Using Marathons as Training for Ultras


Experience From - Shawn McDonald #1, Eric Ivey , Shawn McDonald #2 , Rich Schick , Paul Schmidt #1 , Steve Siguaw , Peter Bakwin , Bill LaDieu , Dick Vincent , George Parrott , Paul Schmidt, #2 , Carl Jess , Courtney Campbell , Al Zeller , Greg Loomis , Robert Youngren , Kevin Sayers ,

Shawn McDonald #2

In my brief road ultra-running career I have used marathons as pace training for ultras. For example, back in 1995, I ran the San Diego marathon a month before the Helen Klein 100km (US championship). I had some good miles in the bank, long runs, some pace and interval training too. I figure I was in shape to run a marathon at a "race" pace of 6 minutes 40 sec per mile. What I did was run the marathon about 45 seconds per mile slower than that, which was still about 30 seconds a mile faster than I hoped to run the 100k at. This was good experience at holding back early in a race, and was still a good cruising pace, a little quicker pace than I would start for the 100k. When I ran the US champs 100km in 1993, a month before I did two loops of a half marathon course, with the first loop being at 100k pace, the 2nd loop 30 seconds per mile faster than the first. This gave me a good feel for the pace I wanted to run in the 100k and good confidence that I could feel ok at that pace and have some reserves for later in the race. So from my experience (and from that of a few of the US World Challenge team members I have read about) I would recommend:

Eric Ivey

Shawn, Thanks for that info. I had a couple specific questions for you, if you don't mind. I've been a competitive triathlete and runner for about 6 years now, with a marathon PR of 2:56. I just started doing ultras (first 50 last month - JFK), and would like to be competitive. When I did JFK I just went out and cruised the whole thing, never pushed it since I wasn't sure what to expect and because my training hadn't been specific to ultra. I ran an 8:53, which was satisfying for a first shot, but I'd like to go a lot faster than that. My current goal is to do well at 2 races in the spring - Bull Run Run 50 on April 15th and Laurel Highlands 70 miler on June 10th. I plan on doing something similar to what you suggested, but I thought I'd run it by you to see if you suggest anything else. It basically consists of one long race each month between now and then, as follows:

Jan 8th - 20 mile road race - (6:45 pace)
Feb 20th - road marathon, at about 3:00 hr pace
March 20th - 50 km trail race (pace TBD by course)
April 15th - Bull Run Run 50 mile
May 13th - Ice Age 50km or 50 miler (haven't decided which one yet)
June 10th - Laurel Highlands 70 miler

I guess my question is whether or not this is too much racing leading up to the events? My other speedwork consists of one weekly track workout if I'm not racing, or a short triathlon (less than 1/2 ironman). If you, or anyone else, has any suggestions or ideas, I'd love to hear them...

Shawn McDonald #2

I am not a big proponent of racing frequently. It depends on what your goals are, how quickly your body recovers, and how much you push during each race. You can do the race a month plan as you outlined, but I would suggest going easy the week before and after each of those races, even if you do a particular race "easy". 50km or 50 miles still has a stress effect on the body. One of the good things about this plan is that you can really work out what works best for you in terms of fluids, food, equipment, and race plan. I would also suggest you run easier at your "non-target" races, say 30-45 secs. a mile slower than your expected "race" pace for the 50k, and a minute a mile slower if you run a 50 miler. Do a full taper in the two weeks before your key races, in your case Bull Run Run and Laurel Highlands. Plan on two weeks of reduced running/recovery after these key races. You have a good deal of speed as shown by your marathon times, with experience you should become more competitive and learn how to "race" ultras. Also, consider taking some time "off" from long distance training following this set of races, perhaps for 4-5 weeks. Reduce mileage to about half your peak, and cut out any speed or hill sessions. Then build back your endurance and speed for races later in the year. With more experience at training and racing, you should be able to improve your time at the JFK 50 miler next year by a substantial amount.

Rich Schick

Holger wrote:

"At the moment my PB is 3 hours. I wonder how fast I should run those training marathons. Can anyone help with suggestions?"
As fast as you can!! As long as the last of the marathons is at least 4 weeks prior to your ultra efforts. I wouldn't run one any closer than three weeks prior, and then I would back off 30 - 60 seconds a mile for the first half and then maybe pick up the pace a little on the second half if you are feeling good.

Paul Schmidt, Exercise Physiologist, M.S. #1

Eric, you need to change your training and thinking a little if you want to be competitive in these races. Just as you cannot run your best marathon with 10K training you cannot run your best 50 mile race using marathon training. Track workouts used for marathon training (ie. mile repeats), and running near your PR in a marathon are both too fast and too short for ultra training. An excellent time in a 50 mile race is below 7 hours, that is a 8:25 pace/mile. Running 26 miles in 3 hours is not needed and may increase your risk for injury. You need to run longer distances at a slower pace. Many Ultra-runners will train by time and run two long runs per week. Often on back to back days of running 3-8 hours when possible. Running a marathon is ok training, but it should be controlled. If you run 4-5 hours the day before and then run the marathon at a 8-9 minute pace, it should help you more (pace a friend to a 3:30). The biggest transition you must make is thinking that you can run near your best time in a marathon and also in 50+ mile race. This difference is greater when you get into the 100k to 100 mile distances. There is no question that doing lots of long slow training for 50's and 100's leads to a loss of leg speed, but that is the price of you must pay to run ultra's. You will usually gain much more than you lose from trail ultra's where you spend lots of time away from traffic in some beautiful areas, with great people (even if we have become a little cranking lately). If your races are on trails, you need to training more on trails. Remember, exercise training should be specific! best wishes.

Steve Siguaw

Everyone trains differently and races and different reasons. You must first evaluate YOUR goals. Do you want to just run ultras or be competitive in ultras? If you want to be competitive in ultras then I think your current training and racing schedule will get you there. Your schedule is not designed to merely COMPLETE an ultra or simply ENJOY your races. Your schedule is designed to advance you to another level. Your 2:56 marathon time is an indication that you can be competitive given the right amount additional hard racing and training. Getting your marathon times down into the 2:40's or lower and your 10K's into the mid to low 30 minutes is what is needed to be competitive at the 50K, 50 mile, 100K and 100 mile distance. If you keep pushing hard you can achieve your competitive goals.

Peter Bakwin

Since Paul is an exersize physiologist I'm relucant to disagree with his training advice (and I suppose Larry G. is going to jump all over him for giving himself a title?). But, from everything I have read you can not develop/maintain speed for ANY distance by distance training, only by speed training. I recommend that you look at the training followed by Bruce Fordyce, which is given in Noakes' classic book, The Lore of Running. Fordyce won Comrades 10 times, and used training very similar to marathon training, though with a limited number of longer training runs. One caveat is that Fordyce would be on the Comrades course for only like 5.5 hours. I believe that Kevin Setnes has offered very similar advice in his UR articles -- something like 5% of your miles should be at fast pace (like 5km race pace).

Noakes points out that the fastest ultrarunners typically also have fast marathons. Charl Mattheus told me the same thing: if you want to run ultras fast first work on your marathon time (yes, Charl does show up sometimes at Weber's little races in south Denver.)

Matt Carpenter runs a lot of 400 m intervals. He doesn't run races over marathon distance that I know of, but I think we can agree that Pikes Peak and the Fila Skymarathon events qualify as ultras.

Obviously, you need to be able to cover the distance, so long runs are very important.

My experience is that it is utterly critical to good performance in an ultra to have a realistic understanding of what you can do and then stick to a realistic pacing plan. If you go out a little too fast you can lose a TON of time when you blow up late in a long race. Plus, it can really suck!

Other thoughts (mostly from Noakes/Fordyce):

Bill LaDieu

Although I'm not particularly fast I have done speed work for the past couple of years as part of my ultra training. What I have found is that speed work when coupled with looong runs improves my running economy (that is, I can go faster with less effort), and allows me to handle the pounding and maintian form late in the race. I have also found that the more fit I am as indicated by my ability to do quality speed work and long runs the better my chances in meeting my goals for a given race. It is also my opinion, that just because you run ultras does not mean you have to loose your leg speed.

As an aside, I have read (not sure where), that many elite runners know they are shape for a good marathon when they are in shape for a good 10k.

Dick Vincent

I think the advice that Peter give is excellent. Once again, not to over simplify things, but the faster you can run fast, the faster you can run slow. Fordyce is a good example, but for sure not the only example. When Yanos Kouros was running his best he was also a 2:16 marathoner. Ian Thompson, who was the former world recorder holder for 50 miles (or within seconds of it) was a 2:09 marathoner and had 3 sub 2:12 marathons under his belt (all run in the 70's). And more recently Alberto Salazar goes and wins Comrades. It is my belief that if he ran Comrades 15 years ago, he would have run a whole lot faster there than he did....

Speed work comes in a number of varieties (and sometimes the term speedwork isn't the proper word, but for the moment I will apply it liberally). There are threshold intervals (generally thought of as run slightly slower than 10k pace but with a very short rest) VO2 max intervals (often prescribed to be run at 5k pace with an equal amount of time as a rest jog), and reps (faster than 5k pace, full recovery). Also tempo runs which are often done at threshold pace but 20 minutes continuous running. And some people will us short races as speed work. Of course some coaches will disagree on exactly the pacing or rest should be for speed work, and every runner responds differently depending on body makeup. But I think it is evident that if you incorporate a sound speed program into your training schedule, over time you will reap many rewards.

Personally, when I was running my best ultras, I was also running fairly well at the short races. As my short race speed fell off, so did my ultra times. And endurance I might add.

One last point. If you are straining to do the speed session, it is to fast. And if you are planning to base your speed sessions off 5k or 10k times, don't base them off what you "think" you can run, base them off of what you can run. That means, go look for a 5k or 10k race.

George Parrott

I agree completely with your recommendations and observations. I am a FIRM believer in the core of speed work for road ultras and even trail ultras up to about 70 miles. Past that...I will then shift to a stronger emphasis on specially designed endurance training, but still have a speed component with the overall program.

My opinion is that 50 miles can be raced well off of "good marathon training," but then that is not what most Americans are now doing.

When I was running decent times (for me) at the marathon, I was running 110 to 130 miles a week. I always ran a long run on Tuesdays and then another on Sunday. I often raced aggressively (for me) on Saturdays or Sundays and I took ONE DAY OFF a week. I was NEVER really FAST, but I worked to be able to access all the speed I did have. I ran 2:41 in the marathon, more than 30 sub 3 hour marathons and 5:57 for 50 miles. I have run under 6:20 MANY times at 50 miles, and my last good 50 was a 6:12 which was run with nothing other than solid marathon training and marathon racing as buildup and no run longer than 26.2 miles in the 4 months or so before that race.

I did hit the marathon split that day at 2:56 and cramped badly between 41 miles and 48 miles which probably cost me 3-5 minutes at the finish. I WISH I had run a couple of 27-31 mile training efforts perhaps a month or so earlier, but...

On the other hand, for Comrades 1997 my SO and I did several runs of 30-45 miles in preparation and fewer hard speed workouts and hardly any racing. We both finished, but both finished MUCH slower than we had planned, and we got blown away with many "more sharpened" runners who did not have our endurance, but simply were ready to "run faster."

Speed training is CRUCIAL for any ultra and for faster road (and even fast trail) ultras, it is critical.

Paul Schmidt, Exercise Physiologist, M.S.

I do not disagree that speed work is helpful in running fast times for an ultra, but Eric has not yet even covered the distance. It is not prudent for him to try and run his best 50 or 70 mile race his first time out. We cannot and should not try to copy the training methods that are practiced by elite runners such as Kouros and Fordyce. Eric's 2:56 marathon PR is great, but not at an elite level. Many an American marathon runner has quickly broken down or given up when trying to follow the difficult training programs practiced by the Kenyans. Remember, winning times for 100 mile trail races are often around 18 hours, this is just under an 11 min./mile pace. I believe that this is more of a personal issue than a scientific one. Many runners do not want to give up their ability to run fast 10K and marathon times, so they try to run a lot of miles and include some short fast intervals to keep their speed. This a formula for injury, and a subsequent inquiry to the list about how to "cure" an injury. I believe that one speed training session per week is sufficient for ultras, but the intervals should be longer and slower than those needed for marathons (e.g. 800 meters or mile repeats above anaerobic threshold). Running speed intervals helps increase your anaerobic threshold and therefore you could run at a lower percentage of your cardiovascular capacity in a long race (equals less work). It may also help those going from low to high to altitude, but the risk of injury is always greater when doing speed work! Eric already has the ability to run at 6:45/mile pace for a marathon, but he has not yet completed an ultra or trail race. He needs some experience with spending lots of time on his feet, drinking, eating, etc.

Most of what we learn is based on our own success or failure, but may not apply or work well for others. My advice to Eric would certainly change as he becomes more experienced running ultras. IMHO best wishes

Carl Jess

Paul, I am going to disagree somewhat with what you wrote. First of all I am not an exercise physiologist so it is entirely possible that I am all wet. But I do believe that it is possible to train for Ultras and not lose significant amounts of leg speed.

First off, as I understand most training theories, it is not only possible but desireable to train for speed and endurance in separate training sessions. That is intervals, hills, or tempo runs to train for speed. And long slower runs to train for endurance. The point here is that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Now the real world rears it ugly head. Since long runs are necessary to complete the ultra distances that training gets done. Pressed for time, an ultra runner can convince himself that speed training is not absolutely necessary. I'm sure we have all heard the following arguement. Even a fast 100 mile time is 24 hours, that works out to ~15 mpm so speed training is not required. It becomes very easy drop those workouts from your schedule.

The result is that it becomes accepted as general knowledge that ultra training means a loss of leg speed. I'm just suggesting that the loss of leg speed my be due to a lack of, or insufficient amounts of, speed work. Not only due to long runs somehow robbing leg speed. I believe that this was all true for me. Now I am not claiming to be fast. I ran my first 50 miler at Sunmart in 1997. I was somewhat intimidated by the distance. All of my training was long slow runs no speed work. That run took 9:42. I got slow at all distances.

Starting in January of 1998 I started to add one speed session per week. Nothing really hard. Just one workout a week where I tried running at a faster pace. Did Le Grizz 1998 in 8:09, followed by Sunmart 1998 (in the mud) in 8:42. Kept up the speed work this year. Set PR's at 10 miles and the marathon. Ran my first 100K and 100 miler. I believe strongly that there is a place in ultra training for speed work.

I don't believe that training for ultras automatically means a loss of leg speed. But the catch is that you have to train for that just like you train for endurance.

Courtney Campbell

I wouldn't say that I actually have a training schedule, but..... I don't agree with the person saying you need to run 3-8 hours twice a week and not run fast. That may be great and I possibly should be doing that, but... I don't have time(or I'm too lazy), but I can find the time to train with a group and get a 3-5 hour run at most once a month. My longest training run ever is a 7 hour 50 mile trail run. I only get about 70 miles a week, but much of my mileage is done with the track or cross country team that I coach so it is usually pretty fast. I do mile repeats with the team at around 4:45 - 5:00, and I will try to get a 10 miler while my son bikes and I do most all of my 10 mile runs at around 6:00 minute miles. Probably if I did more mileage I may go faster, but my theory is that since I can't train lots of mileage then I will do what I can fast. I also think that some lifting is important because when your legs go your upper body can help; however, my hero David Horton feels that lifting is pointless. Different people can be successful with different schedules.

Al Zeller

Ray wrote:

"Later on I will tell you all how to really train for ultras, but must give myself a psuydnom first, and a title, and join several governing bodies, and stop running these things, Nah, its too much fun watching."
Now we're talking about the right training. If I may put words in Ray's mouth: Run as much as you can, as fast as you can, and as often as you can. The best training for running ultras is running ultras. The best training for rock climbing is, suprise, rock climbing.

Running ultras fast means being able to run hard when you're tired, so your training should be directed along that path. It's a concentration of stress, but if done properly doesn't take all of your time. Things like running half your weekly mileage on the weekend. Now I may be preaching heresy, but you don't need 4, 5, 6+ hour runs to do it either. When I was running 100+ miles a week my weekend runs were a 20 and a 10 on Sat and a 20 on Sun., or the reverse. Except for races, I never ran more than a 25 miler. Only when I got older and lazier did I go to single long runs, since it's a lot easier to run a long, slow 30 miler than the harder 20 and 10. Did it work? When my marathon PR(2:53) was close to Eric's (2:56) I ran a 6:21 50 miler in my first attempt. Eleven months later with a marathon PR of 2:50 it was 5:55 in my second.

But Mr. K is the master at using ultras to get ready for ultras.

Greg Loomis

Last year I did really no speed work at all, ran 3 8k-10k races, but ran trails alot and tried to race myself into ultra shape with Ultras. Having a similiar backgrond (marathon PR 2:54- no ultra experiance) this is what I did:

  1. week 1 Ran Boston 3:20- with my Dad
  2. week 3 Ran 30 miles in 3:58 at Topsfield 6 hour
  3. week 5 Ran 2:56 marathon at Vermont City
  4. week 6 Nipmuck Trail marathon -1 week later
  5. week 10 FLT 50 miler 7:48!
  6. week 13 Virgil 50k
  7. week 16 PCT 50 miler, Oregon 7:06!
  8. week 19 ST 100- DNF 65mile (body breakdn- multiple injury crash)

Racing often worked as my long run and as a HARD effort I didn't believe in racing easy. The Oregon 50 was at a pace that was NOT conversational the whole time. I saw tons of people doing multiple ultras last year but they don't seem to RACE them at a real high level (Except Godale, and Torrance) maybe not their absolute best. So what I plan to do next year is race less often long, get faster at shorter races, for then 8:00 miles won't seem fast if I can race 5:00 pace and really concentrate on a couple of races (50, 70 milers) .

Go for it- just listen to your body. Rest when it says too- and don't learn the hard way.

Robert Youngren

Greg said:

"I saw tons of people doing multiple ultras last year- but they don't seem to RACE them at a real high level-(Except Godale, and Torrance) maybe not their absolute best."
The other side of this coin, and which you'll learn in time, is that you can't do so many races at super high effort, you'll burn out or worse do damage to your body and have to stop. I remember quite a few ultrarunners who were "burning the candle at both ends" so to speak and they're now gone! However, doing many ultras at a more controlled pace, racing only a few a year, you'll be able to do more. And that is what people are doing, including myself. Doing more ultras, for me, is a way to garner more and more race/ultra experience and this is far more valuable to me than only doing a couple of races a year hard. You'll find that 9 times out of 10 it is the experienced ultrarunner, not necessarily the faster runner, who does better in ultra races. Youth and Speed is a double edged sword compaired to experience, speed can kill and inexperience can get you into trouble.

I'm a young runner like greg (25 years old) but I've already got 48 ultras under my belt not to mention all the overdistance training runs I've done on my own. I race 5/10kms to keep my speed up. But I know for myself that doing a lot of ultras hard is not the way to go, but neither is doing just a handful a year and trying to do just those hard. You can't expect to be in peak form for those races, it's like putting all your eggs in one basket. By doing a number of races a year there is a good chance that I could be in peak form then. In which case I'll run it hard. If I don't feel up in peak form I'll treat it as a good training run and enjoy.

It's all about having options, the more the better; the fewer the more you set yourself up for failure.

So get out there and be true to yourself and garner that experience, sign up for a bunch of ultras (I do about 1 a month) and just see what happens, if you feel like racing it hard go for it, if not it's a training run and just get the experience!

Kevin Sayers

I have to agree with what was previously said regarding racing frequently and the "quality" of the effort. With few exceptions those who race frequently probably do it at a pace that is off their real ability. Of course it gets back to the old debate on personal goals but that not with standing I believe in using marathons as training for Ultras.

After my first marathon, which I ran after my first 100 miler, I thought that running marathons was much too hard and fast and didn'tt enjoy it. Recently I ran the Marine Corps marathon as a member of the "Safety Patrol" and was assigned a pace slower than my ability. The pace was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed myself and felt as though I had completed a good training run. After that experience I signed up for the Harrisburg marathon and ran it at 75-80% of my ability. Again the result was positive and my time still fairly respectable. My next ultra resulted in a pretty decent time and was very happy with my recovery. Since I run between 25 and 30 miles as my long runs doing a marathon is just like a training run but much easier and faster.

This year I've planned several marathons and spaced them out so they will compliment my training and "peaking" for selected ultras.