises.
You can check out our YouTube channel for some ideas of stretches and exercises which help runners.
To return to the title of this article – When should you start training for the UTA? The answer is now, but be strategic and build it up gradually.
REMEMBER: YOUR MAIN PRIORITY BETWEEN NOW AND THE UTA IS TO STAY INJURY-FREE. YOU (AND ONLY YOU) ARE IN CONTROL OF WHETHER OR NOT THAT HAPPENS.